The New York Times crossword contained a major environmental faux pas last week.
The world’s premier daily word game (sorry, Wordle) set off a mini-scandal by implying that coal could help avert our looming climate disaster in a puzzle released on Monday, Jan. 11.
The prompt: “Greener energy source.”
The answer: “Clean coal.”
Naturally, some folks on Twitter weren’t thrilled. “Clean coal is not a ‘greener energy source,’” tweeted Molly Fisch-Friedman, a senior manager of survey research at Climate Nexus. “Do better.”
This isn’t the first time clean coal has been inaccurately hailed as a viable green alternative: Energy industry groups and certain politicians like to suggest that we’ll be able to keep burning coal, without ruining the planet, if we can just find a cheap way to clean up that filthy fossil fuel.
The term has circulated as a buzzword with little evidence that it will ever prove effective at actually generating energy in a way that doesn’t totally screw up the planet. Elsewhere, the Times’ own reporting has helped debunk the idea.
The next day, the Times swiftly backpedaled.
“The clue for 47 Across in the Monday puzzle may have implied incorrectly that coal is a viable source of clean energy,” a Times correction issued last week stated. “While it is possible to capture and sequester some of the greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants from coal-fired power plants, the technology has never been used on a large scale because of its high cost.”
The kerfuffle shows just how pervasive the myth of “clean coal” has become, despite its dubious track record.
Former President Donald Trump liked to boast that his administration ended the war on “clean coal”—even though he apparently didn’t know what the term meant, and such a war has never been waged.
At a 2017 rally in Phoenix, Trump told his audience that clean coal means “they're taking out coal, [and] they're going to clean it,” as if an army of miners with toothbrushes and spray bottles of disinfectant could solve our climate crisis with a little brisk scrubbing.
The actual idea, in theory, is to remove the carbon emissions that are created when coal is burned, and to inject them into the earth.
“Clean coal is fake. It doesn’t exist,” Tim Donaghy, a senior researcher with Greenpeace’s Climate Campaign, told VICE News. “It’s a greenwashing term that tries to get people to think happy thoughts about a source of energy that is extremely unhealthy and bad for the planet.”
In this case, the author of the controversial crossword was not, apparently, to blame. The puzzle was created by 75-year-old Lynn Lempel as her 70th Monday puzzle (a distinction that’s caused her to be known among puzzlers as “the Queen of the Mondays”).
Lempel wrote, in a note published on the Times’ website, that she had initially included a crucial word to the start of the clue that was later removed by the editors.
“‘Clean coal’ as an answer gave me a slight pause because it’s debatable whether there really is such a thing,” Lempel wrote. “My original clue included something of a hedge (‘Dubious term for a greener energy source’), but the editing team didn’t think that was needed.”
Reached by E&E News in her Florida home a few days after the puzzle ran, Lempel said she was “disappointed” that the Times hadn’t accepted her original phrasing. “I thought it should have been the way I had it.”
Jordan Cohen, executive director for communications at the Times, wrote in an email to VICE News that the paper is “not planning to comment beyond the correction.”