Poverty and energy

I’ve tried to stick to writing about the science that I think I understand and have tended to avoid (or at least tried to) things about which I’m less certain. I am, however, finding it confusing (frustrating?) to see comments by people (some of whom are credible academics) arguing that climate policy is actively preventing those who are poor from having access to cheap energy.

There are a number of reasons why I find this frustrating. One basic one is that we’ve had fossil fuel powered energy sources for well over a hundred years and yet we still have many who are living without access to this kind of energy. Why is it suddenly a big deal now? Why haven’t we been working for the last few decades to ensure that as many as possible have access to this cheap energy source? Maybe we have, but it’s not seemed very obvious to me. If anything, the cost of fossil fuels appears to be rising, so if we couldn’t provide it to the poor when it was cheaper, why are we suddenly going to be able to do so now.

Another frustration is that it is clear that climate policy is not aimed at preventing the poor from accessing cheap energy. It’s explicitly aimed at mitigating against the effects of global warming. It’s possible that this could have some negative side effects and we should certainly consider all implications of these policies, but to imply that they’re aimed at harming the poor is nonsense. And, to be fair, I’m not even suggesting that all climate policies are well thought out and optimal. Simply that suggesting that they will explicitly harm the poor is a very odd interpretation. Many are concerned about the implications of climate change in areas where poor people live and so, if anything, they are aiming to help those who will suffer if global warming continues to influence our climate.

I guess, the final thing I was going to say was in relation to cost. It does seem that the cost of fossil fuel based power systems is likely to rise (the cost of extraction likely to increase as we find fossil fuels in ever more inaccessible places) and the cost of alternatives is likely to drop (as technology improves how they perform and how much they cost to manufacture). If you really wanted to help people living in some remote village in Africa, wouldn’t it be better to provide some wind turbines and Solar panels rather than their government spending a fortune on a coal-fired power plant and all the associated infrastructure?

Now, to be honest, I’m not all that familiar will all the ins and outs of energy policy so am sure it’s more complicated than I’ve presented here. I just think that implying that climate policy is aimed (implicitly or explicitly) at harming the poor is disingenuous, and suggesting that alternatives sources are too expensive to be effective is unlikely to be true for long (even if it is true now).

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39 Responses to Poverty and energy

  1. BBD says:

    It’s a good lie though, isn’t it? It provides excellent camouflage for the real message, which I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting:


    As governments consider policies to fight alleged man-made global warming, evangelical leaders have a responsibility to be well informed, and then to speak out. A Renewed Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor: An Evangelical Examination of the Theology, Science, and Economics of Global Warming demonstrates that many of these proposed policies would destroy jobs and impose trillions of dollars in costs to achieve no net benefits. They could be implemented only by enormous and dangerous expansion of government control over private life. Worst of all, by raising energy prices and hindering economic development, they would slow or stop the rise of the world’s poor out of poverty and so condemn millions to premature death.

    Good camouflage, but the reek of hypocrisy under that netting is emetic.

  2. Rachel says:

    I find this argument very frustrating too. The people who use it are hiding behind a fake concern for the world’s poor. They don’t really care about them. If they were sincerely concerned then they would be advocating for tough action to combat climate change because it is climate change that will be most harmful for the world’s poor. A report by the world bank on climate change says,

    “No nation will be immune to the impacts of climate change.
    However, the distribution of impacts is likely to be inherently
    unequal and tilted against many of the world’s poorest regions,
    which have the least economic, institutional, scientific, and technical capacity to cope and adapt.”

  3. Rachel says:

    I think we should start pointing out that to say combatting climate change will destroy jobs and business is alarmist and use their own words against them. There are many who think that fighting climate change will actually be good for business and jobs.

  4. BBD is right, there is definitely a very strong tinge of right-wing, neo-liberal, free-market thinking amongst those who suddenly think that we are about to harm the poor (who they’ve never really bothered about too much in the past as far as I can tell). I agree with you, Rachel, I’ve often felt that there must be amazing opportunities associated with developing new technologies aimed at mitigating the impact of climate change. Those who are ahead of the game will surely benefit the most.

  5. dana1981 says:

    I’ve got a Guardian post going up tonight where I describe Republican claims that EPA GHG regulations are going to kill jobs and hurt the economy as “alarmist”. I agree, use the word against them when it fits, and it fits often.

  6. Rachel says:

    That’s great, Dana. I’ll look out for your post.

  7. dana1981 says:

    To be fair, there are a few like John Christy, who visited Africa and genuinely believes this argument (he makes it often). Now, Christy is delusional to think climate change isn’t a bigger problem for the poor in Africa than having to build renewable energy infrastructure instead of coal, but he does sincerely believe that.

    I think we have a tendency to assume that deniers are dishonest shills, and often they are, but more often they do believe what they say. It’s just that what they believe is warped by their ideological bias.

  8. Tom Curtis says:

    The argument that restrictions of fossil fuel use will harm the poor is simply wrong, in any event. A blanket, flat rate global carbon tax would harm the poor. However, the only just way tackle CO2 emissions is to restrict CO2 emissions on a per capita basis. If we do so, western nations, and particularly Australia and the US, will need to rapidly reduce net CO2 emissions to zero within ten to twenty years. In contrast, poor nations, with low per capita usage, would still have some capacity to expand emissions in the short term to drive economic development, before reducing in emissions to zero by 2050. The effect of such a policy would be to reduce demand for fossil fuels by western nations, thereby reducing their price to poor nations. Western nations (and Australian and the US in particular) are unlikely to be able to follow such a policy without an international emissions trading scheme, which would further help poor nations in the form of a direct monetary payment for excess emission rights.

    In fact, if our concern was for the poor, and the impact of low energy consumption on their poverty, we would demand a carbon price or emissions restrictions on wealthy nations regardless of our concern about global warming. Such a policy would help lift the poor out of their poverty by making fuel relatively cheap for them. Instead those who pretend concern for the poor want to continue the current policy Western demand driving up fuel costs for the poor without restriction.

  9. Tom Curtis says:

    Dana, if Christy genuinely believed this argument he would be pushing for restrictions on use of fossil fuels in wealthy nations. Given that he does not believe that global warming is a problem, that might be in the form of a 5% wholesale value tax on fossil fuels with the proceeds used to subsidize fuel use and economic development in poor nations. Instead he wants to reduce the cost of fossil fuels in the West, thereby driving up demand in Western nations, and increasing the price of fossil fuels still further for the poor of Africa.

  10. BitBucket says:

    I believe there are some ‘skeptics’ who do care about the poor, but for many I’ve debated with, the imagined harm to the poor is largely just a useful hammer with which to hit greens (or anyone else who believes in taking climate action). And just a private hammer I think, wielded on skeptic blogs to stave off wrong-thinking visitors (or ‘trolls’ as they are inevitably labeled). I can see no reason to believe anyone else is taken in by it. To help poor people afford fossil fuels, what’s the best thing to do, use lots and drive the price up or use little and drive the price down? And for people miles and miles off-grid, do they stand more chance setting up a (connection to) a national grid or installing local solar panels and wind turbines? To normal people the answers to these questions are obvious, but to a committed ‘dissentient’ all that it takes to get power to the un-powered is a piece of wire (seriously, a commenter on Bishop Hill suggested this to me a while back and I think he believed it too).

    Why it should be that those who deny climate science should be so uniformly (not quite unanimously, but as near as make no difference) against any reduction in our use of fossil fuels (and unable to accept even that use of those fuels has any undesirable effects) is a mystery.

  11. Lars Karlsson says:

    I never got the point of this argument that us rich people must continue to use excessive amounts of fossil fuels or poor people will suffer. Its like saying that obese people must continue to overeat or skinny people will starve.

  12. dbostrom says:

    Crocodile tears for the poor are not impressive. It’s long been within our capacity to transform the lives of the wretched with a relatively modest contribution from the incomes of the top 1/5th of the economic pyramid, yet we’ve never chosen to do so. When the need for expedient appeals to our sense of charity and compassion is perceived to be over, the crocodiles will dry up.

  13. BBD says:

    A lucid summary, as per. Agreed.

  14. BBD says:

    @ dana1981

    I agree, use the word against them when it fits, and it fits often.

    Splendid idea. So I shall.

  15. Dana, really nice article.

  16. Yes, it’s always seemed remarkably ironic. It probably simply appeals to those who don’t want to change their lifestyles and can’t be bothered about whether what they’re makes any sense or not.

  17. Indeed. It does seem that many of those who are suggesting that climate policy will harm the poor are the same people who argue that those who are poor have simply not tried hard enough to find work or create jobs. Going on current trends, when it becomes clear that climate change is real and damaging our economies, they’ll then probably find some way to blame the poor.

  18. Skeptikal says:

    One basic one is that we’ve had fossil fuel powered energy sources for well over a hundred years and yet we still have many who are living without access to this kind of energy. Why is it suddenly a big deal now?

    Environmentalists tend to care only about trees, not about people… so I’m not overly surprised to see that this isn’t a big deal for you. There are many NGO’s who’ve been actively working in Africa over the last few decades helping to provide people with food, the supply of clean drinking water and basic medical services. Providing a reliable electricity supply to those people is beyond the ability of these agencies, who struggle to fund their current activities. So some people do actually care, even if you don’t.

  19. BBD says:

    That is a blatant, offensive misrepresentation of what is written above.

  20. Tom Curtis says:

    Skeptikal, while my cousin (also here and here) was more of an environmentalist than me, having co-founded Green Left Weekly and campaigned for Bob Brown, I do not for a moment suppose that, therefore he cared less about people.

    Nor do I suppose my environmentalist mother, who spent over twelve years in Africa as a missionary and who now, out of her aged pension funds ongoing charitable work through a grass roots organization in Zimbabwe is, because she does not want to see a world laid to waste by greed, is therefore careless of the needs of people.

    What I know without question, however, is that they and their memories will be repeatedly slandered by people whose lack of consideration for others is only matched for their complete disregard for truth. They do not like the message they receive from environmentalists, so they slander them without evidence or reason to avoid listening. You are evidently one of those toerags.

  21. BBD has given the response that I was about to give. Yes, your response is completely misrepresenting what I said and is rather offensive (although if I wasn’t able to deal with offensive comments, I shouldn’t be writing this blog). I wasn’t implying that we shouldn’t care or that I don’t care. I was asking why, if we’ve had a century or more to do something about providing energy to those living without, why does it suddenly become important to do so just as evidence arrives to suggest that we should be considering alternatives to fossil fuels. I certainly think that we should be doing things to help those in poverty and to help those whose lifestyles are not as comfortable as our own. This may even include providing some fossil fuel based energy sources, but could also include providing renewables and other forms of energy. As others have pointed out above, if we really cared we might be considering making it harder for the developed world to continue relying on fossil fuels and allow the developing world to at least get going using fossil fuels even if the long-term goal is to change our primary energy sources by the latter half of this century.

  22. Skeptikal says:

    I was asking why, if we’ve had a century or more to do something about providing energy to those living without, why does it suddenly become important to do so just as evidence arrives to suggest that we should be considering alternatives to fossil fuels.

    There’s nothing ‘suddenly’ about it… it’s always been important. Impoverished nations in Africa have been slow to develop, partly because they just don’t have a lot of money to throw at building infrastructure. It ‘suddenly’ becomes important when people (who’ve never lived in such poverty) decide that we need to price the poor completely out of the energy market. By unreasonably jacking up the price of fossil fuels (through carbon taxes or emission trading) in developed nations (who are the main consumers of energy), you not only make the expensive alternative energy supplies artificially appear more competitive, but you also take away the main market for fossil fuels… which will kill fossil fuel production (globally). African nations won’t have access to cheap energy because there won’t be any cheap energy left…. fossil fuel or otherwise.

  23. Skeptikal says:

    Do you have any examples of how climate change is damaging our economies?

  24. Okay, the first part I agree with. Clearly they have been slow to develop. I’m much less convinced by the second though. There are scenarios in which one can encourage developed countries to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels without harming the developing world. Furthermore, it seems to me (and the data appears to support this) that fossil fuel sources are becoming more expensive, while renewables are becoming cheaper and more efficient. So, it’s not obvious that the only way to provide energy for the developing world is through fossil fuels. In addition if the influence that global warming on our planet is as many expect, we really do need to reduce our CO2 emissions. We’re doing noone any favours if we don’t do something about it. I also think that accusing those who are concerned about climate change of not caring for the poor also doesn’t help the discussion much.

  25. To be fair, I’ve been reluctant to discuss climate change explicitly since I’m more comfortable talking about global warming, which I understand better. I have two basic responses to your question. One simple one is that the evidence for global warming (increased energy in our climate system) is strong. Adding energy is likely to change the climate and makes extreme events more likely. Having said that, I don’t think we can strictly ascribe a single event to climate change. However, it does appear that the insurance industry and the US military are taking the risks of climate change quite seriously so even if we don’t have watertight evidence right now, we may well soon have enough for it to be clear that global warming has influence our climate in a way that is damaging our economies.

  26. Skeptikal says:

    I also think that accusing those who are concerned about climate change of not caring for the poor also doesn’t help the discussion much.

    Perhaps it was a poor choice in the way you worded it… after reading it a couple more times, I still read it as something like… they’ve never had electricity so why is it a big deal that they still don’t have it now.

  27. That certainly wasn’t the intent. If I was being insulting to anyone, it was to those who appear to be using poverty as an emotive argument rather than having a well thought out argument as to the merits (or not) of fossil fuels, renewables, nuclear and other possible energy sources.

  28. Tom Curtis says:

    The entire premise of Skeptikal’s argument, ie, that a carbon tax in the US (or Australia) will make fossil fuels more expensive in Africa, lacks any underpinning. In fact, it contradicts basic economics. Increasing the cost of fossil fuels in one market will decrease demand in that market. The decreased demand will result in a fall of the price from producers; and hence a fall in the price for those countries (ie, African nations) who do not introduce a carbon tax. Until Skeptikal addresses this point, he is shown to not only be needlessly and unrepentantly offensive, but also to be thoughtless in argumentation – merely echoing talking points without understanding.

  29. dbostrom says:

    An ironic feature of this discussion is that a steadily increasing number of the people we’re discussing and formerly without electricity are beginning to enjoy its benefits without ever seeing something called a “grid” or requiring fossil fuel. Quite the opposite, in some cases.

    ‘Fossil fuel” stands as shorthand for many features and benefits but we shouldn’t confuse allusion with necessity. Lighting a home in a way that transforms the lives of residents doesn’t equate to “fossil fuel.” When Skeptikal says “Providing a reliable electricity supply to those people is beyond the ability of these agencies…,” Skeptikal is ignoring actual work being performed by NGOs. Myriad homes in Africa are now being provided with simple and robust systems to eliminate the expensive, dangerous and unhealthy requirement for kerosene lighting. The money formerly being spent on kerosene goes to other things and lives improve surprisingly dramatically as a result*.

    So we see that in the case of serving the needs of developing nations, quite apart from standing for progress, fossil fuel can be an anachronism that needs to be weeded out in order to foster progress.

    As well, the remark “Environmentalists tend to care only about trees, not about people…” strikes me as hysterically funny, at Skeptikal’s expense, because Skeptikal’s notion of what environmentalists care about is so dreadfully attenuated and impoverished. Try telling a person who does atmospheric gas monitoring on a submarine or somebody whose duty is that of measuring fecal bacteria counts in a municipal water supply that they only care about trees and they’ll give you a queer look.

    Meanwhile, many so-called “environmentalists” (me, for instance) are in the camp of systems thinking. There’s no doubt that Earth’s viability as a habitat for living organisms (including us, obviously) depends on properly functioning systems, systems we don’t yet fully understand. Until we do fully understand the systems we depend on, significant changes we make are akin to throwing extra nuts and bolts into a running mechanical power transmission system with the expectation it’ll either improve or continue running without trouble.

    *For such as Skeptikal it’s probably worth better researching this topic in order not to be caught so flat-footed in future when discussing the economic development needs of the poor.

  30. Very interesting, thanks. I wasn’t sure if your final paragraph was aimed at me or at Skeptical. If at me, I’m certainly learning quite a lot through the comments.

  31. Rachel says:

    Yes, I think it’s very unimaginative think that the only way the world’s poorer nations can turn on the lights is by burning fossil fuels. People in the Philippines for instance, are getting free power from their local rubbish dump – http://news.ebru.tv/en/world/philippines-transforms-trash-to-clean-energy

  32. Skeptikal says:

    dbostrom says:

    homes in Africa are now being provided with simple and robust systems

    Would I be right in guessing that ‘simple and robust systems’ refers to cheap solar lamps?

  33. andrew adams says:

    Anyone who has followed the discussions which have happened at international level in recent years, ie at Copenhagen, Cancun etc, will understand that the need to protect the interests of developing countries and enable them to move their people out of poverty in a way that has the least possible impact in terms of emissions has been pretty central to those discussions. Hence for example the launch of the Green Climate Fund – people may have doubts as to its likely effectiveness, especially given the current economic climate, but it can’t be denied that the point point behind it is to address precisely the kind of concerns expressed by those skeptics who claim to be concerned for the effects of climate change mitigation policies on the poor.

    In fact some skeptics argue against mitigation policies on this point – that such policies are designed to take money from people in the West (ie themselves) and hand it over to the third world. I sometimes lose track as to whether climate change is a scam to enrich the West at the expense of developing counries or a scam to enrich developing countries at the expence of the West.

  34. reasonablemadness says:

    @Tom Curtis
    I think you don’t get how they are thinking and how their argument goes.
    They believe, that fossil fuel prices will not rise, because we will increase production enough, so that this will not happen.

    I have made the experience in conversations with people from my surroundings (neighborhood, workplace, friends, etc) who think that way, that nearly all of them truly believe what they are saying. They are mostly good people, who want nobody harm. And some of them might even think that such a tax for increasing access to fossil energy in poorer countries would be a good idea.

    But their argument is simply wrong, because it won’t work that way.

    A lot of them believe, that you can provide enough energy through fossil fuels, so that prices will remain roughly stable, and that the poor will get richer bit by bit and with time more and more people on the world will be able to afford more and more of that fossil energy and gain a higher standard of living. If you now assume that CO2 emissions had no negative impact on climate or whatever else (because that is what many of them think), the expansion of fossil fuel production will be a good thing.

    But the point is, that their argument goes wrong on many levels, because their assumptions are flawed:
    First of all they are wrong that ever increasing CO2 levels do not lead to an immense climate change. We nearly certainly know that it will.
    Second, they are wrong (or don’t even know) that rising CO2 does cause a lot of other problems, e.g. ocean acidification. If we would stay on business-as-usual and even increase fossil fuel use so that all people on earth can have that energy like we do, we would bring CO2 to levels far beyond 1000 ppm and that will lead to such a strong acidification of the oceans, that it may disrupt marine ecosystems, which are the basis of a large part of the nutrition of people around the world. Ocean acidification alone would be a serious enough problem to not continue with business-as-usual.
    Third of all, I don’t think that it is easily possible, to hold fossil fuel prices on current levels. The conventional and unconventional extraction of oil and gas from the ground will not be enough, to make up for increasing demand and for the shortfall of current oil/gas fields.We would need to spend huge amounts on money to invest in infrastructure e.g. to ramp up coal-to-liquid production and that will not be possible at current fuel prices.
    Fourth of all, they do not realize, that fossil fuels are so cheap as they are, because they are heavily subsidized in many countries and because a lot of the costs that come with fossil fuel use (e.g. harm to health by mercury from coal plants, soot, etc) are not priced in at the price which you pay at the gas station, but which are payed by the society in other ways (e.g. higher health insurance costs, etc). But those costs have to be payed nonetheless, but you don’t see them on your energy bill.

    And because all of those points, they are wrong. But most of them are still sincere people. But just because you are a good person in your heart, that doesn’t mean that you can’t believe a lot of crap, that you can’t ignore many things because of selective perception and that you can make because of that very bad decisions, even if this is not your intent.

  35. reasonablemadness says:

    “A blanket, flat rate global carbon tax would harm the poor.”
    No, it would not, at least if you do it right.

    Assume that there would be a price on carbon that will get collected at the source, i.e. where the oil is extracted or the coal is mined (or at the border, when it is imported from a country that does not impose such a tax). This tax (which is payed initially from the oil or coal company) will of course be passed on to the consumer in the end, i.e. fossil fuels will get more expensive by this (as well as all other products where fossil fuel is used in their production).
    But: If you now distribute the money, that was collected by that tax, to all residents on a per-capita basis, you make it revenue-neutral. So, as a whole the people do not pay any more money. However, because the money is distributed back on a per-capita basis, those people, who use less fossil fuels (or buy less things produced with fossil-fuel use) than the average, will get a reward and *gain* money by this. Those people who use more than the average, will pay more at the end.

    So, no, a carbon tax would not harm the poor.
    Quite the opposite: It would only harm those people, who use more fossil energy than the average person, and that are in nearly all cases not the poor people. And all people would have a real incentive, to lower their demand, because they save or even gain money by this. And companies in turn would have an incentive, to lower the carbon intensity of their products, because they will be cheaper by this and they would have an advantage over their competitors, who use more fossil fuels to achieve the same goal.

  36. Tom Curtis says:

    1) It is a myth that a fee and dividend carbon tax would be cost free.

    Assume that the carbon tax is effective in its purpose in driving a substitution of renewable energy for fossil fuel energy. The cost of the renewable energy will be greater than the cost of the fossil fuel energy prior to the tax. If it were not, then it would replace fossil fuel energy without need of a tax. Further, that renewable energy generates no carbon tax revenue. Consequently, as renewable energy substitutes for fossil fuel energy the cost of energy will remain inflated relative to the original cost using fossil fuels, but the carbon tax revenue will become an increasingly smaller proportion of the total increase in energy cost.

    Thus, while a fee and dividend carbon tax can be revenue neutral for the government, it cannot be revenue neutral for consumers except by extremely fortuitous circumstance.

    2) A flat rate global fee and dividend scheme with a per capita dividend distribution would so massively distort income structure relative to labour in poor nations as to destroy the economy. If the fee and dividend is per capita within nations the flat rate dividend may not be ruinous. I am not sure that simply transplanting policies designed for rich economies to poor economies would work, so while it may not disadvantage the poor in those economies it still may.

  37. cvdanes says:

    Also, you know, climate policy is also about making sure that those who live in poverty have less access to hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, food and water shortages, climate refugee camps, extremely hot temperatures, increased air pollution from blown away top soil, etc., etc., etc…

  38. Thanks to everyone for the various comments. Very interesting and I’ve certainly learned more about issues related to climate policy. Apologies for not responding to more of them directly, but I’ve been away at a meeting all week and haven’t had much spare time.

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