One of the hardest things to grasp about the climate crisis is the connectedness of all things. One recent drizzly afternoon, I drove from Charleston, West Virginia, to the John Amos coal-fired power plant on the banks of the Kanawha River, near the town of Nitro. In the rain, the plant looked like one of the dark satanic mills that poet William Blake wrote about, with three enormous cooling towers that steamed like giant witches’ cauldrons. Across the river from the plant, mobile homes cluttered the bank of the Kanawha, streaked black with pollution that rained down on them 24/7.
I had visited the plant 20 years ago, on my first reporting trip to West Virginia. Back then, the plant seemed like an indomitable monument to the power of Big Coal. The facility, owned by Ohio-based utility giant American Electric Power, is capable of generating 3,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 2 million homes. It is also one of the biggest carbon polluters on the planet, emitting 13 million tons of CO2 each year, which is equal to the annual emissions of about 3 million cars.
When I look at John Amos today, I see fire and rising seas, disease and hunger. I see a rusting industrial contraption that takes CO2 captured by trees 300 million years ago and rereleases it into the sky, bringing the heat of the past to our future. Coal plants are one of the primary reasons why shopping malls were burning in Colorado this winter and reservoirs in the West are dry. They are why Antarctica is cracking up, threatening the future of virtually every low-lying city in the world, from Boston to Bangkok. They are why infectious-disease patterns are changing in Nepal and crops are failing in Kenya and roads are washing out in Appalachia.
At this point in human evolution, burning coal for power is one of the stupidest things humans do. Coal plants are engines of destruction, not progress. Thanks to the rapid evolution of clean energy, there are many better, cheaper, cleaner ways to power our lives. The only reason anyone still burns coal today is because of the enormous political power and inertia that the industry has acquired since the 19th century. In America, that power and inertia is embodied in the cruel and cartoonish character of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who, paradoxically, may have more control over the trajectory of the climate crisis than any other person on the planet right now. [Continue reading…]