A most unusual 24 hours, a delayed blog, and a scary 24 hours. One of the more unusual blog posts I’ve done with a personal focus on healthcare and an international perspective on coal.
When a Muscle Pull Is a Blood Clot in the Lungs, Priorities Change Quickly
OK, so I had planned to get at 5am this morning to finalize the post that follows. Then the chest pains that had been plaguing on and off for two weeks came on with a vengeance. 11pm last night I was admitted to St. Vincent’s emergency room and the tests began: EKG, CatScan of my chest, chest x-ay, complete blood work. And then you wait. About an hour later, the diagnosis: a very large blood clot in my lungs was the source of the pain. A hot of fast-acting blood thinner was administered to my stomach. And the ER doc painted a very, very scary situation.. Tests were to be done the next morning to determine if I had clots in my heart. If so, things changed dramatically, the options were not good, and the proposed intervention had very real fatal consequences. She ended this by asking if I wanted to be resuscitated. So much for getting the blog post out on time. I began writing notes to my kids. They gave me a tranquilizer, blessed relief, and soon I was asleep and it was 7am and I was in my new room. But not before the male nurse greeted me at the ward with the comment: “Man are you a lucky man. I’ve been doing this work for thirty years, you are the first patient with this diagnosis who was alive.” Sweet dreams.
So, Sunday, we met with our doctor who tells us that I also have a lot of blood clots in my leg, somehow this is viewed as a good thing, as it explains where these came from.. I’ll take any news framed positively, but she also told us that even if there were clots in my heart, my prognosis and treatment were the same. Go home tonight or more likely tomorrow. Treat myself with blood thinners and let them keep the clots moving until they dissolve. This is likely not the end of the story, but the message was clear. If I hadn’t come in soon, this would have killed me. but now the situation is quite manageable. Roxanne and I sighed a huge sigh of relief. Our kids were also relieved. Ironically this is my oldest son’s birthday. Quite a day.
So those of you who know me, will not be surprised to hear that I recruited two docs to do videotapes on Why I Support the Health Security Act and I am now going to edit and send off the post, 9 hours late. One parting thought: St Vincent has a checkered reputation, at best. And there may be others out there who have found ST V’s lacking. But this is the second time I’ve needed St’. V’s and needed them urgently. Both times every single person involved in my care was highly professional, personable, and responsive to my every need. Tremendous service and support. I am very grateful..
One last note: Roxanne and I have sufficient means delaying getting to the hospital because of possible costs was never a thought. Not everyone has that privilege and may have waited til Monday. The doctors made it very clear, if we had delayed coming to the hospital, even a day, could easily have been fatal. We will be donating to the Health Security Act campaign when we get home and we may try to rope some of you into joining us.
A World Addicted to Coal & Where That Leaves Us
Today’s post is organized around excerpts from a NY Times feature article entitled The World Needs to Quit Coal: Why Is It So Hard? The article’s detailed description of the degree to which Asia is on a full on coal binge doesn’t make it any easier to be optimistic about our future on this planet, but it does put into proper perspective the radically different choices faced by countries that have under-developed economies and seek to ensure jobs and power to their constituents.
While the article focuses on Asia, the same dynamics are at play in Africa and South America, where without coal, entire communities and regions would be without power and without the capacity to generate jobs for residents. The NY Times article is voluminous, going from one country to another, describing the context and the scope of each country’s reliance. The photos alone are worth clicking here to review the full article. But below is a synopsis.
The importance of this article lies in how well it lays out the complexity of going well beyond Paris Accords, something that is going to be required of the US and our allies if we have any hope of reducing the inevitable impact of climate change, an impact we are beginning to realize in California fires, and southeast hurricanes. So, with no further adieu, the NY Ties: The World Needs to Quit Coal: Why Is It So Hard?
Addicted to Coal and the Implications
The NY Times begins by laying out the obvious: we are in very deep trouble even if we immediately change our ways. From the NY Times:
“Scientists have repeatedly warned of its looming dangers, most recently on Friday, when a major scientific report issued by 13 United States government agencies warned that the damage from climate change could knock as much as 10 percent off the size of the American economy by century’s end if significant steps aren’t taken to rein in warming. An October report from the United Nations’ scientific panel on global warming found that avoiding the worst devastation would require a radical transformation of the world economy in just a few years. Central to that transformation: Getting out of coal, and fast.”
Notwithstanding our current President, much of the world’s leaders at least believe that climate change is real and that man is a major contributor. In that context, why have we not seen a convergence of effort toward transitioning for fossil fuels? The first and most obvious challenge is the ubiquity of coal and that historically it has served as the primary source of heat throughout the world. From the Times:
“It’s there by the millions of tons under the ground. Powerful companies, backed by powerful governments, often in the form of subsidies, are in a rush to grow their markets before it is too late. Banks still profit from it. Big national electricity grids were designed for it. Coal plants can be a surefire way for politicians to deliver cheap electricity — and retain their own power. In some countries, it has been a glistening source of graft.”
As noted above, the Times focuses on coal extraction and use in Asia. “Home to half the world’s population, Asia accounts for three-fourths of global coal consumption today. More important, it accounts for more than three-fourths of coal plants that are either under construction or in the planning stages — a whopping 1,200 of them, according to Urgewald, a German advocacy group that tracks coal development. Heffa Schücking, who heads Urgewald, called those plants “an assault on the Paris goals.”
- Indonesia is digging more coal.
- Vietnam is clearing ground for new coal-fired power plants.
- Japan, reeling from 2011 nuclear plant disaster, has resurrected coal.
From the Times:
“The world’s juggernaut, though, is China. The country consumes half the world’s coal. More than 4.3 million Chinese are employed in the country’s coal mines. China has added 40 percent of the world’s coal capacity since 2002, a huge increase for just 16 years. ‘I had to do the calculation three times,’ said Carlos Fernández Alvarez, a senior energy analyst at the International Energy Agency. “I thought it was wrong. It’s crazy.’ ”
The irony is that all of these Asian countries with and their booming coal-based economies have indicated that they are on target for meeting their Paris Accord goals. The problem here being that each country set its own goals and the collective world effort emerging from Paris is wholly insufficient to address the obvious and increasing threat from climate change.
And then there is the US President, seemingly impervious to science and even his own governmental report. Trump’s reaction when asked about his own government’s report? “a report is a report . There are lots of reports,” and walking away, behaving as if this should be considered a response, not unlike his responses about the Crown Prince murder of Jamal Khashoogi saying “maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. He denies it,” despite the report being from his own CIA and that there is considerable evidence pointing the finger at the Crown Prince. But we live in a country and in a time when evidence, witnesses, science and data are not just ignored, but disparaged. And so despite the reports above, President Trump has promised, unsuccessfully so far, to revive coal mining jobs and instructed his Environmental Protection Agency to roll back rules to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Those sobering facts loom over the next round of international climate negotiations, starting Dec. 3 in the heart of Poland’s coal country. The American delegation plans to promote coal at the event, just as it did at last year’s talks in Bonn, Germany. I simply can’t put too much faith in the world suddenly smelling the coffee, plugging the wells and accept the very real sacrifices required to contain climate change.
But while we here in the US have the resources to make a far, far larger contribution toward a just transition to a renewable economy, countries in Asia face a far greater challenge and the NY Times does an excellent job of presenting those challenges. If we are ever going to be able to create a meaningful and enforceable worldwide strategy, we must understand the context for much of Asia’s thirst for coal. As we will see from the Times’ Asian coal tour, the political and economic contexts are far different in each of the Asian countries examined. From the Times:
“The economics, and the political calculus, are very different in the world’s biggest democracy: India, population 1.3 billion. Ajay Mishra, the career civil servant in charge of energy in the central Indian state of Telangana, knows firsthand. Five years ago, he said, daily power cuts cursed his state. Ceiling fans cut out on stifling summer afternoons. Factories ran on diesel-guzzling generators. The people of Telangana were furious. State officials had to do something to fix the electricity problem. They harnessed the sun, briefly making Telangana a leading solar power producer in India. They also turned to what government officials have relied on for over a century: the vast vein of coal that sat underground, stretching across the hills and forests of central India.”
Telangana now has round-the-clock electricity. Its farmers get it free to pump water. It sweetens the re-election bid of Telangana’s top elected official, K. Chandrashekar Rao, in state polls later this year. When coal is responsible for Telangana’s improved conditions, it is hard to convince local politicians to turn away from coal.
Analysts say India must retool its electricity grid for the post-coal era. Battery technology is fast advancing. Microgrids can replace traditional electricity systems. Many existing coal plants are now running below capacity, several are idle, and new energy efficiency standards could slow down demand to the point where there may be a glut of costly coal-fired plants. Left holding this bundle of stranded assets: The public sector banks that financed them. This is similar to what we find here in NM with PNM now begging for securitization to reward it for a decade of poor resource allocation decisions trying to sustain the coal industry.
In Viet Nam
In Viet Nam the political and economic calculus mirrors that of India. From the Times:
“Nguy Thi Khanh has seen the contest close-up in Vietnam. Born in 1976, a year after the end of the war, she remembers doing homework by the light of a kerosene lamp. In her northern village, the electricity failed several hours a day. When it rained, there was no power at all. When it came, it came from a coal plant not far away. When her mother hung laundry to dry, ash settled on the clothes.”
And more from the Times.
“Today, pretty much every household in Vietnam, population 95 million, has electricity. Hanoi, the capital, where Ms. Nguy now lives, is in a frenzy of new construction, with soaring demand for cement and steel — both energy guzzlers. The economy is galloping. And, up and down the coast, 1,600 kilometers in length, foreign companies, mainly from Japan and China, are building coal plants.”
So while coal ash falls ubiquitously, nonetheless, communities that had lived without power for centuries suddenly have electricity, jobs and a booming economy.
But while Viet Nam and India are important contributors to coal consumption, the world’s leader in coal production and use is China who uses half the world’s coal and who employs over 4.3 million Chinese workers in the country’s coal mines. China has added 40 percent of the world’s coal capacity since 2002, a huge increase for just 16 years. “I had to do the calculation three times,” said Carlos Fernández Alvarez, a senior energy analyst at the International Energy Agency. “I thought it was wrong. It’s crazy.” But while China has been the world’s biggest consumer of coal there has also been significant protest, as along with the coal has come extraordinarily levels of pollution.
From the NY Times:
“Spurred by public outcry over air pollution, China is now also the world leader in solar and wind power installation, and its central government has tried to slow down coal plant construction. But an analysis by Coal Swarm, a U.S.-based team of researchers that advocates for coal alternatives, concluded that new plants continue to be built, and other proposed projects have simply been delayed rather than stopped. Chinese coal consumption grew in 2017, though at a far slower pace than before, and is on track to grow again in 2018, after declining in previous years. “
Unfortunately while China’s coal consumption has slowed, it has taken a lesson from the US and its tobacco industry. When faced with sagging sales of cigarettes in the US, the tobacco industry just opened markets around the world, with China being a major target. And so now in China the coal industry is looking for new markets.
the NY Times: “Chinese companies are building coal plants in 17 countries, according to Urgewald. Its regional rival, Japan, is in the game too: nearly 60 percent of planned coal projects developed by Japanese companies are outside the country, mostly financed by Japanese banks. “
What I glean from countries seeking to reduce the impact of coal on its citizens is that they are not really concerned with the international challenge climate change poses, but only the political pressures faced at home. Until populations from countries across the world unify in demanding that we keep it in the ground, all of it. Not just exporting it somewhere else, but keeping it in the ground, because we are in an age where “somewhere else” does not exist.
I introduced the article by stating that it did little to foster optimism. The challenge is huge, the stakes are high and far too many powerful interests, corporations and nations alike, are driven by the ruthless, ceaseless thirst for profit at any expense. And this thirst for profit can be put in just one word: capitalism. We will return to a theme I’ve raised in many contexts the need to transition not just to renewables but away from capitalism and to some other, perhaps as yet unimagined economic framework. I didn’t say that would be an easy task but continuing to think that ‘the people’ can overcome the powers that be in a capitalist context, only prevents us from imagining that new system. And once that new system proves to be realistic and sustainable, the move toward it could be ineluctable. We need just one country to find a path and prove its viability. You don’t believe this? In 1962 Saskatchewan implemented a single payer model of healthcare and proved that it improved healthcare quality while reducing costs. Three years later the entire country implemented the model. There is a lesson for us. Build it and they will come. But first we have to identify what needs to be built.
In solidarity and deep gratitude,
Paul & Roxanne
I was just told I can go home. I am going to be ok.