Just The Facts, Ma’am

Old timers will remember the days of “Dragnet” when TV screens were small and the pictures black and white. Jack Webb, the expressionless lead in that show always asked for “just the facts.” In those days folks could distinguish between the facts and opinions. Nowadays, not so much. Corporations seem to have the greatest difficulty as they seek to manipulate or ignore altogether relevant facts in an attempt to persuade the public and the Congress that they wish only to help further the public good. Profits are secondary. Right!

One such example pops up every now and again in the ONEARTH magazine published by the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental group I support which does, in fact, seek to help protect the planet from greedy and duplicitous corporations. They are spitting into the wind at best, as evidenced by a recent example in this month’s magazine. The NRDC published a portion of a letter written by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity that seeks to respond to a negative report by the NRDC to the House Energy and Power Subcommittee. The NRDC printed the response by ACCCE with its comments in bright yellow, footnoted more or less as follows (“Just the facts, Ma’am”). They begin by insisting that the notion of “clean coal” is an oxymoron, which is a fact. They then to proceed point by point:

Claim by ACCCE: The clean air act “is not designed to regulate greenhouse gases and any efforts by the EPA to do so will cause unnecessary economic harm.”

Rejoinder (by the NRDC): “The Supreme Court disagrees. In 2007 it ruled that greenhouse gases meet the definition of an air pollutant in the Clean Air Act, and in 2011 it ruled that the EPA has the authority to set standards for carbon pollution from power plants.”

Claim: “Our conclusion is that the NRDC proposal would cause substantial economic harm and any such harm is impossible to justify.”

Rejoinder: “ACCCE uses an inflated estimate of energy efficiency costs, which makes the overall costs of reducing emissions seem higher. It also uses a shoddy apples-and-oranges comparison in weighing the costs and benefits of carbon emission reductions.” Further, “ACCCE kooks at only one side of the ledger, ignoring the economic benefits of limiting pollution in terms of improving human and environmental health and reducing climate change. [In logic this is called the “fallacy of ignored aspect” and it is an example of flawed reasoning.] If you factor in these savings, ACCCE’s own numbers show that the cumulative benefits would exceed costs by more than two to one.

Claim: “According to the analysis conducted by NERA, the CO2 reductions that would result from the NRDC proposal represent, at most, 1 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.”

Rejoinder: “Power plants are the largest source of carbon dioxide pollution in the United States, and no other single policy would reduce emissions more effectively than setting limits on these emissions.”

Of considerable interest in this debate, of course, is the appeal by the Clean-Coal [sic] industry to the “economic benefits” of reducing restrictions on coal-burning plants. In a word: you are taking our profits away from us. (No wonder the industry hates the EPA and the government that supports it. People like the Koch brothers have their sights set on the EPA and are determined t bring it down.) But there is considerable evidence, suggested here, that the economic and health benefits to the public at large greatly outweigh the losses to the coal industry, thus giving the lie to the corporate claim to be concerned with the public good. So, what else is new?

In general, when it comes to claims and counter-claims, since the issues are often technical and beyond my ken, I tend to ask which side has a hidden agenda. If there is an axe to grind then the “facts” are likely to be skewed in favor of the one wielding the axe. As a general rule, the corporations don’t much care about the common good: they are almost exclusively interested in profits for their shareholders and huge salaries for their CEOs — 475 times the size of the salary of their average employee at last count. It’s not likely, therefore, that data, or “studies,” supplied by corporations to serve their own purposes will be reliable, whereas data provided by disinterested third parties are more likely to be reliable.  It pays to be suspicious. It should surprise no one to see how those who have something to sell will play games with facts or ignore them altogether. So it goes.

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4 thoughts on “Just The Facts, Ma’am

  1. Hugh, great post. I read an op-ed piece this morning in The Charlotte Observer by a teacher named Kay McSpadden who writes about once a month. She draws on history to support your argument and noted as an example, the cigarette industry in the 50’s – 60’s trying to throw doubt on the data about smoking leading to cancer. All they needed to do was cast some doubt and say it is up for debate and they postponed some action. This is right out of the fossil fuel industry play book on casting doubt on global warming where they hired a PR firm to shine up the dubious data message. By the way, the same PR firm is being used to tell us how safe fracking is. I repeat a mantra which should be shouted from the carved up mountain tops mined for coal – there is no such thing as clean coal. Well done, BTG

    • Thanks, BTG. I had read that Big Oil had hired the same PR firm that held off attacks on the cigarette industry so successfully for so long. People will believe anything if they hear it often enough. Goebels taught that PR firm that lesson!

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