Another Loss for Coal is a Victory for America and the World

When historians look back at President Obama’s second-term and lame duck accomplishments, his subtle and underreported moves to be proactive on climate change will be among the most appreciated. Just yesterday the administration took yet another quiet step in the right direction to help stop the country from doubling down on the world’s dirtiest fuel:

The Obama administration declared a halt Friday to any new coal leases on federal land, saying it would conduct a sweeping review of the economic and climate impact of extracting vast amounts of taxpayer-owned coal throughout the West.

The moratorium, which could last up to three years, will probably have a modest immediate effect on the nation’s struggling coal industry. But it provided fresh ammunition for environmental activists intent on keeping the nation’s remaining fossil fuels in the ground. And it signaled the White House’s determination to press ahead with an ambitious environmental agenda — even as conservatives become more aggressive in pushing back against the federal government’s management of public lands in the West.

My colleague DR Tucker has written so frequently here about the devastation that climate change is wreaking already around the world, and the civilization-threatening impact that failure to act will continue to have, that I scarcely need to belabor the point here. Climate change is bar none the most important policy issue facing humanity today. If you doubt that, read David Roberts on the brutal logic of climate change, or watch his TedX presentation. It’s a problem so desperately in need of action that America’s failure to take the priority seriously is the greatest and most obvious indictment of our political system today.

That said, it’s understandable that areas of the country dependent on fossil fuels are right to be concerned and upset about the economic impacts. West Virginia and proximate areas are particularly poor economic straits as the power of coal wanes. And it’s not just coal: the low price of oil and natural gas is sending nearly every energy producer in the world from Russia to Texas to Iran to Norway into economic difficulty.

But the world has also been aware of this problem for decades, and at any moment a technological breakthrough in clean energy could arrive that would render traditional fossil fuels secondary or irrelevant regardless of the climate change equation. We also know that petro-socialism has negative social effects in the world: the ability of middle-eastern states to prop up dictatorships with easy oil money while failing to create a diversified tax base is the principal cause of dissatisfaction and religious extremism. Without oil and natural gas extraction, most of the conservative states in the South and Midwest would be in economic disasters. It’s not too much to say that while energy resource abundance doesn’t necessarily lead to harmful conservative policies (see Norway), the reverse is very often true. It’s all too easy for economic elites to predate on the masses, fail to ensure a healthy demand-side economy, and paper it over with dirty energy money.

So it’s not just that the logic of climate change requires that we put an end to fossil fuel extraction as quickly as possible. It’s also that ending fossil fuel extraction reduces the ability of elites to implement harmful policies that weaken economies and fuel extremism. The sooner extraction-based economies are forced to adjust to these new realities, the better off the world–and their own people–will be.