A Page From Big Tobacco's Playbook: Why Media Shouldn't Buy Big Coal's “Energy Poverty” Argument


Climate change deniers have been talking a lot about “energy poverty” to criticize Pope Francis' landmark climate change encyclical, claiming that the policies he supports would harm the poor by making energy prohibitively expensive. But media should think twice before uncritically reporting the fossil fuel industry's energy poverty campaign, which is misleading at best and flat-out wrong at worst, as multiple investigations have compared the campaign to the tactics of Big Tobacco and highlighted how both could harm poor communities.

Two major U.S. coal companies are at the center of the fossil fuel industry's energy poverty campaign: Peabody Energy and Arch Coal. In advance of the encyclical, Arch Coal blasted out a list of talking points to fight back, claiming that the encyclical does not “address the tragedy of global energy poverty.” Similarly, Peabody is behind a campaign that began last year called “Advanced Energy for Life,” which aims to build “awareness and support to eliminate energy poverty, increase access to low-cost electricity and improve emissions through advanced clean coal technologies.” 

It is true that access to modern forms of energy is essential for alleviating poverty by providing increased access to education and health services. But fossil fuels are not necessarily the answer, as many experts and reports have detailed. Energy poverty is largely a rural phenomenon, where centralized energy systems -- a precondition for expanding access to coal -- are simply not feasible. According to experts who have worked on the ground to provide energy to rural communities, off-grid energy solutions are far more economical, and renewables in particular are often more effective at bringing electricity to communities cheaply and quickly.

Moreover, the coal industry's misleading campaign to push their product in poor communities has drawn comparisons to Big Tobacco's efforts to push tobacco use worldwide. 

Investigative journalists Dan Zegart and Kevin Grandia pointed out that Peabody is the only U.S. coal company with assets in Asia and the Pacific, and Arch Coal also has an Asian subsidiary. Like Big Coal, the tobacco industry has also been turning to Asia to push its product in the developing world. Both industries' expansion to Asia has followed their decline in the United States.

Interestingly, the same public relations agency is behind the campaigns of both Big Tobacco and Big Coal. PR firm Burson-Marstellar, which is helping Peabody with its “Advanced Energy for Life” campaign, has also done extensive work on behalf of tobacco industry giant Philip Morris, helping the company increase its market share in Asia and fight against smoking restrictions.

Both campaigns by Big Coal and Big Tobacco have pushed science denial. Burson-Marstellar helped Philip Morris deny the health impacts of secondhand smoke, launching a global campaign denying that it can cause cancer. Similarly, in their arguments against policies that would stem fossil fuel emissions, the coal industry is disregarding numerous studies showing that fossil fuel-driven climate change disproportionately threatens poor communities. Fittingly, scientists are as certain that humans are driving climate change as they are that cigarettes can kill.

In both cases, the science denial hides the fact that their product is harmful to the communities in which they are working to expand. The health impacts of secondhand smoke are widely known and scientifically sound. Meanwhile, China's aggressive expansion of coal has been the main culprit behind the country's astronomical levels of air pollution, which caused over a million premature deaths in 2010 alone.

Zegart and Grandia wrote that Burson-Marstellar's energy poverty PR campaign is “at least as ambitious as what it did for Big Tobacco: a worldwide campaign designed to keep the world burning coal for as long as possible.”

Michael T. Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, predicts that the fossil fuel industry's expansion into developing countries will one day be seen as immoral as that of the tobacco industry. The dirty details of Big Tobacco's campaign have been described in detail by comedian John Oliver on his HBO show Last Week Tonight. In light of Big Coal's attempt to steal a page from Big Tobacco's playbook, the segment is certainly worth a rewatch:

Photo at top from Flickr user Zi Jian Lim with a Creative Commons license.