A Daughter Of Coal Country Battles Climate Change — And Her Father's Doubt

Feb 16, 2017
Originally published on February 16, 2017 8:08 pm

The economy in southwestern Pennsylvania has been hit twice, once by the collapse of big mining and steel employers, and again by the environmental destruction that accompanied those industries.

It's a part of the country that voted heavily for Donald Trump.

Ashley Funk grew up an hour outside Pittsburgh. The area feels kind of left behind with buildings named after mining companies and polluted ponds turned fluorescent, alarming colors.

By the time she was in high school, Ashley was a full-blown climate activist. She even joined a lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania, alleging it had not done enough to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Her beliefs put her at odds with her own family. Ashley's father, Mark, describes himself as a "coal burning farmer." During the primary season, Ashley was supporting Bernie Sanders and her father was an ardent Trump supporter.

It seemed like the two couldn't agree on anything. But when they start talking about local, natural gas jobs that have been popping up in southwest Pennsylvania, there is some common ground.

"Our area has been neglected since the collapse of the steel industry, the collapse of the coal industry, and finally something's coming back, and I think that's giving people hope," Ashley says. "But I am nervous; in order to make money people exploit the environment."

Her father now agrees that bringing life back to the local economy can't come at the cost of the environment.

"I agree 100 percent," he says. "I seen it. And I tell you the truth, I remember coming into Pittsburgh, that was the very early '70s, you'd drive through the tunnels, and it was black. ... I remember that. We can't let this place go like it was before."

Use the audio link above the hear the full story.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now we're going to listen to a father and daughter talk politics and talk about the future of their hometown. Southwestern Pennsylvania is coal country, though most of the mining and steel jobs are long gone. It's also part of the country that voted heavily for Donald Trump. Reporter Rebecca Hersher followed two members of a family there who seemed like they couldn't agree on anything. Our story starts a little more than a year ago.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Ashley Funk grew up an hour outside Pittsburgh. It feels kind of left behind - buildings named after mining companies, polluted ponds that turned fluorescent, alarming colors.

ASHLEY FUNK: Yeah, so this is the house. That is where I lived for the first seven years of my life about - yeah.

HERSHER: It was Christmas 2015 when Ashley took me by her old house. A small mountain of black dust looms over it, leftover toxic stuff from coal mining in the early 1900s. Now it's covered in dirt-bike tracks.

It's like all black rock and...

A. FUNK: Yeah, (laughter) one time I came up here, and I got, like, lost.

HERSHER: It's that big. When Ashley was still a kid, she learned the ash was dangerous.

A. FUNK: I think my first reaction was, like, I wonder what age I'm going to get cancer?

HERSHER: That first thought led to early worries about pollution, picking up trash, learning about air and water pollution. By the time Ashley was in high school, she was a full-blown climate activist. She even joined a lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania, alleging it hadn't done enough to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Her beliefs put her at odds with her own family.

MARK FUNK: I'm a coal-burning farmer. We heated with wood and coal all our lives.

HERSHER: This is how Ashley's dad, Mark, described himself in late 2015. It was primary season. At the time, Ashley was supporting Bernie Sanders. Her dad was an ardent supporter of Donald Trump.

M. FUNK: And that's another reason why I like Donald Trump so much - because we're going to get rid of the politics.

HERSHER: In fact, listening to them talk back then, it seemed that if there were a culture war going on in America, they were living a version of it right there in Mark's living room. There's religion. Mark is a devout Christian and likes to talk about it.

M. FUNK: Me - if you don't believe in Jesus, you don't believe in God. That's me only, OK?

HERSHER: Ashley...

A. FUNK: I'm very open-minded (laughter).

HERSHER: Mark's formal education ended after seventh grade. Ashley is in her last year at Wellesley College, you know, where Hillary Clinton went. And then there's climate change. When I met him, Mark said he didn't buy it.

M. FUNK: I can't see it. I don't believe it (laughter) - things rising up and eating our atmosphere.

HERSHER: For years, they just steered clear of this topic even though she's an activist. In their town, in their family, it was a little too close to home. But Ashley decided the time had come to try to change her dad's mind. This was a year ago. She seemed flustered.

A. FUNK: I feel like I'd be able to explain this (laughter) - and that...

M. FUNK: It doesn't what?

A. FUNK: So that the heat that - the way the Earth is heated is that light comes down, and it heats the earth. And normally what happens is that the light comes down, and then it reflects off of things like glaciers. And then it...

HERSHER: So this went on for 17 minutes. I timed it. As Ashley explains, Mark is leaning back, arms crossed, squinting - kind of unreadable.

A. FUNK: ...They say it's like a greenhouse, and the greenhouse is keeping all the warmth and doesn't let the light go back out of the...

M. FUNK: I never knew that. Yeah, I know - you never explained that to me before.

A. FUNK: (Laughter) I never tried.

(LAUGHTER)

HERSHER: All of a sudden, Ashley relaxes. She looks sheepish - like, how could I not have succeeded at this before? And just like that, Mark Funk kind of believes in man-made climate change.

M. FUNK: Yeah, I agree with that now. And but there are so many different people that say so many different things. You don't know what to believe.

HERSHER: Does it carry special weight, though, when your daughter explains it to you as opposed to some talking head on television? Or...

M. FUNK: Yeah, yeah. She's got me believing a little bit about places getting too hot. You know, what are we going to do about it?

HERSHER: Now, it's been a year since that initial conversation. Donald Trump has been elected president, promising to bring back coal and manufacturing jobs to places like southwest Pennsylvania. So just before Christmas, I checked in with the Funks to see how that common ground they found last year was looking these days.

Mark and I met up at an Eat'n Park diner off the highway near Pittsburgh. Ashley is still at school, so we called her up.

M. FUNK: I can hear you. Hi, Ashley.

A. FUNK: Hi (laughter).

HERSHER: Can we just establish one thing? Who did each of you vote for?

A. FUNK: I voted for Hillary Clinton, yeah.

HERSHER: Mark, you're shaking your head.

M. FUNK: I'm shaking my head because she's a liar. I voted for Trump, OK?

HERSHER: Mark hopes the election will boost the economy around Pittsburgh.

M. FUNK: Because it's going to produce the jobs that we need, and it's going to help us tremendously.

HERSHER: Ashley is really worried.

A. FUNK: We're at such, like, this tipping point, and it's so important for us to address things like climate change. And I'm so nervous that it's not going to happen.

HERSHER: But when they started talking local, about natural-gas jobs that have been popping up in southwest Pennsylvania, there's still common ground.

A. FUNK: Our area has been neglected since the collapse of, like, the steel industry to the collapse of the coal industry. And finally something's coming back, and I think that's giving people hope. But I am nervous. In order to make money, people exploit the environment.

M. FUNK: I agree.

A. FUNK: Yeah.

M. FUNK: I agree a hundred percent.

A. FUNK: So...

M. FUNK: I've seen it. And I - to tell you the truth, I remember coming into Pittsburgh - you know, that was very early '70s. You drove through the tunnels, and it was black. And that's the way it was back - I remember that. We can't let this place go like it was before.

A. FUNK: It's conversations like this one that have led Ashley to make a hard decision. When she gets her engineering degree in May, she's not going to stay in a liberal college town where most people feel the way she does and activism feels black and white. She's going to move back home to southwest Pennsylvania.

Mark, are you surprised that Ashley wants to move back?

M. FUNK: No, I'm not surprised at all because I know that once you get something in your mind, you're going to come back, and you're going to fight for it until the end. And that's good.

HERSHER: Ashley plans to work on environmental projects in a place where climate change and the local economy are totally, messily intertwined.

A. FUNK: I know it's going to be hard. I know it's going to be hard. It's just so much easier to be around people that, like, believe the same thing as you, that kind of get it, but I still wouldn't trade it because I know that I need to go back home.

HERSHER: Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GALT MACDERMOT SONG, "COFFEE COLD")

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A version of this story first aired as part of WBEZ's climate change project "Heat Of The Moment."

(SOUNDBITE OF GALT MACDERMOT SONG, "COFFEE COLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.