I want to thank Jeremy Carl of Stanford’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development for dropping by and making the case for coal — or rather, the case for holding our nose, accepting that coal’s growth is inevitable, and working to make it cleaner (Jeremy’s posts are here and here). I hope the conversation will be ongoing.

As I see it, the core case has still not been made. Lemme try to clarify what I see as The Coal Question and the range of answers on offer.

Jeremy is absolutely right that the question is ultimately about China and India. To me, this is the nut of the issue:

As anyone who has dealt seriously with either country knows, the Indian and Chinese governments are, for the most part, deeply corrupt — there’s little we can do to change that. Powerful entrenched interests benefit from the existing system and they care about money, not climate. Second, even if corruption were eliminated, the people in these countries tend to be poor, at least by western standards. While some would certainly be willing to pay a little additional money to have cleaner energy, few would be willing to make the substantial investment that a transition away from coal would entail, even with the substantial attendant environmental benefits.

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Jeremy has stipulated that no one in China and India — not the government, not entrenched interests, not the people — will accept higher short-term energy prices or a slower economic growth rate in the name of sustainability.

If that’s a true and immutable fact, we’re screwed. Period.

If China and India build as many dirty coal plants as they’re now on track to build in the next 10, 20 years — if they develop along the same fossil-intensive path of the West, only faster — global average temperature will rise between 2 and 6 degrees C this century, around 40 of all species will go extinct, and we’ll see a massive global economic depression. And that’s the hopeful case. If we hit one of the fabled tipping points, we could be looking at Lovelock scenarios.

Ultimately, China and India are in the same boat we’re all in. The Stern Report is as true for them as it is for us: when it comes to climate change, the costs of inaction far outweigh the cost of action. To believe that the Chinese and Indians are immune to this reasoning, we must believe that they feel no obligation to humanity, or to future generations. They are incapable of sacrificing today for a better tomorrow. Their sole focus is on maximum-speed economic development, even if it means taking a course that dooms their grandchildren to immiseration.

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I don’t buy it. I can’t believe that developing countries will knowingly doom the world, and with it their own descendants, to chaos. (I don’t believe it about us, either.)

So they’re going to have to change, just like developed nations are. It may not be as soon as would be ideal (i.e., now). There will be plenty of debate on what kind of change, at what pace, and to what extent developed nations should pick up the bill. But change must and will happen. I guarantee in ten years no one in any nation will be saying otherwise.

What kind of change? Retrofit the coal economy with scrubbers and sequestration? Make a more fundamental shift to renewables and efficiency? Or both in sequence?

The crucial thing to note is that every green alternative would mean higher short-term energy costs and slower short-term economic growth (at least by current means of accounting). That’s just as true for clean coal as it is for solar panels — they’re both more expensive than the status quo. If the Chinese and Indians "care about money, not climate," they won’t shift to clean coal any more than they’ll shift to wind turbines. The fact that clean coal is coal doesn’t set it apart in that respect.

(I should note that this entire post is just a prolix way of phrasing apsmith’s succinct comment.)

So, which choice should developing countries make? More on that in part two.