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.

Advertisements

Truth To Tell

In an interesting half-page in the current ONEARTH magazine published by NRDC, there’s a lesson in telling it like it is. The author, John Walke, who is director of NRDC’s clean air project, corrects a number of mistaken statements in a letter written to the Washington Post by the president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Now we know by this time that “clean coal” is a misnomer: there is no such thing. There is just “cleaner coal” — which is to say, coal that is cleaner than it was a few years ago. This is thanks to the EPA which has forced the coal industry to a higher standard, though the coal industry would like us to think it was their idea.

The letter claims, for example, that the coal industry has cleaned up its act and would dearly love to take credit for pulling their hand out of the cookie jar, though we can see them hiding another cookie behind their backs!  Walke points out that the EPA has brought the cleanup about and while the coal industry claims that coal is “almost 90 percent cleaner than it was 40 years ago,” in fact it has been forced by the EPA to be 90 percent cleaner by 2015: it hasn’t reached that benchmark yet, and it is moving in that direction only because of federal legislation, not the desire to be good citizens. The coal industry also claims credit for “more than a dozen clean coal technologies” when, in fact, they have lobbied for 40 years against clean air safeguards and they are still fighting — along with Big Oil, of course. In the final paragraph of the letter, the coal industry correctly points out that energy demand will increase in coming years (duhhh) “and that demand cannot be met without coal.” Walke points out that in the U.S. “renewable energy, natural gas, and simple economics have steadily reduced demand for electricity generated by coal. California is on track to use no coal-based electricity by 2025. Clean energy technologies can produce both good jobs here and energy for export.”

The letter by the coal industry commits what logicians call the “neglected aspect” fallacy. They simply ignore alternatives to coal, especially clean energy alternatives like solar and wind, in order to scare people into thinking that they are the only alternative to an otherwise bleak future without adequate energy for teeming populations. And, of course, they ignore the alternative of population control which would go a long way toward solving not only this country’s energy problems, but the planet’s as well. But that’s another story for another day — though it is not much talked about, sad to say.

In a word, we know that corporations are not beneath making public statements that not only stretch the truth and wallow in half-truths, but actually state bald-faced lies — all in order to hoodwink the public and sell their products. We must always consider the source and never forget that the name of their game is “profits,” and when they start to spout data to prove their innocence they are not above saying what they think we want to hear rather than what we ought to hear — since the latter might interfere with the bottom line. A healthy skepticism is always in order.