How will Kentucky cope with climate change?

Wow. Talk about climate change.

The change in our environmental climate may be the same gradual warming that most of the world’s scientists have observed since about 1970. But the political and economic climate for dealing with it changed dramatically just this week.

Leaders from 193 nations gathered Monday in Copenhagen to plan climate-change policy amid signs that major polluters such as China, India and the United States may be getting serious about addressing the problem.

Also Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided to regulate greenhouse gasses as pollution. That could lead to mandates for less-polluting power plants, factories and cars — and higher prices for energy produced by burning coal and oil and more emphasis on conservation and development of alternative energy.

What will all of this changing climate mean for Kentucky?

About 200 people —students, educators, energy executives, legislators and average citizens — gathered Tuesday at the Marriott Griffin Gate to discuss those issues.

Down the hall, business leaders and legislators were discussing it, too, at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s annual policy conference. During a break, Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, joked about the different perceptions and outlooks of those at the two gatherings.

But the underlying truth was clear to everyone: change is here, and Kentucky must deal with it. How well we do that will determine whether Kentuckians prosper or suffer in the future.

The Regional Climate Change Forum’s lead sponsor was the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. The corporation’s president, Kris Kimel, observed that Americans always tend to underestimate the speed and impact of technological change and overestimate the cost of adapting to it.

That’s because the economy is increasingly driven by technology and innovation. Adapting to less-polluting forms of energy will present economic opportunities for Kentucky as well as costs and disruptions, Kimel said.

Kentucky’s coal deposits have given us some of the nation’s cheapest electricity and a lure for energy-intensive industries. But rates are rising because of a variety of economic factors, and regulation to reduce greenhouse gasses and address coal’s other environmental problems will make that power even more costly.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that we waste a lot of electricity now because it’s cheap, and higher prices will provide more incentives for conservation and developing alternative energy. That will reduce the need for costly new power plants and help Kentucky transition away from coal as reserves are depleted.

Most electric utilities are moving in that direction, said John Malloy of EON-US, which owns Kentucky Utilities and Louisville Gas & Electric.

As utilities study better technology for generating and delivering power — everything from solar, wind and landfill methane to better power grids — they also are looking at the potential of conservation.

“It’s no longer simply a supply-side game,” he said.

Kentucky’s political leaders have often been allies in the coal industry’s efforts to resist regulation. But they also have done some progressive things recently. Those include new, stricter environmental standards for state buildings and Finance Secretary Jonathan Miller’s Clean Energy Corps, an effort to weatherize homes for low- and middle-income families.

Forum participants stressed that adapting to climate change will involve a lot more than energy and and its related economic issues.

Stuart Foster of the Kentucky Climate Center at Western Kentucky University said one of his biggest concerns is that new climate patterns may make Kentucky’s droughts longer and more severe.

“Extended drought over multiple years could be devastating for Kentucky,” Foster said.

We also must anticipate and cope with climate change’s impact on agriculture and sensitive natural ecosystems, where a little change can have big and unpredictable consequences.

Kentucky’s ability to adapt will require education, research and the ability to act quickly to mitigate damage and take advantage of economic opportunities.

“We can’t predict all of these changes,” Kimel said. “We have to get out ahead of them with our imagination.”