— How climate change could spur West Virginia’s next brain drain—and how to avoid it.
When we think of human migration brought on by global warming, we might imagine desperate people from water-starved deserts moving north. We don’t tend to think of affluent, aging Baby Boomers leaving West Virginia in large numbers. But maybe we should.
For years, we’ve watched our young people leave West Virginia. The children of our friends, whom we’ve watched grow up, head off to college or a job opportunity, and they don’t come back. Now, their parents—our friends and neighbors—are entering or nearing retirement, and asking one another: Are you going to stay in West Virginia? It’s remarkable how many say no, or give a long sigh and shrug that says, “I don’t know.” It’s not that they have somewhere else calling them. It’s the politics.
People are tired of politicians who act with disregard for the environment, who won’t acknowledge the fact of global warming or the overwhelming scientific evidence that the climate crisis is caused by human activity.
People are fed up, and giving up. In West Virginia, retirees are economic and social assets. If they leave, they will take their pensions, savings, and volunteer labor so critical to our economy and communities. For West Virginia, this loss of wealth and community service will be one of the costs of climate change, and it is avoidable.
It would be sad to lose a generation of people who love this state, not only for its mountains and rivers, but for the kindness and generosity of our people. On more than one occasion, I’ve been helped roadside by strangers who towed me out of a ditch up in the mountains or stopped to offer help to change a tire.
We all have these stories. That’s the Mountaineer way: We’re quick with a helping hand. While West Virginia ranks low in the percentage of people who volunteer for charitable organizations, according to the Corporation for National Service, we rank high for our “informal volunteer” work, like doing favors for neighbors, taking care of sick friends, and cleaning up after storms.
There is one segment of West Virginians, however, who participate in formal volunteer activities in incredibly high numbers. Retirees. They are a huge force for good, contributing millions of dollars of free labor and donations.
Can’t Afford to Lose
In the Eastern Panhandle, you’d be hard pressed to find a retiree who does not volunteer for something. They clean up streams, plant trees, tutor in reading and math, raise money for children’s causes, send kids home from school with weekend meals, decorate churches for holidays, organize community events—the list goes on. And on.
Sometimes it’s impossible to schedule a charity benefit in the Eastern Panhandle because you can’t find a date that doesn’t conflict with another charity event. Retirees and near-retirees here are active.
As engaged citizens, these folks are among those most likely to pay attention to climate change. They want action at the federal level and they want our state’s delegation to lead, not obstruct or pay lip service. In this they are united across the political spectrum. On the flip side, with a few exceptions, our politicians also appear united—in their ambivalence to global warming and the impacts of climate change on public health and natural systems.
While some politicians in our state would be delighted to see troublesome, meddlesome older people depart, they should acknowledge what it could mean for our state.
Here are some quick calculations. In West Virginia, the average income for people over 65 is about $35,000—we know the average is higher in the eight counties of the Eastern Panhandle and Highlands, but we can use that number. These are counties with a lot of retirees. Losing only 2,800 of them would mean a loss of almost $100 million a year for West Virginia.
That’s right. A hundred million bucks in annual spending at local restaurants, hardware and grocery stores, charitable events—you get the picture. That doesn’t begin to add the value of all that volunteer time. We can’t afford to lose that.
Sending the Right Message
There are steps our Congressional delegation can take to stem the tide. They can act on climate change, beginning with the tax code.
Tax extenders, which keep in place planned phaseouts of certain tax incentives, are solid tools to help speed a transition to a zero-emission economy that benefits people and wildlife. For example, Congress is considering clean-energy tax policies to extend credits for electric vehicles and new ways to store renewable energy—the biggest hurdle to going 100 percent renewable is finding ways to store energy.
Then there’s energy efficiency, one of the cheapest and most effective ways to drive down energy demand and reduce the causes of climate disruption. Energy efficiency improvements in appliances, cars, and buildings have paid profound dividends for all of us. Tax incentives have played a key role.
Unfortunately, we seem to be going in the wrong direction. Federal solar-energy tax credits are set to phase out over the next three years. In January 2020, they will drop from 30 percent to 26 percent, then to 22 percent in 2021, then disappear altogether for residential installations.
The expiration of tax credits would be bad for businesses in the Eastern Panhandle, which has seen huge growth in residential and business solar installations. “The tax credits are a significant driver for solar energy development for homeowners and businesses,” Danny Chiotos, project developer and owner of Charles Town-based Vandalia Energy Services told me. “Tax credits spur jobs, investment, and clean local energy. They incentivize people to invest in their own community.”
David Asam, whose family founded and operates the Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown, said the tax credits were critical to their decision to install solar panels and electric vehicle charging stations at the inn. “Without the tax credits,” he said, “there is no way we could have afforded it.”
Matt Knott of River Riders, concurs. His company installed solar systems at both River Riders and their Clarion Inn in Harpers Ferry. At the time, he noted, the 300 panel-array on the Clarion was the largest private project in the state. They used both a federal grant and the tax credits to help pay for the projects. “We also have an eighty-five-panel system at River Riders, and we have electric car chargers at the Clarion—both standard and Tesla,” he said.
Without the tax credits, Knott added, the projects are not financially viable. “We also feel that being environmentally conscious is imperative to the long-term sustainability of businesses, and that it is something that West Virginia can use to promote their brand as well. We received a lot of publicity initially when the systems were installed, and I still have guests and others I meet ask about the projects now.”
There are measures in both chambers now that could extend tax incentives that prioritize clean energy. These actions would spur innovation, accelerate the transition to cleaner, safer sources of energy, and create good, clean energy-related careers for West Virginians and all Americans.
Approving these tax extenders should be a no-brainer for our entire congressional delegation. It’s the right thing to do for West Virginia. And it could change the tone in the state capitol, as well.
For West Virginia’s Boomers contemplating an exit strategy, it would send the right message: Stay here. We need you.
Unless legislators wake up, affluent retirees will join the stream of young people walking through West Virginia’s exit doors.