The banality of burning coal

November 30, 2007 | By | 11 Replies More

In October 2007, James E. Hansen testified with regard to an application to build a new coal-burning plant in Iowa.  Hanson is the Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and senior scientist in the Columbia University Earth Institute.  He said some harsh things about our substantial dependence on coal:

Global warming from continued burning of more and more fossil fuels poses clear dangers for the planet and for the planet’s present and future inhabitants. Coal is the largest contributor to the human-made increase of CO2 in the air. Saving the planet and creation surely requires phase-out of coal use except where the CO2 is captured and sequestered (stored in one of several possible ways).

Hundreds of millions of people live less than 20 feet above sea level. Thus the number of people affected would be 1000 times greater than in the New Orleans Katrina disaster. Although Iowa would not be directly affected by sea level rise, repercussions would be worldwide. Ice sheet tipping points and disintegration necessarily unfold more slowly than tipping points for sea ice, on time scales of decades to centuries, because of the greater inertia of thick ice sheets. But that inertia is not our friend, as it also makes ice sheet disintegration more difficult to halt once it gets rolling. Moreover, unlike sea ice cover, ice sheet disintegration is practically irreversible . . .

The biologist E.O. Wilson (2006) explains that the 21st century is a “bottleneck” for species, because of extreme stresses they will experience, most of all because of climate change. He foresees a brighter future beyond the fossil fuel era, beyond the human population peak that will occur if developing countries follow the path of developed countries and China to lower fertility rates. Air and water can be clean and we can learn to live with other species of creation in a sustainable way, using renewable energy. . .

Coal will determine whether we continue to increase climate change or slow the human impact. Increased fossil fuel CO2 in the air today, compared to the pre-industrial atmosphere, is due 50% to coal, 35% to oil and 15% to gas. As oil resources peak, coal will determine future CO2 levels. Recently, after giving a high school commencement talk in my hometown, Denison, Iowa, I drove from Denison to Dunlap, where my parents are buried. For most of 20 miles there were trains parked, engine to caboose, half of the cars being filled with coal. If we cannot stop the building of more coal-fired power plants, those coal trains will be death trains – no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria, loaded with uncountable irreplaceable species.

[Emphasis added]. Hansen’s comments led to these comments by David Roberts of Grist: 

What’s notable about global warming is that you get the industrial efficiency and the horrific result without the intent. You have, in effect, a holocaust with no evil. Coal miners are trying to feed their families. Utilities are trying to keep the lights on. Industries are trying to profit. Governments are trying to gain power and provide for citizens. All us developed world drivers are trying to get to and from work. Nobody intends to create a horror, but cumulatively, that’s exactly what we are doing . . .

The biggest threats to humanity today, and for the foreseeable future, are cumulative and incremental, without deliberate agency but with the potential to generate unthinkable misery. With 9 billion people soon to swarm the globe, we are all “good Germans,” standing by while horror unfolds, and we are all Jews, suffering the horror itself. We are all perpetrators, all victims.

Which led to this comment, also at Grist:

When you look at the maps of how much land would be flooded on a mere 3-meter sea level rise it is clear that billions of people would be displaced. If you consider that droughts and flooding are already damaging farmland around the world it’s possible that billions could find themselves without adequate food or drinking water.

Consider a thousand Bangledesh’s. The assistance we are currently giving those people is a joke. I saw six people with one, gallon-bottle of water between them on the BBC. We hand out water but not water purification kits.

And this comment at Grist:

The banality of our everyday behavior, including a good dose of corporate/national greed, in conjunction with the standard operations of the particular civilization we live in, is leading to catastrophe.  Just as evolution has no intent, but “expresses” the operation of a biological system, so the complex system known as our civilization is to “blame” — and it’s very difficult to spread blame to most people in developed countries.  There’s no scary monster or national leader to focus on.

And consider this comment at The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan’s site:

[Coal] is tremendously dirty stuff, full of sulfur, nitrogen, radioactive and so on compounds. The reason people shouldn’t eat fish because of Hg, which is a global epidemic of “too high to eat”, is almost solely due to coal burning, it comes FROM the coal. Hg is a incredible neuro-toxin during embryonic stages for almost all life. We’re watching these Hg level reach levels where they are fundamentally changing the ability of young to grow.

For more on Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil, see this DI post.


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Category: Energy, Environment

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (11)

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  1. xxxx says:

    really not trying to be sarcastic, but if the universe does not have a purpose, then what difference does it make if we burn coal and destroy creation?

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    I assume that you are alluding to this post:

    Human animals can have consciously articulated purposes, at least with regard to some of their behavior. We are also rigged with emotions and cravings that make at least some of our behavioral purposeful.

    That the universe as a whole cannot be said to have a "purpose" doesn't mean that individual organisms can't have the individual capacity to have purposes.

    To the extent that might lessen our dependence on coal, it would be because individuals and groups of individuals have purposely acted to accomplish this. As the article suggests, though, our continued dependence on coal might be relatively thoughtless and habitual, certainly lacking in animus regarding the dangers the continued widespread burning of coal poses to numerous ecosystems.

  3. xxxx says:

    let's assume we burn coal and do other things that destroy creation on this earth. after all that happens, exactly who will care, or know the difference, or be affected?

    if i told you that a trillion light years ago there was a planet whose 'people' did stupid things like we are doing and thereby destroyed their creation, how upset would you – or anybody – be? how would that make any difference to anything in the universe?

    indeed, what if somebody built such a big bomb that it destroyed all of creation everywhere. there would be nothing left. infinite vacuum. after all the dust settled (what dust?) there wouldn't be anybody or anything left to be PO'd about the whole thing, or to even care.

    I am not advocating blowing anything up, or even driving a gas guzzler. I'm just pondering the earlier posts' question about whether the universe has a purpose.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    I assume that there are many other planets out there with sentient beings. I assume that many civilizations on those planets have wiped themselves out with some combination of irresponsible use of technology and irresponsible procreative habits. I don't lie awake at night weeping for them.

    Did it matter to them that they suffered greatly while they were polluting and overpopulating? Damn straight. Did it matter "to the universe." I don't understand that question. In my world view, the universe doesn't "know" anything.

    Does it "matter at all"? I don't understand that question, either. Things can "matter" only to sentient beings. That things don't matter in some "bigger" "overall" way doesn't diminish the fact that families become terrified as flood waters rise to wipe out their homes and lives.

    There is a belief out there held by many people (not by me) that if something isn't important in a vague overall supernatural sense (that I don't understand), or if it is not eternal, it doesn't "matter."

    If something is part of my life, or part of the lives of those about whom I care, then it might matter to me. I understand, though, that events that matter to me (even though they really matter, from my perspective) might not matter to others.

    Innocent children needlessly die of malaria every day, especially in Africa. Does that matter, even to those of us who share that same planet? Based on their non-action, the answer, for most people in the U.S. is no. Does it matter to Bill Gates? Absolutely.  As a result of his actions in trying to wipe out malaria deaths, I greatly admire Bill Gates.

    Will it matter to a civilization that exists 1000 years from now that children are needlessly dying of malaria? Only to the extent that it "matters" to most of us that hundreds of people got buried alive at Pompeii in AD 79. We don't have a Pompeii Day here in the U.S. No day off. No special food. No banners with volcanos. It's just not on our radar.  Not enough of a connection to our actual lives.

    Empathy exists only to the extent that something is on particular peoples' radars. We can work hard to extend the reach of our "radar" by reading up about people from other lands. We can travel to those other lands, spend time with those people and then care greatly about them. Without actually getting to know other people, though, we can care about them only in an abstract sort of way.  We are not physcially capable of caring greatly for everyone else on the planet, much less civilations from other time periods or planets.   We lack the cognitive capacity love everyone and care about everyone to the extent that we love and care about those we know.

    To what extent do we have a moral duty to extend our moral radar–our realm of concern–to include people we currently don't know well enough to care about?  That, in my mind, is perhaps the most interesting moral question of all.  Certainly we can choose to remain ignorant about other peoples, and this has the effect of wiping out any guilt we might have to care about them when their lives are threatened.   The articles cited in this post bring this idea home strongly for me:  we can choose to be ignorant about the dangers of using coal, thereby completing the disconnect between our own current behavior and the dangers that behavior poses to other humans (and other animals too).

    Maybe none of us will be alive when the floodwaters cause great anguish to billions of Earth's coastal inhabitants. Nonetheless, it will certainly matter to all of those people.  To the extent we work at it, we can work to make it matter to ourselves to care more (rather than less) about the world we are passing on to the children and grandchildren we currently care about (even if they haven't yet had those children and grandchildren).

  5. xxxx says:

    Well, surely you'd agree that if the universe got wiped out, at least nobody would again have to worry about being flooded out of their house and no child would ever again have malaria.

  6. Dan Klarmann says:

    Our purpose, as species, is: "Survive". Burning coal too quickly endangers this goal. I say "too quickly" because coal is just an energy storage device stocked up in the carboniferous era. It is unwise (immoral) to release that energy at orders-of-magnitude greater rate than that at which it can be stored.

    One of the reasons is global warming, a theory that is rapidly gaining acceptance even in the fossil fuel industry as supporting evidence mounts and philosophical objections are countered. The exact effects of this warming are still uncertain. However, they must be prepared for, and hopefully can be reduced. Pricey carbon sequestration techniques can help with that issue.

    Another reason is long-term sustainability. If we consume all available resources faster than they can be replenished, eventually they will be gone. We are now capable of seeing the deep, dark pit at the end of the fossil fuel rainbow.

    If we cannot get fusion to work ("any year now" since 1970) or find a way to harvest zero-point energy, we will have some harsh changes to make unless we begin to reduce our footprint in the very near future.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    xxxx: The universe won't be threatened by what we do to little ole Earth, which is essentially a crowded lifeboat. In my view, however, if there were no universe, there would be no sentient beings and thus no sadness or joy. There would be no ethereal residue of meaning. No universe, in my view, means nothing at all.

    But that doesn't mean that we humans lack bona fide feelings and purposes. That there someday might not be anything doesn't mean that there are no legitimate moral claims, here and now.

    Here is my moral claim. We shouldn't distract our limited human attentional capacity with hyper-consumerist political and social systems that cause us to keep desperate people off of our radar (Exhibit A: I've pondered these issues at length before. See

    My moral claim frustrates many people (including me), because they want lots of time off when they don't HAVE to consider all those other needy people. Whoever said that you get that kind of moral vacation? Hack preachers to the contrary (see, what God has allegedly ever uttered those kinds of words? What God has ever handed out "Get out of hell free" cards?

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    For more on what the coal industry has in store for us, check out the Sierra Club's information at

    Coal-fired power plants are one of our nation's largest—and dirtiest—sources of energy. Although these plants already produce about half of our electricity, there are plans on the drawing board to build over 150 new plants in the next few years. With new laws to fight global warming expected on the horizon, the coal industry is in a rush to build as many new plants as possible before pollution safeguards are in place.

    To learn about the many new coal plants springing up, go to

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    The report said China will expand measures to exploit its abundant coal reserves — a step that will help to reduce reliance on imported fuel but could sharply raise greenhouse gas outputs.

    ""China will step up its efforts in prospecting coal resources,"" the report said. It said Beijing would reorganize its coal industry by closing smaller, less efficient mines while creating conglomerates with bigger production capacity.

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    Amy Goodman reports on the White House efforts (both Bush and Clinton) to censor Environmental scientist James Hansen. The following excerpt is from her interview of Hansen:

    DR. JAMES HANSEN: Well, my concern is general with both Republican and Democratic administrations. They both feel that they can control what scientists say to the public. So their offices of public affairs in the science agencies are headed, in general, by political appointees, and they review the press releases before they go out. So, it doesn’t really make sense in a democracy. The public should be honestly informed. And then, of course, the publications are allowed to make the decisions, and they don’t have to follow exactly what the science says. There are other considerations that they have. But they shouldn’t influence what is presented, the scientific evidence. And I object to that, regardless of which administration is in power.

  11. Dan Klarmann says:

    If you want the public to receive unedited scientific information, then the research needs to be funded by a non-political process. Good luck finding funding without an agenda attached.

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