As civilizations and nations grew, trees disappeared, depleted by competing demands for fuel, timber, and land for crops. All these needs drew down the same stores of plant-captured solar energy, and those stores invariably ran short. The size of our fires and our meals, our cities and our economies, and ultimately our populations, were all restricted by the limited ability of the plants within our reach to turn the sun's light into a form of energy we could use.
In this world of tight energy constraints, coal offered select societies the power of millions of years of solar income that had been stored away in a solar savings account of unimaginable size. Coal would give them the power to change fundamental aspects of their relationship with nature, including their relationship with the sun, but it would offer that power at a price.
I haven't always viewed coal with such fascination. In fact, until recently, I seldom thought about coal at all. Like most people in developed countries, I had no obvious reason to do so. I wasn't mining it or buying it or burning it, and I hardly ever saw it used. As an environmental attorney for the state of Minnesota, I helped regulate some of the state's coal-burning industries, so I was familiar with the many pollutants coal burning puts into the air. Still, I only vaguely understood coal's sweeping impact on the global environment and on society. What really compelled me to look closely at coal was a case that focused my attention on one of the most profound environmental issues of our time: global warming.
Minnesota is a cold state; our winter temperatures are often the most frigid in the United States, outside Alaska. Lows of minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit are not unheard of in some northern counties. At this temperature, a bucket of water thrown into the air freezes before it hits the ground, bananas get so hard that you can pound nails with them (yes, this has been demonstrated), and exposed skin can freeze in mere seconds. This is not a place where the threat of a few degrees of global warming alarms the average shivering citizen, and, because Minnesota is about as far from an ocean as you can be in North America, forecasts of rising sea levels cause even less concern. Even though we didn't necessarily think of ourselves as living on the front lines of global warming (a naive assumption, as it turned out), Minnesota wanted to have some idea of the larger environmental consequences of its energy decisions. So, a few years ago, the state began a legal proceeding that tried to quantify the impact of its electricity use on global warming. Most of Minnesota's electricity, like that of the U.S. as a whole, comes from coal, so this meant trying to figure out what effect the emissions from our coal-burning power plants would have on the earth's climate.
When the proceeding began, few realized what an exquisitely sensitive nerve it would touch. Representatives of the nation's coal industry, including its most colorful and politically extreme wing, intervened in our hearing, helping to make the contentious administrative trial that followed one of the longest in state history. They brought in a phalanx of scientists who testified that Minnesota should ignore what the vast majority of their colleagues around the world were saying about climate change and argued instead that the climate was not changing except in small ways we were all going to enjoy. Minnesota temporarily found itself on the front lines of the larger national battle over climate change.
The industry's aggressive response was fueled by its recognition that climate change threatens its very existence. Climate change is mainly caused by burning fossil fuels--namely, coal, oil, and natural gas--and of these fuels, coal creates the most greenhouse gases for the energy obtained. Today, the United States burns more coal than it ever has, almost all of it to make electricity.
Excerpted from Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese. Copyright 2002 by Barbara Freese. All rights reserved. Excerpt reproduced by permission of the publisher, Perseus Publishing.
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