There's no contradiction in noting that coal is both bringing people out of poverty in China and insuring the suffering of future Chinese. Today the net welfare gains of coal use in China seem greater than the net losses, but that's only because the gains are immediate and the losses are deferred for a while. In our lifetimes, that will change -- the losses will come due. The dangers of responding too late to that inevitability are far, far worse than the dangers of acting too early.
The environmentalist's paradox is a function of our parochial perspective. We're just not accustomed to grappling with problems of global scope, decadal time lags, and irreversible impact.