What about the effects of coal burning on climate?

What about the effects of coal burning on climate?

First of all, the whole issue of climate change being due to human activity is, literally, up in the air. Scientists disagree, politicians disagree, and so does everybody else who has studied the issue. Second, most people think that if humans are having an effect on climate, it is to make the weather warmer. Whether this is good or bad is another big issue of controversy. So right off the bat there are no clear or simple answers regarding climate change or global warming. So there is also no clear, simple reason to do anything about it at this time. At this point it is just a big argument.

Where coal comes in is that one of the possible human drivers of climate change, if there is one, is carbon dioxide, or CO2. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere seems to be increasing. Burning anything gives off a combination of water and CO2, and burning coal is no exception. Since we burn a billion tons of coal a year in the United States, those people who are worried about climate change and global warming are worried about burning coal. They want us to cut back on coal burning or stop it altogether, to reduce the amount of CO2 we put into the atmosphere of the earth.

On the side of coal burning, people point out three things. First and foremost, CO2 is what plants eat. Almost all of every plant's body is derived from CO2. In fact since all animals live on plants, or on animals that eat plants, life on earth depends on carbon dioxide.

CO2 is the stuff of life, so how can CO2 be bad? Some people even argue that since CO2 is what plants eat, more of it will increase plant growth, helping to feed the growing human population. We don't want to cut back on CO2 if it will cut back on people's food. (See Greening Earth Society.)

Second, our coal burning is just a tiny fraction of all the burning of stuff done by the 6 billion people on the planet; perhaps one quarter of one percent of the total. But since burning coal is where most of our cheap electricity comes from, it is very important to us. We should not give up this cheap electricity without a good reason. (see Fossil Fuels.)

Finally, all of the CO2 put into the air each year by humans burning stuff, including gasoline, natural gas, wood and coal, is just a tiny fraction of the CO2 that comes from other, "natural" sources. The earth is covered with plants and the sea is full of them. Many of these plants die each year, and when they do, they return much of their CO2 to the atmosphere, where other plants can use it. So the coal we burn to make electricity is just a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction of the CO2 that goes into the atmosphere.

But in fact when we burn fossil fuels we are returning to the atmosphere the CO2 that plants sucked out of it millions of years ago, locking it up as the carbon in fossil fuels. Coal is nothing but the remains of the billions and billions of plants that covered the earth millions of years ago. Plants that were buried before they could return their life giving carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.


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