August 7, 2012
August 7, 2012
August 7, 2012
About one train per hour. That’s the target loading rate for the massive silos, conveyors, and hoppers at the North Antelope Rochelle Mine in Wyoming, the most productive coal mine in the world. And on a cool, nearly windless day in late March, Scott Durgin, a regional vice president for Peabody Energy, was happy. Standing in the mine’s dispatch office, Durgin pointed to a flat-panel display showing a list of trains that had recently passed through. It was exactly 12 noon, according to the clock on the wall, and since midnight, the mine had loaded 11 trains, each carrying about 16,000 tons of coal. I asked Durgin how long Peabody could continue mining in the region. Easily for another five decades, he replied: “There’s no end to the coal here.”
The scale and productivity of the mine are difficult to imagine. It produces about three tons of coal per second. But despite its staggering output, the North Antelope Rochelle Mine—along with the other 1,300 coal mines operating in the U.S.—is being threatened by the Obama administration. On March 27, just two days before my visit to the mine, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposal that would, if enacted, outlaw the construction of new coal-fired power plants in the United States. The EPA’s motives are clear: it believes that these plants, by emitting carbon dioxide in profusion, contribute to global warming.
There’s no denying that coal has earned its reputation as a relatively dirty fuel. But those concerned about CO2 emissions and climate change should realize that the administration’s attack on coal is little more than a token gesture. The rest of the world will continue to burn coal, and lots of it. Reducing the domestic use of coal may force Americans to pay higher prices for electricity, but it will have nearly no effect on global emissions.
Coal has been an essential fuel for electricity production ever since 1882, when Thomas Edison used it in the first central power plant, at 255–57 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. Edison’s technological breakthroughs at Pearl Street—the list includes the incandescent bulb, the safety fuse, the light socket, the generator, and insulated wiring—led to a tsunami of electrification that continues to this day. By 1890, just eight years after Edison began the revolution, there were 1,000 central power stations in the United States, and new ones were being added at a frenzied pace. All of them burned coal.
Of course, Edison wasn’t the first to exploit coal. The first instance of coal use probably occurred in China some 3,000 years ago. But coal became far more controversial during the Industrial Revolution, when its use in factories made some cities nearly uninhabitable. On one particularly nasty day in London in 1812, a combination of coal smoke and fog became so dense that, according to one report, “for the greater part of the day it was impossible to read or write at a window without artificial light. Persons in the streets could scarcely be seen in the forenoon at two yards distance.” Today, the same problem is plaguing China. The New York Times reports that in Datong, known as the City of Coal, the air pollution on some winter days is so bad that “even during the daytime, people drive with their lights on.”
Air pollution is only part of the coal industry’s environmental and human toll. The industry damages the surface of the earth through strip mines, mountaintop removal, and ash ponds at power plants. In addition, thousands of workers die each year in the world’s coal mines—about 2,000 last year in China alone.
But the media and policymakers are more focused on the amount of carbon dioxide that coal-fired power plants emit. In a 2009 opinion piece for the Guardian, climate scientist James Hansen declared coal “the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet,” adding, for good measure, that “the trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death.” Powerful environmental groups like the Sierra Club—which, by the way, is getting $50 million from New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to help fund its “beyond coal” campaign—are pushing for a total ban on coal-fired electricity generation in the United States.
The EPA’s proposed rule banning new coal-fired electricity generation results directly from the fear of climate change. Pointing out that greenhouse gases “endanger both the public health and the public welfare of current and future generations,” the rule would cap the amount of CO2 that new fossil-fueled electricity generation units can emit, at 1,000 pounds per megawatt-hour. That would rule out coal-fired units, which emit about 1,800 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. (Natural gas–fired units emit about 800 pounds per megawatt-hour.) The EPA claims that it has the authority to regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act and therefore doesn’t need congressional approval to impose the ban. The rule will probably be enacted during the next few months, after the agency collects comments from the public, though subsequent litigation and political fights are certain.
But even if the EPA and the Obama administration succeed in prohibiting new coal-fired electricity generation in the United States, they will leaveglobal coal demand and CO2 emissions almost unchanged. Over the past decade or so, American coal consumption fell by 5 percent, but global coal consumption soared, growing by about the same amount as the growth in oil, natural gas, and nuclear combined. Coal now fuels about 40 percent of global electricity production. Coal’s dominance helps explain why global CO2 emissions rose by 28.5 percent between 2001 and 2010, even as American CO2 emissions fell by 1.7 percent. Over the past decade, even if American emissions had dropped to zero, global emissions would still have increased.
And coal consumption will keep rising as electricity consumption rises. Between 1990 and 2010, global electricity production increased by about 450 terawatt-hours—roughly the amount of electricity that Brazil consumes—per year. The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects electricity use to keep growing by about one Brazil per year through 2035. Given this surging electricity demand, it’s no surprise that between 2001 and 2010, global coal consumption rose by 47 percent, or the equivalent of about 23 million barrels of oil per day. During the same period, daily consumption of petroleum grew by 10 million barrels, while natural-gas consumption grew by the equivalent of 12.9 million barrels of oil per day and nuclear-energy consumption grew by the equivalent of 510,000 barrels per day…
Deep in the Syrian Archives in Damascus, one can find black-and-white photographs of a militaryparade that took place in the Syrian capital on Syria’s 17th Independence Day: April 17, 1963. The event occurred only 40 days after the Baath Party seized power. Members of Syria’s top brass were dressed in their military attire, with colorful decorations of medals across their uniforms, and led by the two co-creators of the Baath regime: Deputy Chief of Staff Salah Jadid and Air Force Commander Hafez al-Assad. Behind them fluttered the official Syrian flag: a standard with three stripes of green, white, and black and three red stars drawn across the middle.
Nearly half a century later, this same flag is being waved by those seeking to destroy the regime Assad created and obliterate the Baath Party he commanded. But the symbol of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad is being trashed by regime officials, who claim that it is the “flag of the French Mandate” imposed on Syria from 1920 to 1946. According to state-run media, Syrian rebels are using it to restore Western hegemony over Syria, part of a “galactic” Qatari, Israeli, Saudi, and American plot against Damascus.
From 1932 to 1963 (with one short 1958-1961 interruption), the “revolutionary flag” was Syria’s official flag, which explains why it still strikes a nostalgic chord among elderly Syrians. The struggle to return to it speaks volumes about anti-regime Syrians’ national identity and their desire to break with everything that reminds them of 49 years of Baath Party rule — even if it means bringing down Syria’s oldest surviving state symbol.
Attacking the flag as a symbol of colonialism lacks credibility. For years, after all, it had been hailed by state-run Syrian TV on Independence Day as a symbol of Syria’s long fight against the French Mandate, rather than a sign of subservience to it. It had been created in 1932 — during the era of Syria’s first democratically elected civilian president, Muhammad Ali al-Abid — by a parliamentary committee headed by the respected Ibrahim Hananu, one of the leaders of the anti-French revolts in the 1920s, whose name has been immortalized in Syrian history books, even by the Baathists themselves. The colors referred to rulers in Syria’s past — white for the Umayyads, black for the Abbasids, and green for the Fatimid dynasties of Islam.
The flag was hoisted on government buildings on the day of Syria’s independence from France in 1946, and it remained Syria’s flag until 1958, when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser abolished it upon the creation of the United Arab Republic. Syrians returned to the green-white-black standard when the union was dissolved in 1961, and it remained in use for almost a year after the Baathists came to power in 1963.
This long history explains why the flag remains such a potent symbol. It had been used by 12 Syrian presidents, starting with Abid and up to Amin al-Hafez in 1964. It survived 14 years of French occupation, one war with Israel, and six coups. The Syrian regime cannot write it off so easily.
That may explain why Syrian officialdom, taken completely aback by the audacity of a new flag, was slow in reacting to the new symbol. After initial hesitation on how to react to the flag controversy, pro-regime commentators began appearing on talk shows, in a clearly systematic campaign, trashing the old flag as having been “created and imposed by the French high commissioner in 1932, against the will of the Syrian people.” The story was baseless, of course, and they could not document their argument. They also failed to answer why, if this were true, the people of Syria maintained the “commissioner’s flag” 17 years after the end of the French Mandate.
Commentators also invented an imaginary story that the three stars in the middle of the old flag were a reference to three sectarian states created during the Mandate: the Alawite state, the Druze state, and the Sunni state (though no such states ever existed in Syrian history). “Those carrying the Mandate flag” they barked on TV, “want to divide Syria along sectarian lines and create three confessional states in our midst.” In reality, however, the three stars on the old flag, according to the official 1932 decree, referred to “three revolts against the Mandate” — those of the Alawites, the Druze, and northern Syria, headed by Hananu himself. They are symbols of unity, not federalism…
In Sri Lanka last September, a Sinhalese mob led by some 100 Buddhist monks demolished a Muslim shrine in the ancient city of Anuradhapura. As the crowd waved Buddhist colors, gold and red, a monk set a green Muslim flag on fire. The monks claimed that the shrine was on land that had been given to the Sinhalese 2,000 years ago — an allusion to their proprietary right over the entire island nation, as inscribed in ancient religious texts.
The Anuradhapura attack was not the only recent incident of Buddhists behaving badly in Sri Lanka. In April, monks led nearly 2,000 Sinhalese Buddhists in a march against a mosque in Dambulla, a holy city where Sinhalese kings are believed to have taken refuge from southern Indian invaders in a vast network of caves almost two millennia ago. The highly charged — but largely symbolic — attack marked a “historic day,” a monk who led the assault told the crowd, “a victory for those who love the [Sinhala] race, have Sinhala blood, and are Buddhists.”
Such chauvinism is at odds with Western preconceptions of Buddhism — a religion that emphasizes nonviolence and nonattachment — but is in keeping with Sri Lanka’s religious history. Militant Buddhism there has its roots in an ancient narrative called the Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle), which was composed by monks in the sixth century. According to the Mahavamsa, the Buddha foresaw the demise of Buddhism in India but saw a bright future for it in Sri Lanka. “In Lanka, O Lord of Gods, shall my religion be established and flourish,” he said. The Sinhalese take this as a sign that they are the Buddha’s chosen people, commanded to “preserve and protect” Buddhism in its most pristine form. According to myth, a young Sinhalese prince in the second century BC armed himself with a spear tipped with a relic of the Buddha and led a column of 500 monks to vanquish Tamil invaders. In addition to defending his kingdom from mortal peril, the prince’s victory legitimized religious violence as a means for national survival.
Militant Buddhism was a driving force behind the 25-year war between the majority Sinhalese (74 percent of the population) and the minority Tamils (18 percent), who were fighting for an independent state in the island’s north and east. (Muslims, who make up six percent of Sri Lanka’s population, were often caught in the middle.) During the war, monks repeatedly undercut efforts to work out a peace agreement.
The sangha, as the clergy is collectively referred to in Theravada Buddhism, has historically exercised political power from behind the scenes, embodying a broad form of religious nationalism. But in the later years of the war, it became more overtly politicized. In 2004, the hard-line National Heritage Party (known as the JHU) elected seven of its members to Parliament; all were monks, and the party ran on a platform calling for a return to Buddhist morality in public life. Soon after being seated, the JHU staged an intramural brawl on the floor of Parliament.
The JHU also worked to scuttle a March 2002 Norwegian-brokered peace settlement that called for limited Tamil autonomy. Monks declared that Sri Lanka had always been a Sinhalese kingdom, that autonomy violated the near-mystical idea of a unitary state, and that there was no option other than a military one. Peace negotiations simply made the Tamil Tigers stronger, as one of the party’s more outspoken clerics, Athuraliye Rathana, whom the Sri Lankan media dubbed the War Monk, argued. “If they give up their weapons, then we can talk,” he said. “If not, then we will control them by whatever means necessary. We should fight now and talk later.” In the spring of 2006, monks attacked an ecumenical group of peace marchers and led a long sit-in against a cease-fire agreement that soon came apart, leading to another round of fighting.
As the bloodshed wore on, much of the Buddhist clergy gave its blessing to a final offensive on the separatist Tamil Tigers. In May of 2009, the Sri Lankan military emerged from that battle triumphant. But its brutal offensive against the Tigers has made President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government the target of broad international condemnation. Reliable estimates of civilian deaths range as high as 40,000, and Britain’s Channel Four has documented summary executions of Tamil Tiger prisoners in its program “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.” Although human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Council, have called for an investigation into humanitarian abuses and possible war crimes, the Rajapaksa government has resisted. The monks have backed this obstinacy, saying that such demands attack what Sinhalese refer to as the Buddhist “motherland.” …