by Donald Brown via Climate Ethics
For over a decade the coal industry has funded campaigns designed to convince Americans that coal can be burned without adverse environmental impacts. These campaigns raise troubling ethical issues. In fact, as we shall see, these campaigns have often been misleading and deceptive in several different ways.
This deception is classic propaganda because propaganda presents facts selectively to encourage a particular synthesis, or uses loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information presented. Although many entities on both sides of an issue who are trying to persuade the general public to think a certain way will frequently resort to the use of propaganda, as we shall see, deceptive propaganda is particularly morally odious when it engages in lying or lying by omission. A lie by omission occurs when an important fact is left out in order to foster a misconception. The clean coal propaganda has frequently engaged in propaganda that must be understood as lying by omission, if not outright lying. It is also lying by omission about something which is potentially very harmful, making the lies even more morally abhorrent
Given that academies of science around the world have concluded that climate change is a huge threat to millions of people around the world, that coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels currently used for electricity generation in regard to climate change, that there are no commercial scale coal-fired power plants in the United States now nor likely to be in wide-spread commercial operation for decades capable of actually removing heat trapping gases, a fact not revealed in TV commercials funded by the clean coal campaign, this campaign which implies that coal is “clean” is deeply misleading about likely harmful and dangerous human activities. In other words, this is deception with huge potential adverse consequences for life on earth and ecological systems on which life depends.
Some TV commercials funded through clean coal campaigns visually or verbally reference clean coal without acknowledgment that coal combustion could be considered clean only if new unproven technologies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal combustion are widely deployed. Other commercials contain often vague references to clean coal technologies that could in theory reduce greenhouse gas emissions if commercial scale of these technologies is determined through future research to be environmentally benign and economically feasible. None of these commercials, however, reveal that there are serious open questions about whether geologic carbon sequestration or other unproven greenhouse gas emission reduction technologies for use with coal combustion will be proven to be environmentally acceptable and economically viable at commercial scale. The New York Times reported this month that there is new evidence that carbon capture and storage, the technology most frequently considered to be the best hope for reducing greenhouse gases from coal combustion, may not be economically viable because of cheaper and abundant amounts of natural gas. (Wald, 2012)
Claiming that coal is clean because it could be clean if a new technically unproven and economically dubious technology might be adopted is like someone claiming that belladonna is not poisonous because there is a new unproven safe pill under development that sometime in the future might be economically affordable and that may be taken with belladonna to neutralize belladonna’s toxic effects.
Who has been behind this campaign? According to Source Watch, these campaigns were initially created by the Center for Energy and Economic Development (CEED) in 2000. CEED also created Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC), a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign aimed at emphasizing the importance and downplaying the environmental impacts of coal-fired power production. CEED was founded by Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Southern Company, and DTE Energy (Source Watch, 2012a). ABEC’s members also have included mining companies, electric utilities, and railroad companies. The CEED was merged with Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC) to form a new coal industry front group, American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, on April 17, 2008 (Source Watch, 2012a).