Earth Policy Institute’s Lester R. Brown credits the Sierra Club and other activist groups for creating the conditions under which U.S. carbon emissions have fallen precipitously over the last couple of years – largely due to our new-found distaste for coal. The campaign Beyond Coal has resulted in an environment in which virtually no new coal plants are being built, and the oldest and dirtiest are likely to be decommissioned soon. Simultaneously, wind energy has grown dramatically, to over 40 gigawatts, lead by Texas, Iowa, California, Minnesota, and Illinois.
The obvious question, however, is this: If the U.S. economy heats back up, what precisely will we do to power it? Depending on the degree to which coal is regulated and taxed, it’s still the least expensive form of energy – and by far the least expensive form of non-intermittent “baseload” energy. If we do not force ourselves to pay for the externalities of coal (and other forms of energy), we will never create a climate in which renewable energy ultimately dominates our energy policy. But do we have the political will to do this?