Dear Mr. Fallows: It doesn’t follow

“God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the west… keeping the world in chains.  If [our nation] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

Saying that coal will eventually save humanity from the catastrophic effects of climate change is a bit like claiming Adolph Hitler could have saved the Jews if he’d just been given more time.

James Fallows doesn’t exactly say that about coal in his recent article in the December issue of the Atlantic magazine. What he does say in “Dirty Coal, Clean Future,” is that the world’s salvation must involve coal. Burning coal, Fallows writes, is the only way humanity can meet its enormous and growing demand for energy.

I think Fallows is, like Bill McKibben, one of the world’s essential journalists — and one of the smartest. I have great respect for his work. Which is one reason I was so surprised to learn that he had written an article

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

arguing that burning more coal is a prerequisite to solving the climate crisis. But my curiosity overwhelmed my apprehension, as it almost always does, and I read the piece.

Fallows readily admits that his thesis runs contrary to almost everything most of us who consider ourselves part of the movement to curb global warming know about the dirtiest of fossil fuels and its culpability in the great heat up our planet’s been undergoing since the Industrial Revolution.

Fallows interviewed many smart people for his article, and there is a lot of essential information in the final product. I’m no expert, but it doesn’t take a climate scientist to see that there are also some essential things Fallows leaves out. Common-sense kinds of things. Which is perhaps why I have trouble buying into his conclusions. But let me begin with what I found in the article that I think is useful.

First, Fallows is right up front about the fact that there is no one solution to global warming. It’s such a gargantuan problem that all solutions are needed. Renewable energy, Fallows writes, must be part of the mix:

“This is not an argument against 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.”

Fallows acknowledges that conservation is a largely untapped source of energy savings. He reminds readers that people like Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute have been saying for decades that designing buildings and transportation systems to waste less energy from the start is by far the cheapest way to reduce damaging emissions. Indeed, buildings can now be designed to be produce more energy than they use — even in Wisconsin.

Utility executives and the heads of major coal-mining companies take global warming very seriously, according to Fallows. The ones he spoke with, Fallows writes, “accept as settled fact that greenhouse-gas emissions are an emergency they must confront, because of the likely disruptive effects on the world’s climate.” This seems like very hopeful news.

Also somewhat hopeful is a promising technology Fallows introduces readers to: underground coal gasification (UCG). UCG involves blasting  jets of air or pure oxygen into coal seams where they interact chemically with the coal to produce a gas that can then be routed to the surface and burned for energy. The process is not without environmental risks, but with no mines dug, no mountaintops decapitated, no men and women dying horrible deaths in the bowels of the Earth, and much of the carbon and other climate-altering compounds from the coal remaining in the ground, it’s clearly far less destructive than burning coal above ground.

Fallows knows China, the country that’s now burning more coal than any other. I was already aware that China’s communist government allows it to do many things much more quickly than the United States, including expand coal production and burning. What Fallows made me understand is just how rapidly that same undemocratic and sometimes brutal system aids the Chinese in bringing promising new technologies to the fore. Fallows believes it’s essential we try to learn as much as we can from the Chinese about what works when it comes to cleaning up coal’s act. I can’t disagree, because whether or not coal will be burned for a “very long time,” as Fallows asserts, it will be burned for years to come.

Now to my frustrations with the piece:

Fallows seems to unquestioningly accept the assertion made by many of his sources that the demand for energy will only rise steeply in coming decades, and that coal’s relative abundance and accessibility will lock us into burning ever more of it.

It is true that China and India are gobbling up enormous amounts of energy as their populations swell and become more affluent. Automobiles and modern appliances are flying out of showrooms. Huge reserves of coal exist in China and new coal plants are being built by the dozens to supply the electricity to run all those appliances (in China’s case, a disproportionate amount of that electricity is used to produce products for the West). But what Fallows fails to address is whether this kind of growth is sustainable, even in the short term, or if it’s even in the best long-term interests of the vast majority of people living in those countries.

China and India are among the nations most vulnerable to the disruptions caused by climate change, and therefore they will be much more likely to take bolder (and faster; remember that nimble, if undemocratic and often brutal Chinese system?) action to curb emissions. Indeed, China is already leading the world in the development, manufacture and use of renewable energy systems. What’s more, they have shown that they can close highly inefficient and filthy plants faster than they can build new, more efficient ones. Both countries have highly trained scientists and engineers in spades. Based on mounting news reports about weather-related droughts and floods in Asia, and the food shortages already resulting from those events, I believe producing enough to eat (and drink) in a much more unpredictable climate will probably take precedence over generating more electricity in places like China and India within the next few years. Most of Bangladesh will soon be inundated by the sea, creating tens of millions of refugees India will be forced to deal with. The Himalayan glaciers are melting, and soon much of the region’s drinking water will be gone.

Fallows seems to accept as an article of faith that the citizens of the United States by and large are incapable of accepting a lifestyle that doesn’t include ever greater inputs of electricity, even though research has been telling us for years that we were significantly happier when we had far less need for electricity. The rampant consumerism infecting the U.S., and the West in general, is dragging us down, not pulling us up. As McKibben has written in Deep Economy, despite the size of the average U.S. home doubling since 1970, the number of Americans saying they are very happy in a National Opinion Research Council poll taken every year since World War II peaked in the 1950s and has slid slowly but steadily every since.

If framed properly, I assert that a majority of Americans would respond positively to a call from our leaders to do with less stuff – and the energy used to produce and operate all that stuff – especially if the government assisted them with sane transportation systems, urban design that favors people over machines, and wise agricultural policy. The radical and rapid transformation we underwent during World War II is perhaps the best example of what can happen when visionary, articulate and audaciously hopeful leaders rally citizens to a common purpose.

Fallows’ points about how long it takes us in this country to build and innovate, compared with the Chinese, and the need for us to learn as much as we can from our trading partner, are well taken, but history shows that massive leaps forward are far from impossible here, even with a sharply divided Congress. Consider the Berlin Air Lift, the Civil Rights Movement and the Apollo Program.

The only climate scientist Fallows quotes in his article is Michael Mann of Penn State, but none of those quotes support Fallows’ thesis that we must continue to rely heavily on coal if we’re going to solve the climate change problem. Rather, they support the widely held belief of the vast majority of climate scientists that we’re flirting with disaster on a global scale by burning coal and oil at all. James Hansen, perhaps the world’s best climate scientist, appears nowhere in Fallows’ article. Hansen has been outspoken in his belief that coal burning must be phased out rapidly if the planet is to avoid reaching tipping points past which our ability to mitigate and adapt to global warming would likely be quickly overwhelmed.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

My final frustration with Fallows’ article takes us back to the supply & demand question. Fallows makes no mention of the great potential for natural gas to replace coal as the fuel of choice here and abroad. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and others have pointed out that recent discoveries of vast new reserves of natural gas in shale rock and other places have been driving down the price of that fuel dramatically. Many newer coal-burning plants could be converted relatively rapidly and inexpensively to gas. In fact, that’s already happening in many parts of the U.S. Although a fossil fuel, natural gas is much cleaner than coal or oil and has only half the carbon footprint of coal when it’s burned. What’s more, it doesn’t contain any of the black or brown carbon many scientists now think is responsible for most of the rapid melting taking place in the Arctic. Natural gas could make the transition to carbonless energy sources much less painful and costly, and buy us precious time — time to execute a massive conservation push, and bolster the emerging movement towards distributed generation (households and communities generating a fraction of their own energy using renewables).

Yes, we will have to put up with coal burning for a while. And yes, we should be learning as much as the Chinese are willing to teach us about ways to burn coal in less destructive ways. We need to be funding underground coal gasification demonstration projects.

But we should also be investing far more in conservation, environmentally sound natural gas exploration and production, as well as research and development in a diverse mix of alternative energy technologies. U.S. funding for clean energy R & D lags far behind that of China and Japan.

At the same time, we should be sharing with Asian nations our technology and expertise in the field of natural gas exploration and development.

Finally, we must build in more than we build out: rapidly remodeling existing homes and cities to be dramatically more energy efficient, re-localizing agriculture and, eventually, most commerce.

Because our biggest challenge is not, as James Fallows assumes, meeting an ever-growing demand for energy. Our biggest challenge is avoiding catastrophic climate change — caused primarily by the burning of holocaustic coal — that could kill and impoverish far more human beings than Hitler ever did.