On DFHs, PTBs, and 'Framing' the Coal Question

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The estimable environmental writer David Roberts, of Grist, has posted an item that is gracious about many aspects of my current cover story on the inevitability of coal -- but that challenges its basic premise, or framing. Read it for yourself, but essentially he's saying that the piece is positioned as takedown of the DFHs who are working for a clean-energy, renewable-sources future, rather than of the establishment Powers That Be who are complacent about climate issues and profitably happy with the coal-based status quo:

>>Which is worse? Sounds to me like the PTBs are in a position to do serious damage to America's energy future. The DFHs, not so much. So why does Fallows frame his piece as a rebuke to the latter?<<

With respect, and with solidarity and amity toward Roberts on the larger points, I think he is responding to something I didn't write. In particular:

1) To the extent there is explicit framing in the article, it's America-v-China, not DFHs-v-PTBs. That's how the article starts; that's how it ends. You can look it up.

2) It is framed that way because that is how I learned about the topic and decided to write the article in the first place. At no point did I think, "Gee, it's time to set those DFHs straight." Instead, starting nearly four years ago in China, I started down the following path of logic and observation:

China is growing like crazy (as everyone knows); it has unbelievable pollution problems (ditto); and it is even more reliant on coal than you can imagine if you're not there. Then I started to meet, interview, and learn about people on both the Chinese and the US side who were working hard to "decarbonize" China's energy system. Their activities are not at all something "everyone knows." My usual impulse for writing a big story is to explain a development I've learned about that is not yet part of common knowledge. That's exactly how this piece came about. One of its argumentative cores -- that, barring some huge disruption to modern economic/ industrial life, you simply can't imagine a lower-carbon future without serious attention to cleaner use of coal -- emerged from meetings with and observations of the Chinese, American, Canadian, etc officials in this field.

3) Nothing in the article is hostile to or dismissive of the need to pursue all clean-energy technologies simultaneously. Instead it's full of statements like this:

>>This is not an argument against all-out effort on all other fronts, from conservation and efficiency to improved battery technology to wind- and solar-power systems to improved nuclear facilities. Amory Lovins, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, has argued for years that designing buildings and transportation systems to waste less energy from the start is by far the cheapest way to reduce damaging emissions (a position reinforced by influential studies from McKinsey & Company). "Good ideas about climate change are not in competition with one another," Roger Aines, a climate scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told me when I visited this summer. "We need every possible solution, and then we need more."<<

You can find many more on that theme.

4) I do quote some people on the inescapability of coal, for instance the Chinese-American geologist Ming Sung in this passage:

>>"People without a technical background think, 'Coal is dirty! It's bad,'" I was told in Beijing by Ming Sung, a geologist and energy expert who was born in Shanghai, worked for decades in America and became a citizen, and has now returned to China. "But will you turn off your refrigerator for 30 years while we work on renewables? Turn off the computer? Or ask people in China to do that? Unless you will, you can't get rid of coal for decades. As [U.S. Energy Secretary] Steven Chu has said, we have to face the nightmare of coal for a while."<<

But that is not an out-of-nowhere challenge to the renewable-energy industry. It rounds off a section about the rising demand for energy in China and elsewhere, the factors making it difficult to shift from coal, and the international-equity point about the awkwardness of profligate Westerners telling poor Chinese and Indians to cut back. It's a step in the argument, not a "framing" step against DFHs.

5) The basic framing of the article is the same as that of most articles I do, namely: here's something I think most people don't know, and whose importance I'll try to explain. In my experience, "most people" who take climate issues seriously assume that coal is unambiguously the enemy. What I'd learned over these past years in China convinced me that coal is an enemy but an unavoidable one, and that while working on every other front we'll be better off if we try to clean up coal too, rather than assuming it away.

6) There is a related line of criticism, coming from, among others, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones. It boils down to: Ok, where are the successful examples of this "clean coal" future? In a sense this is like people who objected to my "future of the news" article this summer by saying: Ok, where's the specific future business model that will keep journalism solvent?

The point of the news article was, People are working very hard to solve that exact problem -- if they already had the answer, it wouldn't be a problem any more -- and the fact of their efforts and experiments is important and not widely enough known. By analogy, in this article: the fact that people are working hard on this problem is important, if they already knew the answer it wouldn't be a problem any more, and -- the international aspect -- energy companies the world round realize that China will be the laboratory where these experiments are conducted. The China-centric nature of these efforts creates some opportunities for US companies, and poses some long-term challenges, as the article sets out. But I was trying to describe an ongoing, all-out, happening-now effort to work out cleaner solutions, even though the final results of that effort can't yet be known.

ALSO: As noted earlier, I've corrected two fact points in the online version of the article, one about the details of the Duke Energy-Huaneng interactions, the other about how the Texas Clean Energy Project is designed to attain its low-carbon goals. I'm chagrined when anything is wrong, but we try our best -- and then correct as needed.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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