As the planet’s fossil-fuel-induced fever continues to climb, there is a terrible temptation to think that there is an easy, painless swap to be made, where humanity will turn in its tools and techniques for deploying filthy fossil fuels and pick up, in its stead, the ability to use clean, renewable energy instead, without skipping a beat.
There’s just one problem: it’s not even close to true. On a planet where fossil fuels have allowed and promoted a steep population explosion to some 7.5 billion humans — and where humanity is crowding out all other species and consuming the majority of all Earth’s primary resources — we are going to have to come face to face with the fact that the easy cliché that we are “addicted” to fossil fuels understates the problem by at least several orders of magnitude.
Calling our relationship to fossil fuels “addiction” invites a catastrophically delusional response, because when we hear “addiction” we are triggered into a Pavlovian response and we immediately think about addiction to drugs, rather than to things that we depend on as much as individual as our society currently depends on fossil fuels — such as, say, food and water.
A recent editorial (below) makes the awful point in a single paragraph: “Coal accounts for about 26 percent of the electricity generating capacity in our country — and about 160,000 jobs. Solar energy accounts for just 2 percent of our power generation — and 374,000 jobs.” These are the same sorts of figures that were being presented as if they were good news by Dr. Naomi Oreskes, a scholar who has done heroic work on the movement to deny and suppress climate reality.
In this post-literate age, we seem to have lost the ability to reason effectively about the implications of our choices. We see movies that claim, without reservation, that all that is needed is political will and that the technical problems are all solved:
The good news is that climate change can be solved today with readily available technologies and sustainability measures. It will take significant investments on the part of governments and businesses, but that investment will be a small fraction of the price we would have to pay for increasing natural disasters and other climate impacts. New research has shown that using currently available technologies, we can meet all of our energy needs for heating, electricity, and transportation through by mid-century. We can get on track by 2020, when the Paris Agreements enters into force by reducing pollution through a price on carbon and protecting our forest and ocean ecosystems. Learn more about the array of solutions to solve climate change.
The link in that quote above — which is taken from the “The Solutions” page on the website for “Before the Flood,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie — goes to an article from the November 2009 issue of Scientific American.
In that month, global atmospheric CO2 levels were 386.02 parts per million. Just seven years later, in November 2016 — an auspicious month for sure — global CO2 levels were 403.53 parts per million, reflecting that CO2 emissions are not just increasing, but are increasing at an increasing rate.
So while the data are that the average annual increase in global CO2 levels since 2005 have been 2.11 ppm/year, in the seven years since the optimistic article in Scientific American cited on the “Before the Flood” website, we have seen annual CO2 increases of 2.79 ppm/year.
That’s why it’s so important that we understand what it means that it takes so many more people working to produce a tiny fraction of the power we are able to get from coal — it means that, regardless of how you do the accounting and how you allot the subsidies, clean power that doesn’t destroy your planet is one hell of a lot more costly to gather and harness than the power that comes from fossil fuels.
This isn’t an argument for fossil fuels, but it’s an argument for rationality about what it means for well-fed professionals in advanced countries — the kind of people who need gyms and fitness clubs to deal with the excesses of diet and sedentary lifestyle — to insist that we can simply swap our filthy fossil fuel habits for clean, green renewables.
Let’s Face It: The Coal Industry Is a Job Killer
April 26, 2017
When Donald Trump announced he was rolling back the Obama administration’s signature climate rules this spring, he invited coal miners to share the limelight with him. He promised this would end the so-called “war on coal” and bring mining jobs back to coal country.
He was dead wrong on both counts.
Trump has blamed the prior administration’s Clean Power Plan for the loss of coal jobs. But there’s an obvious problem with this claim: The plan hasn’t even gone into effect! Repealing it will do nothing to reverse the worldwide economic and technological forces driving the decline of the coal industry.
And the problem is global. As concern rises over carbon dioxide, more and more countries are turning away from coal. U.S. coal exports are down, and coal plant construction is slowing the world over — even as renewables become cheaper and more widespread.
To really bring back coal jobs, Trump would have to wish these trends away — along with technological automation and natural gas, which have taken a much bigger bite out of coal jobs than any regulation.
Could domestic regulation have played some role in the decline of coal? Sure, some. Rules limiting emissions of mercury and other pollutants from burning coal, and limiting the ability of coal-burning utilities to dump toxic coal ash in rivers and streams, likely put some financial pressure on coal power plants.
However, those costs should be weighed against the profound health benefits of cleaner air and water.
Cleaning up coal power plants (and reducing their number) leads to fewer children with asthma, fewer costly emergency room visits, and fewer costly disaster responses when massive amounts of toxic coal ash leach into drinking water sources, to name just a few benefits. Most reasonable people would agree those aren’t small things.
There’s also the fact that the decline in coal jobs, while painful for those who rely on them, tells only a small part of the story. In fact, there are alternatives that could put hundreds of thousands of people back to work.
Here are a few little-known facts: Coal accounts for about 26 percent of the electricity generating capacity in our country — and about 160,000 jobs. Solar energy accounts for just 2 percent of our power generation — and 374,000 jobs.
In other words, solar has created more than twice as many jobs as coal, with only a sliver of the electric grid. So if the intent truly is to create more jobs, where would a rational government focus its efforts?
It’s not just solar, either. The fastest growing occupation in the U.S. is wind turbine technician. And a typical wind turbine technician makes $25.50 an hour, more than many fossil fuel workers.
By rolling back commonsense environmental restraints on the coal industry, Trump is allowing the industry to externalize its terrible social and environmental costs on all of us, giving the industry a hidden subsidy. He’s also reopening federal lands to new coal leases, at rates that typically run well below actual market value.
By subsidizing a less-job intensive and more established industry, Trump’s misguided policy changes will thwart the growth of the emerging solar and wind industries, which could create many, many more jobs than coal. In fact, hurting these industries by helping coal might even result in a net job loss for everyone.
Then again, maybe this was never about jobs. Maybe the administration’s intent all along was to reward well-connected coal (and oil and gas) oligarchs who make hefty campaign contributions. If so, that was a good investment for them.
For ordinary working people — and for our planet — the cost could be too much to bear.
Basav Sen directs the Climate Justice Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.