Here is a terrifying, crazy-making truth: Getting off coal will accelerate climate change, at least in the short term.
This isn't an argument for maintaining our coal addiction — because if we stick with coal, we are, frankly, dead as a species, plus more immediately dead or at least very wheezy as individuals. (And there's no chance we’ll run out of coal before completely screwing everything up — there’s enough coal in the U.S. and Russia alone to put us past any reasonable chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.)
But according to a new analysis from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, through 2050 a switch from coal to natural gas would actually accelerate climate change. Even though natural gas leads to fewer greenhouse gas emissions than coal, the "problem" is that natural gas is cleaner in another sense, too: Burning it leads to fewer aerosols in the air.
These aerosols are the ultra-fine particles of pollution that cause direct negative health impacts, but also make the atmosphere slightly more reflective. When the planet bounces more sunlight back into space, that helps keep Earth cool.
So what this study is really saying is that through 2050, the loss of the cooling effect from coal-produced atmospheric aerosols will outweigh the reduction in heat-trapping greenhouse gasses that would come with a switch to natural gas.
In the long term, we're better off with natural gas than with coal, but the truth is it hardly makes a difference this century. The real answer is getting off fossil fuels completely. And how likely is that? It's realities like these that are one of the reasons why many serious scientists won't shut up about geoengineering.