First, two official statements for your consideration.

1) "Peabody is proud to help hundreds of millions of people live longer and better through coal-fueled electricity. A growing collection of studies demonstrate the correlation between electricity fueled by low-cost coal and improvement in health, longevity and quality of life. The United Nations has linked life expectancy, educational attainment and income with per-capita electricity use, and the World Resources Institute found that for every 10-fold increase in per-capita energy use, individuals live 10 years longer. ... Peabody Energy is a global leader in clean coal solutions and is advancing more than a dozen clean coal projects around the world, leading to our ultimate goal of near-zero emissions from coal."

2) "A great deal of noise has been made of the risks associated with the production and consumption of coal. Yet even though those risks do exist, they have been very well studied, and we have developed ways of addressing them in a manner acceptable to doctors, patients, insurers, and society. Indeed, there are now a wide array of techniques and technologies for mitigating the risks associated with coal. Those techniques range from the financial — fiduciary devices to reduce the risk to investors and societies of the gambles involved in coal investment — to medical devices such as the inhaler, a lightweight, sophisticated solution to the inconveniences posed by childhood asthma. Together, all of these technologies make coal production and consumption one of the safest endeavors on earth."

One of these statements was issued yesterday by Peabody Energy, the world's largest privately held coal power company; the other is from a satirical website mocking Peabody's (and the coal industry's) greenwashing of its human and environmental health impacts. A question: Can you tell which is which? Do you think you'd have guessed, if you weren't looking for it, that the second statement is satire?

I'm not sure how many people were fooled by the Coal Cares campaign website, but in any case it became a buzz topic across the blogosphere within hours of its launch yesterday morning. The mock campaign purported to be an outreach effort by Peabody itself, offering free inhalers and asthma medication to kids who live within 200 miles of a coal plant. The website even featured an order form for branded inhalers featuring the likenesses of everyone from Sesame Street's Elmo and My Little Pony to Justin Bieber and Harry Potter. (The campaign's Twitter feed, @coalcares, included this exhortation to order one model in particular: "Dora the Explorer often loses her breath on her adventures :( so now selling Dora inhalers!")

The site also featured a "Kidz Koal Korner" with activities featuring the lovable duo of Puff and Ash, a dynamic anthropomorphic duo of asthma inhaler and coal lump, a straightfaced F.A.Q., and a masterful little satire of the fossil fuel industry's PR assault on renewable energy under the heading of "Clean" Energy.

(A teaser, from a more or less unbroken chain of brilliant digs: "So-called 'solar energy,' on the other hand, refers to the direct use of the violent fusion reactions occurring deep within our nearest star. As you might expect, this kind of 'solar energy' naturally comes with a host of dangers that coal’s million-year buffering is designed to avoid. Some scientists refer to so-called 'solar energy' as 'mainlining the sun' — and it doesn’t take an Einstein to see an overdose looming.")

This was obviously a thoroughly planned, carefully executed satire. So much so that the first flurry of online reaction included much speculation that it was the work of the notorious pranksters the Yes Men, whose greatest hits have included impersonating an apologetic Dow Chemical spokesperson on the BBC, issuing false climate policy goals on behalf of Canada's environment minister, and distributing thousands of copies of a fake "good news" version of the New York Times on the streets of New York and L.A. (The Yes Men later confirmed that their Yes Lab had helped launch Coal Cares.)

By the end of the day, a previously unknown activist group called Coal is Killing Kids had taken credit for the mock campaign, basking in mostly admiring media attention from CNN and MSNBC and the Wall Street Journal to Rolling Stone and Forbes. Wired and Fast Company both provided detailed coverage of Coal Cares, several hundred people were following along on Twitter, and Peabody itself was forced to issue its statement disavowing the campaign.

I'm going to give this one a few days to simmer and then revisit it to see how it plays out in full and look at the broader uses of humor in the activist game, but for now I'll simply say I thought it was one of the most brilliant parody campaigns I've ever seen. It was just close enough to plausible to make people take a second glance, and it was backfilled with enough solid, gutpunching information on the dangers of coal to give them something to chew on when they did.

I particularly like the little side box of "Facts" on the "Clean" Energy page, which includes this line about wind power: "Wind turbines can kill up to 70,000 birds per year, or 4.27 birds per turbine per year. Coal particulate pollution, on the other hand, kills fewer than 13,000 people per year." That last stat alludes to a recent American Lung Association study on coal power's grim toll on human health. Your garden-variety public awareness campaign would've been inclined to put facts like that front and center, to club its audience into submission with ugly facts and darker portents — which, even if accurate, tend to push away as hard as they pull in. 

But when you stumble on Coal Cares, you're soon chuckling along (unless you're a coal industry spokesperson or lack the stomach for sharp satire). You've been invited into the joke, given a little levity in your working day. You can't help but get the point — that coal power represents a vicious assault on human health, feeding a worldwide asthma epidemic among children. It should be noted that nothing in Peabody's statement refutes the Coal Cares campaign's point regarding coal's deadly toll, because it can't be; all the coal industry can do is point at future technology and the benefits of electricity — which, though legitimate, are true of electricity from any source.

So, yes, you get all this, but it comes to you with a welcoming, inclusive smile. And that, to my mind, is an excellent way to bring it.

UPDATE: In Peabody's weak defense of its environmental record, the company states that "the World Resources Institute found that for every 10-fold increase in per-capita energy use, individuals live 10 years longer." The World Resources Institute (WRI) has issued a response stating unequivocally that they've reported no such finding and that they disagree as well with the general theme of the Peabody argument. "WRI’s long standing support for a global transition to cleaner, low-carbon energy is well-documented. WRI does not support Peabody’s press statement or the related conclusions drawn from this data," the statement concludes. Click here for the full statement.

 

To further discuss the prospects for "clean coal" 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.

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