On the James Fallows Atlantic coal article

Image courtesy of Flickr user ralphrepo

[Responding to Keith Kloor's post about this James Fallows piece on coal and our global energy future and Dave Roberts's criticisms]

Roberts made some good and bad points. I think that Roberts rightly objected to Fallows conflating politico-economic “realities” (i.e. status quo) with technological ones.

I agree that coal isn’t going anywhere any time soon. But I don’t believe that Fallows has made the case that it is technologically impossible to meet global energy needs without it.

He writes that as-of-yet-unrealized cleaner coal is “the only way to meet the world’s energy needs, and to arrest climate change before it produces irreversible cataclysm” and “there is no plausible other way [than coal] to meet what will be, absent an economic or social cataclysm, the world’s unavoidable energy demands. ”

But he does basically nothing to back this up. Yes, the current infrastructure is heavily tilted towards coal dependence. That’s not alone sufficient to support the claims that he’s making (which I acknowledge from the outset may in fact turn out to be true).

If coal is literally the only way forward, Fallows should have done a better job demonstrating this rather than asserting it. I realize that this might be beyond his expertise, but that’s no reason to let the assertions pass unchallenged. I didn’t see a single line dedicated to IFR nukes, for example. I didn’t see a word about solar thermal.

Being resigned to something because changing is perceived to be hard is not the same as saying that an alternative is literally impossible. Fallows has made a case for the former but in no way has done so for the latter.

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5 responses to “On the James Fallows Atlantic coal article

  1. If coal is literally the only way forward, Fallows should have done a better job demonstrating this rather than asserting it.

    I think a rule that would be good for journalists to follow in such cases is, if you can’t or don’t have the time to back up such an assertion, then preface it with a phrase like “it seems to me”, and then make the assertion. Don’t just make the claim like it’s an immutable law of physics.

  2. If civilization depends on fossil fuels, then some unknown descendants can look forward to the end, as they hit Peak Oil, Peak Gas, and then Peak Coal in that order. By then, they won’t have the capital to invest in reworking the infrastructure, too bad.

  3. John Mashey – very good point. The argument is exposed then as “it’s too hard for us, our grandchildren will have to solve it (like all the other problems we don’t want to solve now)”. At its root it is a political problem because politicians can’t make hard decisions and always (except in rare circumstances) look to push them onto the future.

  4. Thanks … of course, coal isn’t going away any time soon, which says that in fact, anything practical doable for sequestration should be researched.

    For instance, I do not know if Calera actually works and is scaleable, but compared to when I first mentioned it, they seem to have made some progress. I do not claim to understand the chemistry.

    Many have reservations about this, but if I had to pick a single sequestration technique that worked out, it’s this one. I’d much rather CO2 be sequestered in cement than underground, and cement is actually useful.

  5. I cribbed two paragraphs on wikipedia about nuclear power in france:
    Nuclear power is the primary source of electricity in France. In 2004, 425.8 TWh out of the country’s total production of 540.6 TWh of electricity was from nuclear power (78.8%), the highest percentage in the world.

    France is also the world’s largest net exporter of electric power, exporting 18% of its total production (about 100 TWh) to Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain, and Germany, and its electricity cost is among the lowest in Europe.

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