Magazine article Natural History

Playing with Fire

Magazine article Natural History

Playing with Fire

Article excerpt

Anyone paying attention to the news knows that many of the worlds flashpoints-the war in Iraq, the politics of the Middle East, terrorism and its consequences-have grown largely out of just one issue: energy. Of course, every major effort to harness energy since the control of fire has come with serious drawbacks. But fossil fuels now pose a global problem that probably transcends even war, politics, and terrorism: the threat of global warming.

When fossil fuels burn, they release carbon dioxide (CO2), a gas that contributes to the atmospheric greenhouse effect of trapping solar heat at the Earth's surface. And of all fossil fuels, by far the biggest troublemaker for the climate is coal. As Jeff Goodell points out ("Cooking the Climate with Coal," page 36), for every kilowatt-hour of usable energy from coal, 2.1 pounds of CO2 are pumped into the atmosphere. (The same energy from oil releases 1.4 pounds of CO2; from natural gas, 0.8 pound.) Yet new coal-fired power plants expected to be built in the next twenty-five years would add more than 1,350 gigawatts to the present generating capacity. If those plants are built, Goodell notes, they will produce more CO2 in their sixty-year operating lives than all the coal burned in the past 250 years.

But so what? It sea levels rise, can't we simply move back from the shore? If the heat becomes uncomfortable, can't we just shift farther from the equator? Elizabeth Kolbert s new book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, reviewed in this issue by Laurence A. …

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