King Coal's Stages of Grief, Part 1: Facing the Facts

June 30, 2015 | 8:39 am
Jeremy Richardson
Former Contributor

Coming from a coal mining family, I’m well aware of the seemingly vast coal resource underground and how extracting that resource has helped boost local economies, including the one where I grew up. As the reality of climate change sets in, however, and the impacts of burning fossil fuels become all too real, it’s clear that the status quo is not sustainable. Looking at the recent incredible growth in wind and solar, the boom in shale gas from fracking, and headline after headline full of bad news for the coal industry, I began wondering, How does it feel to be a coal miner right now? And more importantly, how do we ensure the future is hopeful for them as well? It’s a deeply personal question to me.

It occurred to me some months ago that the feeling must be something like the five stages of grief as articulated by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It also became clear as I started gathering my thoughts around this idea that it was going to take me more than a single post to explore this. So I set about writing this series of posts to those folks (many of whom I call friends and family) who feel deeply threatened by change, and understandably so.

Yes, climate change is real, and fossil fuels are to blame

The planet has warmed since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and the dominant cause of the increase in temperature is the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. NASA and NOAA announced earlier in the year that 2014 now ranks as the hottest year on record. In fact, the last 15 years have all been among the 20 hottest years ever recorded. The odds of this being a random fluctuation are 1.5 quadrillion to 1. I don’t have the time or space to tackle all the misinformation out there, but I refer you to Skeptical Science, where you can find many simple and clear explanations of many of the common myths you may have heard.

For now, rest assured that the vast majority of experts understand that climate change 1) is real and happening now; 2) results primarily from human activities; 3) is expected to cause severely negative impacts to human society; and 4) can be addressed with decisive action.

In January, the U.S. Senate voted down an amendment 50-49 that said essentially the same thing. (Only in “Senate math” can an amendment be rejected with 50 aye’s and 49 nay’s, but suffice to say it needed 60 votes to be attached to the bill.) Anyway, I digress. The point is that 49 U.S. senators are on record as not accepting the reality that climate change is primarily caused by burning fossil fuels.

As they say, the first step is admitting you have a problem.

Credit: Media Matters

Photo: Media Matters

The carbon budget and unburnable coal

The concept of leaving a large amount of these resources in the ground has emerged as a critical piece of the solution. A few years ago The Carbon Tracker Initiative pioneered the concept of the carbon bubble. A new study released early this year, building on this earlier work, found that the majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must be left underground in order to protect the world’s climate.

You may be familiar with the idea of 2 degrees Celsius as an upper limit on the increase in global temperatures. Policymakers commonly discuss this 2°C target, which refers to an increase above the pre-Industrial average global temperature. The idea is that if we can succeed in keeping the temperature increase to below 2°C, we have hope of avoiding the most severe impacts of climate change.

It’s an imperfect target, since we are already experiencing the impacts of human-caused climate change, both here in the U.S. and worldwide. Furthermore, we have already observed about 0.8°C of warming since the pre-Industrial period. But the Earth system takes time to respond to increases in greenhouse gases (GHGs), so that even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, warming would continue for decades due to recent emissions—we estimate that another 0.6°C is already teed up.

The carbon budget

Still, the 2°C target represents a useful guidepost. Since we can calculate the total amount of carbon from oil, coal, and natural gas already burned up to now, and the amount of warming it has caused, we can determine how much additional carbon can be released before we hit the 2°C level.

By 2011 the world had already burned through roughly half of the carbon budget. The problem is that, based on estimates of current known reserves, burning all the world’s fossil fuels would release about 2900 Gt of CO2 into the atmosphere—and that number grows to 11,000 Gt if you include estimates of fossil fuels that have not been proven. Either way, that’s starkly inconsistent with keeping the temperature increase below 2°C.

In short, the authors conclude that, globally, a third of oil reserves, half of natural gas reserves, and more than 80 percent of coal reserves should remain unused between 2010 and 2050 in order to meet the 2-degree target. What’s new about this paper is that the authors use a model of supply and demand to assign portions of the carbon budget to the different countries where the resources are located.

Strikingly, they find that only 8 percent of the coal remaining in the U.S. is burnable—and that’s assuming that carbon capture and storage (CCS) becomes widely available by 2025. Without CCS, the U.S. could only burn 5 percent of its coal.

Sobering reality

Where I’m from, the thought of leaving this resource in the ground is simply foreign. But it represents a sobering reality. CCS technology remains an important bridge to a clean energy future, and UCS continues to support federal incentives for research and development. But even if CCS is commercially available in the coming decade, the reality is that we have to begin the transition away from fossil fuels over the next few decades in order to maintain a stable climate.

What does this mean if you mine coal for a living? For one thing, it does NOT mean that all coal mining must stop immediately. (Convert the 8% to tons and you’ll see that mining can continue for some time.) But it does mean that while coal was a source of great pride in our past, our future must consist of something new.

Over the next month, I’ll walk through King Coal’s Stages of Grief, continuing next week with a second post on denial, this one about the economics of coal. Then I will take a look at the anger phase and the oft-repeated War on Coal mantra, followed by the bargaining phase, which will focus on coal in the developing world. And I’ll finish off with a peek at the positive future ahead for Coal Country–with the right policies and a can-do spirit.