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The 'war on coal' and the war on the planet 

Americans have grown stupefyingly good at denying reality, no matter how strong the scientific and medical evidence.

And special interests have become experts at obscuring the evidence with a thick smog of catchy phrases and deceitful ads.

So we now have the latest attack on Barack Obama: the charge that he's conducting a War on Coal. Republicans in coal-mining states are milking that phrase for all it's worth, and predictably, Democratic candidates in those states are right there with them.

Let's just do a little smog control, then. We're not waging a War on Coal. The war we've waged is global warming: a war on the planet and its inhabitants.

Coal-fired power plants are one of this country's biggest contributors to the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. And it's unconscionable that American voters and their government officials have done so little to end that war. In fact, we have pretended that there is no war. And anytime environmentalists point to the evidence, coal interests and their political hacks shout them down and rant about a job-killing president.

They were it again last week, after the Environmental Protection Agency released new rules that it hopes, by 2030, will push carbon dioxide emissions from US power plants down 30 percent from 2005 levels.

The pace at which the EPA wants us to move is nowhere near fast enough, but it's a start. And the requirements are extremely flexible, letting each state determine how it will meet them – and, most significant, expecting far less from states that are heavily dependent on coal now.

Still, the Republicans rant, and the Democrats run.

It should not be hard to take a different path: to point to the damage we're already experiencing from global warming, in the US and around the world; to put together programs that will help coal states transition to a new economy, and to shame the deniers in the process.

Coal helped fuel the Industrial Revolution, and the US has benefitted enormously from coal. (And, on a personal note, it helped pay the salary of one of my grandfathers and an uncle, and it paid taxes that helped fund public services in the Kentucky coal-country town where my mother grew up.) But it has also done great damage: to miners who died from black lung disease or mining disasters; to the mountaintops that were ravished when underground mining proved too expensive to continue; to water polluted by the storage of coal ash; to the streams and lakes of the Adirondacks from acid rain; to the health of millions of people who breathe coal-polluted air.

Coal interests warn of the costs of the EPA rules, and there will be costs. But those will be dwarfed by the health-care costs for the victims of coal's pollution – and the costs of repairing the damage from man-made global warming.

Nor has our use of coal been free. Taxpayers subsidize the coal industry – both coal mining itself and coal-fired power plants – through inexpensive leasing of federally owned land for mining coal and through tax credits, tax-exempt bonds, loans, and loan guarantees.

Moving away from coal isn't the only thing we need to do. Focusing more strongly on energy-efficient heating and cooling, increasing mileage standards, vastly increasing mass transit: all of those are essential. And we simply don't need huge cars.

Our states-rights-happy country would probably never accept the kind of aggressive federal policy that we need. The EPA's rules should get us started in that direction, though. And significantly, New York and nine other states have already cut their carbon emissions by more than 30 percent – and New York's work started under Governor George Pataki, a Republican.

Surely, then, we can move beyond partisan politics on something as important as global warming. Support for the EPA rules, in fact, ought to be a very good campaign position.

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