Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Punching a Straw Man

You’d better watch out around Mike Miller. When he’s got his dander up, he can throw some pretty mean punches. And he can land them squarely on the jaw of a straw man.

Writing in today’s Missoulian, Miller, a Republican legislator from Helmville, takes on environmentalists who he thinks want to “abandon [coal] entirely” and “rely wholly on alternatives.” While "the notion of everyone using strictly renewable energy sources may sound chintzy and nice,” he says, it just won’t work. We are way too dependent on coal to replace it with solar power. It’s going to take decades before solar power “can even make a dent” in our expanding energy demand. “Swearing off coal would do nothing more than plunge our society into the dark and leave 1.2 billion people around the world” in “energy poverty.” And so forth.

Whatever you may think about this heated rhetoric, here’s the thing: nobody is making the claims that Miller is trying to refute. Nobody is seeking to abandon coal entirely. Nobody is planning to rely wholly on alternatives.* Certainly nobody is claiming that using only renewable energy sources is “chintzy,” whatever that may mean. Nobody is denying that it is going to take time to bring more solar power on line. Like everybody else, environmentalists like to read or watch TV at night and have no plans to plunge society into the dark.

No. What environmentalists do say is that in order to arrest global warming, we need to reduce carbon emissions. And for right now, when it is urgent that we act, the lowest cost ways we have of reducing emissions – energy conservation, efficiency and renewables – all mean that we will burn less coal. The only way that we can reduce emissions and burn more coal is with carbon capture and sequestration. And that, as the coal industry never tires of telling us, is just too damn expensive.  The conclusion is inescapable: if we seriously want to reduce emissions and keep the impact on energy costs as low as possible, we must move away from coal. If you think about it, that’s not as bad as it sounds; it’s what we have been doing successfully in this country for almost a decade now.

Miller is conspicuously and utterly silent on the issue of carbon emissions. No surprise there: There are some hard choices to be made, and politicians (yup, I’m one) try to avoid making hard choices like the plague. But in the end we have to decide: is climate stability more important than “cheap” energy and profitable coal companies, or is it the other way around? Maybe Miller should spend some time thinking about that question instead of taking people to task for saying something they never said.

* Miller attributes the claim that we should “rely wholly on alternatives” to Todd Tanner and Lance Schelvan, writing in an earlier column in the Missoulian. You can check it out for yourself, but as far as I can see, Miller is making stuff up: Tanner and Schelvan are claiming no such thing.