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July 09, 2013

For Coal, the End Is Near

You can still find people who say they believe coal has a future. By and large, though, they're the same people who believe their future is in coal.

Perhaps that's just human nature. The more you think you stand to lose, the harder it is to accept -- much less embrace -- progress. That's why Western Union walked away from the telephone, Microsoft fumbled the Internet, and Sony ceded the LCD display industry to upstart Korean rivals.

Soon, everyone will find it hard to believe that we ever thought generating power by burning coal was a good idea. We say coal's "dirty," but that one adjective covers everything from water pollution to mercury poisoning to childhood asthma to climate-disrupting carbon emissions. Coal contributes to four out of the five leading causes of death around the world. If coal-fired power plants had never existed and someone proposed building the very first one today, the public outcry would be deafening.

Thankfully, two developments in the 21st century have sealed coal's fate. First, we have begun holding utilities accountable for some of the health and environmental costs of burning coal (the Obama administration's determination to limit carbon pollution from both new and old coal plants is the culmination of this trend). Coal was never cheap if you considered the health and environmental costs. Second, we have begun to realize there are better, smarter ways to meet our energy needs -- particularly through renewable technologies and better energy efficiency.

Of course, since coal-fired power plants are our biggest source of carbon emissions, maintaining the delusion that coal can compete against cleaner energy sources necessitates dismissing the science behind climate disruption. The Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity has gone so far as to convince (with the aid of copious campaign contributions) more than 150 Republican members of Congress to sign a "No Climate-Tax Pledge" that effectively requires them to vote against any legislation that addresses climate change. That helps explain why, according to a just-released report from the office of Representative Henry Waxman, Republican congressional members representing districts that suffered the most extreme warming last year nevertheless cast anti-climate votes more than nine out of ten times.

How long can these politicians successfully put the interests of polluters ahead of their own constituents? Especially when, compounding the irony, 75 percent of our wind-energy capacity is in congressional districts represented by Republicans (at least for now). In the long run, democracy, justice, and common sense will trump ideology.

Sooner than anyone could have imagined only a few years ago, coal's defenders will find themselves firmly on the wrong side of history. I believe we will not use coal for energy at all within the next couple of decades. When that day finally comes, it won't be the end of a "war on coal," but of coal's war on all of us.

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