Wednesday, June 2, 2010

An open letter to all opponents of coal

By Colin Bennett
Coal is dirty. Everyone knows that. Saying otherwise is like saying that the Earth is flat; it’s just not true. The negative connotation that comes when people think about coal is practically part of our national psyche. Consider that the majority of children raised in the United States during the last century grew up being told that if they were bad, they would get a lump of coal for Christmas. Or, consider the images of a boy from 19th-Century America like Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep character in Mary Poppins, covered in soot, holding his broom. Even more people can probably picture a miner, face darkened with coal dust, sick, even dying, from black lung.
The point is that people already know that coal is dirty; thus, in the fight against mountaintop removal and the expansion of coal-fired power plants, we already have the advantage. But the coal industry and its supporters are feeling the heat; just a few short years ago, very few people were talking about coal. I certainly don’t remember seeing any advertisements about coal at all. Now, in face of looming climate legislation, they are spending vast sums of money spreading the lie of so-called "clean" coal. Unfortunately, though the deck is stacked against them, they are gaining ground. 

Take the 2008 presidential campaign, for instance:  both Senator John McCain and then Senator Barack Obama espoused "clean coal," while they crisscrossed the country. The reason for their language is obvious (albeit inconsequential). What is important is the fact that they got away with it. The coal industry, in a few short years, has successfully bamboozled much of the U.S. public into believing that "clean" coal is possible. President Obama even talked about “clean coal” his State of the Union address. Unfortunately, so many current anti-coal campaigns are perpetuating the problem; they are using the language of the coal lobby thereby legitimizing that position. The Coen Brothers television spot (put out by is cute but it ultimately just legitimizes the coal lobby’s claim. Quite frankly, I am disappointed. We are letting the coal industry frame the debate, thereby losing the high ground. 

We can still regain the upper hand and win the fight against coal. In order to do that we need to stop using the term, "clean coal," even when it is immediately followed or preceded by "there’s no such thing as." Simply saying, "clean coal," puts a wedge into people’s minds that clean coal could be a reality. 

Let me give you an example: Santa Claus. As soon as you hear, or in this case, read, the words "Santa Claus," an image of a jolly old man with a white beard and a red suit pops into your head. The same is true when you hear about the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy, or unicorns. Everyone knows that these things do not actually exist, yet, most people could describe, probably in vivid detail, what each of these mythical beings look like, all the while knowing they don’t exist. Of course, each of these examples are present, be it in children’s books, Hollywood movies, or embodied by a person in a red suit ringing a bell on a street corner in December. Even though "clean" coal fortunately doesn’t have quite the same status as Santa Claus, the coal industry’s goal is clearly to get the idea that coal can be clean into the minds of as many people as possible. 

Many people have undoubtedly seen the picture of the shiny black piece of coal with a power cord sticking out of it, accompanied by the caption "Clean coal means celebrating our energy independence 365 days a year." There’s nothing apparently dirty about that shiny black piece of coal. In fact, one could argue that the shiny black piece of coal looks downright clean. This is their attempt to create an image of ‘clean coal’ that people can reference in their minds when they hear the term "clean" coal; like Santa Claus and unicorns, although fantastical, ‘clean coal’ will exist if repeated enough. 

So here is my suggestion: stop validating the term "clean coal" with its use. Completely eliminate the term from everything you do. Coal is dirty. Period. Perpetuate that reality, not the myth of so-called "clean" coal. Reinforce the images that people already have of coal. We should spend our money and time showing people the images that will remind them about how dirty coal really is. Although I’m not in the advertising industry, I have a suggestion for a television commercial. It’s just a rough description but you should get the picture.

Start with historical shots that exemplify the fact that coal is dirty: begin with the miner and the boy covered in soot, show chimneys billowing black smoke circa 19th century Pittsburgh, and men shoveling coal into furnaces. The narrator (I’m thinking Dick Van Dyke) says "Coal is dirty. Since the time that humans first started burning coal, first for heat, then for transportation, and now for electricity, we have been polluting our atmosphere at an astronomical rate." With each example, a corresponding image should be presented, such as:  a coal stove, a steam engine, a coal-fired power plant, a city shrouded in smog. The narrator continues, "Now, with mountaintop removal, coal companies are destroying entire communities and ecosystems, making coal dirtier than ever, yet the coal companies are spending millions upon millions of dollars trying to trick you into thinking otherwise. Don’t believe the hype. Coal is dirty. Period." 

It might not be perfect but I definitely think it gets the point across: Coal is dirty. Repeat that message and repeat it often. The cards are stacked in our favor; if we play our hand correctly we can win this battle.


Mountaintop removal coal mining in southwest Virginia.