“Does it matter if we fight coal export?” – Part 1: Wrong question

David Roberts at Grist has a good post up on coal export:  “Fighting coal export terminals:  It matters.”   It does indeed, and David has only begun to explain why.  But before we do more of that, we need to wrestle with the implied question:  Does it matter if we fight coal export? 

This question blows my mind.  And people pose it to me like 10 times a day, so my mind is blown all to smithereens.

This will be the first in a series of posts in which I attempt not just to answer the question, but to dissect and incinerate it, and then spread its ashes at sea.  (For efficiency, the question “Does it Matter?” may be referred to “The Question DIM,” or simply, “The Question.”)

First, let me explain why The Question floors me.

It starts with the climate crisis itself.   To appreciate the dimensions of the challenge, go back to Mr. Roberts’ seminal series:  The Brutal Logic of Climate Change.  We need not dwell here; let’s just remind ourselves that despite our deceptively calm demeanor, we are in the middle of a five-alarm emergency.

This emergency is caused primarily by burning fossil fuels.  Among those fuels, coal is the biggest offender, and by far the biggest prospective offender going forward.  Now, to our little coal export…situation…

The proposed coal export terminals in the Northwest would have the capacity to ship about 150 million tons of coal a year.  Assuming the coal would be not just shipped but burned, the daily CO2 emissions from that combustion would roughly equal the combined body weight of every man, woman, and child in Oregon and Washington.  Yes, daily.

Still, The Question DIM does not go away:   “OK, I get it, it’s big.  But there are plenty of other coal suppliers.  Won’t Asia burn just as much, regardless of whether we ship it from Northwest ports?”

It’s a fair question.  The answer is noDavid’s post is a good start on the explanation of how stopping coal export will actually prevent emissions.  Economist Tom Power develops the logic futher here.  I will follow up with more on this in subsequent posts.

But before we continue answering The Question, let’s stomp all over it some more.

If we accept the basic conclusions of climate science, then any investment in expanding fossil fuel infrastructure at this scale is just plain wrong.  Speculating in moral equivalencies always leads to trouble, so I won’t pick an historical example to make the point.  But if you really believe that something is flatly and egregiously wrong, then you shouldn’t let it in your house, no matter what anyone else does.  I suppose it’s inevitable to wonder what the ultimate effect of fighting coal export will be, but for the purposes of deciding what we need to do, it shouldn’t really matter.  Coal export would be a major new link in the chain of transactions and investments that are driving us toward a global catastrophe, bringing misery and destruction to millions.  There’s just no excuse for condoning it, let alone hosting it in our communities, even (hypothetically) if our resistance fails to stop it.

Sure, you could extend this logic to driving a car or getting on a plane.  But c’mon, when we’re contemplating a giant new investment in the long-term capital infrastructure of global fossil fuel trafficking, it’s different.  We’re going to have to give ourselves time to make the transition from our existing infrastructure and lifestyles.  It’ll take 50 years to win this.  But we could lose it in a heartbeat.  If in the next several years we continue making massive new investments that make it worse, we will, as the International Energy Agency warns, “lose forever” the chance to avert catastrophic climate disruption.

The IEA warning is a clear moral line in the sand.  Coal export is on the wrong side of it.  We can have clever arguments about the marginal effect on global coal markets ’til the cows come home and the salmon don’t.  But while our mouths flap, our feet are standing on one side or the other of that line.

At this point, it becomes necessary to acknowledge that The Question “Does it Matter?” is really 2 questions:

1) Will stopping coal export from the Northwest have any effect on emissions?  The Power analysis and Dave’s post are a good start on the answer.  More to come.

2) Can we stop it?

The answer to 2) is “YES, DAMMIT.”  (Now you try it!).

But it’s a heavy question, isn’t it?  It’s pregnant with all our fear and doubt about the prospects for climate stabilization and democracy generally.

Go lay down on the couch…..In the next post on this, I offer some unlicensed therapy on the psychological underpinnings of The Question DIM – the 3 fatal Fs:  Frustration, Futility, and Fatalism.

All comfy?  Click here.

One Response to “Does it matter if we fight coal export?” – Part 1: Wrong question

  1. [...] the Keystone decision isn’t just symbolic.  Like coal export terminals, Keystone would be a major new link in the chain of transactions and physical infrastructure that [...]

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