Year 4, Month 12, Day 1: Aaaaaand the countdown continues….

The Irish Times tackles the keep-the-coal-in-the-ground story:

Most of the world’s coal reserves “will have to stay in the ground” and further investment in mines and coal-fired power stations could go ahead only if it did not jeopardise the goal of limiting global warming to two degrees, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres warned yesterday.

Addressing a coal and climate summit in Warsaw, organised by the World Coal Association to coincide with the UN’s 19th climate change conference, she urged the industry to “honestly assess the financial risks of business-as-usual” in the context of its contribution to global warming.

So I revamped yesterday’s letter and sent it along. November 20:

The slow catastrophe of global climate change may be the primary reason all our remaining coal needs to stay buried, but it’s not the only one. The climatic consequences of increasing atmospheric CO2 overshadow the extraordinary history embodied in our fossil fuels. Countless millions of years before humanity’s emergence, trees and plants soaked up the abundant sunlight of the Carboniferous Era, then fell to the forest floor. The passage of eons effected their transformation into the oil and coal we now burn with such profligacy.

Everywhere in the world, we treat our oldest things with reverence. Whether it’s a song from bygone days, a cave painting from our species’ prehistory, or a document hallowed by passing millennia, we respond with justifiable awe to any reminder of time’s vastness. From this perspective, the casual waste of fossilized sunlight thousands of times older than our species is another facet of the metastasizing environmental tragedy wrought by our addiction to fossil energy.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 11, Day 30: Yep Rack, Doodli-doo-dah!

The Seattle Times is one of many papers reporting on Christiana Figueres’ words to coal producers:

WARSAW, Poland — In a speech Monday in Warsaw, the United Nations’ top officer on climate change warned coal-industry executives that much of the world’s coal will need to be left in the ground if international climate goals are to be met.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, spoke to industry leaders at the World Coal Summit, which the Polish government called somewhat incongruously to run at the same time as an important U.N. climate conference led by Figueres.

Poland relies on coal for nearly 90 percent of its electricity, and the government has upset the European mainstream by spurning efforts to slow the use of the fuel.

Figueres told the coal executives that they were putting the global climate and their shareholders at a “business continuation risk” by failing to support the search for alternative methods of producing energy.

So I dug out the “oldest thing in the world” letter, gave it a few tweaks, and sent it on its merry way. November 19:

For a moment, ignore the terrifying mathematics of climate change, and contemplate the mind-bending miracle manifested in the fossil fuels we burn so casually. Every therm from these sources is long-preserved sunlight from eons before humans emerged on Earth. Half a billion years ago, the Carboniferous era’s trees grew tall on the the sun’s light before they fell to the slowly accumulating forest floor, where over millions of years they gradually turned into oil and coal.

People everywhere regard the very old with reverence. Ancient documents, buildings hallowed by the passage of centuries, or songs transmitted through countless human generations — all these are rightly understood as reminders of our species’ long and inspiring saga. So how can we justify the casual consumption of sunlight a thousand times older than humanity?

Irresponsibly burning coal is not just an environmental catastrophe. It’s a grave insult to the antiquity of our planet.

Warren Senders

Year 7, Month 7, Day 24: Pore Lil’ Thangs….

The Tennessean tells us that Industry isn’t happy about POTUS’ climate-change ideas. Poor things:

BOW, N.H. — President Barack Obama’s push to fight global warming has triggered condemnation from the U.S. coal industry across the industrial Midwest, where state and local economies depend on the health of an energy sector facing strict new pollution limits.

But such concerns stretch even to New England, an environmentally focused region that long has felt the effects of drifting emissions from Rust Belt states.

Just ask Gary Long, the president of the Public Service Co. of New Hampshire, the state’s largest electric company.

Long says the president’s plan to impose limits on carbon dioxide emissions raises questions about the fate of the state’s two coal-fired power plants, electricity rates for millions of customers and the ability to find new energy sources. He also notes that New England has already invested billions of dollars in cleaner energy, agreed to cap its own carbon pollution and crafted plans to import Canadian hydroelectric power.

“New Hampshire’s always been ahead of the curve,” he says. “Does no good deed go unpunished?”

Long raised those concerns in the days after Obama launched a major second-term drive to combat climate change, bypassing Congress by putting limits for the first time on carbon pollution from new and existing power plants. At the core of his plan are controls on power plants that emit carbon dioxide.

See, Gary, in the next century, everybody is going to get punished. July 6:

Gary Long, an energy executive from New England, notes that his company has been proactively engaged in CO2 emissions reduction, but asks rhetorically about the President’s climate change proposals, “does no good deed go unpunished?” What a great question. Let’s find some other places and people to ask it.

How about Bangladesh, where climatic disruptions have made millions of subsistence farmers homeless? Or island nations like Kiribati, soon to be completely submerged under rising ocean waves? Or flood-battered Pakistan? Or, for that matter, Arizona, where a massive wildfire has caused uncountable damage and taken the lives of nineteen brave firefighters?

That many of the nations suffering most from the transforming climate have contributed nothing to the runaway greenhouse effect which now imperils their citizens (and in some cases their very existence) makes Mr. Long’s words sound less like a reasonable inquiry and more like self-entitled whining. It also makes Mr. Obama’s goal of closing coal plants sounds less like “punishment” for a New Hampshire utility, and more like a piece of responsible statesmanship.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 5, Day 28: The Madness Of King George

Well-done, indeed. The Boston Globe:

SOMERSET — Activists in a lobster boat flying an American flag blocked the delivery of 40,000 tons of central Appalachian coal to Brayton Point Power Station Wednesday, bobbing for hours in the path of a freighter nearly 690 feet long.

“The climate crisis is real, and it’s staring us in the face, and we’re not doing anything,” said Marla Marcum, the on-land spokeswoman for the ­activists, who said she was there to bail them out of jail if the need arose.

The activists were not ­arrested, a Coast Guard spokesman said.

The lobster boat Henry ­David T. looked almost quaint, and certainly out of place, against the backdrop of the hulking power plant.

The freighter it blocked, more than 20 times its size, sat at the end of a long pier; the anchored lobster boat turned slowly in the current.

“I choose to place my body between the exploding mountain tops of Appalachia and the burning fires of our consumption and greed as a witness to the new way of being in the world that we know is possible,” one of the boat’s captains, Jay O’Hara, 31, wrote on the website, where activists live-blogged the protest.

O’Hara, of Bourne, and his co­captain — Ken Ward, 57, of Jamaica Plain — called for Brayton Point to be shut down immediately for the sake of “planetary survival.”

Ward and O’Hara arrived at Brayton Point around 9 a.m. and dropped anchor, activists said; the freighter, the Energy Enterprise, arrived at about 11:15.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Robert Simpson said the two men cooperated with officials, but when the Coast Guard told them to move their boat, they realized that their anchor was stuck.

The Boston Coal Party. Works for me. May 16:

Boston’s role in our country’s creation lends the action of local environmentalists even greater historical resonance.

By blocking the delivery of almost a million pounds of coal to Brayton Point, Jay O’Hara and Ken Ward have struck a blow against a malign force which has co-opted our government for its own interests. Fossil fuel corporations, arguably the most powerful economic actors on the planet, exert incalculable influence on American politics. That they have offices on American soil doesn’t change the fact that they’re essentially colonial powers, enriching themselves on our tax dollars. Instead of funding schools, infrastructure, and a functional public health system, American citizens’ hard-earned money subsidizes oil and coal, pays to clean up spills, leaks, and toxic waste, and funds expensive wars — a textbook example of taxation without representation in the service of an occupying power.

O’Hara and Ward make me proud to be a Bostonian.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 5, Day 7: There Went The Sun

The Portland Tribune talks about coal. It’s bad stuff:

My greenhouse is covered with a thin plastic film. A few molecules of plastic are all it takes to make it 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer inside than out.

When coal, gasoline and natural gas are burned, they produce carbon dioxide that traps heat just like the plastic film of my greenhouse.

Green plants recycle carbon dioxide, but they can’t keep up with the amount that we put out. Two hundred years ago, atmospheric CO2 levels were 280 parts-per-million; now they’re more than 395 ppm. Every year globally, we burn 9 billion tons of fossil fuels. None of this is disputed.

The debate is about whether there are any consequences. Six years ago, the consensus among climate scientists was that man was accelerating climate change by burning fossil fuels.

The Earth’s climate has always changed, but never as fast as now. The change we are experiencing is a response to the coal and oil we burned 50 to 100 years ago. Our average temperature has risen 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since the pre-Industrial Age. Sea levels are rising due to thermal expansion.

The scientific consensus is that a rise of 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit would be bad, but survivable. Even if we stopped burning carbon today, scientists forecast that we would blow past this mark just from what we’ve done during the past 50 years.

Each year that we continue our reliance on fossil fuels will add $500 billion to the cost of mitigation. Warmer oceans produce stronger storms, so New York is planning to build a seawall. The Clark County (Wash.) Health Department is planning for refugees coming from the hot southern states by 2030. The forecast is for the oceans and the Willamette River to rise 2 feet by 2050.

It’s all solar. The only difference is how long it’s been sitting around. April 25:

If humans are to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, we need to transform the way we think about oil and coal. For too long we’ve considered them an easily-extracted source of cheap energy (just dig a hole!), while ignoring all their costly externalities (health effects, oil wars, environmental pollution, climate change). This faulty accounting has to change, of course.

But something else needs to find its way into our thinking. Fossil fuels are the remnants of the ancient sunlight which shone on the dinosaurs; when we carelessly idle our cars we are burning solar energy that is hundreds of millions of years old. Just as we are outraged when ancient cave paintings are despoiled, so should we be repelled by the profligate destruction of one of our oldest planetary inheritances in the name of convenience. We’ll do far better if we harvest sunlight when it’s fresh.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 11, Day 15: Looking Through A Bent-Backed Tulip

The New York Times has an Op-Ed from a guy named Dieter Helm, who argues for a Carbon Tax:

Europe’s “answer” to global warming is wind farms and other current renewables. But the numbers won’t ever add up. It just isn’t possible to reduce carbon emissions much with small-scale disaggregated wind turbines. There isn’t enough land for biofuels, even if corn-based ethanol were a good idea (a questionable proposition). Current renewable-energy sources cannot bridge the gap if we are to move away from carbon-intensive energy production. So we will need new technologies while in the meantime slowing the coal juggernaut.

There are three sensible ways to do this: tax carbon consumption (including imports); accelerate the switch from coal to gas; and support and finance new technologies rather than pouring so much money into wind and biofuels.

Putting a price on carbon is fundamental. If consumers and businesses do not bear the cost of their carbon pollution, they won’t do much about it. This carbon price should not discriminate between locations: global warming is global. If China does not put a price on carbon, and Europe does, then China will effectively receive a huge export subsidy.

The good news is that many new energy technologies are coming down the track: next-generation solar, geothermal and even nuclear technologies, and methods to harness the energy of gravity via the ocean’s tides. There have been major breakthroughs in solar. Work is also under way to develop better energy-storing batteries, smart grids and electric cars. All of those advancements will need public support.

What is missing across Europe, the United States and China is a global agreement on a proper carbon price. More than any other measure, a tax on carbon consumption is what’s needed to slow the warming of the planet.

Anyone listening? Sent November 12:

At the beginning of the twentieth century, horses provided much of our local transportation. The early adopters of automobiles faced ridicule, absurd legal constraints, and an economy that was slanted against the needs of drivers. But eventually equestrian transport moved from a cultural default setting to something far more specialized, and now a ride in a horse-drawn carriage is a secular ritual for important or sentimental occasions. Naturally, it’s more expensive than it was a century ago.

Similarly, consider coal. For centuries our civilization has been burning these conveniently flammable rocks with profligate disregard both for their antiquity and their damaging effects on our health and our planetary environment. It is time for us to offer coal an honorable retirement, and focus on energy sources of our own time rather than the concentrated sunlight of the Carboniferous Era. A carbon tax is a great way to begin this transformation.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 12, Day 31: A Gloomy Old Soul…

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Business section runs an article on the status of Big Coal in the region:

The coal called “king” in this region, an acknowledgment of its presence and power, sometimes seems in danger of facing a coup.

Just in the past week, federal agencies announced stricter regulations on pollution for coal-fired plants, with even former Pittsburgh Steeler Jerome Bettis filming commercials to strong-arm legislators into passing the restrictions.

Add into the mix a natural gas boom that’s overwhelming the region and its lawmakers. Then there are the alternative options such as nuclear and wind energy that have won endorsements from the White House.

With the pressure coming from all sides, the monarchy appears threatened.

But a look at coal’s ever-overpowering numbers suggests a different narrative and proves the black rock remains as much a local institution as the football team for which Mr. Bettis once lined up in the backfield. The state still contains so much coal that it produces more power than its citizens and businesses need, with the extra used to light major metropolitan zones along the heavily populated East Coast.

Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette! Sent December 27:

When two realities collide, they can do a lot of damage. The slow-motion catastrophe of climate change is bringing us more extreme and unpredictable weather; naysayers find it increasingly difficult to reject the climatological evidence that humanity’s overconsumption of fossil fuels poses a deadly danger to the planet. That’s one reality.

On the other hand, America’s economy is understood to depend on plentiful cheap energy, which means, more than anything, coal. That’s another reality.

Representatives of the industry hold economic growth as a top priority, and call environmentalists “unrealistic” for decrying the link between burning black rock and burgeoning greenhouse effect. However, the reverse is equally true: by denying or covering up scientific evidence and analyses that could impact their profit margins, coal companies reject the reality of their product’s toxic consequences.

Ultimately, the laws of physics and chemistry will win; they always do. Will human beings be the losers?

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 7, Day 22: Ad Hoc Geoengineering

The Daily Mail (UK) runs an article on the Chinese sulfur emissions question:

China’s rapid industrial expansion may have halted global warming for much of the last decade, climate scientists claimed.

They said sulphur pollution from China’s coal-fired power stations helped to keep world temperatures stable despite soaring greenhouse gas emissions.

Burning coal releases carbon dioxide which traps heat from the Sun, raising temperatures. But it also emits particles of sulphur that help block the Sun’s rays and cool the Earth.

One of the attractions of the alternate-universes cosmology is the notion that somewhere there is a planet Earth where the humans haven’t fucked things up so completely.

Sent July 6:

The analysis suggesting that Chinese sulfur emissions have helped slow global heating trends is yet another confirmation of a simple fact: the science of climate change is complicated. Of course, that should be no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention, but the idea that there are multiple inter-relating factors seems to be hard for climate-change deniers to grasp. Given that ending the West’s dependence on fossil fuels will have enormously beneficial economic and environmental impacts, the reluctance of the denialists in our politics and media to move forward on this crucial issue can only be attributed to their fear of change, whether positive or negative. It certainly couldn’t be because they’re financially beholden to multinational energy corporations that will lose a few percentage points of profit; even the most avaricious of politicians surely wouldn’t put short-term profit over the survival of our species or our civilization. Or would they?

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 7, Day 20: For Every Complex Problem, There’s A Simple Answer. And It’s Wrong.

The July 4 Albany Times-Union notes that since China burned a whole shitload of coal over the past decade, and it’s been really dirty coal, it’s emitted a lot of sulfur. Which has, apparently, slowed down our planetary rush to the rotisserie:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Scientists have come up with a possible explanation for why the rise in Earth’s temperature paused for a bit during the 2000s, one of the hottest decades on record.

The answer seems counterintuitive. It’s all that sulfur pollution in the air from China’s massive coal-burning, according to a new study.

Sulfur particles in the air deflect the sun’s rays and can temporarily cool things down a bit. That can happen even as coal-burning produces the carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming.

I’m not surprised by this. How about you? Sent July 4:

The phenomena of climate change frequently seem to defy common sense. The notion that a relatively small increase in carbon dioxide emission can trigger such disastrous effects, for example, is almost unbelievable. Similarly, since humans are notoriously poor at planning for the long term, the thought that what we do today will affect our descendants in the centuries to come is all but impossible to comprehend. The fact that Chinese sulfur emissions could slow down the planetary warming trend for a while is likewise counterintuitive, running contrary to the ingrained knowledge of the world which our species has honed over countless millennia. For thousands of years, our “common sense” has told us that the Earth was an unlimited and infinitely resilient resource, ripe for our exploitation. If we and our civilization are to survive in the long term, we must transform both our wasteful behavior and our incorrect, hubristic intuitions.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 3, Day 31: They DO Believe In “Free-Market Fairy Dust,” Though.

It’s gotta be pretty rare to find an anti-pollution editorial in a Coal State paper. The Lexington Herald-Leader gives us an example:

And after 20 years of hemming and hawing, it’s time to start controlling the 386,000 tons of toxins that rain down on this country each year from coal-fired power plants, the No. 1 source of air pollution.

It’s past time, really.

A bipartisan majority of Congress in 1990 ordered the EPA to get to work on nationwide standards for toxic emissions from power plants. If people should be alarmed about anything, it’s that it’s taken so long and that the health of so many has suffered during the delay.

As the crisis at the Fukushima reactors reminds us, invisible substances in the air can do grave harm to human health and lasting damage to the environment.

Although I didn’t mention Semmelweiss by name, he was very much present in my thinking as I composed this. Mailed March 22:

It is astonishing in this day and age that some people still deny the harmful potential of microscopic particulates in the atmosphere. By now, most of us agree that germs, bacteria and viruses are the principal media through which disease is propagated — a theory validated in the late 1800s in the face of vehement denial. Why can’t we accept that atmospheric mercury poses a danger to us, to our children, and to the environment in which we live? In large part it’s because the oil and coal industries devote significant resources to obscuring the truth and elevating falsehoods — for example, asserting that pollution regulations on coal plants are “job-killers,” while conveniently ignoring pollution’s catastrophic health and environmental impacts. Similar mendacity is at work denying the planetary impact of CO2 emissions. Why should we trust billionaires whose fortunes depend on our continued consumption of oil and coal?

Warren Senders