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COP26: The people Joe Biden has to win over if he is to make combating climate change a central part of his legacy

Woodrow Wilson high school in Beckley, rural West Virginia, is far removed from the halls of congress and the gathering of global leaders in Glasgow next week.

Crowded around tables in the cafeteria, local people discuss how they might rehabilitate communities devastated by the decline of the coal industry.

This is a “listening session” where those affected by the closure of the mines can be heard by politicians.

Heather Tully thinks green energy will not take over the world

West Virginia is built on black gold, many here have worked in the coal industry for decades, as have generations before them.

But most aren’t aware of COP26 happening next week, let alone how its outcomes might impact them.

These are the people President Joe Biden has to win over if he is to make combating climate change a central part of his legacy and specifically if he is to wean the world’s largest economy off coal and gas and onto renewable energy.

The scale of the challenge is very evident. “I do not believe we will ever see green energy take over the world,” says Heather Tully, a Republican and member of the West Virginia House of Delegates.

She takes a dim view of Mr Biden’s climate agenda and his pledge to spend $500bn (£362bn) on incentives to switch to renewable power and electric vehicles.

“West Virginia is probably not the most enamoured with President Biden,” she says.

“We’re a long way from Washington and the rhetoric on climate, they’re trying to shove it down people’s throat but it’s not going to fly here.”

Her opinion is echoed around the room. Joe Carter worked in the mines and now represents the mineworkers union.

This mining engineer believes climate change is a "cyclic natural event caused by the rotation of the sun"

I ask if he believes in climate change? “I’m a 41-year coal miner and that’s directly in conflict with my job and the future jobs of the coal industry,” he says.

“I realise that there’s problems, there seem to be a lot of violent storms and things of that nature taking place, I recognise it and I want a safe environment. But I also want to protect my livelihood.”

Most people here recognise the climate is changing – it’s hard to dispute in a state afflicted by record flooding in recent years – but many contest the idea of climate change.

Angie Rosser think Mr Biden's announcement is a historic moment for the United States

“I think that it’s a cyclic natural event caused by the rotation of the sun,” an engineer for safety shelters in mines, tells me, “it’s a combination of things.”

Mr Biden arrived in Rome on Friday morning, alongside wife Jill. He wanted to arrive in Glasgow with a show-stopping half a trillion-dollar pot to tackle climate change but so far he has been unable to unite even his own party behind his wider spending plan.

His departure was delayed as he made a desperate last-ditch attempt to bring hold-out Democrats on board, ultimately unsuccessfully.

But environmentalists in West Virginia were encouraged by the scale and scope of his proposals.

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Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Association, believes it is a historic moment for the country. “It is a marker to say the United States is ready to make a big commitment on climate,” she says.

“I’m hopeful that West Virginia and the rest of the world will take note of that and follow that. I hope they will make sure the people of West Virginia are taken care of.”

Mr Biden has privately said the next week could define his entire term in the White House. He knows America’s climate credibility is on the line and his credibility as a diplomatic force is, too.

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