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.

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.

Pity the Farmers

In reading the NRDC publication “onearth” recently I was steered to an online essay by Ted Genoways about the plight of the small farmer. As one who lives in the farming belt in Southwest Minnesota and who knows how the small farmers struggle against the unfair competition provided by the giant corporations, I found this article of special interest. As you travel in this area you see the sad, abandoned farm houses and countless groves being bulldozed to make room for more plowed fields and bigger yields — all signs of the corporations at work.

With the current drought that affects 65% of the farmland in this country predicted to continue, one wonders if the small farmers can survive. Indeed, one wonders if there will be food enough to feed a burgeoning world population. As the Sierra magazine reported recently two-thirds of the U.S. Wheat crop has been impaired by drought and U.S. corn and soybean production has fallen below consumption levels for the first time in 38 years. Further, “Drought will cut world wheat stocks by 13 percent in 2013. . .The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warns that low grain stores this year leave ‘no room for unexpected events.'”

And yet the corporate farmers in this country are making record profits, thanks to government subsidies as Genoways explains:

. . . Of the $277.3 billion allocated for farm subsidies from the expansion of the program in 1995 until last year, roughly 75 percent of the money went to the top 10 percent of farmers. If you expand to look at the top 20 percent of farms, nearly 90 percent of the allocations are accounted for. In real dollars, that means that the average corporate farm receives more than $31,000 per year, while the average small farm receives less than $600, in a typical year. And nearly two-thirds of American farmers collect no subsidies at all. In years of crop failure, Big Ag actually makes out even better, because of the way the subsidies are calculated. Indeed, if trends from past years hold true for 2012, the top 20 percent of recipients will garner an average of more than $45,000 from the government, compared to less than $1,000 for the remaining 80 percent.

So programs designed to save family farms are, instead, helping big business out-compete them, and eventually gobble them up, all while using their dollars and political clout to push for larger subsidies and more protection — big beef and pork producers are currently trying to get into the act — as agribusiness lobbyists in Washington cloak their efforts in the guise of defending small farmers.

So while the small farmers struggle and see their farms being swallowed up by the corporations the rest of us ponder a future with diminishing food supplies as the globe continues to heat up, droughts continue to reduce farm production, and Big Ag goes to Washington to make sure the subsidies continue. Surely, this is a formula for disaster.

Given the present state of the economy the government may not be able to bail out the corporate farmers much longer. But more to the point, not even the large corporations will be able to produce food on the scale required to feed growing numbers of hungry people if the drought continues as predicted. In addition to the greed and short-term thinking that motivates the corporations, we must add the undeniable fact that climate change will soon affect our lives in ways it is difficult to imagine, as a recent story on Yahoo News pointed out:

“What we’re going to experience is unprecedented in human history in terms of the type of climate we’re creating for ourselves,” Hanemann tells The Daily Ticker. “The rate of warming has increased maybe five times what it was in the early part of the 20th century. The earth is getting warmer faster.”

Meanwhile Congress continues to hand out subsidies to Big Ag and repay favors to fat-cat contributors while it ignores climate change, threatens to cut social programs for the needy, and gropes about blindly in the Wonderland caucus race we call party politics. Something has to give.

Gutting the E.P.A.

One of the more insidious aspects of Mitt Romney’s energy plan is to allow individual states to grant permission for Big Oil to drill on the federal lands within their borders. This plan would effectively circumvent the Environmental Protection Agency, though our large corporations would love to see that agency disappear into the night.

But as one who has taught business ethics for years and who has seen countless numbers of cases in which federal agencies stand between each of us and poisoned air and water, contaminated foods, and harmful drugs, the idea that the EPA might be weakened strikes me as a seriously stupid on Romney’s part. The recent issue of OnEarth the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council provides a case in point.

In this issue we are told about a  legal case brought by NRDC in conjunction with the EPA against British Petroleum in Whiting, Illinois (about 20 miles southeast of Chicago) where BP has a refinery that processes crude oil from the Canadian tar sands (which in themselves are another environmental disaster. But that’s another story.) The refining process, as determined in a study by the Sierra Club in 2010, is a hazard to the health of people within a few miles of the refinery, causing health problems such as asthma, emphysema, and birth defects.

The court ruled in behalf of the EPA and British Petroleum will have to shell out $400 million “to install [scrubbers ?] and prevent 4,000 tons of pollutants — including sulfur dioxide, soot, and toxic substances such as benzene — from billowing out of the refinery each year.” The settlement requires that BP reduce the facility’s greenhouse gas emissions and inform the public about the results of its pollution monitoring. As OnEarth goes on to point out, “the settlement means that refineries around the country will face more rigorous standards when they attempt to modify their operations.” And yet, the EPA is the agency that the Republican candidate for President would gut and render impotent in the name of “jobs” and, of course, higher profits for the wealthy.

We need to realize as this election approaches that there are issues much larger than merely the state of the economy that are in question. The mantra of “lower taxes” and “more jobs” needs to be tempered by a realization that we need to regard the long term as well as the short term. When jobs are created they need to be in industries that have a social conscience and will not undermine our health and safety. And if lower taxes mean cutting back on the authority of such agencies as the EPA it may very well entail the turning loose of unconscionable companies like BP who care only about “the bottom line” and not a bit about our health and the future of the planet.  (You may recall BP was the culprit in the gigantic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 brought about by the company’s unwillingness to build in safety measures in their drilling equipment. The repercussions of that spill are still being felt in the region) There are indeed large issues at stake in this election and we need to be aware of the cloud of rhetoric that surrounds us in an election year and can be just as threatening to our well-being as the fumes from an oil refinery.