So Much Coal: Why Not Use It?

“We have 250 years of coal. Why the heck wouldn’t we use it?”  Mitt Romney, August 16, 2012
Every so often, a questiongets asked that simply demands an answer.  Especially so when the asker may soon become President of the United States.
Now we recognize that this is a bit ticklish. Democrats, Independents and Republicans all read the Clothesline Report.  And we have done our best to remain politically neutral. In the past I’ve been criticized for gushing over a Republican congressman’s stance on carbon pricing. And I’ve been hauled off to jail for protesting the policies of a Democratic president. So maybe I’ve earned the right to give an honest answer to a Republican’s question.
Earth sciencetells us that for the last two million years, the earth has known two principal conditions: ice ages, and interglacial. During ice ages, there were about 440 billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere; in the nice warm interglacial periods, atmospheric CO2 increased to 660 billion tons.  It usually hasn’t lingered too long in the middle, but switched back and forth every 100,000 years, or so.
440 billion tons and it’s cold; 660 billion tons and it’s warm – warm like the world our ancestors were born into, and in which human civilization flourished. Things fluctuated from time to time, but the range was stable enough to support complex societies like ours.
But that all began to change in the mid-18th century, when mankind started burning coal, and then oil & gas. Furthermore, armed with the power of fossil fuels, humankind began mowing down the carbon-rich forests as well.  Now, instead of 660 billion tons of CO2 in the air, there are more than 880 billion tons. For millions of years, the atmosphere has never held this much carbon – double the level of the ice ages. In fact, since 1750, we’ve taken the increase in carbon since the ice ages, and doubled it again.
And now, an American presidential candidate wants to know: Why not produce and burn all our remaining reserves of coal?
There was once a Republican president who figured that politicians could use some help with scientific questions. So Abraham Lincoln created the National Academy of Sciences. For the last century and a half, the NAS has been digesting state-of-the-art science for our nation’s leaders.  Today, the NAS has some answersfor Mr. Romney:
“The higher the total CO2 emitted,” says the latest NAS report, “and the higher the resulting atmospheric concentration, the higher the warming will be for the next thousand years.” They illustrate the relationship between heating the globe and CO2 concentration in this graph:
National Academy: The more CO2 emissions, the hotter the earth will be.
The implications of the NAS graph are clear: the earth is already going to get much warmer, but the extent of the heating will depend on how much more carbon we burn.  
And how much more CO2 would result from all that U.S. coal? Well, here’s a bit of hypothetical math. The earth went into the Industrial Revolution with 660 billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere. Mankind has raised that level to 885 billion tons today, a level not seen on earth in millions of years.
Now let’s suppose – for the sake of illustration – that the whole world stopped burning all fossil fuels tomorrow – cold turkey. Not one gasoline engine; not one gas stove; not one coal mine anywhere – except only American coal mines. And we produced all that coal, as Mr. Romney suggested. Then what? The following table tells the hypothetical story:

The earth’s atmosphere would then be clogged with more than 1.2 trillion tons of CO2. That’s about double the pre-industrial level, and enough, according to the NAS, to raise global heat by 6.1oF. This isn’t a projection or a scientific model. It’s accounting.

What does 6.1oF more heat mean for the earth?  Here again, we look to the NAS for insight. They tell us:
  • Global crop yields would decrease by 20-50%, based on current farming practices.
  • 90% of summers would be hotter than the hottest 5% of summers in the 20th century.
  • In the U.S. West, wild fires would be 6 to 12 times larger than they are today.
  • The Greenland Ice Sheet would shrink and eventually disappear, raising sea levels by 13-24 feet.
  • And although the NAS doesn’t mention it, New York would feel like Huntsville, AL; Huntsville would feel like Waco, TX; and Waco would feel downright infernal.
U.S. coal alone would crank up the earth’s heat by 6.1F.
I know all this sounds scary. But it’s not nearly scary enough. Remember, our hypothetical case assumed that the whole world immediately stops using all fossil fuels except U.S. coal. In fact, American coal accounts for only 30% of global CO2 emissions.  The remaining 70% – from Canadian tars sands oil, to Saudi light crude, to Chinese coal mines and American shale gas – aren’t going away anytime soon.  In fact, the more recklessly an American president insists on his right to foul the global atmosphere for short-term national gain, surely the more we must expect other nations to do the same.
So, why shouldn’t we use all our American coal? Maybe the question shouldn’t be directed to cheering supporters at a campaign stop. Instead, it might be wise to ask the researchers at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The greatest Republican ever – and perhaps the greatest president – established them for this very reason.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood

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