Experts Debunk The Coal Industry's “Energy Poverty” Argument Against The Pope's Climate Action

Fossil fuel advocates are criticizing Pope Francis' recent climate encyclical, claiming his call to phase out fossil fuels will harm the poor by preventing access to electricity and keeping them in “energy poverty.” But fossil fuels are not economically viable in most of the communities that suffer from a lack of electricity, and on-the-ground experts have explained that distributed renewable energy sources are often a more effective way to lift the world's impoverished -- who will be most affected by the adverse impacts of climate change -- out of energy poverty.

Criticizing The Pope's Climate Action, Fossil Advocates Push “Energy Poverty” Meme

 “Energy Poverty” Talking Point Has Pervaded Media Coverage Of Pope's Encyclical

Why Energy Poverty Is Best Addressed By Off-Grid Solutions -- Not Fossil Fuels

Experts Tell Media Matters Why Renewables Are More Affordable And Less Costly To Society

Experts: The Fossil Fuel Industry Has Historically Failed To Address Energy Poverty

Fossil Fuels And Climate Change Disproportionately Harm The Poor

Criticizing The Pope's Climate Action, Fossil Advocates Push “Energy Poverty” Meme

Arch Coal Lobbyist Provided Talking Points To Use Against Pope, Touting “Energy Poverty” Meme. In advance of Pope Francis' landmark encyclical calling for action on climate change, Arch Coal lobbyist Tom Altmeyer sent an email blast with talking points to use against the pope, including that the encyclical does not “address the tragedy of global energy poverty.” The Guardian reported that in the email, Altmeyer argued that the pope “should be promoting fossil fuels if he really cared about social justice”:

“Unfortunately, the Pope's Encyclical, to be officiallt released on 6.18. does not apperar to address the tragedy of global energy poverty - see realities below [sic]”.

In the email, Altmeyer argued the pope should be promoting fossil fuels if he really cared about social justice.

“Industry, policymakers and social leaders - like Pope Francis - must work together to support policies that bring about new advances in fossil energy technologies so we can strike a balance between global economic needs and climate concerns,” the email said. [The Guardian6/17/15]

Industry's “Energy Poverty” Talking Point Has Pervaded Media Coverage Of Pope's Encyclical

Mainstream Publications Quoted Anti-Environment Group Pushing Energy Poverty Argument. The New York TimesE&E Publishing, and the National Catholic Reporter all published quotes from the anti-environment group Cornwall Alliance's spokesman E. Calvin Beisner, who claimed renewable energy would further impoverish individuals, in their coverage of the pope's climate encyclical:

  • The New York Times reported: "'The policies meant to mitigate global warming would oppress the poor by depriving them of the energy without which they cannot rise out of poverty,' E. Calvin Beisner, a leader of an American group called the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, declared this year in Rome at a symposium held to pre-emptively counter Francis' message." [The New York Times6/21/15]
  • National Catholic Reporter reported: “The policies Francis recommends would make it more difficult to overcome poverty, [Beisner] said. 'Ironically, by prolonging and even spreading poverty, those policies would put more of the natural environment at risk...Wealth enables people to afford better environmental stewardship,' Beisner said.” [National Catholic Reporter6/18/15]
  • E&E Publishing reported: "'By prolonging and even spreading poverty, those policies would put more of the natural environment at risk,' said Calvin Beisner, founder of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation ... 'Pope Francis should champion economic development as a solution both to poverty and to environmental degradation.'" [E&E Publishing6/18/15]

Coal CEO On Fox's Cavuto: Pope Is “Condemning ... Billions Of People To Energy Poverty.” On the June 18 edition of Fox Business' Cavuto, Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray told host Cavuto that the pope is “totally wrong” in his view that addressing climate change will help poor people, and that the pope is “condemning many more of these billions of people to energy poverty”:

MURRAY: There are 7 billion people on this planet, one half of them live in energy poverty. That means they don't have the electricity. In India for instance, they don't have the electricity for one light bulb in a home. Half of the homes. This Pope, to go out on a speculative subject such as global warming, he is condemning many more of these billions of people to energy poverty ... He is misguided. He is totally wrong here. [Fox Business, Cavuto6/18/15]

Daily Caller Promoted Video Claiming Climate Policies Will “Drive People Into Life Threatening Poverty.” In an article headlined, “Conservatives Warn Pope That Climate Policies Will Kill Seniors, Poor,” the Daily Caller promoted a video from the conservative Energy & Environment Legal Institute (EELI) claiming that climate policies will harm the poor. The Daily Caller wrote that the group “is warning Pope Francis against backing environmental policies that could drive people into life threatening poverty while having no impact on global warming.” [Daily Caller, 6/16/15]

Stuart Varney: Climate Policies “Are Robbing Poor People Of Cheap Fuel.” On the June 19 edition of Fox Business' Varney & Co., while discussing the pope's encyclical with Sister Patricia Daly, executive director of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Development, host Stuart Varney said that the pope's encyclical calls for “phasing out cheap fuel for a billion or two impoverished people,” adding, “if you raise the price of fossil fuels, and that's what will happen, you are robbing poor people of cheap fuel which could make them advance.” [Fox Business, Varney & Co.6/19/15]

Forbes Column: Pope's Environmental Proposals “Are The Real Threat” To Poor People. Forbes contributor Fred Smith wrote that the “environmental proposals” being championed by Pope Francis “are the real threat” to the poor, and suggested that climate policies could force people “into perpetual energy poverty”:

The Pope is reportedly worried about how climate change might impact the poor, and he is quite right to be concerned. But it is the environmental proposals currently being championed as solutions, however, that are the real threat. The most frequently cited policies for allegedly “dealing with climate change” - like raising prices on fossil fuels and taxing carbon dioxide emissions - would actually cause harm to energy-starved and impoverished nations around the world.


People of good faith have innumerable ways to help our fellow humans flourish and protect themselves from harm. Forcing them into perpetual energy poverty is not one of them. [Forbes, 6/15/15]

But Energy Poverty Is Best Addressed By Off-Grid Solutions -- Not Fossil Fuels

IEA: Energy Access Helpful For Achieving Social And Economic Improvements. In the International Energy Agency's (IEA) World Energy Outlook, its flagship publication on the state of global energy, the agency recommended that “universal access to modern energy services” be part of the United Nations' Post-2015 Development Agenda. IEA wrote: “There is growing recognition that modern energy is crucial to achieving a range of social and economic goals relating to poverty, health, education, equality and environmental sustainability.” In its latest version of the report in 2013, the agency estimated that nearly 1.3 billion people lacked access to electricity in 2011. [International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook's Modern Energy for All chapter, 2013]

IEA: Energy Poverty Is Largely A Rural Issue. IEA has determined that of the 1.3 billion people living without access to electricity globally -- almost one fifth of the global population -- 84 percent reside in rural areas. [International Energy Agency, accessed 6/29/15]

Carbon Tracker 2

[Graphic via Carbon Tracker Initiative, accessed 7/1/30]

IEA: Grid Extension To Reach Rural Areas For Fossil Fuel Use Is Not Feasible. Fossil fuel developments, particularly coal, come from centralized energy systems that only reach houses connected to the energy grid. But bringing centralized energy to rural areas is largely economically unfeasible, according to projections from the IEA. In its World Energy Outlook, IEA's “Energy for All” scenario involves just 30 percent of rural areas being connected to the grid, with the remaining rural areas obtaining their energy from mini-grid or small grid solutions:

We assume that grid extension is the most suitable option for all urban zones and around 30% of rural areas, but not in more remote rural areas. The remaining rural areas are connected either with mini-grids (65% of this share) or small, stand-alone off-grid solutions (the remaining 35%), which have no transmission and distribution costs. [International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2013]

Carbon Tracker Initiative: Coal Only “Cheap” When Fed Into Existing Grid. A report from the Carbon Tracker Initiative states that coal is only “cheap” when fed into an existing grid, and that at a certain point grid extension becomes “prohibitively expensive”:

For initial stages of energy access (i.e. general lighting), off-grid interventions (e.g. solar lanterns) can provide energy access at 4-20% of the cost of grid extension.


[B]eyond a certain distance, however, the combination of increasing direct costs and high transmission losses make grid extension prohibitively expensive. In India, for example, every kilometer in distance between a household and the nearest substation adds $0.02/kWh to the cost of delivered power; in Kenya, the cost of connecting a single family to the grid ranges from $900-$4000.  Given that poor households (once connected) generally consume relatively little electricity, access-related grid extension often offers a poor return on investment for electric utilities; hence utilities in weak financial condition to begin with (as is the case throughout India and sub-Saharan Africa) are even less inclined to make such investments. [Carbon Tracker Initiative, November 2014]

IEA: Renewable Energy Technologies Often Most Cost Effective For Off-Grid Solutions. The IEA wrote that “small, stand-alone renewable energy technologies can often meet the electricity needs of rural communities more cheaply,” including solar photovoltaic (PV), mini-hydro, biomass, and wind energy as examples:

Grid extension will contribute part of the solution, but decentralised options have an important role to play when grid extension is too expensive and will provide the bulk of the additional connections over the projection period.


Small, stand-alone renewable energy technologies can often meet the electricity needs of rural communities more cheaply and have the potential to displace costly diesel-based power generation options.

Specific technologies have their advantages and limitations. Solor photovoltaic (PV) is attractive as a source of electric power to provide basic services, such as lighting and clean drinking water. For greater load demand, mini-hydro or biomass technologies may offer a better solution, though PV should not be ruled out of consideration as system prices are decreasing - a trend which can be expected to continue in the years to come. Moreover, PV can also be easily injected in variable quantity into existing power systems. Wind energy represents a good (and available) cost-competitive resource, with mini-wind prices below those of PV. Wind energy systems are capable of providing a significant amount of power, including for motive power. [International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2010]

Carbon Tracker Report: Many Areas Afflicted By Energy Poverty Do Not Have Coal Assets. 48 percent of those living in energy poverty are in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 93 percent of the population does not live in an area that produces coal, suggesting that “many African countries with energy access issues are unlikely to follow the coal-based industrialisation seen historically in other parts of the world.”

Carbon Tracker

[Carbon Tracker Initiative, accessed 7/1/15]

Experts Tell Media Matters: Renewables Are More Affordable And Less Costly To Society

Stanford's Mark Jacobson: “Fossil Fuels Are Not Cheap.” Mark Jacobson, director of Stanford University's Atmosphere and Energy program, wrote in an email to Media Matters that fossil fuel systems are “more expensive to society,” and offered a comparison of the unsubsidized costs of wind, solar, coal, and gas:  

Fossil fuels are not cheap. In the U.S., wind is the cheapest form of electricity by far, at an unsubsidized cost of 3.7 cents/kWh followed by natural gas at 6-8 cents/kWh. Utility solar is also 6-8 cents/kWh. Coal is more expensive. Gas for peaking power is 16-18 cents/kWh.

The health and climate costs of fossil fuels in 2050 will be 17 cents/kWh. Meanwhile the direct cost of an entire energy system in both cases (fossil [fuels] and [wind, water, and solar systems (WWS)]) will be around 11 cents/kWh in 2050. This means the total cost of a fossil fuel system is 28 cents/kWh versus 11 cents/kWh for a 100% WWS system in 2050. The fossil fuel system is clearly more expensive to society. [Email to Media Matters, 6/25/15; Wind and solar prices are from Lazard's Levelized Cost Of Energy Analysis, September 2014, via the New York Times; total cost calculation from Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal, 2011]

Energy Analyst Adam Siegel: “By Any Honest Accounting Of Costs, Dirty Fuels Are Now More Expensive Than Clean(er) Energy Options.” Adam Siegel, analyst of energy security, profitability, and sustainability for Insight Through Analysis and an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project, wrote in an email to Media Matters:

The simple truth: by any honest accounting of costs, dirty fuels are now more expensive than clean(er) energy options. Particulates from burning coal cause cancer and asthma in Delhi just as it would in Dallas. Mercury from burning coal hurts intelligence in China just as it does in Canada. Even without counting that pesky little climate problem, the costs of burning fossil fuels are very real -- and fall heavily on the poorest among us. Those seeking to promote fossil fuels wish us to ignore these costs. [Email to Media Matters, 6/25/15, American Security Project, accessed 7/2/15]

The Guardian's John Abraham: Proponents Of Fossil Fuels For The Poor Ignore Full Costs Of Providing Dirty Energy. Climate scientist John Abraham, who writes for The Guardian and has worked to develop distributed renewable energy systems in Africa, South America, and Asia, said that fossil fuels are not always cheaper than renewables when you “consider the entire costs, including startup, infrastructure, and maintenance,” and that wind and solar often outcompetes against coal power. He also noted that those who claim that fossil fuels are the best way to alleviate poverty in poor countries ignore “the societal impacts of clean air and its impact on human health or on climate change.” From an email to Media Matters:

You have to consider the entire costs, including startup, infrastructure, and maintenance. It turns out that the least expensive energy source really depends on where you are and what your wind or solar situation is. There are technologies to generate local off grid power that outcompete against coal power. Secondly, all of this ignores the societal impacts of clean air and its impact on human health or on climate change which is affecting impoverished countries.

The costs to deliver renewable energy is falling fast and as people see the co-benefits, it will soon overtake coal. If a coal company, like Peabody, is trying to stop history, it might just because they want to sell more coal? [The Guardian2/28/14; Email to Media Matters, 6/25/15]

Jigar Shah: Solar Energy Is Already Connecting Rural Areas To Electricity. Jigar Shah, founder and first CEO of SunEdison, wrote in an email to Media Matters that his company “has pledged to connect 1,000,000 people in India [to electricity] this year.” SunEdison has bought 1,000 batteries to build microgrids for solar energy in rural India, with plans to develop 5,000 such systems over the next three to five years. Bloomberg News reported that a single battery will provide one village with 10 hours of power per day. At least two other solar companies have carried out rural electrification projects in India -- First Solar and Sun Power. [, 1/12/15; Bloomberg News, 3/25/15; Forbes, 3/25/15]

Siegel: Distributed Renewables “Most Fiscally Responsible,” “Fastest” Way To Address Energy Poverty. Siegel wrote to Media Matters:

The most fiscally responsible way to address this is also the most environmentally savvy and the fastest way: distributed energy production using renewable energy options.  

Tackling the problem in this way enables rapid introduction of basic electricity services (lighting, communication) in the most remote areas while building up a capacity to interconnect with the grid when and if it builds into a region.  And, the introduction of renewable systems will strengthen economies (and lower poverty levels) by reducing fuel costs and fuel import burdens. [Email to Media Matters, 6/25/15]

Experts: Fossil Fuel Industry Has Historically Failed To Address Energy Poverty

Sierra Club's Vrinda Manglik: Fossil Fuel Industry “Has Had Decades” To Address Energy Poverty And Has “Totally Failed.” Vrinda Manglick, the associate campaign representative for the Sierra Club's International Clean Energy Access Program, said in a phone call with Media Matters that the fossil fuel industry has failed in its attempt to expand centralized energy -- often coal-generated -- to address energy poverty, an issue that has become a problem “of their own making”:

The fossil fuel industry has had decades to address energy poverty with its massive dirty centralized projects and they have totally failed. So they're desperate now and trying to solve a problem which is actually of their own making. Just like Big Tobacco before them, Big Coal is trying to push its toxic product in emerging markets because their bottom line in the U.S. and Europe is plummeting.


Basically the solution to energy poverty has been centralized power, which is often coal. And then they're extending out the grid which is a very costly and time-consuming process. So that process, which is what has been prescribed to these countries and these populations without energy access for years, hasn't worked.


The solution they're proposing isn't going to meet the goal they've outlined. The coal industry has a track record of not reaching the poor, leaving 18 percent of people the world without access to electricity. [Call with Media Matters, 6/26/15]

Al Gore And Investment Manager David Blood: New Electricity In Developing Countries Has Been Directed To “Wealthy” Operations, “While Ignoring And Bypassing Low-Income Populations.” Al Gore and David Blood, co-founder of the investment management firm General Investment Management, co-authored an op-ed in The Guardian denouncing the coal industry's “disingenuous” energy poverty campaign, writing: “This exploitation of an urgent humanitarian need to promote more coal-burning in poor countries is extremely misleading. If ever implemented, it would actually significantly worsen the condition of the 1.3 billion people mired in energy poverty.” They explained that several countries experiencing high levels of energy poverty do not have access to coal reserves, and that even in coal-producing developing countries, new electricity generation is often directed “preferentially to wealthy high-volume industrial and mining operations, while ignoring and bypassing low-income populations. [The Guardian4/16/15]

Shah: Attempt To Electrify Large Populations Using Central Power Plants “Has Failed.” Jigar Shah, founder and first CEO of SunEdison, also told Media Matters:

Since the 1960s, people have tried to electrify large populations by using central power plants connected to an electricity grid.  The approach has failed and today we have 1.2 [billion] without power and another 2 [billion] with electrical outlets that rarely work.  Today, solar companies are connecting over 10,000 people a week.  


If fossil fuels could truly electrify the 3 billion people above then a case could be made.  But after 50 years of trying I simply don't believe they have any additional ability to penetrate these markets. [Email to Media Matters, 6/25/15]

Fossil Fuels And Climate Change Disproportionately Harm The Poor

Carbon Tracker Initiative: Countries With Largest Electricity Deficits Also Among Most Vulnerable To Negative Effects Of Fossil Fuels. Carbon Tracker Initiative explained how the countries with the “largest electricity deficits” are also the ones that face the greatest risk from adverse climate change impacts, and from the negative health and environmental costs of burning coal:

The urgency of this discussion results in part from countries with the largest electricity deficits - chiefly in sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia - also being among the most vulnerable to adverse impacts of climate change such as reduced crop productivity and drought-related food and water shortages.


The negative health and environmental impacts of coal are well known. Impacts to air and water quality, human health, etc., however, generally are not reflected in the cost of coal-fired electricity.


Burning coal, for example, emits particulate matter emissions that are linked to increased prevalence of asthma and bronchitis, as well as an increase in the death rate from cardiovascular disease and respiratory ailments. A recent air-sampling study, found PM2.5 levels in New Delhi to be twice as high as those in Beijing (and trending upward); note that this is in a country that already has the world's highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases and more deaths from asthma than any other nation. More generally, a recent analysis by Yale University researchers identified seven of the 10 countries with the worst air pollution exposures in the world to be in South Asia. [Carbon Tracker Initiative, November 2014]

U.N. Report: Climate Change Effects Amplified In Poor Societies. The Center for Global Development (CGD) compiled portions of the United Nations' report on the state of climate science that clarify the risks disproportionately faced by the poor (emphasis added by CGD):

  • Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence) [...] Risks are amplified for those lacking essential infrastructure and services or living in poor-quality housing and exposed areas
  • Until mid-century, projected climate change will impact human health mainly by exacerbating health problems that already exist (very high confidence). Throughout the 21st century, climate change is expected to lead to increases in ill-health in many regions and especially in developing countries with low income, as compared to a baseline without climate change (high confidence)
  • Climate-change impacts are expected to exacerbate poverty in most developing countries and create new poverty pockets in countries with increasing inequality, in both developed and developing countries. In urban and rural areas, wage-labor-dependent poor households that are net buyers of food are expected to be particularly affected due to food price increases, including in regions with high food insecurity and high inequality (particularly in Africa), although the agricultural self-employed could benefit. Insurance programs, social protection measures, and disaster risk management may enhance long-term livelihood resilience among poor and marginalized people, if policies address poverty and multidimensional inequalities [Center for Global Development, 4/1/14]

World Health Organization: Children Living In Poor Countries Among The Most Vulnerable To Health Risks Of Climate Change. The World Health Organization highlighted the ways that climate change will have a disproportionate impact on people -- and children in particular -- in poor and developing countries:

Children -- in particular, children living in poor countries -- are among the most vulnerable to the resulting health risks and will be exposed longer to the health consequences.

Areas with weak health infrastructure - mostly in developing countries - will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond.  [WHO, January 2010]

Stanford's Jacobson: Pollution From Fossil Fuels Responsible For Millions Of Mortalities In Developing Countries. Mark Jacobson, director of Stanford University's Atmosphere and Energy program, told Media Matters:

Fossil fuels and solid biofuels kill 4-7 million people prematurely worldwide each year, primarily in developing countries, and 20% of the mortalities are children under the age of 5 years old. Further, the extreme heat and crop death that occurs such as in Subs-Saharan Africa due to the growth of fossil-fuel emissions and resulting global warming is enhancing heat-stress mortality and famine-related mortality. [Email to Media Matters, 6/25/15, data from World Health Organization, 3/25/14]

World Bank: Impacts From Climate Change Could Reverse Improvements In Poverty Reduction. A 2012 report from the World Bank called “Turn Down The Heat” stated that climate change impacts will have “adverse implications for efforts to reduce poverty,” including reversing possible improvements made in malnutrition and health services (emphasis added):

The projected increase in intensity of extreme events in the future would likely have adverse implications for efforts to reduce poverty, particularly in developing countries. Recent projections suggest that the poor are especially sensitive to increases in drought intensity in a 4°C world, especially across Africa, South Asia, and other regions.


Whilst economic growth is projected to significantly reduce childhood stunting, climate change is projected to reverse these gains in a number of regions: substantial increases in stunting due to malnutrition are projected to occur with warming of 2°C to 2.5°C, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and this is likely to get worse at 4°C. Despite significant efforts to improve health services (for example, improved medical care, vaccination development, surveillance programs), significant additional impacts on poverty levels and human health are expected. [World Bank, Turn Down The Heat, November 2012]

For more on how the coal industry's energy poverty campaign is taking a page from Big Tobacco's playbook, see here