I promised Dave Roberts last night that I would write a post about the evils of coal, so, yes, coal is evil. On the one hand, of course, coal emits enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. One politically popular notion is that we need to do away with this problem through a combination of carbon pricing and massive subsidies for "clean coal" efforts that will transform coal into a low carbon alternative. This is dumb. Carbon aside, coal is really terrible for the environment. The particulate emissions from coal plants have terrible health consequences -- in probability-adjusted terms it's probably worse than the risks of a nuclear meltdown. But the process of actually acquiring the coal is a whole other environmental disaster on top of that. If you spent a ton of money on subsidizing renewables, you'd have all this clean renewable energy. If you spent a ton of money subsidizing low-carbon coal schemes, you'd have sunk a ton of cash into a power source that's still bad for the environment and created a whole new series of issues about storage, etc., etc. It's a dumb idea.
I think people, in general, underrate the human capacity for change. There was a time when the Western way of life was dependent on long-distance wind-powered ships who required for their masts certain kinds of very tall, very straight pine trees that you had to get from the Baltic region. The strategic importance of pine trees was hard to overstate. So was the economic importance. Pine trees were vital. You couldn't possible get along without them. Until suddenly you could.
Photo by Flickr user LHoon used under a Creative Commons license