There's nothing that frustrates me more than China, India, and the rest of the developing countries insisting that they should be given a blank check to pollute as much as they want while they industrialize because that's the same way the West did it. While I can see the point, it doesn't apply as such in the world we have today. The West industrialized the way it did because outside of isolated areas, there was no alternative to dirty coal-burning power generation in the Industrial Revolution.
That is not the case today, but in all things inerta is difficult to overcome. Now we're paying the price.
Yesterday's New York Times carried Felicity Barringer's story "Climate Legislation Sends Chill Through Areas Fueled by Coal," looking at the threat of electrical rate increases in Missouri as a result of potential legislation to put a hard cap on carbon dioxide emissions. According to the article, the state of Missouri gets 80% of its power from coal-burning power plants, which together emit seventy-five million tons of carbon dioxide yearly. Missouri and places like it will be the grounds-zero of privation should laws restricting greenhouse gas emissions come into place.
The overriding theme of the twenty-first century, I think, is going to be one of adjustment. Adjusting to new standards, new practices, new ways of living and a world that will in many ways be a new one compared to the way it is now. "We can barely afford what we have now," says a Missourian quoted in the Times' article, but "what we have now" includes "a double-door refrigerator, a washer and dryer, six televisions, three computers, and an iron" - for three people - and an average monthly hydro bill in summer of $250 US ($306.54 CDN).
Something is obviously wrong here, aside from the degree to which Missouri relies on coal power. It's that Western civilization has become accustomed to cheap, plentiful electricity, and does not care where that electricity comes from, so long as it comes. These attitudes are fast becoming as dangerous as the idea that the Third World can pollute however much it wants, because that's how it's always been done.
Changing is going to hurt when the time comes.
Nevertheless, though it will be painful, that does not mean that it does not have to be done, or that it is avoidable. The opposite, in fact, is true. We've spent too much time idling with our eyes shut to switch easily now; the window of opportunity for a smooth transition probably closed before I was born. It is incumbent upon all of us to abandon coal burning as soon as possible and transition to environmentally friendly modes of power generation, such as nuclear.
Incidentally, if you believe that nuclear power is not an environmentally friendly mode of power generation, you're a part of the problem. If it hadn't been for well-meaning but empty-headed environmental campaigners like Greenpeace agitating against the construction of nuclear power plants, we wouldn't be in this bind today. They've built some inertia of their own, but it will only lead us to the same place that burning coal will.