This post was written by Jeff Goodell for Grist.org.
The other day, an MSNBC producer asked me, “What is the
connection between this coal-mine disaster in West Virginia and geoengineering the
The question is not as strange as it sounds.
A few years ago, I wrote a book called Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future. Among other things, I spent a lot of time
underground with coal miners and learned a lot about the dangers and problems
of mining coal. I also learned a lot
about Don “I’m a poor guy with a lot of money” Blankenship, the CEO of Massey
Energy, which owns the mine where at least 25 men died as the result of a methane
explosion last Monday. Because of that
experience, I’m often asked to comment when there is breaking news about a mine
My new book, which is about geoengineering the earth’s
climate, would seem to be entirely unrelated. But in fact — as I tried to explain to the MSNBC producer — it really
For one thing, writing Big Coal convinced me of the need to
take geoengineering seriously. After
four years of researching and writing about the coal industry, it became very
clear to me that the world is not going to stop burning coal any time
soon. Nor is carbon capture and
sequestration — the only technology on the horizon that might allow us to burn
coal without melting the planet — ever likely to amount to much (too
complicated, too expensive, the industry itself too moribund to ever change).
calamities ahead. Geoengineering might
indeed be a foolish idea, but we live in foolish times.
But there are other connections between the West Virginia mine
disaster and geoengineering.
Both are creations of America’s failed energy
policies. The fact that the U.S. — the
richest, most technologically sophisticated nation on the planet — is still burning
more than a billion tons of black rocks every year to generate electricity is a
political outrage. Yes, burning coal
generates cheap power. But as everyone reading this knows, coal is only
“cheap” because the industry uses its muscle to make sure that the true costs —
the broken bodies of coal miners, the blasted mountains of Appalachia, the
asthmatic children who live near coal plants, the superheated planet — are not
factored into the price. If they were,
we’d be burning a lot less coal, and we might be a lot further along in the
development of cleaner, more sustainable energy sources.
And of course if we were burning less coal, we probably
wouldn’t be talking about geoengineering at all. In this sense, geoengineering is a
technological fix for a broken political system.
Another connection between the West Virginia coal disaster and
geoengineering: Who eats the risk?
One of the big fears about geoengineering is that it will
allow rich, technologically sophisticated nations to essentially call the shots
when it comes to deciding what kind of climate we live in. It’s not a big leap to assume that these
nations will want to optimize the climate for their benefit.
And if we starting monkeying around with the climate and
something goes wrong — oops, sorry,
didn’t mean to turn off your monsoons! — who do you think is going to
suffer most? The people in the Sahel or the people in Sausalito?
It’s a similar dynamic in the coal industry. Don Blankenship
doesn’t have to worry about getting blown up in a methane explosion. He flies around in a black helicopter, lives
on the top a West Virginia
mountain — one of the few in the region that still has a top — and cashed in
stock worth nearly $4 million this year alone. If he can push his workers to work longer hours, cut corners, and run
more coal, well, hey, that’s how capitalism works!
This is a commodity business, after all. Coal is coal, whether there’s blood on it or not.
All the risks, of course, are borne by the workers in the
mine. The men and women who labor in the
noisy darkness for eight, ten, twelve hours a day, most of whom are just trying
to feed their families. They know they are replaceable, that if they open their
mouths about the dangerous conditions they see or the fears they have about a
mine starting to go bad, they will find themselves stocking yo-yos at Wal-Mart
for seven bucks an hour.
So they shut their mouths about the outrages they see and
keep working. They eat the risk. And the great tragedy is, sometimes they end
This is the second in a series of posts Jeff Goodell is doing for Grist.org, author of How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate. Here’s his first post. And here’s an interview with Goodell about his book, and an earlier interview about Big Coal.