Editorial: Carbon Crimes


Carbon Crimes

In the January/February issue of World Watch, writer Susan Moran ("Rush to Coal") detailed the frenzied efforts of U.S. utilities to build more than 150 "new" pulverized-coal power plants before the imposition of increasingly likely federal statutory limits on carbon emissions. I say "new," because the technology is 80 years old and is hardly more advanced than a log fire. Moran's piece, as befits a professional, was matter-of-fact. Here, I want to try to express the outrage her story provokes.

NASA's top scientist, James Hansen, has said we have perhaps 10 years to get a grip on our carbon emissions or else face a tipping point beyond which climate warming
spirals irreversibly out of control. The atmosphere already holds too much carbon, but these coal-fired plants will release billions of tons of additional, now-sequestered carbon into the air during their 50-year useful lives. The cheap but antiquated technology slated for the plants is almost impossible to refit later for carbon capture and storage-even if that highly untested process turns out to be workable. The effect would be to accelerate the arrival of Hansen's tipping point. His 10 years may be metaphorical, but time is clearly short.

Which is why building these plants seems lunatic at best. At worst, it's criminal. A satisfying fantasy sprang to mind when I learned of TXU Energy, American Electric Power, Xcel Energy, and the other utilities' calculated rush to coal. It involved the outlawing of carbon crimes-"knowingly and willfully acting to sharply increase the atmosphere's carbon content without provision for redress, and thus, for the sake of shortterm financial benefit, to inflict on the entire planet and its billions of inhabitants a dangerously unstable climate." In my little dream, conviction would bring long, miserable prison terms-the guilty utility executives would live in un-airconditioned, unlit cells and spend their waking hours planting trees in the tropics, chained together in work gangs and sweating under the hot sun to undo some small part of the harm they'd caused.

That probably sounds harsh. But there are no excuses here except venal ones. Ignorance? The science of climate change is unavoidable for anybody whose head isn't buried in quarterly profit-and-loss statements. It's harmless? The expanding hazards of climate change are already being felt around the globe. They had no choice? Energy efficiency is proven and cheaper, and the enormous potential of renewables remains largely untapped. "It's strictly business-our responsibility is only to our shareholders"? Sorry; that business model is increasingly deadly. Business is vital to human economic well­being, but there is no room anymore for businesses that fail to understand their power to shape the world and their obligation to use it responsibly.

So, incipient carbon felons: get your noses out of the ledgerbooks! Leave the coal in the ground. Feel the wind at your backs and the sun on your faces. That's your only future, and everyone else's too.


-Thomas Prugh