Letters to the editor

The Future of Coal

In “Dirty Coal, Clean Future” (December Atlantic), James Fallows draws attention to the important role that carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology can play in dramatically reducing the coal-related greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to man-made global climate change. Mr. Fallows claims that his article is “an argument for recognizing that China has faced reality, in launching an all-out effort to ‘decarbonize’ coal—and for recognizing America’s difficulty in doing the same.” China has built more advanced facilities that use coal more efficiently than has the U.S. “Coal without carbon,” however, requires not just more-efficient coal use but CCS, and the data on CCS projects in the U.S. and China do not support the author’s main argument.

A July 2010 status report from the Global CCS Institute counts 80 active or planned large-scale integrated CCS projects around the world. Only four of those projects are in China; 31 are in the United States. While the FutureGen project traveled a rocky road over the years, the U.S. Department of Energy has provided support to several other large-scale CCS projects. In August 2010, the Obama administration reported that between 2013 and 2015, 10 federally supported large-scale CCS demonstration projects (including the recently revitalized “FutureGen 2.0”) will start operating in the U.S.

Mr. Fallows highlights the clean-energy-related collaborations that American NGOs, energy companies, and government researchers and officials are fostering with their Chinese counterparts. And China certainly is making progress in cleaning up its energy supply. Nonetheless, for the most part, the opportunity to shift China’s enormous demand for coal to “clean coal” and other low-carbon technologies and to harness China’s rapid growth as a laboratory for developing such clean technologies is still just that—an opportunity. To realize this opportunity and to see widespread deployment of clean-coal technology in the U.S. and China, we need both countries’ governments to enact new policies to address greenhouse-gas emissions and, in particular, to increase financial incentives for coal users to capture and sequester their emissions.

Steve Caldwell
Pew Center on Global Climate Change
Arlington, Va.

James Fallows acknowledges a range of extensive environmental impacts associated with the mining and burning of coal that go beyond greenhouse-gas emissions, including “the huge scars left by ‘mountaintop removal’ and open-pit mining for coal” in Appalachia and the Great Basin of the western United States. Indeed, accompanying the article online is a video clip of Mr. Fallows flying over a mountaintop- removal site and commenting on the surprising scale of the destruction. I kept waiting, therefore, for Mr. Fallows to return to a discussion of the other impacts of coal, and how they could be reconciled with his vision for a “clean coal” future. Unfortunately, Mr. Fallows avoids this topic entirely, sweeping away the very real health impacts from the full dirty life cycle of coal—and the fact that these impacts are disproportionately borne by some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities—with the summary statement that coal “will be with us because its indirect costs, in miner deaths, environmental destruction, and carbon burden on the atmosphere, are unregulated and ‘externalized.’” Any discussion of the future of coal that fails to account for the full range of impacts of our reliance on this irremediably dirty fuel is incomplete and, frankly, irresponsible.

Peter Morgan
Denver, Colo.

James Fallows replies:

Steve Caldwell may have misunderstood my comparison of U.S. and Chinese efforts toward “clean coal.” As is the case in so many other matters, China’s starting point is far lower. China has dirtier power plants, more-hazardous and less-regulated coal mines, and a less-advanced level of anti-pollution technology, including for CCS. The point of my article is that so much is happening so much faster in China than in the U.S. that China is becoming the world’s test bed for energy technologies of all sorts. This is good for the global effort to control greenhouse-gas emissions, but it also illustrates the hesitations and limits in America’s approach. I agree entirely with the ending of Caldwell’s letter.

To Peter Morgan: Not even Atlantic articles are long enough for every aspect of every topic. Environmental and safety issues are important; my goal was to raise a question that had not been as widely discussed.

Science vs. Environmentalism

For a more balanced view of both Kenneth Brower and Freeman Dyson than was presented in Brower’s “The Danger of Cosmic Genius” (December Atlantic), see The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2010—edited by Dyson and including a marvelous essay by Brower, “Still Blue,” about a voyage to survey blue whales in the Costa Rica upwelling. In his introduction to the collection, Dyson, who selected Brower’s essay, gives a much deeper and more nuanced glimpse of his thinking about environmental stewardship and climate change, going back to his work on the “carbon dioxide problem” at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the mid-1970s—about the same time he took that long drive up Vancouver Island to Kelsey Bay in Brower’s VW van, followed by the four-hour ferry ride to Beaver Cove. The result of that work, “Can We Control the Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere?” in Energy, should be read by anyone interested in the current debate. “They are happy if they leave their piece of the planet a little healthier than they found it,” says Freeman Dyson of Kenneth Brower and his environmentalist colleagues whose writings he selected as among the best of the year. “The lesson I learned from these stories is that our future is in good hands.”

George Dyson
Bellingham, Wash.

I have known, and occasionally worked with, Freeman Dyson for 36 years. His most distinguishing characteristic, even more than raw brainpower, is his absolute intellectual integrity. He will follow a path of reasoning wherever it leads, even if the conclusion is not what he expected or wanted to find. I know that he always has very good reasons for his conclusions, and that if I disagree, I had better have very strong arguments to support my disagreement!

Kenneth Brower’s attempted intellectual assassination fails this test. The physics of greenhouse-gas warming has been understood for more than a century. Whether warming is a threat is, however, entirely subjective. Brower defines any anthropogenic effect on climate as necessarily bad, and likely catastrophic. Dyson considers the question open, and points to at least one region (sub-Arctic Greenland) where the effect appears to be favorable. It is not possible to challenge with logic or scientific evidence the quasi-religious revealed truth of environmentalism. The crime of which Dyson is accused is that of taking a skeptical scientific attitude to the question. Without more evidence and a better definition of what is good or bad, it is impossible to decide whether climate change is something to be feared or welcomed, or something to which we should remain indifferent.

Jonathan Katz
Professor of Physics
Washington University
St. Louis, Mo.

Poverty and Education

Critics have long bemoaned the fact that American students fare less well than others on standardized tests of science and math—proof, they say, that the U.S. has a failing public-education system. Amanda Ripley, like so many others, ignores the role of poverty (“Your Child Left Behind,” December Atlantic). Having taught college students from both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, I believe that using average scores doesn’t capture the most important facet of education in the U.S.: poor kids do less well in all subjects. The problem is not in our educational system, it is in our economic system, which perpetuates chronic poverty and leads to many negative social outcomes, including poor academic performance.

Wesley B. Renfro, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Political Science
St. John Fisher College
Rochester, N.Y.

Amanda Ripley replies:

Research clearly shows that poverty alone cannot explain our inferior scores. It’s hard to compare the family income of students taking these tests, but as a substitute, the study I wrote about considered the performance of white kids and of kids with a college-educated parent—attributes that tend to correlate with higher family earnings. America still underperforms. On a percentage basis, New York state has fewer high-performing white kids than Poland has among kids overall.


Dirty Coal, Clean Future” (December Atlantic) said that the collaborative efforts between Duke Energy of the U.S. and Huaneng of China included Huaneng’s investment in a low-emissions Duke plant in Indiana. In fact, Huaneng has not invested in that plant. The article also said that the Texas Clean Energy Project will conduct its decarbonization processes underground. They will be above ground. In “Fighting the Next War” (January/February Atlantic), we misidentified Gary Hart’s affiliation. It should have been the University of Colorado at Denver.


In response to December’s cover story, “Dirty Coal, Clean Future,” readers offered alternative means to slow down climate change:

33% Solar, wind, and other renewables
19% Nuclear energy
14% Natural gas
12% Efficiency/ conservation
7% Carbon tax/reduce demand
3% Population control
12% Other