Lessons for the Clean Energy Industry from New Book on “How Propaganda Works”

The great folks at DeSmogBlog have yet another excellent piece up, this one looking at “How Propaganda (Actually) Works.” Here’s an excerpt, followed by a few possible lessons for the clean energy industry.

In the early years of DeSmog’s research into environmental propaganda, I thought of industry PR campaigns like “junk science,” “clean coal,” and “ethical oil” as misinformation strategies designed to dupe the public about the real issues.

Although there is obvious truth to that view, I now understand that propaganda is far more complex and problematic than lying about the facts. Certainly propaganda is designed to look like facts that are true and right, but not in a way we might think. What’s more, the consequences are far worse than most people consuming and even producing it realize.

Much of my new understanding comes from conversations with Jason Stanley, an American philosopher and professor at Yale University and author of an important new book How Propaganda Works. According to Jason Stanley, the danger for a democracy “raided by propaganda” is the possibility that the vocabulary of liberal democracy is being used to mask an undemocratic reality…

…The propaganda problem goes way beyond terrorism, impacting the entire world around us. Consider the harm being done to the planet by those who deny climate change is a reality or label Canadian oil as “ethical” and coal from West Virginia as “clean” to justify its aggressive expansion and government subsidies.

According to Stanley, it’s difficult to have a real discussion about the pros and cons of an issue when they’re slapped with these types of spin. He believes assertions like these, where words are misappropriated and meanings twisted, are often less about making substantive claims and more about silencing critics

…To me, the best way to fight propaganda is to become savvier about how it manipulates, how it actually works, as Stanley does in his work. It’s not just because we don’t want to become a victim of propaganda, we also don’t want to inadvertently contribute to its dark purpose.

So, what does all this have to do with the clean energy industry? A great deal, actually. Here are just a few examples of how the dirty energy industry works to slander clean energy and to slow or stop the scaling of non-polluting energy sources.

  • Fossil-Fuel Funded Operatives Litter the Mainstream Media, Despite Simple Fix: “The Checks and Balances report, Fossil Fuel Front Groups on the Front Page, concludes that 58 of the largest mainstream newspapers and publications have quoted or given op-ed space to a fossil-fuel-funded “expert” every other day for the past five years, on average. ‘Despite having received millions of dollars from fossil fuel interests, such as ExxonMobil and Koch Industries, these groups’ financial ties to the fossil fuel industry are rarely mentioned,’ according to the report.”
  • New Study Shows Why Media Need To Disclose Funding Behind Fossil Fuel Front Groups: “A new study found that organizations funded by ExxonMobil and the oil billionaire Koch brothers may have played a key role in sowing doubt in the U.S. about climate change. These findings reveal how important it is for media to disclose the industry ties behind front groups that consistently misinform the public.”
  • ExxonMobil’s PR Smog Screen: “ExxonMobil – the largest oil company in the world – was told nearly 40 years ago, by its own scientists no less, that the company’s primary product was damaging the environment and would have disastrous results for the future. Instead of dealing responsibly with that, what ExxonMobil did was the exact opposite: the company launched a well-funded, long-term effort to throw the fundamental science of climate change into question. The goal was to slow the world’s transition off of fossil fuels – not coincidentally ExxonMobil’s main line of business – and onto clean energy. This was a classic example of creating opinions and peddling them as product or propaganda, what is known as engineering consent.”
  • The Koch Attack on Solar Energy: “…the Big Carbon advocates aren’t giving up. The same group [the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC] is trying to repeal or freeze Ohio’s requirement that 12.5 percent of the state’s electric power come from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2025. Twenty-nine states have established similar standards that call for 10 percent or more in renewable power. These states can now anticipate well-financed campaigns to eliminate these targets or scale them back.”
  • A Few Lessons From Rick Berman’s “Win Ugly or Lose Pretty” Speech for the Cleantech Industry: “Rick Berman is clearly an amoral, utterly cynical man, apparently in this business first and foremost for the money. However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t talented at what he does, or that he doesn’t have a few smart things to say about framing and winning the battle to define one’s opponent. It’s sort of like when Tigercomm President Mike Casey interviewed former “super lobbyist” Jack Abramoff about what he did and how he did it. Again, you don’t have to think what Abramoff did was ethical – and we certainly don’t believe that it was – to learn lessons from him that might be helpful for the cleantech industry in its battle with the fossil fuel folks.”

The cumulative damage of this relentless assault by well-funded fossil fuel forces is hard to measure, but clearly the dirty energy guys believe it’s worth their time and money to continue doing it. The problem is that, to the extent climate science denial and falsehoods about clean energy take hold with the public and elected officials, it makes it that much harder to move as rapidly as needed to a clean energy economy. In turn, that has potentially enormous, negative implications — for the economy and environment in general, and for the clean energy industry specifically. The question, as always, is the one Tigercomm President Mike Casey first asked back in 2010: “Dirty energy is playing full contact. Are we ready to do the same?” Given the relentless fossil-fuel-funded anti-cleantech propaganda barrage we’re facing, it would seem that there’s no alternative than to fight back both hard and effectively.

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