Can Clean Energy Strike Back Against The Growing Smear Campaign?

There has been a noticeable shift within the clean energy industry over the last few months as the election season brings a fresh round of attacks.

From 2005 to 2008, advocates racked up an impressive array of policy support on the local and state levels due to strong bipartisan support. Many people believed that local momentum would carry forward on the national level and provide the catalyst for a comprehensive climate and clean energy bill after President Obama came into office in 2009.

Of course, it wasn’t enough. And the defeat of the climate bill in 2010 marked the beginning of an intensifying campaign against renewable energy. Now, with the Republican party using Solyndra as the center of its messaging strategy, that campaign has become a central theme of the 2012 election.

Renewable energy groups have come to grips with this reality and are adapting their messaging strategies accordingly. Consider this recent email, sent by Adam Browning of the Vote Solar Initiative, on the industry’s need to counter disinformation:

When people ask: What keeps you up at night? I tell them this: There’s an unholy amount of money being spent to attack renewables right now — an unprecedented blitz of solar slander, renewable-mongering and clean energy kvetching that could set policy efforts back decades.

Consider: Of the negative advertising in April of this this election cycle, 81% have targeted renewable energy for attack.  And when you factor that this presidential election is shaping up to be the most expensive in history, with experts estimating spending in the range of $6 billion dollars, well, we got trouble.

Since its founding, The Vote Solar Initiative has been all about helping states and municipalities understand the value of solar. They’ve had to deal with their fair share of misinformation over the years, but they’ve made extraordinarily impressive bipartisan progress on getting better regulatory standards and support mechanisms for solar in place.

But today, with organizations like Americans for Tax Reform, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Manhattan Institute, and a growing army of Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists (supported by the Republican National Committee) all working to rhetorically smear renewables or take them down on the local level, a lot more people are waking up to the threat.

For sure, groups like Vote Solar want to maintain their non-partisan stance. They’ve worked in the bluest of the blue states and the reddest of the red states, communicating with regulators, policymakers and business owners about the benefits of solar. But they recognize that the political hits are going to pile up against them this election season. That’s a fact.

Consider these trends:

  • American Energy Alliance, Americans for Prosperity, American Future Fund, and Crossroads GPS – the top outside interest group spenders – have spent a total $24.9 million on deceptive ads, many of them energy-related, the Annenberg Public Policy Center found.
  • The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity has devoted more than 90 percent of its ad spending to energy ads. Two of these ads pushed the patently false claim, roundly rejected by fact-checkers, regarding clean energy jobs. Politico just reported the Koch-backed organizations plan to spend $400 million ahead of the 2012 election, with a large amount of that money likely going toward energy issues.
  • 85 percent of the dollars spent on presidential ads by four top-spending third-party groups were for ads with at least one claim ruled deceptive by fact-checkers.
  • One in four of the dollars spent on TV ads has funded mostly false advertising mentioning energy. This equals the amount of spending on health care ads, according to Kantar Media.

In other words, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent — virtually overnight — on straight-up lies designed to unravel the last decade of progress in renewable energy.

And just yesterday, the Sierra club issued a report detailing the flow of money from fossil fuel interests to organizations and individuals engaging in the campaign to take down renewable energy. The report outlines most of what we’ve been reporting on this website for the last year, but it’s a solid comprehensive overview of the players involved.

The report outlines political donations, industry dollars funding anti-renewable think tanks, and the relationship between local and national groups.

It’s still unclear how finely coordinated many of the current attacks are, particularly between local and national groups. However, it’s perfectly clear that organizations opposed to renewable energy — either for short-term political gain or long-term business reasons — are funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into the current smear campaign against the industry. There’s no refuting that it’s underway and it’s intensifying.

The Sierra Club summed up the attacks this way:

It is a testament to the success and rapid growth of clean-energy resources that they are now regarded as enough of a threat to draw fire from some of the largest, most powerful corporations on the planet. But with this rising status, there comes a heightened degree of difficulty that the renewable and efficiency companies — as well as advocates for their products as an environmental solution — must both recognize and contend with. The Koch brothers, Exxon Mobil, Peabody Energy, and others are playing for keeps. They have unlimited resources and we have documented that they are committing them to undermining clean energy. We clearly face a dog-eat-dog environment and must respond with as much vigor and aggressiveness as those who would see wind, solar, geothermal, and other technologies fade into the sunset — a product of a brief period in American economic history when the competitive environment was a friendly place for clean energy.

Ambitious efforts to change the political landscape to fit a certain set of interests are very unlikely to happen on a shoestring. Most of the activities described in this report have not taken place overnight, nor have they happened by accident. Hours of work and dedicated individuals have collaborated to build a meaningful opposition to renewable energy, whether through the previously discussed “think tanks,” “citizens groups,” or political contributions. These efforts have also required a significant amount of funding.

In order to combat this disinformation, many of the clean energy industry groups have banded together to create an Energy Fact Check website. It’s a great resource for keeping up with the growing list of deceptive or completely nonfactual claims. Unfortunately, it can’t match the Kochs, who can easily raise and spend $400 million in a few months.

But what’s potentially more valuable than money? Local businesses, entrepreneurs, and advocates sticking up for their industry. Look at what happened in New Jersey where Republican Governor Chris Christie — a man loved by the Kochs — expanded the state’s solar industry because it has been such an economic boost for small businesses. That happened because the New Jersey solar industry, along with the local utilities, were able to communicate the benefits of the technology. Local pragmatism beat out national politics.

In the medium and long-term, we know renewables, efficiency, and conservation will win the day — the need for distributed, low-carbon resources is far too environmentally and economically important. But that win isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to take some equally powerful push back from folks on the local level to counter the national smear campaign.

20 Responses to Can Clean Energy Strike Back Against The Growing Smear Campaign?

  1. catman306 says:

    Chris Christie could only have expanded the solar industry in New Jersey because oil is not to be found in that state.

  2. Dave Hamilton says:

    Thanks for the reference, Stephen. As we tried to acknowledge in the acknowledgements of “Clean Energy Under Siege”, CAP’s reporting has brought this story from the beginning. Ours was a job of putting pieces together and trying to push the story out beyond the Beltway. But we could not do it without the raw material from you and others.

  3. “In order to combat this disinformation, many of the clean energy industry groups have banded together to create an Energy Fact Check website.”

    This is all good and well, but it is unlikely than many people will visit the site — not nearly as many as will be exposed to the misleading ads. Why not hit back at the fossil fuel industry with some ads that describe it as it is — dirty in every sense of the word?

    The renewable energy industry can’t compete with fossil fuel shills in terms of dollars, but it has truth on its side. Ten seconds of Deepwater Horizon footage is worth 10 minutes of nonsense about Solyndra.

  4. Leif says:

    A thought to bounce off you folks. We are all aware of the major drought and subsequent crop losses around the Nation. Yet the President continues to be closed mouth about the CO2 ramifications, Why? Could it be because those farmers for the most part carry crop insurance that covers drought and expect to collect billions of dollars from the insurance industries. I would presume that drought is only covered by “God” induced drought. On the other hand, if the drought is attributed officially to “man” would that let the insurance industries off the hook? Leaving guess who to pick up the tab. If you guess “fossil Industry,” I believe you would be wrong under existing corporate law, which has a long history of allowing pollution of the commons for profit. However Corporations are people now, how does that factor? I am way out of my realm here. Thoughts?

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I expect clean energy to be more or less destroyed in the Anglosphere countries in coming years, as the Right flexes its political muscle and the fossil fuel industry seeks to finish off an existential threat to trillions in assets. That, comrades, is how the capitalist fanatics operate. In slightly more sane capitalist states like Germany, clean energy will blossom, until the US Right can install something like a Vaclav Klaus into office in Bonn. The Germans may baulk at this, one hopes. The Chinese will go on their way, unless they suffer a variant of the ‘Syrian Method’ which is quite unlikely given their homogeneity (but billions have been and will be expended trying to make it happen). Their rational, meritocratic, planned and well-administered system now seems, to me, one of the few dim hints of light at the end of a dark tunnel. Which explains the Right’s increasingly hysterical denunciations of them and the drive to demonise them.

  6. Leif says:

    You are a bucket of fun MM. Do you mind if I keep fighting? I am 71 and it is all I know. I’ll be out of the loop soon enough as is.

  7. Mark Shapiro says:

    Yes, this is ugly, bad, and scary. But many people understand the problem — somewhat — and like the idea of clean energy.

    I’ll keep pushing.

  8. D. R. Tucker says:

    On Wednesday, Progressive Radio Network host/veteran green journalist Betsy Rosenberg and I were honored to interview, the one-time climate change skeptic Dr. Richard Muller, whose Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project — which was funded in part, ironically enough, by the notorious climate change deniers at the Charles G. Koch Foundation — recently came to the same conclusion that virtually all climate scientists not affiliated with libertarian think tanks have long since recognized: climate change is “real” and “humans are almost entirely the cause,” thanks to the the anthropogenic release of greenhouse gases. [Our audio interview is posted in full below.]

    As a Republican who had a similar climate awakening nearly two years ago myself, I looked forward to speaking to Dr. Muller; in the moments before the interview, I wondered if we could find some common ground.

    Let’s just say I was too naïve for my own good…

  9. Joan Savage says:

    Leif, A map of the blue states, red states and in-betweens as compared to the areas of drought, shows a situation. New Mexico and Illinois are two solidly blue states that have been hit by the drought, but otherwise the most suffering of drought-hit states are red states whose members of Congress might not acknowledge the CO2 connection. Romney isn’t saying much about disaster relief, much less the role of CO2, so maybe he follows the crop insurance line of thinking.
    Meanwhile there are plenty of people in blue states who already get the picture about CO2. It sure is interesting to watch.

  10. Leif says:

    With agriculture out of the loop for the most part in a lot of those red stated about the only thing bringing in money is wind and solar PV. I would think even the tin hats might be awakening, though I see no evidence.

  11. Omega Centauri says:

    That’s exactly how I felt about the Shock Doctrine, with a few millions aware, the tactic won’t work anymore. Instead it seems like it was simply used as a playbook for how to accelerate the program.

    What the right has learned is that continuous unrelenting repetition of memes of their choice gradually reprograms the minds of the public. Thats how I expect they will fight the long war against renewables and conservation. This is going to be a tough one to win.

  12. Martin Vermeer says:

    > until the US Right can install something
    > like a Vaclav Klaus into office in Bonn

    That wouldn’t help much as the German government nowadays prefers to operate from Berlin ;-)

  13. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Nice report of the interview, makes it very clear that while he may have done a triple somersault with pike (because he couldn’t avoid it) he is still very aware of keeping faith with his wealthy backers, ME

  14. Spike says:

    Abstract of a German study below, which makes it clear why the fossil fuel zombies are out to chew up renewables.

    “The German feed-in support of electricity generation from renewable energy sources has led to high growth rates of the supported technologies. Critics state that the costs for consumers are too high. An important aspect to be considered in the discussion is the price effect created by renewable electricity generation. This paper seeks to analyse the impact of privileged renewable electricity generation on the electricity market in Germany. The central aspect to be analysed is the impact of renewable electricity generation on spot market prices. The results generated by an agent-based simulation platform indicate that the financial volume of the price reduction is considerable. In the short run, this gives rise to a distributional effect which creates savings for the demand side by reducing generator profits. In the case of the year 2006, the volume of the merit-order effect exceeds the volume of the net support payments for renewable electricity generation which have to be paid by consumers.”

  15. Tough to win, yes, but not impossible. For one thing, climate change speaks for itself, and it’s been speaking rather loudly lately. For another, renewables are attractive to most people, and they’ve been exposed to the fossil-fuel-backed memes for years.

    I think the real battle is in Congress, where the lobbying goes on. Since that game is (and will remain) rigged, the only way I can see to win is a combination of disseminating truthful counter-propagana and open protest/civil disobedience such as actions.

  16. Calamity Jean says:

    I don’t think New Jersey has coal either. If they do, it’s not much.

  17. SecularAnimist says:

    Spike, could you please provide a link to that study?


  18. ToddInNorway says:

    I agree that it this is primarily a battle of the memes. I would like share a new meme to support renewables. Kodak could not accept the concept of photography WITHOUT film, and they went from being the world’s most valued brand to bankruptcy in 10 years. Now we have the emerging renewables industry that provides us energy services WITHOUT fossil fuels, and the moment (Kodak moment?) when renewables ultimately defeat fossil fuels is unavoidable. It is only a question of time. Renewables are where the smart money will go. At least two of the leading global coal companies will go broke in the next 10 years.

  19. Omega Centauri says:

    I like your Kodak moment framing. Its not just a matter of when, but a matter of whose economy manages to capture the bulk of the new industries, and whose ends up playing catchup. I think your country will fare much better than mine.

  20. We need to use as much solar energy if we want to think about the future.