We hear lots about war these days. Not just the real, shooting type, although there’s plenty of that here in America – with a whopping 31 separate foreign military ventures since the year 2000 and a Pentagon budget that dwarfs any other country in the world.
No, I’m talking about all those other wars that populate the nightly news. There are the wars that we hear Obama is bent on fighting: the War on Guns, or on Doughnuts, or on Christmas. Change the channel, and we hear of the wars that the GOP is waging: the War on Science, or on Women, or on the Poor, or on Food Stamps. And then there are the bipartisan wars: the War on Terror, or on Poverty, or on Drugs, or on Cancer.
My, my! We Americans sure like to fight our wars!
But there’s a new war that’s appeared in the American lexicon of late. It’s called the War on Coal. It pops up in response to efforts to control mercury pollution, limit mountaintop-removal mining, or to set standards for carbon emissions.
Reports of the War on Coal come with plaintive appeals on behalf of America’s hard-working coal miners and beleaguered mining communities. We are reminded of the elusive goal of “home-grown” energy independence. Regulators and bureaucrats are the sinister forces directing the assault. You wouldn’t want to be associated with them, right?
Well, as of today, I’m unfurling my true colors. If you want, you can buy the war bonds to defeat Crack Cocaine, or Al-Qaeda, or Assault Rifles. I’m enlisting in the War on Coal.
I bet you haven’t heard anyone admit this yet. Am I right? But then, I’m not running for office. And besides, no one’s talking about attacking coal; this war’s purely defensive. It’s a war aimed at putting an end to massive harm wreaked on all of us by one single industry dominated by a handful of huge companies.
By now, most everyone ought to know about this. Last month, the UN’s global climate science panel told us that the world is now on a strict carbon budget. For the next hundred years or more, we can only dig up and burn fossil fuels that emit a cumulative total of one trillion tons of Earth-warming gases, or else we’ll heat the entire Earth by another 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit or more. However bad that may sound to us laymen, it’s a risk to Earth’s inhabitants rivaling cataclysms not seen in millions of years. The problem is, we’ve already burned more than half of that budgeted amount since the beginning of the Industrial Age. So we’re left with less than 500 billion tons of fossil-fuel CO2 remaining in our budget.
And here’s an even thornier problem: Proven reserves of coal around the world represent 2.2 trillion more tons of CO2. So if all we do is burn the remaining coal we already know about, then we blow through our carbon limit about four times over – even if we totally forget about oil and gas reserves. This isn’t a case of slowing things down five, ten or even fifty percent. We’ve simply got to stop. Somehow, we’ve got to stop burning coal.
Last Monday, Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, addressed coal industry executives who were meeting in Warsaw. Her message was clear: Most of the world’s coal needs to stay in the ground, if the world is to avoid 3.6-degrees Fahrenheit in global warming. “I am here to say that coal must change rapidly and dramatically for everyone’s sake,” she told industry leaders.
And it’s not just the UN demanding the wind-down of coal. In the U.S., we’ve got the National Academy of Sciences. They’ve told us that the coal industry is fundamentally uneconomic, surviving only on a massive subsidy paid by the entire rest of the world. In 2010, the Academy produced a report called The Hidden Costs of Energy, which took a close look at the “external costs” of coal – the costs in public health and climate disruptions associated with coal pollution that are paid by everyone from Texas firefighters to Filipino fishermen.
Now, everyone knows that many human activities carry external costs borne by others, and some of us regard them as inevitable consequences of life on Earth. But for coal, the numbers are simply staggering. Coal producers receive about 4.5 cents when they sell the amount of coal necessary to generate one kilowatt-hour of electricity – the amount consumed by a 100-Watt light bulb left on overnight. But the National Academy has determined that the external costs of that same amount of coal totals somewhere in the range of 4.2 cents to as much as 13.2 cents – triple the entire value that any coal company receives for delivering the stuff in the first place. The coal companies get four cents; the rest of us bear as much as thirteen additional cents in health and climate pollution costs.
National Academy of Sciences report on coal’s cost to the rest of us
At first glance, maybe thirteen cents doesn’t sound like much. But American power companies burn a lot of coal. In a single year (2005) they burned enough so that the 13-cent subsidy totaled more than $200 billion. That’s $200 BILLION in one year – paid by everyone on Earth. And that comes to around $40 apiece for every man, woman and child in the world. All for a few American coal companies.
You might say we’d be better off paying the industry exactly what they’re making today not to produce a single ton of coal. We’d be cutting our losses by about two thirds.
Is there any other industry in the world with such perverse fundamentals? Crack cocaine makes money for drug dealers, but it surely costs addicts, hospitals and law enforcement much more. But is the tiny crack business as globally harmful as coal? Cigarette makers deliver steady profits to corporate owners, but cost smokers and the health system dearly in respiratory diseases. Are they as bad as coal?
Well, I haven’t seen the numbers on crack and cigarettes. But there’s a reason that they are regulated, taxed or banned entirely. The more they sell, the worse off the rest of us are. And if the National Academy is anywhere near to being right, it’s even worse for coal. Every single ton produced puts us all further and further behind.
And so, the next time you hear a politician accuse someone of waging a “War on Coal,” you can be pretty sure you’ll hear a strenuous denial, with vague endorsements of “clean coal technology.” But feel free to call in and tell them you know someone who has actually enlisted.
I’m John Elwood, and I approved this message.