China hand James Fallows expends a lot of time and words reassuring Americans that China is not the unstoppable, omnipotent superpower they fear it to be. Reality is more complicated, he argues, especially when viewed up close, from within China, where he has spent years.
However, a Fallows cover story in the current Atlantic warns of one technology in which China is leaving the west in its dust: the quest for ways to burn coal without emitting carbon. In exhorting the west to greater effort in pursuit of clean coal, Fallows takes aim at one of the environmental movement’s most sacred bovines: the belief that clean coal is a PR fraud perpetrated by coal and coal-power interests bent on evading responsibility for the planet-destroying externalities of their industry.
This has brought a shower predictable wrath in comments sections, as well as some thoughtful rebuttal, including a post from David Roberts at Grist. Roberts disagrees with Fallows on the future of coal, but regards him as “one of the most reliably excellent journalists working today.” He pays Fallows the further compliment of summarizing accurately the four broad points in the Atlantic piece:
- Coal does enormous damage to people and the environment.
- It will be impossible to meet future global energy demand without coal, which is cheap and plentiful. We can not eliminate it from the energy mix.
- We urgently need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a radical amount.
- Given 2 and 3, it follows that making coal cleaner must be a priority, alongside an “all-out effort on all other fronts, from conservation and efficiency to improved battery technology to wind- and solar-power systems to improved nuclear facilities”
Nevertheless, Roberts views the piece as a takedown of environmentalists (DFHs in his ironic coinage) to the benefit of the powers that be (PTBs), whose self-serving intransigence doesn’t merit the encouragement:
If DFHs continue to believe coal can be eliminated, they will… release more reports and white papers to that effect. They’ll lobby lawmakers (and a few of the ones from California might even listen). They’ll protest outside coal plants. They’ll organize Facebook petitions.
If the PTBs continue to believe that coal is a precious piece of American Heritage to be protected at all cost and that climate change is either alarmism or an outright hoax, they will continue to funnel subsidies to coal, block policies that subsidize clean energy, manipulate markets to protect coal from competition, and otherwise quash innovations that might threaten the interests of dirty energy incumbents. There will be no “all-out effort.”
Which is worse? Sounds to me like the PTBs are in a position to do serious damage to America’s energy future. The DFHs, not so much….
If you believe, as Fallows does, that climate change is an urgent, enormous challenge, then it’s hard to see the value in worrying that some idealistic green somewhere thinks we can tackle it without coal. Being contrarian toward DFHs is a little … safe.
Fallows responds here. The whole exchange, and especially the Fallows piece, deserve close reading.
I claim some expertise with this topic because Cape Breton, where I live, is an island whose recent human history is defined by coal, from the first coal mine in North America at Port Morien, through a coal-fueled industrial boom in the first half of the 20th Century, doomed government efforts to keep mines and a steel mill alive on subsidies the last half, and finally to the mines’ eventual closure, protracted fights over industrial cleanups, and an intractably depressed post-industrial economy. In a journalism career here, and subsequently as a communications director for a massive (and massively controversial) cleanup of coal-based industrial waste, I’ve lived with coal issues throughout my working life.
Coal is massively destructive – to the health and lives of miners who extract it from deep mines; to the landscape wherever it is extracted by strip mining and mountain top removal; to the health of those living downwind of coal-fired power plant and cement factories; and most urgently to the planetary ecosystem through climate altering emissions from those plants.
But… North Americans and Europeans use vastly more energy per capita than the Chinese or the Indians, and much of China’s and India’s coal consumption occurs in the service of exports to the West. This leaves us in no position to look down our long white noses and demand restraint from our third-world brothers and sisters, especially when we are doing so little to curb our own steadily rising consumption.
Since coal is far and away our most abundant fossil fuel, the only one in no imminent danger of running out any time soon, the unmistakable conclusion is that the world will continue to burn lots and lots of coal. Let’s at least explore the technical and economic feasibility of doing so without unleashing carbon into the atmosphere.
For Roberts’s ironic term DFHs, I would substitute <em>eco-narcissists</em>: those who demand a solution to environmental problems, but for whom no actual solution is ever pure enough. In their reasoning, climate change threatens the very existence of the planet, but heaven forfend we combat it with wind power (too many dead birds and too much disease-causing, low-frequency noise), nuclear (too dangerous, and too much long-lived radioactive waste), tidal (too much harm to fisheries and marine mammals), clean coal (“George Bush’s favourite techno-fix,” in the ad hominem phrase of Canadian Green Party leader Elizabeth May), etc., etc.
Roberts contends that even if Fallows and I are right, we’re picking on a basically harmless, not to say easy, target. I think he underestimates the harm caused by environmentalist dogs in the manger.
Imagine if the driving forces of the civil rights movement in the 1960s had demanded an end to segregation, but opposed specific actions to desegregate buses, lunch counters, high schools, etc. In fact, conservative elements in the movement harboured grave misgivings about direct action. Had their views held sway, how much would that have slowed progress on the issue? How much does the dominant environmental movement position on coal — “The world is burning, but don’t use fire extinguishers; they contain chemicals that might increase asthma rates” — slow progress on this issue? It’s not obvious to me that the effect is trivial.
If you truly believe climate change threatens life on the planet, then surely we need to throw everything we have at this problem — conservation, wind, solar, tidal, ocean energy, geothermal, nuclear, clean coal — and no potential solution should be dismissed out of hand, especially for reasons that are more firmly rooted in culture and ideology than science.