Atlantic coverI waded into “Dirty Coal, Clean Future,” James Fallows’ new cover piece for The Atlantic, prepared to be outraged, what with coal being the enemy of the human race and all. But it turns out to be an incredibly cogent, accessible walk through some extremely vexed issues. I should have known — Fallows is one of the most reliably excellent journalists working today. Definitely read the whole thing.

There’s a lot to say about the piece, but for the purposes of this post I just want to make one broad observation about the way Fallows chooses to frame it. He makes four broad points:

  1. Coal does enormous damage to people and the environment.
  2. It will be impossible to meet future global energy demand without coal, which is cheap and plentiful. We can not eliminate it from the energy mix.
  3. We urgently need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a radical amount.
  4. Given 2 and 3, it follows that making coal cleaner must be a priority, alongside an “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”

Now, not everyone agrees with all these points. There is a group of hardcore coal critics who do not believe 2 and 4. Let’s call them Dirty F*ckin’ Hippies (DFHs). And there is another group of coal boosters who do not believe 1 and 3. Let’s call them Powers That Be (PTBs), since they constitute most of the U.S. political establishment.

Whose mistaken beliefs (assuming, as Fallows does, that they are mistaken) are more of a threat? Whose misapprehensions, DFHs’ or PTBs’, are more acutely in need of correction by the public-minded pundit?

Well, let’s see. If DFHs continue to believe coal can be eliminated, they will … release more reports and white papers to that effect. They’ll lobby lawmakers (and a few of the ones from California might even listen). They’ll protest outside coal plants. They’ll organize Facebook petitions.

If the PTBs continue to believe that coal is a precious piece of American Heritage to be protected at all cost and that climate change is either alarmism or an outright hoax, they will continue to funnel subsidies to coal, block policies that subsidize clean energy, manipulate markets to protect coal from competition, and otherwise quash innovations that might threaten the interests of dirty energy incumbents. There will be no “all-out effort.”

Which is worse? Sounds to me like the PTBs are in a position to do serious damage to America’s energy future. The DFHs, not so much. So why does Fallows frame his piece as a rebuke to the latter?

Why, indeed, does there seem to be an entire cottage industry devoted to preaching Tough Realism About Coal to DFHs? It’s tantamount to spending your time lecturing to pacifists that we can’t eliminate war. Maybe it’s true, but pacifists are a largely marginalized, powerless community, so who cares what they think! All the “war is inevitable” talk does is provide aid and comfort to an establishment that isn’t doing a damn thing to eliminate war and doesn’t want to.

Similarly, the “coal is inevitable” talk offers aid and comfort to an establishment that’s doing virtually nothing to rein in dirty coal or support clean alternatives. Hell, American politicians love dirty coal! You’ll hear coast-to-coast yammering about “foreign oil” but rarely a cross word about the black rock. When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in 2008 pointed out the incontestable fact that “coal makes us sick,” it was so jarring and out of the ordinary that the video went viral. Meanwhile, a recent Clean Air Task Force report [PDF] found that in the U.S. …

… fine particle pollution from existing coal plants is expected to cause nearly 13,200 deaths in 2010. Additional impacts include an estimated 9,700 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks per year. The total monetized value of these adverse health impacts adds up to more than $100 billion per year.

And that’s to say nothing of coal mining or coal slurry or coal ash or mercury pollution or climate change.

The U.S. establishment does not believe, as Fallows does, that all those externalized costs should be internalized into the price of dirty coal. In fact, the mere threat of regulating a bit more tightly is spun in D.C. as a “war on coal.” Read Jeff Young’s piece or Jeff Goodell’s piece — coal is sitting pretty in U.S. politics. The establishment does not support, as Fallows does, an “all-out effort.” For the most part they work to protect the advantages of dirty energy incumbents.

If you believe, as Fallows does, that climate change is an urgent, enormous challenge, then it’s hard to see the value in worrying that some idealistic green somewhere thinks we can tackle it without coal. Being contrarian toward DFHs is a little … safe. If “clean coal” development isn’t happening in the U.S., it’s not because DFHs are against it, it’s because nothing is happening in the U.S. A piece focused on that corrupt, criminal inaction might rattle a few cages. A piece reassuring Big Coal and its many backers that they’ll always be in the driver’s seat won’t.

Next: James Fallows has a gracious reply to David’s piece, which, of course, David responds to with a look at China’s top-down energy gigantism and a bottom-up American alternative.