Hansen stands by coal train/death train analogy

coal-train.jpgIn his final testimony submitted to the Iowa Utilities Board on the proposed coal-fired power plant in Iowa, NASA’s James Hansen used a very provocative metaphor about the trains that deliver coal:

If we cannot stop the building of more coal-fired power plants, those coal trains will be death trains — no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria, loaded with uncountable irreplaceable species.

The President and CEO of the National Mining Association wrote Hansen a letter (posted here by Hansen with his response) complaining:

The suggestion that coal utilization for electricity generation can be equated with the systematic extermination of European Jewry is both repellent and preposterous…. I believe you owe the hard-working men and women of the coal mining and railroad industries an apology and respectfully request that you refrain from making such comments in the future.

Hansen’s reply was:

There is nothing scientifically invalid about the above paragraph. If this paragraph makes you uncomfortable, well, perhaps it should.

I have a slightly different view of the metaphor.

Hansen’s statement is scientifically valid, especially since it was clearly given in the context of a discussion on species loss. Indeed, the IPCC just said the scientific consensus is that if we don’t reverse our current emissions path quickly, “model projections suggest significant extinctions (40-70% of species assessed) around the globe.”

That said, “boxcars headed to crematoria” is a very loaded phrase, inevitably conjuring up the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews, a connection everyone, including Hansen, should be cautious about making. [I actually can’t think of a good analogy for what global warming may do to this planet — it is so far beyond anything that has happened in human history.]

Still, I don’t think an apology is necessary, especially to the NMA, which here offers no statement recognizing either the dangers of global warming or its own culpability — which is great, since it has devoted considerable effort to blocking action on global warming over the years.

Hansen’s point of elaboration is also worth repeating:

… coal-fired power plants that capture and sequester the CO2 are consistent with preserving creation, life on the planet as we know it, but the required technology is not yet ready. Until technology is ready, there should be a moratorium on construction of new coal-fired power plants in developed countries. Developing countries must phase out such construction within a decade. Realization that all coal-fired power plants without actual carbon capture will have to be “bull-dozed” in the next several decades, in all countries, should serve as an effective brake on new construction of coal-fired power plants during the next few years in all countries.

It should — but only when everyone realizes the truth of what Hansen has been saying for two decades.

6 Responses to Hansen stands by coal train/death train analogy

  1. Ron says:

    I just wonder how people will build levees and dams and other infrastructure to deal with weather disasters if they can’t use carbon-based fuels. Seems like you’re trying to paint us into a corner.

  2. Ronald says:

    The description of crematoriums does not have to mean a reference to murder of people in Germany during World War II. Crematoriums is in reference to getting Cremated.

    The National Mining Association commentator has taken the Crematorium reference to far.

  3. Joe says:

    They will use clean energy — or make the problem worse.

  4. henry says:

    “Until technology is ready, there should be a moratorium on construction of new coal-fired power plants in developed countries. Developing countries must phase out such construction within a decade.”

    So lets see if I’ve got this right (to paraphrase Hansen)

    Until technology is ready, there should be a moratorium on construction of new coal-fired power plants in the US. China (developing country), which already has: 1) the world’s largest coal driven power plant, 2) most coal mining deaths, and 3) least control over mines (construction, safety, location, etc) can continue using their resources for the next ten years (must phase out such construction within a decade).

    Talk about loaded trains!

  5. john says:


    What folks forget is that the US and the developed countries have been using the atmosphere as their own personal open dump for a century and a half or more.

    It will be about a hundred years before China comes close to causing the same CUMULATIVE loading of GHG as the US … so, yeah, if we’re concerned about loaded stuff, forget the trains, it’s the atmosphere, and we’re the loader.

    Let me give you an analogy — Imagine you and your neighbor live in a beautiful wooded area — even though neither of you own the land, your houses are worth a fortune because of the view and the quiet and the wildlife. Now, imagine that for ten years he’s been cutting down the trees and selling the lumber – even though it’s not his property. Imagine he gets up each morning and hunts the land, and he hasn’t had to buy groceries for years. Between the lumber and the hunting, he’s growing rich. Now imagine he finds some ore and digs up the land and sells the minerals. He gets even richer. Meanwhile, your property value has gone down because the view has been destroyed, the animals are disappearing, and the area is covered with open pits.

    Finally, you decide you’re going to go out, get a chainsaw and a rifle and backhoe and do what he’s been doing. But no sooner do you start than this neighbor comes over and says, “Hey, you’ve got no right to tear this place up.”

    Well, that’s what you’re saying to China.

    As for Hansen’s metaphor, if it shocks it’s good. Our enemies are ignorance and complacency, not apt or inapt metaphors.

    For the mining folks to be indignant about anything is kind of like someone who has just caused a mass death getting exorcised about not using the right fork for salad.

  6. henry says:

    Just a few clips from the media:

    “The scale of China’s own entangled history with coal is overwhelming. Right across northern China, coal seams burn in un-stoppable fires.

    Some have been burning naturally for thousands of years, but others are being set alight by small-scale mining operations seeking to cash in on soaring coal prices. Together, these perpetual fires are letting off a total amount of carbon dioxide each year equal to all the cars in the USA.

    Far more than previously acknowledged, the battle against global warming will be won or lost in China, even more so than in the West, new data show.

    A report released last week by Beijing authorities indicated that as its economy continues to expand at a red-hot pace, China is highly likely to overtake the United States this year or in 2008 as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

    This information, along with data from the International Energy Agency, the Paris-based alliance of oil importing nations, also revealed that China’s greenhouse gas emissions have recently been growing by a total amount much greater than that of all industrialized nations put together.”

    So, using your reference (about land), I agree – we’ve been progressing. So has our neighbor. Our neighbor has now got 100 times more people than we do, requiring greater resources, and fouling everybody’s air at a rate greater than the rest of the world. And saying it’s our fault.

    Yet the blame is still being placed on the “developed” world. If increased pollution is a result of development, then China is more developed than us.

    If we want to talk about coal trains of death, who uses more coal?

    If shock is what people need to see the problem, consider the future pictures from the next Olympics – in China. Imagine the stadiums filled with people wearing masks. Scenes from the “man-on-the-street”, looking through the haze. The smoggy sunsets – see the picture yet?

    But that’s ok, they signed Kyoto, so they’re better that us, right?