08 August 2007

Big Coal, by Jeff Goodell

The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future
Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 324 pages.

"Dirty Secret," indeed. What we have here is a man-made natural disaster in the process of unfolding, about to shower our children and grandchildren with disease, poverty, misery, cold, and darkness. And chaos. Is that gloomy enough?

In this thoroughly readable book, Goodell lays out the history and contemporary state of Coal, the business, industry, rock, and energy source. He explains where it comes from and how it's used, and who controls the mining, transport, and burning of this enormously important and dangerous natural resource. He travels around the USA, and visits China, to get a picture of how Coal figures in the contemporary global economy and environment.

Among other things, this book contains one of the best explanations of "global warming" that I have encountered. Goodell points out that the phenomena collected under this umbrella title include many more things than a simple rise in temperature. In many places, so-called global warming may actually produce lower average temperatures. For example, ocean currents that bring warm air to the British Isles could be disturbed if the salinity of the ocean is changed from Polar ice melting.

Global warming is driven mainly by Carbon Dioxide, released into the atmosphere from any number of sources. The burning of coal is an abundant source of carbon dioxide. Most of the electricity in the USA comes from coal-fired generators.

While serious and devoid of facile optimism, Big Coal is not a pessimistic book, but rather a cautionary one. Goodell leaves us on a note of hope that the coming crisis may be seen by many as an opportunity for profitable innovation, and that solutions to our problems may be found. If we are blessed with journalists like Goodell, we will have the information that we'll need to address the problems, and find the solutions.

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