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Heinberg’s new coal question

Richard Heinberg, Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2009), 208 pages, $18.95, paperback.

Coal today lies at the very center of the world predicament over the future of energy and the climate. An indication of this can be found in the November 18, 2010, issue (vol. 468) of the leading scientific journal Nature, which includes an article by Richard Heinberg and David Fridley entitled “The End of Cheap Coal.” The article opens with the startling words: “World energy policy is gripped by a fallacy—the idea that coal is destined to stay cheap for decades to come.” What follows is a short, dramatic discussion of problems (geological, economic, and environmental) constraining future coal production and consumption. Heinberg and Fridley’s argument here has been developed more extensively in Heinberg’s recent book Blackout: Coal, Climate, and the Last Energy Crisis, which provides us with yet another indication of the momentous challenge and burden of our historical time.

Heinberg is best known as a peak oil theorist, but is probably better viewed in his role as a leading Green activist for a post-carbon world. His newest book (following Blackout) is The Post-Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises (co-edited with David Lerch), the contributors to which include such leading environmental thinkers/activists as Bill McKibben, Wes Jackson, Stephanie Mills, David Orr, and William Rees.

The most serious carbon issue today, as scientists like NASA’s James Hansen emphasize, is not oil but coal. To avert a disastrous climate change tipping point, Hansen argues, peak oil must be accompanied by peak coal, and in fact coal-fired plants must be rapidly phased out to protect the earth. [1] Yet coal exploitation is commonly presented by the vested interests as a solution to energy scarcity. Indeed, some, such as James Fallows in the latest issue of Atlantic Magazine, even promote the erroneous idea that “clean coal” (an oxymoron) will save the earth from climate change! [2]

Heinberg wades deeply into these issues in his book, focusing on estimates of coal reserves and of peak coal production. He concludes that there is far less energy to be had from world coal reserves than is typically thought by policy makers. . . .

Heinberg rightly rejects the notion that fossil fuel scarcity, on its own, will solve climate concerns as “a dangerously premature conclusion” (119). Rather, the peaking of oil production is likely to drive more production of increasingly carbon-intensive and toxic fuels. . . .

The longer we pursue energy from coal instead of committing to renewable energy and reduced energy consumption, he emphasizes, the worse will be the economic and ecological costs and the less likely such a transition will be successful. For Heinberg, “Blackout” refers to the possibility that our current squandering of energy resources (even setting aside the effects of climate change) presents the possibility of catastrophic, and effectively permanent, ecological-economic collapse. Perhaps the worst weakness of his book is to confuse the nature of this collapse: is it peak energy or climate change that is the real issue? The main strength of Heinberg’s book, however, is its succinct packaging of complex technical and economic reports and their implications for the economic and logistical challenges posed by dwindling coal reserves. . . .

Coal and Climate

If, as Heinberg’s review of the literature suggests, high-quality coal reserves are closer to depletion than commonly assumed, then the carbon footprint of increased coal consumption will be nonlinear and grow far more rapidly than coal’s relative share of the energy supply. The problem of the increased transportation emissions from the higher volumes needed to compensate for lower energy content is further aggravated by the geography of supply. As deposits closest to demand centers are exhausted first, a greater volume of coal must also be transported greater distances. . . .

Searching for Answers to the New Coal Question

Unfortunately, an underlying weakness in his analysis is revealed when Heinberg turns his attention to primarily political-economic questions such as: “Will climate concerns succeed in driving policy in the face of energy scarcity?” (123). Heinberg warns that policy makers, unlike activists and scientists, “may look at the evidence through a different lens—one that discounts the future in favor of the present….Hagens argues that discount rates are based in fundamental human psychology, and perhaps even hardwired into our genes and nervous systems” (123).

Sadly, Heinberg uncritically adopts this treatment of the discount rate as a reflection of human nature rather than examining it as a particularly well nurtured and institutionalized feature of capitalist society. Not being a political economist, Heinberg should perhaps be forgiven for this; after all, his conclusion—that we must be wary of crises resulting from energy scarcities (such as those likely with the peaking of oil production) derailing political efforts to cope with climate change—is certainly well taken. Likewise, his suggestion of rationing fuels rather than emissions is amply supported and worth consideration.

However, his mistaking of both the underlying social problem (capitalism) and of the most imminent ecological problem (climate change and not peak energy) is characteristic of his approach. In the conclusion of the book, addressing possible futures, three scenarios are presented, with the effects of climate change in each largely ignored (for the sake of simplicity). The first two, in which energy from coal continues to be relied on for economic growth, are distinguished by whether “clean coal” (i.e., IGCC) and CCS are pursued. Both scenarios end in catastrophe and the collapse, between 2030 and 2040, of whole civilizations. The third “post carbon transition” scenario is meant to provide a vision for a sustainable society. Here we see that, for Heinberg, like so many Green thinkers, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

Lacking a framework with which to analyze the structural connections between economic power and political decisions, in Heinberg’s post-carbon future revolutionary changes simply and inexplicably happen. . . .

Blackout offers scholars and activists an overview of projections on future coal production and their complexities, but social movements will need to look elsewhere for what is to be done about the historical burden of our coal question. The question of a post-carbon future is inextricably connected to the question of a post-capitalist future.



Ryan Wishart . . . is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Oregon. He is coauthor of the chapter “Mountain Justice: A Grassroots Effort to End Mountaintop Removal,” in Transforming Places, forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press.


For the complete article, go to Monthly Review

Editorial Notes: In-depth review. Thanks to Monthly Review for permission to repost excerpts. Several other articles in the January issue cover themes related to resource depletion and sustainability: Ecological Civilization by Fred Magdoff Capitalism and Degrowth—An Impossibility Theorem by John Bellamy Foster Another book review of "Blackout": Damien Perrotin -BA

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