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It’s All a Matter of Perspective

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Coal is the enemy of environmentalists. At the site of international climate treaty negotiations this week in Poznan, Poland, Greenpeace activists have built a giant replica of the earth to protest the use of coal. American environmental organizations find coal so objectionable that they have launched a public relations campaign against technology that would enable utilities to capture and store greenhouse gas emissions at coal-fired power plants.

Clearly, environmentalists hold a deep seated prejudice against coal. Yet it might surprise them to learn that coal is in fact "greener" than the fuel used by billions of the world’s citizens.

According to the World Bank, dung and wood are the only source of primary energy for almost 2 billion people in poor, rural areas. Women and children in developing countries often spend hours each day gathering these primitive fuels -- hours they might otherwise be able to spend on productive work or education.

Environmentalists call coal "dirty," but wood and dung are the dirtiest. They stink up the air with particulate matter that hurts to breathe. Moreover, entire swaths of forests are cleared for firewood, leading to further environmental degradation.

Besides being cleaner, coal also contains much more energy than an equivalent amount of dung mixed with wood, so it’s more energy efficient.

It sounds strange, but coal is cleaner and more energy efficient than the fuel now used by a third of the world. This is an inconvenient truth that many environmentalists ignore.

Another such inconvenient truth is that "doing something" about global warming could be worse for human well-being than rising temperatures. Carbon-free energy costs much more than fossil fuel energy, so an abrupt transition away from hydrocarbon fuels would skim trillions of dollars off of global economic growth.

There are real human consequences to an expensive energy, low-growth future. Greater wealth yields more medical care, less exposure to the elements and better nutrition -- all of which save or prolong human life. By extension, slow growth kills, because it deprives the poorest of the means to ward off cold, sickness and disease.

In a 2007 study, Yale economist William Nordhaus estimated that 3 (C) degrees of global warming would cost the world $22 trillion this century. Al Gore’s package of measures, which calls on the U.S. to join an international treaty within the next two years that cuts global warming pollution by 90 percent in developed countries and by more than half worldwide, would reduce warming costs to $10 trillion, at a cost of $34 trillion. All told, Gore’s global warming plan would leave the world $44 trillion worse off, or double the cost of doing nothing. That’s a killer deal, literally.

For environmentalists in rich countries, coal is evil, and climate change is dangerous.

For the poor in developing countries, coal is a blessing and climate change policy could be worse than climate change.

It’s all a matter of perspective.

William Yeatman is an energy policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank based in Washington, D.C.