Hansen arrested, protesting coal

June 25, 2009

in Law, Politics, The environment

James Hansen, head of NASAs Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was arrested while protesting mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia. Hansen has been one of the most prominent scientists giving warning about the seriousness of climate change.

The problem of climate change is certainly serious enough to warrant civil disobedience, as recommended by Al Gore. Hopefully, such actions can help to draw attention to the myriad harms associated with coal mining and use. Increasingly, it makes sense to see coal as a densely packed form of carbon dioxide, already helpfully located underground, rather than a fuel we should be using.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt June 25, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Increasingly, it makes sense to see coal as a densely packed form of carbon dioxide…

For accuracy, it makes sense to see coal as a densely packed form of carbon (with varying levels of other elements), not carbon dioxide. I’m not trying to be pedantic but I think it’s worthwhile to make the distinction, especially because the formerly living organisms that became the coal would have released substantial quantities of oxygen to the atmosphere. It’s important for people to know the whole cycle.

Milan June 25, 2009 at 8:16 pm

If we had the technology to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere at a huge scale, it is quite possible that we would be making and burying something like coal.

Matt June 25, 2009 at 9:00 pm

Absolutely, but it would be ideal to liberate the oxygen and just bury the carbon, much like coal.

Tristan June 26, 2009 at 12:52 am

“If we had the technology to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere at a huge scale, it is quite possible that we would be making and burying something like coal.”

This is definitely wrong. Of course it’s possible to turn C02 into coal, but that would use – under theoretical ideal conditions – exactly as much energy as we got out of burning it (the C-O2 bond, the creation of which released energy, would have to be broken). What we in fact will be burying is liquid Co2, which is extremely nasty stuff because of what happens if it happens to react with water.

Tristan June 26, 2009 at 12:56 am

“Increasingly, it makes sense to see coal as a densely packed form of carbon dioxide…”

I agree. A thing is its potency – if it weren’t for the potency of coal to become carbon dioxide and release heat, it wouldn’t be coal – it would be something else, and we wouldn’t mine it. So in a certain sense, a coal mountain is the possibility of turning a coal mountain into a lot of Co2 for a (proportionally) small amount of energy.

Milan June 26, 2009 at 9:13 am

Liquified CO2 is another possible form of carbon to bury, sure.

The key similarities between coal and what we would ideally want to bury are high carbon content and stability across geological time. Whatever we bury will also have embedded energy in it: either chemical energy in a form that some reaction could release or energy embedded in its production and processing, such as separating CO2 from the waste gas stream of a facility and liquifying it.

In any case, the point is that we would probably be wiser to leave existing coal in the ground.

Tristan June 26, 2009 at 10:21 am

Milan, I don’t think you understand. Turning CO2 into C and O2 uses the same amount of energy as is released when C bonds with O2, i.e. burning coal. So, unless we find a free-energy source, coal as a form of CO2 sequestering isn’t going to work.

Liquified Co2 doesn’t really have any stability across geological time, not if water gets anywhere near it. Isolating liquid CO2 from water on a geological scale means storing it with the same kind of care as we store nuclear waste.

Milan June 26, 2009 at 10:29 am

I think I expressed my initial point badly and have been subsequently misunderstood. Nobody is planning to make artificial coal to sequester carbon.

It is possible that we will eventually be able to sequester the CO2 from burning coal, other fossil fuels, or biomass and do so using less energy than the power plants would produce. There is, however, enough doubt about the viability of carbon capture and storage to make it unwise to depend on it emerging quickly and inexpensively.

As such, we should be transitioning away from coal as a power source, especially in richer states that can easily afford alternatives.

Tristan June 26, 2009 at 10:50 am

Incidentally, if some free-energy source were found, then artificial coal would be an excellent way to sequester carbon.

. June 26, 2009 at 1:44 pm

June 23, 2009, 6:00 am
Raytheon Tests Carbon Sequestration
By Kevin Ferguson

Raytheon says it is testing a leak-proof method of keeping sequestered carbon dioxide buried deep in the ground — using some of the same technology it developed to increase production of oil from shale.

The latest sequestration method involves encasing the gas in gel, pumping it underground, and then heating it with microwaves until the gel solidifies. The extraction technology, for its part, involves heating the shale with microwaves before pumping liquid carbon dioxide into the formations to separate kerogen, an organic precursor of oil, from the rock.

In both instances, Raytheon partnered with CF Technologies of Hyde Park, Mass. CF Technologies specializes in so-called supercritical fluids, substances that share properties of both liquids and gases when subjected to high pressure and temperature. Carbon dioxide is commonly used as a supercritical fluid.

dot April 13, 2011 at 6:35 pm
. February 23, 2013 at 9:16 pm

The presence of activists with unreasonable demands also serves an important signaling function. It is a peculiar feature of human psychology that we look first to one another, not to reality, for cues on how to behave. Psych experiments reveal that people will not intervene in a crisis situation — even an obvious crisis situation, like a room on fire or a woman being attacked — until they see others doing the same:

“The passive bystanders in this study succumbed to what’s known as “pluralistic ignorance” — the tendency to mistake one another’s calm demeanor as a sign that no emergency is actually taking place. There are strong social norms that reinforce pluralistic ignorance. It is somewhat embarrassing, after all, to be the one who loses his cool when no danger actually exists.”

“Pluralistic ignorance.” Have you ever heard a better description of climate politics?

When activists go out and march and chant and chain themselves to bulldozers and get arrested in the name of fighting climate change, those actions may not be popular with the wider public, but they signal to the wider public that there is an emergency. That signaling has been missing from the climate discussion. People talk like the world is in danger but they don’t act like the world is in danger. Doing some of that signaling is a service in itself, even if doesn’t directly reduce any carbon emissions.

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