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Polluting Politics: Koch Industries and Others Spend Millions to Gut Clean Water Act Protections

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Polluting Politics: Koch Industries and Others Spend Millions to Gut Clean Water Act Protections

Americans like the Clean Water Act (CWA), which was passed in 1972 to clean up the country's waterways polluted by decades of industrialization and weak regulation, because they like having access to safe drinking water as well as clean water for activities like swimming, boating and fishing. It seems like a no-brainer. So it was no surprise when the general public submitted more than 800,000 comments during the public comment period last year in support of President Obama's plan to restore CWA protections to the country's small waterways.

Money talks loudly in Congress, and it's being spent to drown out the voices of citizens who want clean water. Image credit: Environment America

However, a new report from Environment America, Polluting Politics: Political Spending by Companies Dumping Toxics in our Watersshows opponents to the CWA are spending significant amounts of money to act against the public interest.

"Year after year, polls show that more Americans are concerned with the pollution and quality of our waterways more than any other environmental issue," the report begins. "And after toxins in Lake Erie left 400,000 Toledo, Ohio residents unable to drink the water coming out of their taps last August, the need to protect our waterways is clear and present."

But, the report says, "Corporations and industry groups that oppose restoring Clean Water Act protections can drown out the voice of the average voter by spending enormous sums on election campaigns and lobbying."

The report reveals that currently, half of the U.S.'s lakes, rivers and streams are unsafe for fishing, swimming and drinking, and that 206 million pounds of toxic materials are dumped in our waterways each year. Polluting Politics ties some of the polluters to investments in political candidates who might work to minimize CWA protections.

"As it turns out, the same companies that are polluting our waterways with toxic chemicals are also polluting our politics with their spending,” said report author Ally Fields, clean water advocate at Environment America.

What these companies want is to stave off regulations that would limit the discharge of industrial chemicals from fracking and agricultural runoff (especially from factory farms), and restore wetlands and protect them against development. Those are regulations the public likes and wants. But to a large degree, the public interest has been trumped by several U.S. Supreme Court decisions since 2006 that have left half the country's waterways—which provide drinking water for a third of Americans—vulnerable to toxic pollution. And these big spender have swooped in to try to exploit those loopholes.

The report revealed that AK Steel Holding Corp, the top water polluter, dumped 19,088,128 pounds of toxics into waterways in 2012. And in 2014 it spent $739,752 on lobbying to try secure its ability to keep on polluting. Industrial foods company Tyson Foods, the second biggest water polluter with 18,446,749 pounds dumped, spent $1,163,838 on lobbying. The U.S. Department of Defense was the third largest waterway polluter at 10,868,190, but does not spend money on lobbying. But chemical company Cargill, checking in at fourth, spent about $1,300,000 to allow it to keep dumping more than 10,600,000 pounds of toxic materials into U.S. waterways.

Those top polluters were not the biggest spenders though. That honor went to the number six polluter, Koch Industries, a notorious source of large campaign contributions to industry-friendly candidates. It dumped 6,657,138 pounds of toxics in 2014. Last year, it spent a whopping $13,800,000 on lobbying, with another $7.7 million spent in last year's elections, according to Polluting Politics. Given the Koch brothers' propensity for pouring campaign money into 501 (c) 4 groups that don't have to reveal their funders, the amount was likely much more.

Some corporations feel it's their right to dump what they want in public waterways.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Another outsized spender was chemical company DuPont, which dumped about 5,500,000 pounds of toxics and spent nearly $9,300,000 to protect its right to do so. According to the report, the top 10 companies were responsible for almost 100 million pounds of toxics in public waterways—as well as $53 million on lobbying and $9.4 million in campaign contributions. And the three top polluting industries—energy/natural resources, agribusiness and construction—spent more than $237 million on campaign contributions in the 2014 elections. Meanwhile, industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute and the American Farm Bureau, spent tens of millions more on lobbyists who were frequently well-connected former government officials.

“It’s clear that our nation’s polluters have deep pockets, but hundreds of thousands of Americans have raised their voices in support of doing more to protect our waterways, from the Chesapeake Bay to Puget Sound,” said Fields. “It’s time for Congress to listen to citizens, not the polluters, and let the EPA finish the job to protect our waterways.”

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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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