Coal use is declining in the U.S. and will likely decline further in the wake of new EPA rules. What will happen to the U.S. coal that isn’t burned in the U.S.? Brad Plumer answers: We’ll probably export it. If that’s true, then there won’t be much net climate benefit; the emissions will just come from Asia instead of North America.

And indeed, this is the next big fight for the environmental movement: blocking coal export terminals.

Of course, no environmental campaign would be complete without a Michael Levi post explaining why they’re doing it wrong, and right on cue, here it is. The question Levi raises is this: Is the coal the U.S. exports supplementing or displacing foreign coal? If it’s supplementing, then blocking exports would reduce emissions. But if it’s displacing, it won’t. Other countries will just burn coal from elsewhere.

Levi cites an International Energy Agency analysis of what would happen if global coal use were sharply curtailed. Apparently it shows that …

… Chinese, Australian, and Indonesian production would be cut deeply, but that U.S. production would hold up far more strongly. This suggests, at a minimum, that substantial U.S. coal exports are compatible with a lower-carbon world.

Argh. I’m a big Levi fan, but this kind of thing drives me a little bonkers. It misses the forest for the trees.

It may be true that massive U.S. coal exports are compatible with a lower-carbon world, but it’s highly unlikely that they are compatible with a lower-enough-carbon world. At some point, we really have to start taking seriously the massive amount of carbon reductions that will be required to avoid catastrophic climate impacts.

To prevent the climate from spiraling forever out of control, we’re going to have to leave most of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. That’s hard to imagine in current circumstances, and it will remain hard to imagine until people start imagining it and writing about it and treating it as a live option.

If you understand the brutal logic of climate change, you realize that we desperately need to keep coal in the ground anywhere and everywhere it’s possible. We’re seriously going to tell U.S. climate activists to drop their fight against coal exports because some IEA model says it would be easier to reduce output in Indonesia? U.S. activists don’t live in Indonesia. They have no influence in Indonesia.

If anything, the model shows that curtailing U.S. production would raise global coal prices more than curtailing Australian or Indonesian production, which is exactly what climate campaigners would want!

This is a really, really big problem we face. If we’re going to come even close to coping with it, we’re going to have to rethink all our assumptions about fossil fuels, including the wonk assumption that we can craft some sort of economically optimal glide path into the post-fossil-fuel era. The time when that might have been possible is past. It’s time for blunt weapons. Keep the damn coal in the ground.