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Delay and Fail

Last week, speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York, Al Gore suggested that young people should engage in civil disobedience to stop the building of new coal power plants “that do not have carbon capture and sequestration.”

I sympathize with Gore’s intent. Coal is the most polluting of the fossil fuels, and if we burn more of it there is little hope of averting catastrophic climate change.

But is carbon capture and storage (CCS) a solution? The technology exists only in the sense that its components have been demonstrated on a small scale. Deploying it broadly would require the development of an infrastructure that would require trillions of dollars of investment and decades of work. According to Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba, in a recent letter to Nature, we would need to handle a volume of CO2 twice as large as the world’s crude oil flows just to sequester one quarter of carbon dioxide emitted in 2005 by large stationary sources.

CCS is essentially a “delay and fail” strategy by the coal industry. By selling the idea of “clean coal,” the industry delays an energy transition away from fossil fuels, while setting itself up for an eventual failure of the entire CCS project. By the time that the failure is clear and obvious, there will be no alternative: the coal plants will have been built, the money invested. We’ll burn more coal, and to hell with the climate.

Mr. Gore would do well not to play along with this industry ploy by touting CCS as a solution.

The aspect of Mr. Gore’s statement that generated more public controversy was of course his advocacy of civil disobedience in shutting down new coal plant construction. Presumably he envisions young people sitting in front of bulldozers and other construction equipment, thus paralyzing the coal plant builders.

Unfortunately, with regard to direct action we are moving into a new era: high-tech surveillance technologies, anti-activist police tactics, and “sub-lethal” crowd control weapons ensure that the kinds of efforts that worked in the 1950s, ’60, and ’70s against segregation and the Vietnam War will be far more difficult to mount in the future, and far more costly to the lives and health of protesters. If Mr. Gore is going to encourage young people in this direction, I would expect to see him at the front of the barricades.

Realistically, solving the climate crisis will require international cooperation to phase out all fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Protests might speed the process somewhat in some countries, but until world leaders really understand the dead end that fossil fuels represent from both an environmental AND AN ECONOMIC perspective, little headway is likely to be made.

The economic argument for leaving fossil fuels behind is of course tied to the phenomena of depletion, dependency, and supply vulnerability. Once these are understood, alternatives to fossil fuels begin to appear far more attractive and practical even to policy makers who have no care whatever for the fate of future generations.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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