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The rise of corporate activism

cleancoal

As reported by the New York Times last week, a consulting firm hired by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), an alliance of coal and utility companies, is set to launch a project called “America’s Power Army.” It will have 225,000 volunteers at its disposal to send to town hall meetings, fairs and other functions attended by members of Congress, where they can ask questions about energy policy and promote coal interests.

Of course, mentioning this now can only draw comparisons to the right-wing protesters trying to derail town hall meetings on health care reform. Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews and others have linked the protests to insurance firms and corporate lobbying groups. But so far, these rather extreme and hostile crowds have had little effect on Obama’s plan (which, ironically, is already very corporate friendly). Top Democrats have vowed that they won’t be bullied by the conservative protesters.

This is an interesting point because single-payer advocates, who also feel left out of the health care reform talks, protested with civility and factual information (rather than carrying guns and crying “Socialism!”). As a result, they were able to advance their cause by at least securing a meeting with Sen. Baucus, even though nothing came out of it. Conversely, the general rowdiness of the town hall protesters appears to have worked against them. But that’s not to say corporate influenced activism—or AstroTurfing as it is sometimes called—can’t work.

According to the Times, the coal industry has already used it to great effect:

ACCCE used Hawthorn and Lincoln Strategies for a project prior to the presidential election last year that was aimed at raising the issue of “clean coal” technology. During that effort, Lincoln workers staffed rallies for presidential candidates, debates and both Republican and Democratic conventions. They reached out to citizens at those events.

It was during a primary rally that a question about coal elicited a response from then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, giving support for research into “clean coal technology.” ACCCE repackaged part of Obama’s statement into a television ad this year.

Clearly the coal industry has harnessed a vital aspect of effective protest action: civility. And that makes their next project, America’s Power Army, all the more scary. The question for environmental activists is how to react. Even though they’re fighting for the broader public interest, and by most accounts have the public’s support, they will be hard pressed to combat the well-funded citizen campaigns of the coal industry.

The best solution I can see for environmental activists is to continue exposing the dirty ties of these coal advocates and reach out to those who might be persuaded to join their cause—such as relatives of coal miners—and remind them that the coal industry does not have their best interests at heart.

Although this is a relatively new phenomonon, it is unlikely to go away. So please feel free to chime in with suggestions for ways to combat corporate lobbying disguised as grassroots activism.