Who’s Helping The World’s Poor? Coal Companies Or Climate Activists?

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Susan Melkisethian

More than 300,000 people marched through the streets of Manhattan on Sunday to raise awareness about climate change.

A common theme runs through of much of the reporting on this weekend’s People’s Climate March in New York City and it can be summed up as this: the 300,000-some people who crowded the streets of Manhattan on Sunday were so diverse!

Why is that a newsworthy observation? Probably because environmentalism and climate change have historically been seen largely as causes for rich white people without more pressing concerns. But at Sunday’s protest, indigenous groups marched alongside Hurricane Sandy survivors who marched alongside women’s environmental groups from Uganda. Their common rallying cry was that climate change is not just an environmental issue – it’s an issue of social justice. In recent years everyone from the World Bank and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the financial services company Standard and Poor’s have issued reports saying climate change will disproportionately impact poor people. The activists takeaway from that is this: if we choose not to combat climate change by cutting back on fossil fuel consumption, then we’re committing a massive social injustice.

Contrast that to the competing narrative from coal companies. In February, Peabody Coal, one of the world’s largest coal companies, launched a public relations campaign called “Advanced Energy for Life.” Their argument is that coal is the cheapest, most efficient fuel for lifting people out of poverty, and that to deny poor people the right to burn coal is to deny them the right to prosper. The campaign’s website features posts with headlines like “The World is Counting on Coal to Power Growing Needs” and “Power Africa Through Coal.”

Historically, it’s pretty clear the coal companies’ argument is a strong one. Coal fueled the industrial revolution, in the process raising the quality of life for millions of people. But if Sunday’s showing was any indication, the argument that climate change is a social justice issue appears to be gaining traction, and the industry line, that coal lifts people out of poverty, may no longer be good enough.