Environment

For more than a decade, Kentucky House Rep. Jim Gooch has denied the existence of human-driven climate change.

The Republican lawmaker from Providence has chaired the House Natural Resources and Energy committee for 20 out of the last 21 years. The committee is responsible for legislation including forestry, mining, flood control, public utilities and renewable energy.

Back in 2007, Gooch made national news for holding a hearing on climate change that didn’t include any actual scientists. Gooch’s views have moderated somewhat over the past 12 years, from outright denial to begrudging acceptance that humanity has in some ways contributed to warming.

In a pair of January interviews with WFPL News, Gooch said humans have “probably” had some impact on the climate, though he does not believe man-made carbon emissions are driving global warming.

“No, I’m not saying that I believe in anthropogenic global warming. I believe that we can, as humans, have some impact on our planet,” Gooch said.

Conservationists say it’s problematic to have a climate-science denier holding such an important legislative role. If Kentucky wants to be a part of the transition toward cleaner burning fuel sources, politicians need to encourage the growth of green infrastructure, said Tim Darst, adjunct environmental science professor at Bellarmine University.

“It put us behind on adapting, on mitigating climate change, but also economically because we are going to be behind those other states who are going to outcompete us on the green jobs,” Darst said.

Kentucky has warmed between 1.4 and 2 degrees over the last 30 years. Warming temperatures will continue and increase the frequency of extreme weather including more heatwaves, droughts, storms and floods.

But Gooch does not believe that climate change will increase the frequency of extreme weather in Kentucky.

“I’m more worried about people dying because they have blackouts and brownouts than I am the effects of climate change in the near future in Kentucky,” Gooch said.

Legislative Research Commission

Jim Gooch

That’s because Gooch does not believe the science is settled, he said. His position comes in spite of a dominant consensus in the scientific community that includes the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the National Academy of Sciences, NASA, the United Nations and the U.S. Department of Defense (to name a few).

“The question is are all the scientists in agreement? And I don’t think they are,” Gooch said. “I can believe there are still questions out there. I can believe there are still disputes out there.”

Gooch has served in the House of Representatives since 1995. He switched parties and became a Republican in 2015 and has retained his position as chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee for two decades.

Gooch is a longtime proponent of coal. Late last year he attended a meeting sponsored by fossil fuel companies and electric utilities. During Gooch’s last campaign for his seat representing parts of Daviess, Hopkins, McLean and Webster counties in 2018, he received nearly a quarter of his campaign contributions, totaling $21,900, from companies and people affiliated with energy industries including utilities, the coal industry and oil and gas exploration companies.

As chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy committee, Gooch has the ability to choose what bills are heard and which are given priority.

For example, last session he declined to hear a bill that would ban retailers from providing certain kinds of plastic bags and foam containers. He also helped to pass legislation that will likely make rooftop solar less affordable for businesses and homeowners.

Last August, Gooch pre-filed a bill that makes acts of civil disobedience, such as trespassing on “key infrastructure assets” like pipelines, a second-degree felony punishable by up to five years imprisonment.

Kentucky Conservation Committee Executive Director Lane Boldman said the state doesn’t have time to waste if it wants to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

“You can deny this stuff all you want, but at a certain point the facts are what the facts are,” Boldman said. “And Mother Nature is going to do what it’s going to do.”

Despite the difference in opinions, Boldman said there are areas where Gooch and the Kentucky Conservation Committee can work together.

For example, encouraging the ownership of electric vehicles would help support utilities as they transition to cleaner sources of power production, she said.

Gooch has also mentioned protecting the grid to ensure its reliability. Boldman said distributed energy systems like rooftop solar can help bolster that reliability.

“We have to make our case and we have to make our case stronger,” Boldman said. “And I think we are because more and more people are putting pressure on legislators or else Rep. Gooch wouldn’t be changing his messaging now on it.”

Listen to the interviews:

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.