Thursday, November 9, 2017

Selling Coal at a Conference on Climate Change

Peabody Energy, an American coal company and unlikely participant at a global conference on climate change in November, 2017, nevertheless previewed its presentation by trumpeting coal as part of the solution with: “As the world seeks to reduce emissions while promoting economic prosperity, fossil fuels will continue to play a central role in the energy mix.”[1] Besides interlarding economic growth at the conference that was on the climate, the company’s management felt the need—nay, even the obligation—to remind the world that coal would still play a prominent part in how the world obtains energy for its billions and billions of human beings. “The reality of it is the world is going to continue to use fossil fuels, and if I can throw myself on the hand grenade to help people realize that, I’m willing to do it,” said Barry Worthington of the U.S. Energy Association before the conference in the E.U. city of Bonn. Were people really unaware that reliance on coal was an intractable problem from the standpoint of reducing carbon emissions, or was the American company simply wanting to sell more coal?
Most experts at the time were insisting that we must shift from fossil fuels to meet the targets on emissions; not even short-term economic prosperity from coal should thus get in the way from the perspective of minimizing the worst expected from increasingly likely climate change. Accordingly, Worthington’s obligation could be viewed contrariwise as a crime against humanity. “Any country or company continuing to champion further exploration for and mining of coal and even other fossil fuels from now on would be willfully carrying out a crime against humanity, and they would be held accountable,” said Saleemul Huq of the International Center for Climate Change and Development.
A useful distinction can be made between helping developing countries to use cleaner and more efficient fossil fuels, as the U.S. had done at the last G20 meeting before the conference, and insisting that coal production be increased or even held at current levels so not to interfere with other social goods (e.g., economic growth). Even the insistence that coal would continue to supply 40% of the world’s energy takes away from the alternative narrative that coal use should be reduced as much and as soon as possible, realistically of course.
Humanity may unwittingly have already been on borrowed time from the standpoint of the Earth’s changing climate—unwittingly because the oceans were still absorbing carbon dioxide such that we could not perceive the full extent of the change already extant on land. So the public alarm from the self-aggrandizing selling of coal at a conference on climate change could be expected to be muted. Even if the oceans had been saturated such that the carbon in the atmosphere was spiking, the public alarm would likely have fallen short of taking into account that the species itself could face extinction—for a future equilibrium of the world’s climate will not necessarily be consistent with continued human survival. Indeed, as a result to natural selection, our species is not “hard-wired” to take the long-range future into sufficient account; we are much more oriented to instant gratification. I suspect that this innate proclivity will be the seed of our species’ destruction unless we can circumvent a changing atmosphere with the advent of technology fitting the scale and severity of the problem. Such technology would have to dwarf that of making coal more efficient.

1. Lisa Friedman, “For Climate Conference, a Sales Pitch on Fossil Fuels,” The Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2017.