When last we left our intrepid heroes, the great Northwest had woken up to find itself cast in the wrong movie, sort of like Owen Wilson playing Richard Nixon (see Part 1). If we’re disoriented, it’s no wonder – what, with all the crap flying around trying to convince us that turning Cascadia into a conveyor belt for coal is the best idea since Boeing. So let’s cut some of it.
Coal export from the Northwest would increase coal consumption and carbon emissions, not just displace other coal. The coal trains won’t “come anyway” and continue on to terminals in B.C. if the Cherry Point project isn’t built. Examining the climate impacts of coal export will not threaten airplane manufacturing or wheat exports, for Pete’s sake. (In part 4 of this post, we further deconstruct the most popular rationalizations for coal export.)
But as analytically weak as these arguments are, the coal industry wins just by having them. They serve the essential purpose of diverting our attention from the first, most fundamental reason why we should reject coal export: It’s wrong.
Even if you could demonstrate that it would have zero effect on net coal consumption (and again, you can’t), coal export is materially participating in and profiting from an enterprise that sows death and destruction around the world. Many lives were lost, and millions disrupted, by Superstorm Sandy. Most of the counties in America were declared disaster areas last year due to drought. In January, parents in Australia sheltered their children from “tornadoes of fire” by putting them in the ocean. This is what climate disruption looks like. And coal causes it.
If we keep pouring capital investment into fossil fuel infrastructure for just a few more years, we will be locked into emission trajectories that make catastrophic disruption inevitable. Arguments to the effect of “if we don’t do it, someone else will” just don’t hold moral water when “it” leads to unimaginably grave human consequences. It’s not right, no matter what anyone else does.
So far, the discussion of coal export has mostly occurred outside this moral context. But closing our eyes to the consequences doesn’t make them go away. On the contrary, ethical evasion is the essential host condition in which injustices metastasize into historic moral crimes.
“We are not responsible.”
The whole edifice constructed for the express purpose of blocking climate action is built on this single, unconscionable stance. With each new definitive finding of culpability, fossil fuel interests devise a new dodge. The bottom line is always the same: It ain’t me, babe.
First, it wasn’t happening. Then it was happening but it wasn’t human-caused. (Damn those sun spots.) Then it was human-caused but there’s nothing we can do because China and India’s emissions will swamp us anyway. And now we might as well shovel their coal because otherwise they’ll just burn someone else’s. If we don’t ship it, the trains will just “pass us by” and offload elsewhere. If we consider climate impacts now, where do we draw the line? Resistance is futile. Responsibility is no one’s.
So coal export proponents are part of a rich tradition of moral circumvention, offering a familiar litany of shirks and jives to deflect responsibility for climate consequences. Without relieving them of their accountability for this mess, you can understand how coal export enablers would default to a position of climate adolescence. Their failure to accept responsibility for climate disruption is, after all, the prevailing condition of American society. Denial is an ecosystem. When the President of the United States says in the same speech that we owe it to our kids to tackle climate disruption and we need an “all of the above” energy strategy, it’s hard to know which end is up.
But now, here, we have to deal with it. Morally and mathematically, the gig is up. If we aim to make it better, there’s just no more room for big capital investments that make it irretrievably worse. Going forward with coal export amounts to looking our kids in the eye and saying “we are resigned to a future of unrelenting climate disasters for you, so it’s okay to make a few bucks now by facilitating that future.” (Here is how they might respond.) That may not be anyone’s intent. But it would be the result.
How can we draw this moral line against coal export (or anywhere), when we exacerbate climate disruption every time we drive a car or eat an imported banana? By invoking the Keystone Principle: As we begin the long, slow journey to climate solutions, we must immediately cease making large, long-term capital investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure that “lock in” dangerous emission levels.
It will take decades to decarbonize our transportation and energy systems. We can do it over time, patiently and incrementally, building stronger economies and healthier communities as we go. But we cannot make big new capital investments now that irrevocably commit us to catastrophic climate failure. Driving to the store or eating a banana is not such an investment. Coal export is.