Robert Byrd, a Man of Transformations Whose Last Was Cut Short


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After the passing of the nation's longest-serving senator, the obituaries have been generally focusing on a similar narrative: That Robert Byrd (D-WV) was a man of transformations. From Ku Klux Klansmen to a supporter of Barack Obama. But most of these obits are omitting another important transformation the late senator underwent; from a longtime supporter of all things coal to a man who recognized the importance of beginning a transition to a clean energy economy. Indeed, one of the last votes Byrd cast was against the infamous Murkowski Amendment, which would have stripped the EPA of the ability to regulate greenhouse gases.To get a better idea of why Byrd's shift away from coal was such a big deal, I suggest this TNR profile on the man published earlier this year. To call West Virginia a coal-heavy state would be a massive understatement -- it provides 50% of the nation's coal exports, and accounts for tens of thousands of its jobs. Any politician publicly rebuking coal in that state is just asking for trouble.

Which is exactly what Byrd did. Here's TNR:

Byrd did an about-face and wrote an op-ed that criticized modern-day mining practices and accused the coal industry of "having its head in the sand" on climate change. Local pols were sure there must have been some mistake. The state's governor, Joe Manchin, chalked the whole thing up to a "misunderstanding." The local Chamber of Commerce president generously offered to "forgive" Byrd if he'd walk back his comments.

But it wasn't a misunderstanding, and Byrd isn't walking anything back. After 50 years in the Senate, the 92-year-old statesman seems to be revising his views on both coal and global warming. And not because he's suddenly channeling his inner tree-hugger. Rather, Byrd is finding it increasingly difficult to argue that the interests of coal companies and the interests of his state are one and the same.

Indeed. Between noting the clearly debilitating effects of mountaintop removal mining and noting the reality of climate change, Byrd found it increasingly hard to continue to support coal. Many other politicians in his position would likely have continued to support it anyway -- that being the politically safe thing to do. But Byrd spoke up, despite a lifetime of backing coal.

This shift should give hope to all those who recognize that the environmental practices and energy policies we have now are not sustainable -- even the most stalwart of fossil fuel supporters can see the light, if, as Byrd did, he has the conviction to keep the long term interests of his constituents at heart. His transformation would have been completed would he have been able to vote for comprehensive clean energy reform -- but his story is inspiring in its own way nonetheless. RIP.

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