The Dirty Coal Guys Take A Few Pages From The Climate Science Denier Playbook

—Dominique Browning

We have entered another period of vocal warming. The political rhetoric in the “debate” over the EPA’s new Mercury and Air Toxics Regulation is falling into a terrible and familiar pattern. Supporters of the Clean Air Act would be well advised to take note. Pro-polluters are beginning to sound like climate deniers.

We shouldn’t dismiss them as hot-headed extremists–that didn’t work too well last time around. Remember when it looked like cap-and-trade was a done deal, and climate deniers had lost momentum? A few loud-mouths have a way of turning many heads.

Just look at the arc this issue is taking. In March, the EPA announced new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards; they have been in the works for 21 years. As we were reminded during testimony in recent Senate subcommittee hearings, it was Administrator Leavitt, in 2004, who told utilities where his (Republican) administration stood on new anti-pollution regulations: “It’s time to start cleaning up.” Time to invest “now” in reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury. Power plant clean up has been a continuous policy under two Democratic and two Republican presidents.

When the EPA announced its new standards last winter, the response was reasoned. Indeed, a letter, published in the Wall Street Journal, signed by CEOs of major utilities supported the regulations as good for the economy.

That was in December.

By June, we were in the midst of such anti-EPA sentiment that a Presidential candidate, Michele Bachman, was emboldened to call for the Mother of All Repeals, the repeal of the Clean Air Act. Congressman Ed Whitfield (R KY) then picked up the repeal rhetoric.

Suddenly, we’re spinning backwards, to pre-1970 days. Repeal the Clean Air Act? How is such talk even possible–and can it stick?

What’s happening? There’s one very good reason to take vocal warming very seriously: Pro-Polluters are using the same tactics that were used so successfully during the last round of the climate change battle.

From the Pro-Polluter Playbook:

1. Keep repeating falsehoods. Make that: LIES

Coal doesn’t hurt anyone. Mercury is harmless.

Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX) during a hearing: there is no “medical negative” to pollution.

Utility industry lobbyists state that there are “no incremental health benefits associated with” the new standards. They deny that reducing toxics “actually does anything to protect the public health.”

One of those lobbyists, Jeff Holmstead, who now works for Rudy Giuliani’s firm, used to head Bush’s EPA air program (2001-2005). His biography states that he was involved in the passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. As Jeff Walke at NRDC points out, in 2002, Holmstead testified to Congress that “mercury is a potent toxin that causes permanent damage to the brain and nervous system, particularly in developing fetuses.” In 2005, he testified that reducing pollution from power plants would result in “14,100 fewer premature deaths” and other “significant health benefits.”

In 2011, representing the electric industry, Holmstead said: “It is pretty hard to say that [mercury from coal-fired power plants] is a significant public health issue.”

Truth is beside the point.

Steve Milloy tells the Fox News audience that US power plants aren’t a major source of mercury emissions. The EPA states that coal-fired power plants are the largest source– 50%– of manmade mercury emissions. Bush’s EPA made the same statements.

While you’re at it, confuse people about what, exactly, is a fact.

2. Ignore the science.

Lobbyists for the utilities, pro-pollution utility CEOs, and pro-pollution politicians choose to ignore reams of peer-reviewed scientific studies on the health hazards of particulate matter, air toxics and mercury from power plants.

Ignoring the science is one way of silencing scientists’ voices.

3. Denigrate scientists and medical professionals. Undercut their authority.

That’s what was behind Joe Barton’s cheap, folksy shot: “I’m not a doctor…but my hypothesis is” that no one is going to be hurt by mercury. His opinion is as good as any scientist’s, just because he calls it a hypothesis.

When major health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Lung Association, and the American Public Health Association, wrote to express their “shock” at these unscientific assertions, Barton ignored them.

4. Scare people about jobs and the economy–even if you have to lie about it.

Because of the new EPA standards, say the pro-polluters, plants will have to be shut down. People will lose their jobs–and no new jobs will be created. The American economy will suffer further. So will consumers. Regulating pollution is an unaffordable luxury.

Never mind what a few industry experts have to say–publicly, in the Wall Street Journal: Peter Darbee, chairman,president and CEO,PG&E Corp.; Jack Fusco, president and CEO, Calpine Corp.; Lewis Hay, chairman and CEO, NextEra Energy, Inc.; Ralph Izzo, chairman, president and CEO, Public Service Enterprise Group, Inc.; Thomas King, president, National Grid USA,; John Rowe, chairman and CEO, Exelon Corp.; Mayo Shattuck, chairman, president and CEO, Constellation Energy Group; Larry Weis, general manager, Austin Energy

“To suggest that plants are retiring because of the EPA’s regulations fails to recognize that lower power prices and depressed demand are the primary retirement drivers. The units retiring are generally small, old and inefficient. These retirements are long overdue.

Contrary to the claims that the EPA’s agenda will have negative economic consequences, our companies’ experience complying with air quality regulations demonstrates that regulations can yield important economic benefits, including job creation, while maintaining reliability.”

5.  Sow confusion. And reap “undecided”.

Deniers know they don’t need to convince people that coal emissions are poisonous. They only have to confuse them. When people are confused (on any issue), they naturally move to the “undecided” camp. “Undecided” is paralyzing; and gives people an excuse not to act. “Undecided” keeps people quiet.

If you keep repeating the lies, and keep ignoring the science, enough people will become “undecided” about the connection between coal pollution and neurotoxicants. They’ll become “undecided” about the connection between asthma and particulate pollution from coal–no matter what the scientists and doctors say.

6.  Go for Cheap Laughs.

If you make fun of your opponent, you undercut their argument. People get distracted by the joke, and forget the substance.

At Fox News, it isn’t enough to lie. You have to go for cheap laughs, a Fox News specialty. Everything’s a joke. Steve Milloy: if mercury is toxic, then “water should be classified as a neurotoxin.”

Or Dr. Ablow, a psychiatrist, also on Fox News: there is “no evidence” linking particulate pollution from coal-fired plants to asthma.

“It could be the lizard causing asthma just as well.”

7. Count on the anti-confrontational nature of the opposition

Somehow, we are reluctant to put a face on the polluting enemy. And the enemy knows it.

Lisa Jackson did not mention that coal-fired plants are the single biggest source of mercury, during her high-visibility interview with a sympathetic Jon Stewart at The Daily Show. She came across as a solid, responsible, trustworthy citizen–and she hit the dangers of mercury. But why on earth wouldn’t she call out the largest polluters, the dirty coal-fired utilities?

We have yet to vilify the pro-polluting coal plant CEOs, who by now ought to be embarrassed to show up at the golf club. In fact, their more responsible colleagues should be vocally furious that they’re giving the entire industry a black eye.

Any reluctance to play hardball emboldens the politicians who are willing to lie, distort, fabricate, and confuse the public.

So far the public supports a strong EPA and supports the Clean Air Act.

The American Lung Association published results of a recent poll showing that three out of four voters support tougher Mercury and Air Toxics standards.

Coincidentally, Congressman Ed Whitfield’s own website displayed the rather astonishing results of an April poll of visitors to his site: Do you support the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) efforts to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act? 164 people voted “yes”, 45 voted “No” and 3 were unsure.

This is the sort of small irony that gives one hope. (It could also mean that his site was visited by environmentalists wondering why the heck this guy doesn’t think coal affects children’s health?)

The poll results mean this battle is ours to lose. But we’ve many miles to go. The recent Senate vote on EPA’s CO2 authority felt too close for comfort to me.  Look for vocal warming to go up quite a few more notches when Washington convenes after summer vacation–and campaigning begins in earnest.

Support measured in polls is not the same as support measured in activism. Citizens have to re-engage, loudly, with their representatives, telling them via mail, email, tweets and marches, that touching the Clean Air Act is like touching the third rail of the subway. Don’t do it!

We’re trying to get moms activated to protect their children’s health. But we share the air. Everyone needs to join in. If we don’t stop the building momentum of the anti-Clean Air rhetoric, we may get hit with a case of déjà vu all over again.

—Dominique Browning is lead blogger at Moms Clean Air Force.  She writes regularly for the New York Times Book Review, and contributes to W, Wired, Whole Living, and Good Housekeeping, among other publications. She has spent most of her journalistic career in the magazine world, as an editor at Esquire, Texas Monthly, Newsweek, and House & Garden. She is the author of several books; the most recent is “SLOW LOVE: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, & Found Happiness.”


Below are the earlier comments from the Facebook commenting system:

Leif Erik Knutsen

We also need a Press Corp that does its job. In my youth I was under the impression that the “Press” had a fiduciary responsibility to the public to report facts. So, how about it press folks, you ready to step up to the plate any time soon? We, the NATION AND THE WORLD, could sure use you right about NOW!

July 9 at 10:26am

George Ennis

If you have been reading about the scandal in the UK regarding Murdoch’s media empire (the same one that owns FOX, I think you must appreciate that we are wasting our time in many cases in trying to have journalists deliver the message.

Your comment suggests that there is in the US a flourishing independent school of journalists. There is no such thing. The vast majority are scientifically illiterate and have their “stories” processed through a corporate censor who determines what facts fit the narrative of corporate owners and interests.

There are a few papers, journalists and bloggers here and there who are willing to actually conduct independent investigative journalism. So what that means is that from a journalistic viewpoint people engaged in disseminating the information regarding climate change must use tactics that parallel those used by a resistance, insurgency or guerrilla movement.

To try and engage the corporate and economic interests attacking the science of climate change directly and head on is to suggest that there is some sort of parity in financial resources. It also presumes that the resistance to accepting the evidence of climate change is one of failure to communicate the facts. It is to buy into the liberal paradigm that change can still be effected in a political system particularly at the federal level which has been completely corrupted and compromised by corporate cash.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Given the great imbalance in financial resources the only thing left for those trying to push an agenda that supports dealing with the threat of climate change is to engage in a type of asymmetrical political warfare i.e. organizing at the local level etc., community by community either literally or through social networking.

July 9 at 11:29am


Reading the first part of your post about the bullies and their lying ways just depressed me and made me want to crawl into bed.

Then at the very bottom you mention that you’re part of a group trying to do something. That’s cool and much more inspiring of action.

July 9 at 10:32am

Bart Laws

Indeed Lief. The reason for the current epidemic of lies is that the corporate media has abandoned any allegiance to truth. People say stuff, and they write it down. Doesn’t make any difference if the person is lying, they consider it inappropriate to point that out.

July 9 at 10:34am

George Ennis

I am 58 years old and it is simply mind boggling to me that we could be having a discussion about repealing environmental legislation that has done so much for so many people in improving their everyday lives.

I agree with the reference about the dangers of an anti-confrontational nature of the opposition. I personally am a believer in making this upfront and personal as possible a sort of in your face approach when it comes to telling it as it is. It’s not as thought the alternative has worked that well and besides time is working against us. If we don’t start at least halting environmental degradation and CO2 emissions in the next 10 to 20 years the consequences will be catastrophic.

July 9 at 11:09am

Climate Portals

EPA worried by TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline – Business – CBC News.
The U.S. government’s environmental watchdog has raised new concerns about a proposed pipeline that would carry oil to Texas’s Gulf Coast. from Western Canada.

July 9 at 12:38pm

Leif Erik Knutsen

How many rivers does the Keystone pipeline have to cross between the Tar Sands and Texas?

July 9 at 6:06pm

Derek Ryter

Sounds a lot like what was covered in “Climate Cover-up”.

July 9 at 1:24pm

Tom Cuddy

We need to declare war on the anti-environmental right. I remember when Sen Goldwater was right-wing and pro-environment. He was not alone. Yes, we must ridicule, smear, adhominem kick’s when they are down, etc. I like the example of gravity. If they say anything is “a theory” or”not Proven” ask them to explain gravity. Then give Einstein’s theory of what gravity is and then go to the more recent theories. Say we are not 100% sure about how gravity works or why. So then say, since global warming has better understood science than gravity ( at least in some why’s) go jump out the window.We can raise the money, we have the creative talent. We have to get over our seeming aversion to fighting for real. THis is a war, we must fight back.

July 9 at 2:01pm

David J Baldwin

Well, for starters, we should get Michele Bachman’s neighbors to start using smudge pots, whenever she’s outside or has a barbecue. I’m all for shoving down the throats the chemicals that the pro polluters are ignoring. Like serving a plate of toxic preservatives to the CEO’s of food companies that market excess preservatives in food, just so their products stay fresh on the shelf longer. I will throw in my anti fish factory ship torpedo and say that the UN should have an air force and navy, and sink factory ships, which are an immature response to a refusal to admit that its time that women on the planet begin to have only two children. Countries like China & India should be at about 500,000,000 million a piece.

July 9 at 5:26pm


Another point. We could clean up our air, thoroughly, and then intentionally geoengineering the Arctic using that same sulfur, north of 70 latitude. However the public would recognize that global warming is severe and alter their lifestyle and energy products. This is not allowable to the Deniers so I suspect that they will favor dirty local air pollution and hiding the truth rather than cleaning up our air and then intentionally geoengineering.

Is it possible to comment from a mobile? I think many people today are moving towards internet on their phones, on the run.

July 9 at 4:23pm


It appears my last post disappeared. I was saying the real reason they want to repeal Clean Air is that coal plant pollution already significant masks global warming, they recognize heating is quite severe, the science and public are against them, and that by repealing Clean Air they can temporarily halt temperature rise and seed more doubt.

July 9 at 4:26pm

Leif Erik Knutsen

All these years the tabloids have been effectively running a “shake down” racket on members of government. Could that finally be coming to an end? Here’s hoping…


July 9 at 5:27pm

John G Mason

The Merchants of Doubt prepare the way for the “Return of King Coal…”

July 9 at 7:13pm

James Hwang

What progressives need to do is fight fire with fire. People need not necessarily be presented with the facts and truth. We need to attack the disinformers with everything we’ve got. The left needs a Sean Hannity, a Rush Limbaugh, and a Glenn Beck.

July 9 at 7:21pm

Jonathan Koomey

I strongly disagree with this approach. We have the truth on our side. Why should we become like the people whose positions, inconsistencies, and lies we oppose? I do agree that stronger actions in support of climate action are required, but we must retain our own credibility and integrity in that fight.

July 10 at 12:49am

John McCormick


July 11 at 4:31pm

Mike Roddy

I’m wit Leif. This is way too serious to continue to screw around with paid shills in the media.
And it’s our fault, too, for not calling them to account. Time to take the gloves off, and move the bar to include phrases like Public Interest, Dangerous Propaganda, and Manipulaton of the Public Dialogue. Those who degrade these principles have to be boycotted, fired, humiliated and, when possible, confronted in a court of law.

July 9 at 9:07pm

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