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David Roberts

David Roberts

Posted: April 27, 2009 08:45 AM

60 Minutes on Coal: Dancing Around the Question

60 Minutes had a long segment on the problem of coal this weekend. Watch:

A couple thoughts on this.

First, it’s worth stepping back and noting how far the discussion has come. The coal industry probably views this segment as disastrous—it takes for granted that climate change is happening and that coal is a, in fact the, big driver. The industry has lost the denial fight and can no longer hide outside the public spotlight. So we’ve come a long way.

But more striking to me is where the discussion still stops short. We hear from James Hansen that to preserve a livable climate, we have to put a moratorium on new coal plants and phase out existing coal plants in 20 years. Then the discussion turns to the feasibility of cleaning up coal.

A Martian dropping in to watch this segment might say, wait a minute! What about what Hansen said? Can we do that?

But the subject goes almost entirely unaddressed. Jim Rogers—the CEO of a coal utility!—says passingly that he can’t do it, and then the focus turns to preserving the role of coal.

But can we? Can we phase out coal and maintain a modern economy? I hate even to say that 60 Minutes producers assumed the answer is no. It seems, rather, that it just never occurs to them to seriously ask the question.

This is symptomatic of a much larger phenomenon. It’s a hole in the heart of the ongoing energy/climate discussion: the possibility of a prosperous, fossil-free, low-carbon economy. Of course there are plenty of reports showing how it could happen: Here’s a detailed plan to meet America’s energy needs without new coal plants,  using a combination of efficiency and clean renewable power. Here’s another, another, another, another, and more. Just a few weeks ago the Department of Interior released a study showing that offshore wind alone could satisfy U.S. electricity needs.

But for whatever reason, that possibility is not alive in the public discussion. And it’s having awful effects. When you hear coal-state Dems push to weaken the short-term targets in the Waxman/Markey bill, what they’re thinking is, we need to align the targets with the projected availability of coal with sequestration. Pushing targets faster than that will only jack up prices. Because there’s no alternative. Again, this is not a “position” they have, the outcome of an investigation. It’s an absence: the absence of a real, live alternative future. They can’t see it. They don’t know how to think about it.

This is absolutely the No. 1 priority for all climate/energy crusaders: not the science of climate change, not the evils of fossil fuels, but a real effort to paint a credible picture of a low-carbon, fossil-free future that everyone can participate in.

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