This Sunday's New York Times features an in-depth story titled "Pollution From Chinese Coal Casts A Global Shadow." The Times certainly deserves credit for pointing out the toxic black cloud that, Winnie-the-Pooh-like, follows individual shoppers around the world as they search for the honey tree of sweet deals. Recommended as a background piece to climate change issues, the Times article, as well as the just-reviewed "Big Coal" book are as important as "Unintended Consequences." Counter-point: publicly traded oil companies draw the scrutiny of persons of every political stripe, while "coal" misses this sort of brand-specific attention. Lacking that link, it is little wonder that few in North America or Europe see that most of China's recent coal emissions exist for it's customers: and that would be "us".Comprehension is low, while the hazards posed by Chinese coal consumptoin are very high indeed, and increasing. How many of us know that much of China's coal reserves are so highly burdened with sulfer, flouride, and arsenic that many people been directly poisoned through it's use in cooking? How many "consumers" ( 'proxy emitters' ) realize that Chinese power plant owners will be reluctant to add sulfer dioxide scrubbing equipment in a time of electricity shortfalls because the pollution controls "parasitize" a big portion of the electricity? How many of us feel justified in dissing the Kyoto protocol until China makes a parallel committment to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions? The truth-in-the-shadows list is long.
Lester Brown has pointed out that the present course of rapid Chinese economic growth is unsustainable. The corrolary lesson is that we "un-green" have set China upon this course through our consumption. While it is convenient and sometimes even helpful to have a commercial or national scapegoat...there is a bit of this in the constant mentioning of Exxon-Mobile as the 'bad example' among oil companies or China as the big future emitter of green house gases...to frame a good/bad choice, coal has no single corporate bad guy or nation to characterize it. We all stand alone in the global cloud-shadow, clicking away on keys made made with electricity produced as inefficiently as it was for our great-grandparents.
So, celebrate the New York Times for pointing out the cloud. Support green technology transfer to China. Buy locally-produced goods. The list of constructive things to do, too, is long. See the TreeHugger archives for a plenty more examples. There's always enough time to make the world a better place.