Coal as Contraband?

Juan Cole is shrill about global warming:

One obvious lesson of Muller’s study is that coal should be banned immediately and its mining and distribution should be criminalized. We put people in prison for a little pot, but let the coal industry destroy the earth. A few brave souls are protesting environmentally destructive ways of mining coal. But we should all be protesting the poisonous stuff itself.

The other obvious lesson is that we need a global Manhattan project to move to clean energy immediately. We don’t have much time. Carbon dioxide emissions were up 6% last year. Massive government-funded research and tax breaks could bring down costs of solar and wind quickly and make geothermal more practical. We need to redo the national electricity grid and put hydropumps in hilly or mountainous regions to keep solar- and wind-generated energy flowing during down times. This task has to be our number one priority, more important than fighting a small terrorist organization in distant lands, more important than spending 20 times on the war industries what our closest ally does, more important that imprisoning people for a few tokes, more important than tax breaks for the wealthy, more important than reproductive issues. Our Congress is a latter-day Nero, fiddling while the world burns, and any of them that doesn’t get it should be turned out in November if you care about the fate of your children and grandchildren.

Politically, there’s no chance of this in the US, much less in China. But Cole thinks he has anticipated one objection:

By the way, there are only 80,000 workers employed in coal mining in the US. There are 100,000 workers in solar energy and a similar number in wind. I suspect West Virginia and western Pennsylvania could have a lot of jobs in wind turbines, and those states and the federal government should help brave coal workers make the transition.

(Of course there will be more jobs in downstream occupations, and the disruptive cost of closing power plants and industries dependent on coal will be much larger still, so this number is I fear a gross understatement. And there would be the short-term competitive trade consequences of unilateralism…maybe balanced out by long-term gains from new technology leadership, but maybe not.)

It is also possible to fantasize about energy as the economy-saving alien invasion Paul Krugman wants us to imagine, and Cole takes us there:

Ronald Reagan used to fantasize that an alien invasion could unite human beings across capitalist and communist systems. Well, Reaganites now have their chance: Climate Change is a kind of alien invasion, threatening the human species, and here is an opportunity to put aside differences and unite to meet the biggest challenge we have faced in our 150,000 years of existence as homo sapiens sapiens.

On the other hand, this administration, at least, has demonstrated an unerring ability for letting good crises go to waste.

The latest climate change data are scary. It now seems highly likely that unless we bend the curve somehow, maybe Right Now, very bad changes will happen in the medium to long term. Certainly in my children’s’ lifetime; whether in mine is less clear. But the odds are that nothing radical will happen next year, which given our short-termism means the panic button remains out of reach.

In that context, Cole’s coal take feels wildly excessive. But it does raise the question: Is it time to be shrill? Is there any other way to move the Overton window on climate change? And do I have the, er, energy to participate in trying?

Image used under Creative Commons Attribution, Noncommercial, Share Alike license. Copyright © 2006 Bruno & Lígia Rodrigues.

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2 Responses to Coal as Contraband?

  1. Earl Killian says:

    You wrote, “Of course there will be more jobs in downstream occupations…”. Yes, but there are more jobs downstream in the wind, solar, and geothermal that would ramp up to replace coal.

    The U.S. government needs to nationalize our coal power plants and shut them down. It also probably needs a, shudder, geoengineering program to prevent the temperature from soaring after the shutdown.

    You wrote, “It now seems highly likely that unless we bend the curve somehow…”. Flattening the curve yesterday probably wouldn’t prevent disaster, so merely bending it today or tomorrow is woefully insufficient. Please read, Ramanathan and Feng, On avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system: Formidable challenges ahead. I get the impression from climate scientists that they have overstated the case a bit, as more recent work gives lower numbers than they reported (see, for example), but theirs is the best introduction to the overall issue of what happens after we shutter our coal plants (hint: the temperature soars in just a few years because the cooling effect of aerosols is eliminated).

  2. jones says:

    When Reagan removed Carter’s solar cells from the White House, was time to be shrill. In all liklihood, it’s too late now. As the permafrost melts, it will release methane which, as a greenhouse gas, is some 20x more potent than carbon dioxide. Climate change only accelerates from here. Cole is not overstating the issue in the least.

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