Coal, China and tilting at windmills

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One thing is certain: Those well-meaning environmentalists who think you can solve global warming by reducing coal emissions haven’t been to China recently.

I just got back from a two-week visit to the Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia, and it’s no mystery why China has fought to remain exempt from international feel-good treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol that would establish goals for lowering the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Those quixotic goals just plain wouldn’t work — certainly not in China, and that means not in one-sixth of the populated world. When you see China up close and personal, with its 2,000-plus coal-generated power plants, it’s obvious that the kinds of changes proposed to fight global warming could never be implemented there. No matter how much the communist overseers wished to help the world lower its temperature, they couldn’t do so without freezing the tremendous economy of the giant nation — or fomenting a popular revolution — or both — and that means the global strategy for combating climate change is really just so much pie in the sky (or more appropriately “tilting at eco-friendly windmills”).

I’m willing to concede, and probably the Chinese government is willing to concede as well, that the theory of manmade global warming makes a reasonable amount of sense. Called the greenhouse effect when I studied it in high school 40 years ago, the idea that solar radiation could penetrate gases in the upper atmosphere and then be trapped by those same gases in the lower atmosphere is relatively simple science. Nor is it hard to quantify that human industrialization over the past two centuries has resulted in an increase in greenhouse gases such as CO2.

But that doesn’t mean we need to automatically endorse the harumphing conclusions of social activists who proclaim “global warming” to be a done deal — and the urgency of reversing it to be the equivalent of gospel truth. Even if there has been a spike in global temperatures as the result of CO2, that doesn’t mean we can simply trade away all the benefits of coal for the self-satisfaction of thinking that we humans have the power to raise or lower the level of the oceans, as Barack Obama once declared!

Earthly climate is part of a dynamic and fluid continuum that is not predictable even though it is measurable. I am certainly not willing to concede that the warming trend currently being measured by scientists is driven entirely by man-made forces rather than by age-old natural processes that we only partially understand.

Yet let’s — for the sake of argument — make that concession. Let’s say that global warming is man-made and that a grand scheme to reshape human industry and culture via the UN and an alphabet soup of other international organizations such as the IPCC, the IASC, and the IAC could actually solve the problem. Where does that leave us?

It leaves us in China — staring practical reality in the face.

According to the “BP Statistical Review of World Energy — June 2011,” China accounted for fully 48 percent of the world’s coal consumption in the year 2010. And that percentage is growing! So NOTHING is going to happen to world CO2 levels until China gives up its dependence on coal — and China simply can’t do so.

Not only does the nation depend on those hundreds of coal-driven power plants to electrify its factories, homes and businesses in an economy that is making a rapid transition from the 19th century to the 21st century, but even more importantly hundreds of millions of Chinese people are themselves directly dependent on coal to maintain their already sketchy hold on modern convenience.

I first glimpsed this truth in a small village not too far from the urban center of Bautou in Inner Mongolia where I was staying for several days. One afternoon, I heard a plaintive Mandarin chant from a truck’s loudspeakers as it passed outside the farmhouse’s brick walls on the narrow roadway that curled like a snake through the community. Reminding me of the beck of the Good Humor Man’s ice cream truck that I had followed in my childhood, I now followed the sing-song call to see what treat might be nearby.

Turned out it was coal — lots of it — tons of it probably, piled high and heavy in the back of a 50-year-old truck. Villagers would come out to meet the driver and purchase chunks of coal as large as a breadbasket (remember those?) or as small as a football. It occurred to me that I was witnessing the economic lifeblood of this country — black gold. These chunks of coal were the same to these villagers as turning the knob on an electric stove was to us. Imagine getting through a week without being able to cook your meals or to heat your home, and you begin to sense what taking away coal from rural China would mean.

Nor could China magically convert hundreds of millions of homes across the rural countryside to more environmentally friendly fuel sources such as propane or natural gas in order to please the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. First of all, it would be a monumental undertaking just to convert the ancient coal stoves and furnaces to propane or gas, but it would also require building from the ground up a distribution system for the new fuels. The expense would be enormous. Then on top of that, retrofit all the coal plants with scrubbers — or scrap them altogether and replace them with coal gasification plants. For good measure, take the nation’s hundreds of millions of antiquated cars, trucks motorcycles and motorized three-wheelers and scrap them as hazardous waste.

Like I said, it just isn’t going to happen.

So, yep, the environmentalists in Montana and California and Washington, D.C., can plot the New World Order that would lower the temperature and raise our consciousness. They may even do some good here and there with small local victories that improve our health and our atmosphere. But they aren’t going to change the climate by persuading human beings to diminish the quality of their lives for the benefit of a scientific theory — not in China and not here.

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