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Mountaintop Removal: It's Time to Bring This American Tragedy to an End

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Mountaintop Removal: It's Time to Bring This American Tragedy to an End

An escalating series of lawsuits, government rulings, banking decisions and breakthrough health studies has brought the fate of devastating mountaintop removal mining in central Appalachia to the doorstep of state and federal decision-makers this week.

Mountaintop removal is not just on the ropes—it's down for the count—and several fronts carry the same knockout message: Given the urgent health crisis from the reckless mining operation, the federal government and the states can no longer wait to act.

"Mountaintop removal is an immoral crime against nature and our citizenry, and it must be abolished, not regulated." — Jeff Biggers, author of The United States of Appalachia

"The situation here could not be more urgent," said Vivian Stockman, project coordinator at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. "Under West Virginia's program, we've seen once-vibrant streams die, devastating floods, and loved ones exposed to toxic blasting dust take ill. Mountaintop removal coal mining has destroyed communities and threatens to destroy more. We need OSM to take action now."

First, after witnessing the mounting health crisis and death toll of friends, family members and miners, citizens living in the fallout of the massive strip mining movements have finally prodded West Virginia state officials to review the more than two dozen peered-reviewed health studies on the impacts of mountaintop removal operations, including a recent study that "shows that dust collected from MTR [mountaintop removal] communities promotes lung cancer."

Second, on the heels of a galvanized "People's Foot" movement rally at the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection on Monday, a powerful notice of intent to sue the Obama administration was filed by attorney Patrick C. McGinley, a 40-year titan in coal safety laws and West Virginia University law professor, for its failure to prepare and implement a federal program for West Virginia's documented oversight and violations of required strip mining regulations.

While the Obama administration hedges on its required duty to takeover the mountain state's disastrous agency, McGinley's brief on behalf of several environmental groups reads like a spellbinding rap sheet of an incorrigible offender.

Third, the White House announced today its review of the Bush-era "stream buffer rule" is finally within sight, after years of regulatory banter and litigation.

Fourth, a renewed grassroots movement is returning to Washington DC to get Congress to pass the recently reintroduced Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, which calls for a moratorium on mountaintop removal operations until a federal health study takes place.

And fifth, national environmental groups have recently filed an additional lawsuit against the Obama administration's Environmental Protection Agency for its failure to properly enforce the Clean Water Act on mountaintop removal operations.

Bottom line: Appalachia can't wait.

If we go back to the first mountaintop removal blast in Cannelton Hollow in Fayette County, West Virginia in 1970, an estimated 5.5 million pounds of explosives have been detonated on mountaintop removal operations in central Appalachian communities for 16,400 days.

"Citizens' groups have been forced to demand federal enforcement because the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has failed to do its job," said Vernon Haltom, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch. "Our communities and health suffer because the state lets the mining industry get away with polluting at will."

It's time to bring this American tragedy to an end.

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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.

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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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