The Cost of Coal

A recent tweet trumpeted a report that 250,000 Chinese died in 2013 due to smog from coal ( The report on the deaths came partly from Greenpeace, of course.

The 5,354 MW Belchatów Power Station in Poland – one of the world’s largest coal fired power stations. Photo credit: Wikipedia

There is little question that coal is dangerous. It is dangerous to mine. Its emissions are a problem; coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste. Yet coal is cheap, abundant, and the demand for it is vast. As Justin Lin wrote in 2009 on the World Bank’s blog:

There are roughly 1.6 billion people in developing countries–700 million of whom are in Africa and 550 million in South Asia–who lack access to electricity. Because coal is often cheap and abundant, and the need for electricity is so great, coal plants are going to be built with or without our [World Bank] support.

The question that should spring  to everyone’s mind is “how many died in China from cold or indoor pollution before the electrification that the coal plant brought with it?” The Manichaeistic, black/white premise of something being all good (e.g., Renewable Energy) or all bad (e.g., Fossil Fuel) is at best, uncritical thinking, and at worst, lying.

Greenpeace, the report’s author, is of course fretting about climate change, and its answer is to turn back the clock. I am a luke-warmer in regards to climate change; I think the climate is much less sensitive to greenhouse gases than the Global Climate Models (GCM) that the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest. But even a full-throated supporter of climate change, such as Mark Lynas, sees the need for coal in places such as China and India:

The costs of poverty – which includes millions of preventable deaths of young children, lack of access to water and sanitation, reduced livelihood prospects, large-scale hunger and malnutrition, and so on… are clearly much greater than the direct costs of coal burning, and this equation probably still holds even when the future damages from climate change are factored in. – Mark Lynas, 2014, India’s coal conundrum

To be clear, the possible deaths of people due to the burning of coal are regrettable. Scrubbers would ameliorate the particulates that cause the health problems; as China and India get richer their people will become more vocal in their calls for cleaner air. At the moment, jobs, cleaner drinking water, sanitation, and food on the table appear to be of greater importance.

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Green Games

Cover of "The Skeptical Environmentalist:...

Cover of “The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World” Cover via Amazon


Here is today’s Green Chain column for the Lake County Record-Bee.

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” – John Maynard Keynes.

It appears we are witnessing the crumbling of the green movement, as we know it. Dr. James Lovelock, who postulated the ‘Gaia hypothesis’ of earth operating as a self-regulating organism, is the latest to stray, if not exactly leave the faith. The list non-orthodox greens grows continually and now includes Mark Lynas, the author of The God Species and Stewart Brand, the author of the iconic Whole Earth Catalog.

Perhaps the first to change his mind and leave the Greens was Dr. Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace. He felt those in the environmental movement had made their point,

“[W]hen a majority of people decide they agree with you it is probably time to stop hitting them over the head with a stick and sit down and talk to them about finding solutions to our environmental problems,” Patrick Moore says.

Greens have always been fractious, and similar to the Tea Party on the right, they hate compromise. Former Greenpeace director Paul Watson berated Patrick Moore in an email: “you’re a corporate whore, Pat, an eco-Judas, a lowlife bottom-sucking parasite…” And, Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist took a pie in the face from then true believer, Mark Lynas.

At the heart of the disagreement sits the use of technology. “There is a battle underway for the soul of environmentalism,” writes freelance journalist Keith Kloor, “It is a battle between traditionalists and modernists. Who prevails is likely to be determined by whose vision for the future is chosen by a new generation of environmentalists.”

Traditionalist Greens say, “Stop!” Technology is the Problem. The Worldwatch Institute says we should not simply stop growing our economies, but we must actually contract: “The rapidly warming Earth and the collapse of ecosystem services show that economic ‘degrowth’ in overdeveloped countries is essential and urgent…. Degrowth can be achieved through policies to discourage overconsumption, raising taxes, shortening work hours, and ‘informalizing’ certain sectors of the economy.” The goal, Rik Scarce writes in his book “Eco-Warriors,” is to arrive at “a steady-state relationship with all of nature’s creations, wherein human attitudes and actions dominate no one and no one thing. Their alternative seeks to guarantee life, liberty, evolution, and happiness for humans and non-humans alike.”

Modernist Greens say that technology has a role in making the world greener and more livable for all creatures, including humans. Stewart Brand says “If Greens don’t embrace science and technology” they risk becoming irrelevant.

The modernists are in favor of cities, people, and technology (including genetically engineered food).

Cities, people, and technology are…good? What is happening? Has the world gone crazy?

Perhaps the world is crazy. (Not exactly a news flash now, is it?)

As you know, I have argued on these pages that people, cities, technology, and economic growth have not only improved our lives here in the United States, but have improved the environment. Economic growth using non-renewables has overall been beneficial. The author of “The Rational Optimist,” Matt Ridley notes that technology takes less land and uses materials other species do not want:

“[E]conomic development leads to a switch to using resources that no other species needs or wants…. Contrast Haiti, which relies on biomass (wood) for cooking and industry, with its much (literally) greener neighbour the Dominican Republic, which subsidises propane for cooking to save forest…. [E]conomic growth leads to a more sparing use of the most important of all resources – land.”

Is economic growth and technology a wonder cure? A panacea that works with no side effects? No. But, then everything has its upsides and downsides.

If we humans continue to move from rural to urban (cities are denser), drill and mine for our energy rather than grow it, continue to wring more food and fiber from each acre, and develop incentives for conserving water and our fisheries, we will yet leave a better place for our (and Nature’s) children and grandchildren.

Matt Ridley sums it up well:

“Seven billion people going back to nature would be a disaster for nature.”


  • Johnston, Ian. ‘Gaia’ scientist James Lovelock: I was ‘alarmist’ about climate change.
  • “If Greens don’t embrace science and technology and jump ahead to a leading role in both, they may follow the Reds into oblivion.” Brand, Stewart. Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary · “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
  • Kloor, Keith. “The Limits to Environmentalism”
  • Assadourian, Erik. “The Path to Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries.” Worldwatch Institute, STATE OF THE WORLD 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity
  • Moore, Patrick. “Confessions of a Greenpeace founder.” 2011. Vancouver Sun.
  • Scarce, Rik. Eco-Warriors: understanding the radical environmental movement. 1990. Noble Press, Chicago, IL
  • “Seven billion people going back to nature would be a disaster for nature.” Comment by Matt Ridley. Hickman, Leo. Does consumption need tackling before population?

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Trees ain’t thermometers

I used to work on Mountain Home State Forest in the southern Sierra. MHSF has about 3000 specimen-sized sequoia within its boundaries. Dendrochronolgists often visited to see the stumps from logging in the mid to late 1800s. These were often over 2000 years old when they had been cut.

The Dendrochronolgists were interested in the tree-ring patterns. Trees grow fast or slow in response to many factors and these seasonal factors (light, water, nutrients) created ring signatures or patterns. Certain years might have been favorable for growth with plentiful water, light and nutrients (each favorable year would be marked a large, wide ring) and certain years might have had poor conditions for growth–drought, late spring conditions, early winter–marked by thin (in some cases–microscopic) rings. In general, the wider the ring the more favorable the growing season, the narrower the ring the poor the growing conditions. These ring patterns can be distinctive and can be used to date archeological sites (where wood is present).

Oxford’s Tree-ring Laboratory put it this way:

The way dendrochronology works is relatively simple. As a tree grows, it puts on a new growth or tree-ring every year, just under the bark. Trees grow, and put on tree-rings, at different rates according to the weather in any given year: a wider ring in a favourable year and a narrower ring in an unfavourable year. Thus, over a long period of time (say 60 years or more) there will be a corresponding sequence of tree-rings giving a pattern of wider and narrower rings which reflect droughts, cold summers, etc. In effect, the span of years during which a tree has lived will be represented by a unique fingerprint, which can be detected in other geographically-similar tree-ring chronologies.

Using tree rings as a proxy for temperature however is fraught with caveats and pitfalls.

Mike D.‘s of the Western Institute for Study of the Environment comment (on William M. Briggs’ blog) about using tree ring data as proxies for temperature is an excellent explanation of the problems of using tree ring growth for temperature. He starts with how tree rings are laid down:

Diameter growth on any tree is theoretically a sigmoid growth function. No tree puts on constant radial growth year after year. Trees grow by adding a layer of new wood at the cambium, under the bark. Each year a larger surface area is added. If growth is constant, the rings get narrower. But growth is never constant. There is significant deviation from ideal (model) sigmoid diameter growth in individual trees regardless of the weather. Even when sigmoid growth models are used, the natural variation adds statistical error.

Two sigmoid curves. The taller is the period annual increment for cubic feet; the lower smoother S curve is for mean annual increment of cubic feet.

So as the diameter expands, the amount of material put on would need to be more if the ring’s width was to stay the same as the previous season. Think of a clay disk that you add the same amount of clay to in successive rings. The volume of clay would be the same but the thickness of each new ring would decrease. The ring growth is S-shaped (sigmoid) because initially the tree has little foliage for photosynthesis and often puts its initial years into root development for survival. Then once roots are deep enough the tree puts its growth into height and width.

He then points out that tree-to-tree competition for light, water, and nutrients also affects the ring growth:

Dense stands exhibit narrow rings on individual trees, sparser stands may have wider ring growth, yet both stands may have equivalent gross growth. That’s why only open-grown trees are supposed to be selected for ring studies. But nobody knows what the tree density surrounding an individual tree was 100, 200, 500 years ago. Competitors could have arisen and died without leaving evidence of their presence so long ago. More error.

Besides competition, disease and injury can affect growth.

Trees can sustain injuries that affect growth, such as top and branch damage, that are difficult to detect 200 years later, especially a few feet off the ground where the rings are sampled. There are very few pristine, undamaged trees. I know, having searched for such across broad acreages. Open grown trees at high elevations are always damaged. A heavy winter snow can snap off branches and the tree will exhibit reduced diameter growth for a few years, even if growing season conditions are ideal.

This makes using tree ring data as stand-ins for temperature problematic.

Ring width has all but been abandoned as a temperature proxy. Instead, the latest technique is sampling rings for O18 ratios, under the assumption that O18 varies with temperature. Regardless of the ring width, the O18 ratio is supposed to have recorded growing season temperature. But that theory is fuzzy and mushy, and O18 ratios in living trees correlate very poorly with known growing season temperatures. In other words, it calibrates with much error at best.

Trees are not thermometers, but even thermometers have some serious measurement error problems.

Tree ring studies are a fad akin to phrenology and other discredited pseudosciences that has not dissipated as it should have decades ago.

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