Why clean coal is so darn appealing
Andy Revkin has a great op-ed over on NYT, laying out our collective coal dilemma and the difficulty in communicating effectively about it.
I’ve been pondering why clean coal — a climate solution that does not yet so much as, um, exist — has taken on such talismanic quality in energy discussions, like a crucifix that gets waved around to ward off ghouls.
The root of the problem is what I shall take to calling the Syllogism of Doom (try to imagine ominous music, heavy on timpani). It goes:
1. If we (that is, humanity) increase our use of coal, the atmosphere will likely tip over into irreversible, catastrophic warming.
2. We are going to increase our use of coal.
3. The atmosphere will likely tip over into irreversible, catastrophic warming.
Given the premises, both of which are supported by plenty of evidence, the conclusion follows inexorably. And yet we don’t like the conclusion. We don’t like thinking about it, we don’t like talking about it. Those who try to force a sense of its magnitude on us, like Hansen with his "death trains" analogy, are chastised.
To get around the conclusion, though, you have to refute one of the premises. But which one?
Refuting No. 2 seems … daunting. It’s an enormously complex issue, with thorny economic, political, moral, and social complexities. Millions of people are being pulled out of poverty as we speak by the power provided by coal. Even if you’re willing (as I am not) to take the position that people should be left in poverty, or that more people should join them there, there is virtually no chance you will convince any non-trivial number of people of that. Most of the world’s wealthy benefit in one way another from fossil fuel combustion. The social and economic habits that have built up around coal infrastructure are difficult to break. The momentum all seems to move in one direction: Surely more coal is inevitable.
Thus, the more typical response has been to try to refute premise No. 1; that’s where clean coal comes in. It seems simpler and easier because it involves our favorite answer to every problem: technology. The idea that we can just invent a new widget, stick it on coal plants, and break the if-then connection between coal and climate destruction is immensely appealing. It flatters our self-image as a resourceful country that can innovate its way out of any jam. It’s a neat, clean solution that requires no extraordinary political effort or substantial reordering of our markets or way of life.
My whole point, all this long time, has been that No. 1 is actually much harder to break than it looks. The apparent ease and simplicity of clean coal is an illusion; it would be enormously expensive, create new problems, and leave the larger problem — unsustainable development — untouched. CO2 from coal plants is just one isolated symptom of that larger sickness.
My strong hunch (and let’s be honest here, nobody’s got anything but educated hunches) is that No. 2 will be easier to break than it looks. Once we push through the logjam of inaction and start moving, change will happen quickly, with nonlinear effects that cascade in unpredictable ways. We will find synergies and amplifying effects where no one expected them. We will find ways of profiting, and of saving money, that no agency or think tank projected. The best young minds of the generation will be attracted to the glory available in tackling the world’s biggest challenge. It will be exciting.
Anyway, my rambling point is, I suspect clean coal is comforting more for psychosocial reasons than for empirical ones. It just seems like a relatively easy way out of a very tough jam.