In Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a radio broadcaster marvels at the wonder of coal:
Consider a single piece glowing in your family’s stove. See it, children? That chunk of coal was once a green plant, a fern or reed that lived one million years ago, or maybe two million, or maybe one hundred million. Can you imagine one hundred million years? Every summer for the whole life of that plant, its leaves caught what light they could and transformed the sun’s energy into itself. Into bark, twigs, stems. Because plants eat light, in much the way we eat food. But then the plant died and fell, probably into water, and decayed into peat, and the peat was folded inside the earth for years upon years— eons in which something like a month or a decade or even your whole life was just a puff of air, a snap of two fingers. And eventually the peat dried and became like stone, and someone dug it up, and the coal man brought it to your house, and maybe you yourself carried it to the stove, and now that sunlight— sunlight 100 million years old— is heating your home tonight.
Hundred-million year-old sunlight has heated our homes and powered our factories for decades. Today, that energy is delivered less often by the friendly neighborhood coal man and more by the ubiquitous electrical grid: About 39 percent of U.S. electricity is generated by burning coal. All that combustion carries a cost, though, as the carbon previously trapped underground in long-dead plants becomes greenhousing carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere.
But damage to the climate is not the end of coal’s costs. In 2011, a group of researchers from around the country attempted to calculate that number. They examined the full cost of coal’s “lifecycle” in the United States—that is, the costs of everything that mining coal, transporting it, burning it for electricity, and disposing it does to the world. The researchers included economists from Accenture, doctors and public-health researchers from Harvard University, and ecologists from universities throughout West Virginia.