The coal industry’s latest PR escapade paints coal as an amazing, versatile commodity with almost limitless possibilities, providing seemingly endless energy and employment.
In case you missed it: the #coalismazing video simulates a fly-through of magnified valleys and landscapes from the surface of a lump of coal along with accompanying purring female voice-over, recasting this old, dirty, sooty rock as something futuristic, alluring and a panacea for pretty much every global ill.
I expect most will be familiar with the ‘shell game’, the one where a pea is hidden under one of three shells. Sleight of hand allows the conjurer to draw your attention whilst distracting you from the obvious.
This coal version might also be a mildly amusing ploy were the consequences not so disastrously unhealthy.
The deception occurs by linking energy generation generally, with its clear societal benefits, to the out-dated combustion of coal whilst ignoring the significant downsides or costs from pollution as well as the arrival of new and alternative technologies that are effectively pollution free.
It is a clever psychological trick to disguise the very real limits of coal due to its burgeoning costs into a story where the implied narrative is “there are no limits”.
But burning coal to generate energy results in far larger emissions of both toxic pollutants and greenhouse gasses than any other form of energy generation.
Coal combustion is a public health disaster, contributing to the more than three million world deaths from outdoor air pollution each year. And these are not limited to developing nations. Studies in the US estimate the hidden costs, or ‘externalities’, from coal amounted to up to US $500 billion per annum, mostly related to air pollution.
In Australia, coal related air pollution costs around $2.6 billion annually and in the US the industry has been shown to be of little overall value to society.
Widespread release of airborne pollutants is akin to mandatory smoking for much of the world’s population, indiscriminately affecting the most vulnerable in society: children, the elderly and those with existing heart and lung conditions.
The silent and mostly invisible coal product includes microscopic particles of hydrocarbons and toxic residues, carried on the wind, inhaled and then deposited deep into your lungs. The inflammatory and toxic response in lung tissue results in asthma and chronic bronchitis and now recognised as being a cause of lung cancer just as effectively as tobacco smoking.
Large-scale clinical US studies in the 1990’s not only confirmed the confirmed that long-term exposure resulted in lung disease, but there was an even bigger toll in heart disease.
Air pollution doesn’t stop at the lungs; it gets into the blood stream causing inflammation within blood vessels and cardiac arrhythmia.
Even before the medical science was understood, there was plenty of damning evidence directly linking coal burning to ill health. The banning of coal sales in Dublin in 1990 saw a dramatic reduction in particulate air pollution and over 350 fewer deaths related to heart and ling disease each year thereafter.
It is not an isolated example. Reduction in cardiovascular and respiratory illness and deaths are in fact consistently observed following improvements in air quality when regulation to reduce coal burning is introduced. And the benefits are apparent even where ambient air pollution is already at low levels
Coal is also the source of many other harmful environmental pollutants including heavy metals such as mercury, where it is now the dominant source of new contamination.
If that weren’t enough, coal dominated stationary power generation is the single biggest source of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate change has been described in the world’s leading medical journals as the greatest threat to our health this century. Increasing global heatwaves, extreme weather events result in direct injury, loss and mental health impacts, but the more insidious and far greater health impacts result from changing biological and physical systems leading to food and water insecurity and changing patterns of infectious diseases.
Our climate scientists are telling us that to keep global temperature increase to a ‘safe’ 2oC limit, we must leave over 80 percent of coal reserves in the ground, where they have been safely sequestered and stored for millions of years.
So the coal industry has a point; coal really is amazing, it can make millions of people sick even from thousands of miles away, it can change the whole climate of a planet. Why, as Dr Tim Senior tweeted, it can even make whole countries disappear.
Now that’s a real ‘shell trick’.
This comment piece was first published in the Huffington Post Australia on 17 September 2015
Dr George Crisp is a GP and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia