Perry was right, wrong on women and en­ergy

En­ergy chief’s at­tempt to tie ben­e­fits just with fos­sil fu­els is ab­surd.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - INSIGHT - By Michael E. Web­ber and Sheril Kir­shen­baum

On Thurs­day, U.S. Sec­re­tary of En­ergy Rick Perry clum­sily stated that fos­sil fu­els could help pre­vent sex­ual as­saults on vul­ner­a­ble women in Africa. “When the lights are on, when you have light, it shines the right­eous­ness, if you will, on (sex­ual as­sault),” Perry as­serted. “So, from the stand­point of how you re­ally af­fect peo­ple’s lives, fos­sil fu­els is (sic) go­ing to play a role in that.”

This wasn’t the first time that Perry’s views have raised eye­brows and gar­nered snick­ers. But on this is­sue, he was partly right. Ac­cess to en­ergy can pro­mote women’s rights and im­prove their lives.

How­ever, fos­sil fu­els do not of­fer any spe­cial ben­e­fit for women in the devel­op­ing world, and they pose some very real threats. From our per­spec­tive as en­ergy re­searchers, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion can do much more to help women in low-in­come coun­tries by pro­mot­ing clean-burn­ing fu­els, ef­fi­cient tech­nolo­gies and elec­tric­ity from re­new­able sources.

Dirty cook­stoves kill mil­lions

In the United States, where en­ergy ac­cess is uni­ver­sal, Perry’s claim that fos­sil fu­els di­rectly im­prove women’s qual­ity of life falls flat. Here their cu­mu­la­tive im­pacts on our en­vi­ron­ment and health can ac­tu­ally make things worse for ev­ery­one. But much of the devel­op­ing world lacks ac­cess to mod­ern forms of en­ergy, and this sit­u­a­tion puts women at risk in many ways.

To­day over 1 bil­lion peo­ple live with­out elec­tric­ity, safe drink­ing wa­ter or proper san­i­ta­tion. These con­di­tions bur­den women far more than men. Women and girls in devel­op­ing na­tions typ­i­cally man­age house­holds, which can re­quire them to walk for 1.4 hours daily to col­lect prim­i­tive solid fu­els like wood, straw and cow dung for heat­ing and cook­ing. This puts them at risk of sex­ual vi­o­lence while they are out in re­mote ar­eas.

Burn­ing prim­i­tive fu­els in in­ef­fi­cient cook­stoves gen­er­ates smoke, ash, soot and par­tic­u­late mat­ter, pro­duc­ing dan­ger­ous in­door air pol­lu­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion, 4.3 mil­lion peo­ple die ev­ery year from pneu­mo­nia, stroke, heart dis­ease and other ill­nesses as­so­ci­ated with ex­po­sure to in­ef­fi­cient stoves burn­ing fu­els like wood, dung, crop waste — and, no­tably, coal. Women and young chil­dren, who spend the most time near home hearths, suf­fer the high­est ex­po­sures. The In­ter­na­tional En­ergy Agency es­ti­mates that pro­vid­ing uni­ver­sal ac­cess to clean cook­ing sys­tems would avert 1.8 mil­lion pre­ma­ture deaths an­nu­ally by 2030.

Giv­ing house­holds in low-in­come re­gions like sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa and South­east Asia ac­cess to mod­ern forms of en­ergy, such as propane, piped nat­u­ral gas and elec­tric­ity, would also free up women and girls to go to school or earn ex­tra house­hold in­come. Ed­u­cated girls have more choices, fre­quently marry later and opt to have fewer chil­dren, which helps to al­le­vi­ate the cy­cle of ex­treme poverty.

Deter­ring crime, or some­times at­tract­ing it

Perry was cor­rect in link­ing light with re­duced risk of sex­ual as­sault and other crimes. Cities in the de­vel­oped world have in­stalled light­ing sys­tems — of­ten pow­ered by fos­sil fu­els — for nearly 200 years to pro­mote pub­lic safety. Fa­mil­iar ex­am­ples in­clude Lon­don’s gas lamps; so-called “moon­tow­ers” in Austin; and the high-ef­fi­ciency LED sys­tems that il­lu­mi­nate many ma­jor U.S. cities to­day.

How­ever, Perry’s at­tempt to iden­tify these ben­e­fits ex­clu­sively with fos­sil fu­els is ab­surd. True, elec­tri­fi­ca­tion at home has made Amer­i­cans safer by en­abling ubiq­ui­tous pub­lic light­ing, alarm sys­tems and, now, mo­bile phones. But it makes no dif­fer­ence whether that elec­tric­ity is made from fos­sil fu­els, nu­clear en­ergy or re­new­ables. What peo­ple re­ally want aren’t raw forms of en­ergy like lumps of coal or a tank of gas; in­stead, they want en­ergy ser­vices like heat, mo­tion and il­lu­mi­na­tion. Pro­vid­ing those ser­vices in a cleaner, more sus­tain­able way ben­e­fits ev­ery­one.

With in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion fo­cused on mit­i­gat­ing the im­pacts of cli­mate change, many de­vel­oped and devel­op­ing coun­tries are boost­ing in­vest­ments in re­new­ables and other low-car­bon sources of en­ergy. In­dia is mak­ing ag­gres­sive plans for so­lar and wind, while China has pri­or­i­tized re­search and devel­op­ment to be­come a dom­i­nant pro­ducer of so­lar pan­els and wind tur­bines. By pro­mot­ing out­dated en­ergy sources like coal, the United States is ced­ing lead­er­ship on clean en­ergy while down­play­ing en­ergy sys­tems that bet­ter en­able women’s rights.

And some­times fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion can ac­tu­ally foster crime. For more than a cen­tury, en­ergy “boom towns” have been as­so­ci­ated with pros­ti­tu­tion and hu­man traf­fick­ing, fu­eled by large pop­u­la­tions of men with money and noth­ing to do af­ter work. The pat­tern can be seen to­day in Aus­tralian coal towns, North Dakota’s Bakken oil and gas zone and Niger Delta oil com­mu­ni­ties. Dis­turb­ing re­ports have linked fos­sil fuel “man camps” in the United States with in­creases in do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and sex­ual as­sault.

Em­pow­er­ing women

The #MeToo cam­paign has brought the per­va­sive­ness of sex­ual as­sault and ha­rass­ment to light. Amer­i­cans must ad­dress this ubiq­ui­tous prob­lem head-on. It is also im­por­tant to ex­pand ac­cess to en­ergy glob­ally. Women will ben­e­fit from ad­vances on both of these is­sues.

But when Perry dou­bled down on pro­tect­ing old, in­ef­fi­cient and dirty forms of en­ergy like coal, he set back progress in­stead of point­ing the way for­ward.

In our view, the most ef­fec­tive way in which U.S. en­ergy pol­icy can help women around the world is by pro­mot­ing Amer­i­can-made nat­u­ral gas, propane and re­new­able elec­tric­ity world­wide. If Perry also wants to help women here in the United States, he can work to bring more women into vis­i­ble po­si­tions of in­flu­ence at en­ergy com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ment agen­cies, where the glass ceil­ing is still strong. By do­ing so, he could help de­velop a more thought­ful cul­ture about how en­ergy de­ci­sions af­fect women.


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