Dance with coal until the music stops

Todd J. Broadman

Aside from my family, perhaps what I missed most while living in China was the right to freely express my thoughts. After all, I have a mild obsession with the pen and savor the role of social critic. The layers of duct tape were acutely felt. On top of that were layers of black grime and grit produced not from the thought police, but rather from the local coal plant — enough to blacken a wash cloth at the end of the day.

Coal may be on its way out in Appalachia, yet it has never been more in vogue than in China today. So much so that its dominance as an energy source makes, in effect, the 2015 Paris Agreement on carbon dioxide limits, obsolete. Even while China contributes a whopping 25 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, to point the finger squarely at them would be to lose the bigger picture in its entirety. We’d be glossing over the 2,100 new oil and gas permits approved back home by the Biden administration, the summoning of our “strategic partner” Saudi Arabia to ramp up oil production, and so much more.

All the whispers and nods towards a transition to green energy reminds me of Nancy Reagan’s nuanced formula for drug addiction: “just say no,” which is the therapeutic equivalent of telling a depressed person to “just be happy.”

We are waist deep in black sludge and we aren’t emerging into the green Elysian Fields until and when there are no other affordable alternatives. And then it will be too late. Almost 500 of the top 1,000 coal-based energy companies have plans to develop new coal power plants — investors are looking at sumptuous returns. With this as backdrop, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres warns, “the world is on a catastrophic pathway.”

Yes, in a sense, we’ve cast our lot — but not at carbon-based energy per se; we’ve placed our collective bets on limitless economic growth driven by the holy grail of individual wealth maximization. China is now experiencing rolling blackouts and the rationing of electricity because their coal-powered factories can’t keep up with the post-apocalyptic “golden age of consumer credit” in the U.S. Add to this the colossal weight of steel and concrete produced to build China’s ghost cities and we can better appreciate how it is they burn more coal than the rest of the world combined.

The world’s second biggest coal emitter, India, depends upon burning the substance for two-thirds of its energy needs, and like China, they’ve decided to keep bingeing on it to meet the needs of an exploding population; they are predicted to overtake China’s population by 2026. Current estimates are that they have but four days of coal supply remaining for their 135 coal-fired power plants and they are investing in more domestic coal mining. Importing coal from big suppliers like Australia has never been more expensive.

And though they are loathe to admit it, Europe is importing more coal than ever, anticipating another brutal winter that will be difficult to warm with natural gas — prices have shot up 500 percent this year courtesy of Russia’s Gazprom, the oligarchy of choice supplying 35 percent of Europe’s demand. Already, residents have taken to the streets over exorbitant electric bills in Spain. Long queues for gas are the new norm in England. Bloomberg’s Stephen Stapczynski foresees shortages: “it’s very likely the winter of 2021/22 will push the world further into chaos.”

Over a beer, a friend recently asked me what I was going to do “when the music stops.” Well, I’ve stockpiled more than 8,000 songs on my iPod, I thought, but I got his drift: when the store shelves are bare, when the gas pump becomes an artifact, when every third person is actively marketing their exclusive no-money-down path to redemption.

It’s a timely, discomforting question. At the risk of sounding like every third person, I want to come together with others to create another song, a sludge-free rhythm that holds the possibility of drawing us closer to one another and the environment.

After years of globetrotting, Broadman finds himself writing from his perch on the Palouse and loving the view. His policy briefs can be found at US Renew News:

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