The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Coal helped make America great. Now it’s holding us back.

What Trump’s EPA gets wrong about coal.

Emissions rise from American Electric Power Co.'s coal-fired John E. Amos Power Plant in Winfield, W.Va., in July. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News)

The Environmental Protection Agency announced new rules last week to eliminate President Barack Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan. The decision was unsurprising, given President Trump’s devotion to promoting coal and coal miners and promising to restore them to their glory days.

This move, however, is shortsighted and dangerous. It ignores the fact that although coal played a significant role in pushing the United States toward global predominance in the 19th and 20th centuries, it simultaneously did crippling environmental damage — damage that must be stopped before it is too late. As a nation, our objective should be to leverage the advantages that our coal wealth bestowed upon us to make an economically and environmentally beneficial transition to desperately needed clean-energy resources.

While water power and wood-fired steam were the United States’ most important early energy sources, Pennsylvania anthracite began to make inroads after canals were dug in the 1820s and 1830s, allowing coal delivery to industrial towns along the Atlantic seaboard. Factories quickly emerged in the iron, glass, paper and textile industries, with coal-fired steam driving the specialized machines critical to the success of these manufacturing works. Steam-powered cities such as Boston, Providence, Buffalo, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh propelled the national economy.

This paved the way for the inauguration of the Hydrocarbon Age in the mid-1860s. While coal had been just one of several energy sources, it became an essential component of the American way of life.

Coal-fired steel manufacturing, in particular, developed into the nation’s most important industrial frontier. It was used to construct continent-straddling railroad networks and vertically expanding urban centers. In the 20th century, coal became the central force behind the electrification revolution. This dramatically expanded its importance and led to yet another wave of massive economic growth.

Disturbingly, most of the increase in coal use during the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century did not involve relatively clean-burning anthracite. Instead, the more readily available and dirtier-burning bituminous coal came to the fore.

While coal was powering economic, political and social progress, it was also birthing a climate crisis that has come to threaten humanity’s ability to survive on this planet.

Climate science began to emerge in 1896, when Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius published research suggesting that increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide from the burning of coal could produce a greenhouse effect that would alter the global climate.

Significant efforts to understand global warming, however, arose only in the mid-20th century. In the 1950s, Roger Revelle, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, conducted research proving that the oceans could not absorb all of the carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere. That same decade, he began a collaboration with Charles David Keeling to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide contributions. This eventually spawned the famous Keeling Curve, a simple chart that clearly showed that the share of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was increasing dramatically.

Although for some time it could be plausibly argued that climate science wasn’t mature enough to mandate aggressive actions to address global warming, that level of certainty was achieved long ago, and the conclusions were unimpeachable: The carbon dioxide emitted from coal-fired power plants around the world has played an outsize role in creating the global warming that is radically altering our climate.

For most, this contradiction is hard to reconcile. Coal should be good or bad. But it is critical for everyday Americans and policymakers alike to chart a path forward that acknowledges the benefits coal provided, while also embracing the need to eliminate its use, to safeguard the advances that it delivered. This will allow us to praise the historic contributions made by coal miners from West Virginia to Wyoming, while at the same time doing what our forebears have always done when faced with new and dire challenges — adopt forward-thinking policies aimed at ensuring national success.

But Americans have been slow to accept these ideas. It wasn't until about a decade ago that the American government began to take the crisis seriously.

After legislative efforts to create a cap-and-trade program failed in Congress, Obama recognized the need to act unilaterally. He used his executive powers to fashion the Clean Power Plan, a far-reaching program that promoted state-based approaches to replacing coal-fired power plants with cleaner sources of electricity. His objective was not to hurt coal miners, as Trump might contend, but rather to provide climate security to the entire nation while creating millions of good-paying green jobs.

But now, that vision for our collective future is under assault. Trump is tearing down the foundations of a badly needed sustainability revolution. Gutting the Clean Power Plan follows a long line of anti-environmental moves by the Trump administration, including withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. It is highly dubious that this will provide any benefits to coal miners, but it is guaranteed to compromise the well-being of all Americans.

We are all vulnerable to extreme, climate-change-related weather events, sea-level rises, water scarcity and food insecurity. Models predict that the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes hitting the United States could increase by 45 to 87 percent in coming years. We are already seeing the effects of increased flooding and wildfires that cause billions of dollars of damage.

Sea levels are expected to rise by at least three feet by 2100, although some experts predict accelerated melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets could lead to far greater increases. Desertification, aquifer depletion and reduced snowmelt are drastically reducing the amount of water available for agriculture, which is already compromising our ability to feed ourselves and could lead to mass migrations capable of threatening our national and economic security.

Taking into account that Republicans control all levers of government, there is little that progressives can do to stop the actions of the Trump administration before the midterm elections. But Democrats should be running on a message rooted in the need to provide the American people with climate security — and they need to do it in a way that convinces Americans that protecting our climate can be done while expanding the economy.

Democrats need to develop a comprehensive sustainability revolution. The centerpiece of such a program should be a carbon tax to fund clean-energy research and nationwide infrastructure renewal. But this tax should also be coupled with a reduction in payroll taxes for working Americans, which would alleviate concerns that a carbon tax would have a negative economic impact while addressing the other great challenge facing the nation — income inequality.

This would put our country back onto a path toward mitigating the dangers posed by the climate crisis and do it in a politically and economically palatable way. Once again, our goal should be to replicate the economic advances provided by coal, but this time with clean-energy resources. Our future demands nothing less.