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World on Fire.

World on Fire

Consider coal. When burned, usually to generate electricity, it causes two distinct problems. First, it gives off a variety of traditional pollutants, including the sulfure compounds that produce acid rain. Most of these pollutants can be removed by burning cleaner types of coal, by "washing" the coal before it is burned, or by "scrubbing" the emissions as they leave the smokestack. Second, burning coal gives off vast amounts of carbon dioxide, the chief cause of the greenhouse effect. There is no practical way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide from coal combustion. That is, you could burn coal completely cleanly--not a hint of acid rain--and still estroy the environment.

Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell does not seem to grasp this completely. At one point in his new book, he says, quite correctly, that if the Third World develops using "traditional energy sources," especially coal, "the ecosystem couldn't stand it. It would amount to ecocide." The greenhouse effect and other problems "rule out even a doubling of energy use based on the present mix of energy sources." He seems to face the problem squarely, and he names the source of greatest danger--China, which has half or more of the world's coal reserves and is currently committed to rapid increases in coal consumption. Later in the book, however, when he starts listing recommended solutions to our problems, Mitchell has this to say about coal: "The good news is that there's a lot of it. The bad news is that it's a dirty fuel. . . . But its sheer quantity (at current production rates existing world reserves would last nearly three centuries) makes it imperative that we improve technologies to burn it more efficiently and cleanly."

Because China has so much coal, Mitchell says, "a universally available, truly clean coal technology would be of great benefit." As I said, though, while you can burn coal "cleanly" with respect to acid rain, you cannot do so with regard to global warming. Barring a technological miracle, burning that three centuries' worth of coal (or even half a century's worth) may set in motion the "ecocide" Mitchell fears. In other words, there's not a lot of room for compromise about coal.

This may seem a picky point. I confess a strong temptation to praise Mitchell's book and leave it at that. After all, it shows a man of considerable power to be a committed, engaged environmentalist. That is a more hopeful development for the planet than a new electric car design or a quantum increase in photovoltaic efficiency.

Still, the coal business bothers me. It is probably the most important energy question the world faces, and it has considerable domestic repercussions--the new Clean Air Act, whose passage is greatly to Mitchell's credit, strongly encourages expensive clean coal technology to combat acid rain, an expenditure that may lessen the chances that we'll soon shut down those coal-fired plants as we should to fight global warming. More than that, the coal example shows the muddle you can get in if you don't set priorities.

Mitchell seems equally alarmed by each of his "five horsemen of the environmental apocalypse"--ozone destruction, overpopulation, tropical deforestation, acid rain, and global warming. I have no wish to downplay any of these, but acid rain is not really in the same league as the other four. This is a measure of the others' magnitude, not of acid rain's insignificance. But acid rain can be stopped without fundamental alterations to our economy--we need to buy some new hardware and get clean-burning coal from Wyoming, instead of the highly sulphuric kind from West Virginia. In the same way, ozone depletion can be solved fairly easily by the substitution of one set of synthetic chemicals for another. The price of a fridge may go up a bit, but it's no big deal. In fact, the ozone problem is so comparatively easy to deal with that we've already done so. The large industrial nations of the world have negotiated an unprecedented series of treaties that should all but eliminate chloroflorocarbons (CFCs) by century's end. Granted, those CFCs already in the atmosphere will work their damage for a hundred years to come, but at least we've acted.

But the remaining trio of problems, particularly global warming, offers difficulties of an entirely different nature. They can be solved only by basic changes in attitude and behavior--by rejecting business as usual. And business as usual, despite his very sincere alarm, is just what Mitchell can't bring himself to reject. For instance, he acknowledges that even the most ambitious current goals for carbon dioxide reduction--20 percent sometime in the early part of the next century--are not enough to "make a notable difference." Since the Third World nations must expand their economies, the "best thing may be for the rich nations of the world to set a goal of halving their carbon dioxide emissions by 2020." This is, I think, an honest and forthright appraisal. It recognizes that we are in a potentially dire predicament. Why, then, does he say some pages later, while answering President Bush's moronic attacks on environmentalists, that "nobody is advocating extreme measures. There is no huge politically motivated call for drastic revisions of our economy and society."

If we are going to cut our carbon dioxide output 50 percent, or even 20 percent, in less than 30 years, "drastic revisions of our economy and society" are precisely what we'll need, for our economy and society are based to a remarkable degree on the consumption of cheap fossil fuel. Not all these changes will be unpleasant--an overhaul of our transit system so that we begin to phase out passenger cars, for instance, would help immensely, and we might learn to like bikes and buses. At the very least, we need to drastically downsize our cars (a notion defeated this fall in Mitchell's Senate, despite Saddam Hussein's best efforts). Many of our cherished notions about mobility, about acquisition, about convenience will need to change and change quickly. So it is a disservice for Mitchell to undercut his alarming message with soothing reassurances--while it may make environmentalism more palatable in the short run, it is as unwise as failing to prepare the country for a war before it begins.

One grants politicians a certain amount of latitude to play pollyanna, of course, and Mitchell does not for the most part abuse this privilege. World on Fire is honest, it hits hard, it should scare everyone who reads it. (One hopes Mitchell's primary audience will be fellow congressmen, who seem a good deal less scared about the environment than most of their constituents.) But his uncompromising picture of the world we face makes his ducking and trimming over solutions more of a disappointment. If as he says, we face an "ecological holocaust," if "the planet earth is sending out distress signals," if what we face is a "nightmare world," then we can change. Lead and we'll follow.
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Author:McKibben, Bill
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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