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Even Coal Baron Robert Murray Knows the Future of Coal is Dead

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Even Coal Baron Robert Murray Knows the Future of Coal is Dead

Last week, Standard & Poor dropped huge multinational coal company Peabody Energy from its S&P 500 Index. Last spring, SNL Energy News said that, "The total market value of publicly traded U.S. coal companies has rebounded slightly in recent months, but remains nearly 63 percent lower than a total of the same companies at a near-term coal market peak in April 2011," citing "a perfect storm of factors, including new federal regulations impacting coal-burning power plants, cheap competing fuels, railroad service issues and weak global markets."

There'll be no light at the end of the tunnel for the coal industry if U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations on carbon emissions go into effect, says coal tycoon Bob Murray.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

And, as nearly 400,000 people marched in the People's Climate March in New York City, raising pressure for action on climate change, coal loomed as a target. A parade of world government, business and financial leaders talked about their proposed efforts to reduce emissions—which means reducing the use of coal.

Needless to say, this isn't making Robert Murray happy. He's founder and CEO of the Murray Energy, the largest privately held coal company in the U.S., based in south central Ohio.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Murray spoke at a coal industry conference this week, predicting gloom and doom for the industry and for humanity if carbon regulations are increased. He says proposed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations will permanently destroy the coal industry adding, “Grandma is going to be cold and in the dark with what they’re doing.” He's already filed multiple lawsuits against the EPA.

Murray's speech was filled with the sort of florid language he is known for. SNL Energy News reported:

"It isn't about me. I'm an old man," he said, his voice rising. "It isn't about Murray Energy. It's about what's happening to this country. It starts with my employees. If they own anything, it's their home. And if two of them lose their jobs, who are they going to sell it to? These people just want to work with honor and dignity for the rest of their lives and they are denied that. They go to the negative side of the ledger and they stay there forever. This is not the country I cherish." 

"Mr. Murray likened the White House to the Gestapo and the SS during Nazi Germany, and said it has pushed back against his efforts to stop environmental regulations to such an extent that he has felt compelled to hire former CIA operatives to provide security," wrote the Post-Gazette.

Earlier this year, he told Fox News' Neil Cavuto that regulations on coal emissions are "evil" and a "power grab of America's power grid."

Murray first attracted widespread public attention in 2007, following the collapse of his Crandall Canyon mine in Utah that killed six miners when he made statements widely perceived to be insensitive and insisted that the collapse was caused by an earthquake, contrary to what scientists found.

Controversy seems to follow Murray. He's lobbied against legislation mandating safety devices for miners. In 2012, he again attracted public attention when some miners claimed employees were ordered to attend a Mitt Romney campaign event or lose their jobs. The nonprofit group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint against the company with the Federal Elections Commission charging that it pressured employers to donate 1 percent of their salary to a company PAC that supported candidates such as Romney, Rick Perry, Eric Cantor and Scott Brown. And Murray sued the Charleston Gazette for its coverage of his support of Romney. Earlier this year, he told Fox News' Neil Cavuto that regulations on coal emissions are "evil" and a "power grab of America's power grid."

Last year, George Elmaraghy, director of the water division of Ohio's EPA resigned, saying he was forced out by Gov. John Kasich and pressure from the coal industry, which donated over $1 million to Kasich's 2010 campaign coffers. The Columbus Dispatch reported, "More than $870,000 of the overall amount comes from just two coal families: the Boiches, who run the Boich companies, and Robert Murray, who runs Murray Energy."

And of course, he's an outspoken climate denier. "This global warming is a hoax," he told Cavuto. He told West Virginia Executive in May that one of his lawsuits against the EPA was to force them to "tell the truth" about global warming.

"They are not telling hardly any truth about the science," he said. "The earth has actually cooled over the last 17 years, so under the Data Quality Act, they’ve actually been lying about so-called global warming.”

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The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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