King Coal

I spent quite a bit of time composing a “look at the issues rationally” blog on the difference between how experts and non-experts look at risk (experts consider higher expected death rate to be higher risk, while non-experts use other forms of reasoning to deem nuclear power as high risk. I asked several anti-nuclear power folks, and sure enough, they assume there is a low death rate yearly). See Paul Slovic’s Perception of Risk.

But then I reacted power out of my childhood worldview to several people’s reasons for opposing nuclear.

I heard worries about nuclear waste, and no trust in scientists to supply correct information, but no idea where information should come from. These people have not read the scientists they don’t trust. No numbers are offered to justify the sense that nuclear power is dangerous, either from nuclear waste or nuclear accidents or etc. That it should not be a dichotomy, nuclear vs coal.

My lower class origins raised their ugly roots. Visions of old British laws come into my head: paying starvation wages or going through 10% of your workforce yearly because of working conditions? No problem. But hang the pickpockets.

Since Three Mile Island, perhaps a million Americans have died from coal power, mostly from cancer and heart disease from particulates, but this number includes between 50,000 and 100,000 coal miners. This does not include health and environmental effects (all very serious) of ozone, mercury and other heavy metals, or the carbon. Coal causes acid rain, unhealthy for plants and animals, not to mention agriculture.

In approximately a decade, we will reach a level of atmospheric carbon somewhat arbitrarily called dangerous– at that point, it is thought, there is a 20% chance of triggering abrupt climate change (am not sure about the 20%, it’s how I read the explanation in Meeting the Challenge). Our per capita carbon emissions from coal are approximately the same as the total per capita carbon emissions of countries such as Portugal and France. US per capita carbon emissions are almost 6 tonnes of carbon; without nuclear power, this would go up perhaps another 3/4 tonne. To stabilize atmospheric carbon levels at a low level, we need to reduce per capita emissions below a quarter tonne or so rapidly, and then zero it out from there.

Climate change, even without abrupt climate change, is affecting patterns of rainfall and drought. In some areas of the world, a drought means choosing which child dies. It may mean having no control over the number of children who die.

Yes, the thinking of the people in energy policy is dichotomous: pretty much everything vs coal. Should coal ever be eliminated as a fuel, then the thinking will be pretty much everything vs natural gas (if there is any natural gas left).

For the first year or two or three of my interest in the environment, effects on people were my major focus, along with the increased chances of war because of environmental changes. I only became interested in the environment itself later.

Coal kills. It kills tens of thousands annually in the US, it kills hundreds of thousands annually all over the world. And more people will die from the carbon.

As someone who grew up lower class, I am acutely aware of how rarely members of the middle and upper class mention coal miner deaths, and the deaths due to pollution that disproportionately harm the lower class. A million Americans have died from coal power since TMI.

I will return in future posts to dispassionate explanations of the issues. I will hide my lower class origins.

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