SolveClimate: Media Savvy Youth are Blogging Coal to Death

Editor’s note: This post was written by Rachel Barge, and originally published on Tuesday, March 31, at SolveClimate.


We all know young people have a handle on the Internet like no other demographic. My generation grew up playing computer games, had PC literacy classes in elementary school, and secretly hijacked the internet for music pirating before we were teens. We have an intuitive sense of the web – its uses, its limitations, and its future.

The nation’s young people are now harnessing that power for climate action, and we’re beating coal’s dirty PR in ways that have industry front groups shaking.

The coal industry’s American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity has poured millions of dollars into online advertising to convince Americans that “clean coal” is the solution to global warming, and it’s planning a $20 million online push this year. But type “clean coal” into Google, and up pop progressive climate blogs, spoofs and news articles.

In my own search for “clean coal,” eight out of the top 10 organic results were web sites that completely debunked the idea – only Wikipedia and an AP news article held both “sides” up. Not a single site in the top 10 was a pro-clean-coal industry page. Industry front group have had to buy their way onto Google’s front page, thanks in large part to young bloggers.

Richard Graves, the founder and director of Fired Up Media, explained how Google-savvy climate bloggers are using organic links and traffic to beat the coal industry.

By taking advantage of the complex algorithms that make up Google’s PageRank system, climate bloggers are able to get their web sites, terms and content “ranked” very high on Google’s search importance scale. Using strategically coordinated phrases, tags and headlines, they create self-replicating cycles of online references, which Google picks up as traffic. This boosts the “importance” of those phrases, tags, headlines and corresponding sites.

The more young people digg and cite each other, the more powerful their online presence grows. They use internal list serves to share information and maintain unity, and Twitter and instant messaging applications send alerts down with fiber-optic speed and a tree-phone’s urgency.

The bloggers’ method is not only overwhelmingly effective – it’s free. They have figured out how to get their information proliferated on the net without paying a cent, and now handily counter-act dirty coal PR. Perhaps necessity (i.e. not having gigantic PR budgets), has been the mother of invention in this case.

Young folks aren’t shy about meeting with their older, more established peers in the game either. A core group of youth anti-coal communicators frequently meets with the Glover Park Group – Al Gore’s communications consultants – and Kevin Grandia of DeSmog Blog. When digital communication gurus unite across generational lines, they’re fairly unstoppable.

Some of the most persuasive online activism goes after Colbert Report fans and that section of web surfers who aren’t going to spend all day reading climate blogs and self-educating on dirty coal – viral videos.

The Reality Campaign has been all over this tactic. Reality, which is dedicated to fighting the myth of clean coal, released its first popular commercial in December featuring an engineer for a “clean coal facility” that looked more like a tumbleweed desert.

Now, the Coen Brothers, of “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski” fame, have joined Reality’s message with a biting TV commercial that has been circulating nonstop on the web, getting over 200,000 views since its debut one month ago.

My personal favorite anti-coal fake commercial was produced by sketch comedy group Free Love Forum. It plays exactly like a typical greenwashing commercial for an oil company, complete with a Hummer/American flag shot.

All joking aside, though, coal activists have realized the power of the media for education and political leverage, and they’re pouring millions of dollars in to use it full hilt.

For the more academic activist, look to CoalSwarm, the one-stop-shop wiki for all the dirt you need on coal. Coal Swarm is an effort to create transparent, group-source information about the coal industry: tracking plant announcements, political maneuvers, lawsuits and more. As one supporter explained: “It’s putting information once the province of lobbyists into local activist’s hands.”

The Sierra Club Coal Campaign is responsible for some great online innovation as well, most notably Google-Mapping proposed coal plant sites to help engage the public in fighting them. ILoveMountains.org created a similar tool for viewing mountaintop removal sites, making the devastating impact of coal crystal clear to the public.

Youth media guru Richard Graves sums up the impact this way:

Citizen journalism and new media are allowing people to see the true costs of coal, the destruction of our mountains and the impoverishment of our communities. This is building the political will to end our reliance on coal faster than industry, politicians, and the traditional media ever anticipated.

See also:

There’s Nothing Quiet About Campus Climate Activists
Spring Break Appalachia: Students Fight Mountaintop Removal
Students Give Their Take on How Well Congress Listens
11,000 Students Flood Washington with Demand for Bold Climate Action

  1. nadine sellers

    at least, youth is taking itself seriously; which is more than mid-youth has done in the interim me-decades.
    whatever has been damaged by the narcissistic generation self, is now being countered by people who care.
    care for eath as it is, society such as it is, and themselves as a community. deja vu! the hippies and the failed beats have matured, their progeny grows up as fixer-uppers, i trust earth may reap the relief afterall.

  2. Bobby B.

    I hope those computer saavy youth realize that the bits, the bytes, the RAM, the ROM, the internet, the music piracy, the blogoshpere, and all other electronic creature comforts will come to a halt when they win the battle against the energy producers. It never ceases to amaze me how many people twenty-five and younger have no idea how electricity reaches all of those convenience devices that they so depend upon. They also have no idea of the logistics involved to get any of their favorite products as well as the necessities of life to market.

    I hope they enjoy the view from the heels of the oppressors who understand their ignorance and lead them ever so easily down the pathway to “energy independence.”

  3. Jason

    Anyone ever notice that anytime an anti coal blog is published that a coal lobbyist tends to chime in on the blog very quickly. Very easy to tell that communication agencies that are funded by coal and fossil fuel companies are setting up alerts for any story written on coal and posting an opinion that is pro coal. I wonder which fossil fuel company Booby B is funded by?

  4. Bobby B.

    Nice try, Jason. Even though you are attempting to apply Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals”, I am not the topic of this discussion nor should I be the focus of your attack. This discussion is about where society ends up when the environmentalists bring about their energy-free utopia. You are way off base in your assumptions about me. I am simply an applied scientist (engineer) who understands a little something about how the modern world works.

    To clear the air, I will do you the courtesy of providing you with a few facts about my sources of income. I have worked in the following businesses: clothing, grocery, pulp & paper, construction, and chemicals. I have never had any sort of professional relationship with the coal business. However, since I am an industrial prostitute, I would consider it for the right price. I had a brief stint with a really small energy company about fifteen years ago. It was technically an ALTERNATIVE ENERGY producer since its fuel was the waste husks from several nearby rice mills. Whether you wish to believe it or not, I was green before green was cool; or even politically expedient. If you question my authenticity, you can ask the host of this blog. He has known me since our freshman year in high school.

    Now, would you – or any of the other green journalists in the blogosphere – like to reveal anything about your work history and who pays you? I could easily assume that you write at the behest of a mainstream environmental group like Greenpeace, The Sierra Club, or Earth Share; at the direction of a political front organization such as George Soros’ MoveOn.org; or maybe for either the democratic or socialist party. However, such assumptions would be considered confrontational and possibly rude, so I will refrain from taking that road and just assume that you are a concerned citizen who believes what he is preaching.

  5. Joseph Peters

    As a 21-year-old blogger that promotes alternative energy, this post truly hits home. First, let me express my happiness with how effective the work you cite has been: I have often heard of the power of the 18-25 age bracket at election time, and the last presidential election was the first time I was able to be a part of it. Indeed, this group of voters was extremely active even in the primaries, and the fact that they sometimes favored Obama to McCain two-to-one shows how influential they can be. Second, although your article speaks mostly only about the demise of coal at the hands of young bloggers, I believe that the internet “movement” is one that will be instrumental in fulfilling Obama’s promises for a greener future. The transition to renewable energy sources will be a hard-fought battle for as long as fossil fuels last, and in a government where lobbyists seem to have a great deal of sway over Congress, interest groups and large businesses continue to prosper. Thus, it is important that campaigns like the ones you mention are debunked, lest the public be fooled into supporting such farce (if I may speak so freely). Luckily, though, and as you write, as American use of the internet increases and as more anti-coal groups appear higher on Google search results, less people will buy into the commercials they see on television. This means that fewer people will tolerate the times when their legislators bow to heavy polluting conglomerates by giving them tax credits. Unfortunately, this process reveals what I believe is a larger quality of the American public today in regards to alternative energy: one of the biggest reasons renewable technologies have not taken off is that many people do not understand how they work. They see sources like coal as cheap, while solar and wind are thought to be unreliable. It therefore gives me great pleasure to read your article, and I will leave you with a question: do you believe that blogging can actually fast-track alternative energy? Or will it simply be one of the elements that encourage its unimpressively gradual introduction?

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