Sunday, June 25, 2006

black and yellow gold

I just saw the global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth last night along with my friends John and Lydia. If anything could convince me of the necessity to reduce carbon emissions, it's this film, which combines science, anecdote, and some shocking images and graphs - A.O. Scott wrote in his NY Times review "I can't think of another movie in which the display of a graph elicited gasps of horror." Even though the movie is built around Al Gore's slide show lecture, and uses Al Gore's personal and political history to dramatize the science, the message is much bigger and more important than any one man. It's the kind of movie that instantly changes your priorities.

Among those changes, you'll probably find yourself reading the newspaper differently. That was my experience this morning when I went online to read the Sunday Times. Where I might have lingered on the music reviews or sports scores, I found myself gravitating to two big articles - one on the rise of ethanol and the other on the coal industry. Big corn and big coal are among our country's biggest industries, and they impact our lives - and planet - in crucial ways.

Here's a passage from the coal article, which is an excerpt from Jeff Goodell's book "Big Coal":
In fact, just the energy wasted by coal plants in America would be enough to power the entire Japanese economy. In effect, America's vast reserve of coal is like a giant carbon anchor slowing down the nation's transition to new sources of energy. And because coal is the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels-coal plants are responsible for nearly 40 percent of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas-a commitment to coal is tantamount to a denial of a whole host of environmental and public health issues, including global warming. When you're sitting on top of 250 years' worth of coal, an international agreement to limit carbon dioxide emissions, such as the Kyoto Protocol, is easily seen as a crude attempt by jealous competitors to blunt one of America's great strategic and economic advantages.
We don't have a choice when we flip on a light switch; we are almost certainly contributing to coal pollution. We can reduce our own energy use, though, support political changes, and purchase carbon credits to help fund alternative energy sources.

Goodell's article notes that President Bush and Dick Cheney have been great friends to the coal industry. They've also been supporters of the increased use of ethanol - as has every politician, concerned about the votes of Iowans and others in the farm belt. Ethanol in fuel can help to reduce emissions, though because corn is heavily subsidized and fertilized by petroleum, it's not the perfect solution we might hope for. Just like coal, it's a resource we have in abundance, but we would perhaps be best advised to use both sparingly. They only allow us to avoid the inconvenient truths longer.

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