Coal, and hoping for the best

Much of the Western world was built from the power of coal and the men who mined it. In many places, this is still the case.

All this makes a new study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences so meaningful. Read through the report, it has some chilling statistics on the harm brought about by the mining and use of coal. Overall, the negative costs are said to be some $500 billion. In short, the study finds that coal is dirty, dangerous and needs to be phased out. Well, it’s hard to argue with many of the findings, and it’s also difficult to be surprised.

Here’s a few points to ponder:

  • The deforestation and landscape changes associated with [mountain top removal] have impacts on carbon storage and water cycles . . .  [It is] estimated that each year, between 6 and 6.9 million tons of CO2e are emitted due to removal of forest plants and decomposition of forest litter, and possibly significantly more from the mining “spoil” and lost soil carbon.
  • Over the life cycle of coal, chemicals are emitted directly and indirectly into water supplies from mining, processing, and power plant operations. Chemicals in the waste stream include ammonia, sulfur, sulfate, nitrates, nitric acid, tars, oils, fluorides, chlorides, and other acids and metals, including sodium, iron, cyanide, plus additional unlisted chemicals
  • The nitrogen-containing emissions (from burning all fossil fuels and from agriculture) cause damages through several pathways. When combined with volatile organic compounds, they can form not only particulates but also ground-level ozone (photochemical smog). Ozone itself is corrosive to the lining of the lungs, and also acts as a local heat-trapping gas.

It's all very impressive, but something about such studies bothers me.

In Catholic theological terms, they seem rooted in a worldview called “imminent eschatology.” That is, the belief that humanity is about to see all the bad stuff that preceded our age get replaced with a whole bunch of good stuff. Moreover, such thought can often assume that it will be we humans that will bring about this new age of no worries. Think Marxism. Think giddy lawmakers who seek to legislate morality or to protect all humanity through better government regulation.

For Catholics, and others that accept the fallen state of mankind—that accept evil lurking in all human hearts and a physical world that never goes as planned—such good intentions usually sound a little suspicious.

Which to me is why the concluding hopes of this report read like a laundry list of the World of Tomorrow exhibits early in the last century.

Here’s one recommendation from the report that makes my point: To make a better world without coal, we need “a healthy energy future can include electric vehicles, plugged into cleanly powered smart grids; and healthy cities initiatives, including green buildings, roof-top gardens, public transport, and smart growth.”

Of course, the work of these authors was a considerable overview of what the numbers show about the harm brought by the coal of use; it was not a study dedicated to how to dig ourselves out of the hole we dug. (I am sure the numbers about the benefits of coal will be supplied soon enough by the coal lobby itself. And good for them for doing so.)

And so when the study states that its authors report no conflict of interest, I have no doubts that, in the commonly held sense of this term, that statement is true. But I wonder if this report is rooted in that far less obvious conflict of interest of called imminent eschatology—by this I mean that its authors implicitly assume that somewhere within us is the power to solve all our problems and make things look as a pretty and green as it does on television. Salvation from pollution is in our grasp. No?

To which I would suggest that the fault, my dear scientists, lies not in our coal usage, but in ourselves.

Such studies, while decisive works of hard science, always lack something. They can discuss with detail how to protect the human being, but they can't answer the basic questions about what it means to be human.

This is not a criticism. It's just something to remember.

Echoes of all this can be found both in my one of my favorite motion pictures, October Sky, and that powerhouse of an encyclical by Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate. Note the remarkable similarities between this Church document and the scientific study on coal. But also notice the differences in how the Church’s social doctrine handles the same problem ...

Questions linked to the care and preservation of the environment today need to give due consideration to the energy problem. The fact that some States, power groups and companies hoard non-renewable energy resources represents a grave obstacle to development in poor countries. Those countries lack the economic means either to gain access to existing sources of non-renewable energy or to finance research into new alternatives . . . The technologically advanced societies can and must lower their domestic energy consumption, either through an evolution in manufacturing methods or through greater ecological sensitivity among their citizens. It should be added that at present it is possible to achieve improved energy efficiency while at the same time encouraging research into alternative forms of energy . . . This responsibility is a global one, for it is concerned not just with energy but with the whole of creation, which must not be bequeathed to future generations depleted of its resources. Human beings legitimately exercise a responsible stewardship over nature, in order to protect it, to enjoy its fruits and to cultivate it in new ways, with the assistance of advanced technologies, so that it can worthily accommodate and feed the world's population. On this earth there is room for everyone: here the entire human family must find the resources to live with dignity, through the help of nature itself—God's gift to his children—and through hard work and creativity. At the same time we must recognize our grave duty to hand the earth on to future generations in such a condition that they too can worthily inhabit it and continue to cultivate it. This means being committed to making joint decisions “after pondering responsibly the road to be taken, decisions aimed at strengthening that covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying”. Let us hope that the international community and individual governments will succeed in countering harmful ways of treating the environment. It is likewise incumbent upon the competent authorities to make every effort to ensure that the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations: the protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate obliges all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet. One of the greatest challenges facing the economy is to achieve the most efficient use—not abuse—of natural resources, based on a realization that the notion of “efficiency” is not value-free.

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.