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BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And Bob Garfield. On this week's show, sorting fact from fiction on the home front of the climate emergency.
DUKE ENERGY We're a clean energy leader and will do our part to tackle the challenges of climate change.
LEAH STOKES Yeah, my parent company made that goal, but I'm the operating company and that goal does not apply to me.
PLASTIC AD Presenting: the possibilities of plastic. [END CLIP]
LAURA SULLIVAN The vast majority of plastic is never recycled.
BEYOND MEAT What if just taking the animal out of the meat, made us and our planet healthier? [END CLIP]
ALICIA KENNEDY There's been a lot of success in Israel with creating a steak from cells of a cow.
GAS STOVE AD Because it's gas, it seals in juiciness of flavor while it broils, and it bakes beautifully. [END CLIP]
REBECCA LEBER If we wait to promote natural gas stoves until we have scientific data that they are not causing any air quality issues, we'll be done.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And Bob Garfield. Quote, The next few years are probably the most important in our history, stated Debra Roberts, co-chair of the IPCC Working Group II in 2018. That's the history of the planet, she's talking about. IPCC being the U.N. body for monitoring the science of keeping global temperatures below 1.5 Degrees centigrade over pre-industrial levels. We have already seen undeniably the devastating impact of greenhouse gases. And time is our enemy. But gosh, look at the energy guzzlers suddenly on Earth's side.
NEWS REPORT FedEx saying it is designating more than two billion dollars, initially, to help combat climate change with the goal of the shipping giant being carbon neutral by 2040.
NEWS REPORT Let's talk about Amazon going green. Chief executive, Jeff Bezos, has pledged to make his company net carbon neutral by 2014 and meet the goals of the Paris climate pact 10 years early.
UNITED AIRLINES We're talking to you about United's new commitment to be 100 percent green by the year 2050. And when we talk about being carbon free, we mean something different than what you've heard a lot of other companies say. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Maybe. When corporations talk about their benevolence, though, the marketing department is usually lurking nearby.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The messaging thickens the air like so much methane. So how to assess the world saving promises from high tech wunderkinds and corporations looking to cash in on their own contrition. That's the question this week, and the setting is your home. From the recycling bins out front, to the gas meter out back, to the electric lines snaking down from their poles into our hearts and minds. But first, the freezer!
BEYOND MEAT What if just taking the animal out of the meat made us and our planet healthier? What if we all go beyond? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's a commercial from Beyond, a company that makes fake meat out of plants, peas mostly. Eat Just, one of their alt-meat competitors, uses animal cells to make their meat in a lab for, you know, the planet.
EAT JUST We don't have to think about what it took to make that chicken in that nice packaging, but the reality of the way that it came about, it's incredibly unsustainable. And that's one of the biggest problems facing humanity right now, but we figured out a way to solve it. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Patrick Brown, founder of the soy-based meat company Impossible Foods, is down with that.
PATRICK BROWN I grew up eating burgers probably once a week. It's such a canonical food, the flavor and aroma and texture and the juiciness and you know, all of that. But there's this huge dilemma that's posed by the fact that the way that we're producing meat is using a land area bigger than North America, South America, Australia and Europe combined. Animal farming is using the amount of water that could fill San Francisco Bay every day. There's actually an incredibly simple solution. Give people all the meat that they want, but just produce it from completely non animal sources. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Today, you can eat impossible patties fried up in a whopper at Burger King, or in a cheese topped slider at White Castle. You can buy beyond products at Target, Costco and Whole Foods or order it up in a faux sausage breakfast sandwich at Dunkin Donuts, but being green is still their biggest selling point. Otherwise, why not eat the real thing? Vegans and vegetarians aren't the target audience here. There's no question that producing beef is one of our nation's most destructive industries, but is alt-meat the only solution? Is that even our best solution? According to food and climate writer Alicia Kennedy, we need to think bigger.
ALICIA KENNEDY Right now, the average American eats 222 pounds of beef per year. And since 2010 at least, the U.N. has urged people to move to a meat and dairy free diet to change the way we use land. 80 percent of global farmland is used for animals, which produce only 18 percent of the calories we are consuming. So it's really inefficient.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Enter Bruce Friedrich, a co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit making the case to donors and governments around the world that it would be a good idea to turn to alternative meat.
BRUCE FRIEDRICH Innovating in this area will address massive global challenges. 800 million people malnourished globally. The end of modern medicine through antibiotic resistance, the existential threat of climate change. The governments that innovate in this area will have bragging rights until the end of time. [END CLIP]
ALICIA KENNEDY You know, I view Impossible burgers and Beyond burgers as perhaps a necessary stopgap. They're getting people who usually eat a lot of meat to say, you know what, I'm going to go for the impossible burger today or the beyond burger today and try and do something nice for the planet. But in terms of these burgers positioning themselves as a quote unquote, solution to climate change, that's where they really lose me. Marco Springmann, the senior environmental researcher at Oxford, found that impossible burgers and beyond burgers have five times more of a carbon footprint than a classic veggie burger, maybe based on black beans, and half the impact of chicken. And lab based, cultured meat, cellular meat – it goes by many names – lab meat is found to have five times higher carbon footprint than chicken because of the energy used to produce it. If you're selling point on these burgers is it's a little bit of flavor, but it's really focused on climate change. You're going to have to do better than that kind of impact.
BROOKE GLADSTONE To your earlier point, that one could regard these alternatives as a stopgap measure, but not much more than that. You note that in the marketing and media coverage of fake meat, it's claimed that the production can be scaled up. Here's a clip from an interview Impossible Foods CEO Patrick Brown gave to CNBC in 2019.
PATRICK BROWN In 20 years, we're going to look back and basically say, well, remember back in the day when we used those animals to make meat because people wonder how big the plant based meat industry is going to be. It will be the meat industry in 20 years. [END CLIP]
ALICIA KENNEDY I think this is the problem. We're recreating the conditions where people are dependent on specific, non-diverse protein sources, whereas the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, they're telling us that we need a diverse diet. To use land in a very diverse way. When we're talking about moving ourselves toward Impossible Burgers, toward Beyond Burgers as the sole solution to these land use problems causing the food system’s big carbon footprint, we are basing these proteins on soy, on peas and using land again in these mono cropped manners. We're not getting that biodiversity. We're not creating proper ecosystems for the insects and things that keep the ecosystems moving.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are all these plant-based or cell-based meat alternatives equally bad? Bill Gates’ company Nature's Find seems to use mushrooms to make fake meat. Is that better?
ALICIA KENNEDY Mushrooms are always going to be better than soy [LAUGHS] than using a lot of land to grow peas that could be used in a much more diverse way. You know, mushrooms eat waste. So that's a great way of using up waste from the timber industry. That's what a lot of mushrooms are cultivated upon. But I do think we get into a gray area when big companies get in on the alternative meat business. These are companies that are not known for their great ecological histories.
NEWS REPORT The competition is fierce. Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Perdue and Impossible Foods are all launching their own alternative meat products in grocery stores this year. [END CLIP]
ALICIA KENNEDY We have to be concerned that we're moving from industrial or factory farmed meat toward another industrial system where we're not getting that diverse diet, that diverse land use. We are just creating a new system that mimics the old system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've implied, in your writing, that there's a failure of imagination here. That the idea seems to be, quote, to fix something – the global food system – that has been broken by capitalism with more, better capitalism.
ALICIA KENNEDY Without large scale movement toward a plant-based diet, by 2050, we are not going to stay below dangerous levels of climate change. Burgers and lab meat can't be the solution forever because they recreate these corporate vertical and mono crop conditions and they don't encourage the necessity of people eating locally and eating sustainably.
BROOKE GLADSTONE OK, so now let's talk about your bee– I can't believe I was about to use that expression – your problem with the role of journalists in covering food, or this kind of food in particular. Reporters will focus on the tech, the texture, the taste, the look. I mean it to makes sense.
CHEF It actually cooks like beef and crisps.
HOST ONE Oh, it does.
HOST TWO I already took a bite, it’s awesome.
HOST ONE Is it good? [END CLIP]
ALICIA KENNEDY This seems like something that will give people everything they want. It'll taste like meat, but it won't have the same impact as meat. I would like to see journalists asking questions about why so many of the studies that suggest that these are a great solution to climate change are funded by the companies themselves. There's very little third-party research into what we can really expect if these things take the role of beef in our lives. It's interesting to see recipes now published even at The New York Times that suggest you use impossible or beyond beef to make a vegan burger. You don't see recipes usually recommending a specific farm. You don't see them recommending a specific bakery. It's interesting that it's OK in this realm for there to be this focus on these corporations specifically depending on them, and showing them as the solution is, I think, just too soon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That said, well, what direction do you think we should move in as a civilization?
ALICIA KENNEDY Toward more localized food systems which are ultimately more sustainable because then you're eating with the seasons and you're not having that big carbon footprint from processing and from getting food from one place to another.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But I don't know if you can get enough food that way.
ALICIA KENNEDY No, I do concede that industrial agriculture is at some level necessary to feed the whole world. Of course it is, but, we need to move toward figuring out what is good to cultivate at an industrial scale and what is not and how to change food systems on a local level to be more sustainable. Of course, that requires people's wages go up so that food can be a nice concern for them and not just a nice concern for people who have a lot of money and a lot of access to local food. Ultimately, we have to make those decisions about where we're putting tax money, because industrial meat and dairy production gets a lot of money from the government, so does soy and wheat and corn. We need to figure out how we fund changing the food system because it can't go on the way it is. And alternative meat is still not going to be the solution in the long run.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So if we reduce the subsidies for meat and dairy production, where would you redirect that support?
ALICIA KENNEDY Funding the local communities of people who have been historically kept from having land. We give them that money so that the land is cultivated. People can't be completely fed on local food, but we can reallocate money so that we're not funding just industrial food production. We're funding localized food production and we're seeing where we need to move toward industrial scale. But which industrial scales and at what scale is actually sustainable? The land is there to do that. We just use it to feed cattle and other livestock and the money is there, we just put it back into industrial meat and dairy production. Thinking differently with how we use what we have because we have the resources. We just allocate them in a way that makes things inaccessible, that makes things unsustainable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alicia, thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alicia Kennedy is a writer on food and climate based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, we're really cooking with gas. The PR emissions from gas and electric companies may be hazardous to your health.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. According to the EPA, fully a quarter of American greenhouse gas emissions are created by generating electricity through burning coal and gas. These companies have also seen the bottom-line value of big talk on decarbonization.
DUKE ENERGY These may look like solar panels, but they’re so much more than that. They're building blocks of a clean energy transformation. To shift beyond coal, and a gateway to more renewable energy for all our families. We're Duke Energy, and all across the Carolinas and in your community, we're building a smarter energy future. [END CLIP].
BROOKE GLADSTONE But spinning green dreams is one thing, taking steps to realize them, something else altogether. That's the takeaway from a new study called The Dirty Truth about Climate Pledges from Sierra Club and University of California, Santa Barbara energy policy expert Leah Stokes. To take stock of the discrepancies between words and deeds. It graded 50 of the dirtiest electricity producers on three criteria.
LEAH STOKES The first was what are their plans to get off of coal? We know that we need to shut down coal plants by 2030 at the latest. The second thing was gas. Are companies planning to build a lot of new gas plants? And finally, we looked at their plans to build new renewable and clean energy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why those three things in particular, and why these companies?
LEAH STOKES So we wanted to look at the electric utilities that have the most at stake when it comes to retiring fossil fuel generation, because what those companies do will be so critical for climate stability, let alone for public health. And so we zoomed in on these 50 big companies, which have a lot of operating companies, and we asked, what are they actually doing in practice?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's do a case study. Duke Energy, which provides energy to seven point seven million Americans, says that it's, quote, striving for net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
DUKE ENERGY Since 2005, we've exceeded expectations and lowered our carbon emissions by 39 percent. We've accelerated our timeline to retire coal plants, expanded our renewables portfolio, and we're on a mission to do more. We're a clean energy leader, and will do our part to tackle the challenges of climate change. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But exactly how hard is Duke striving?
LEAH STOKES Well, these utilities are really big. They have a lot of subsidiary companies. They're things like Duke Energy Florida or Duke Energy Indiana. They're saying, yeah, my parent company made that goal, but I'm the operating company and that goal does not apply to me. So, for example, Duke Energy Carolinas is currently planning to retire a whopping two percent of its coal capacity by 2030. Duke Energy Florida plans to retire zero percent of its coal capacity by 2030. We also see massive amounts of new gas that's being proposed by Duke. You're not going to be a carbon neutral company if you continue to build new gas in the 2020s.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You have energy companies on a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 being just awful and 100 being stellar. How did they do overall?
LEAH STOKES Very poorly. The average score was 17 out of 100. And so we actually had to use a grading scale where if you were doing slightly better than average, let's say you had 20 out of 100, you passed, so to speak, you got a D rather than an F.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You graded on a curve?
LEAH STOKES Well, yes! Because otherwise a lot more of the utilities would have been failing. But there are companies like NIPSCO that operates in Northern Indiana that has committed to retire all of its coal plants, that it will not build new gas plants and has really big plans to replace about four fifths of its current generation with clean power. That's the kind of company that gets an A in our grading scheme.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is there any difference between companies that expressed a desire to lower emissions compared to those who made no such promises?
LEAH STOKES You have to kind of squint to see the difference. The companies that made the pledges are planning to retire 27 percent of their coal, but the companies without the pledges are planning to retire at 23 percent, so that's not exactly a huge difference. And the companies WITH the pledges are actually planning to build almost twice as much new gas plants as the companies without the pledges. If we continue to build this, we are going to blow past our climate thresholds.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Have you noticed that a lot of the people who are most enthusiastic about using the government to help us transition from fossil fuels, are nostalgic for the Tennessee Valley Authority created to provide power to struggling regions in the U.S.? I think it was a New Deal program that provided direct inspiration for the Green New Deal except the Tennessee Valley Authority wasn't that green, was it?
LEAH STOKES No. The TVA is unfortunately one of the worst companies that we studied. It got a 9 out of 100 and it's actually got the –
BROOKE GLADSTONE [LAUGHS] 9?!
LEAH STOKES Yeah, 9. And one of the challenges is that the TVA has a debt ceiling, so one thing that we have to do potentially is help it get rid of its coal plant debt in exchange for building lots of new renewables. That said, why is the TVA saying it wants to build tons of new gas? It really isn't looking at the lowest cost options because we know that renewables are even cheaper right now than any other solution.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So why?
LEAH STOKES Well, a lot of utilities are used to things the way they were, even though we know that clean energy has gotten so much cheaper. And that's before we add in the costs of climate change, which are in the billions of dollars annually just in the United States, or before we add in those health costs. The new study came out that showed that 9 million people are dying every year from fossil fuels. And what I think is that Congress should be stepping up and passing a law this year saying that all utilities have to be moving towards 100 percent clean energy, which, by the way, is what almost every utility in Colorado is already doing. So we can change this issue, we just need our federal government to act by passing a clean electricity standard.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You think the federal government should be writing off coal plant debt, right, for the TVA, for the rural energy co-ops?
LEAH STOKES One of the ways that we can get rid of coal plant debt, which has been pioneered in places like New Mexico and Michigan, is called coal plant securitization. It's like refinancing your house except we're refinancing the coal plant debt, and we can use some of those savings to reinvest in the communities to help the workers at that coal plant, which is closing, and some of the money can also go to lowering electricity bills. So it's really a win-win-win. And that's the kind of model that I think we should be scaling up nationally, so that all the communities are coming along in this transition.
BROOKE GLADSTONE If I look through your report, and we'll link to it on the website, and I find out that my utility company has been making vague promises and doing hardly anything to keep them. What do I do? Write my congressman?
LEAH STOKES If you go to the Dirty Utilities Report at Sierra Club, you'll click a link and you'll go to a dashboard and you can find your utility from a dropdown list. Remember, not every utility in the country was studied, we just looked at the top 50 dirtiest ones. And what can you do with this information? Well, we are going to have comprehensive climate legislation for the first time in about a decade this spring, hopefully, in Congress. And so this is really a critical time to be reaching out to your congressional representatives and your senators and saying, where is that 100 percent clean electricity standard that President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris campaigned on?
BROOKE GLADSTONE I noticed that you focused on the electricity companies, but they don't have a monopoly on PR. What about the gas companies that heat millions of people's homes and have an existential fear of the carbon free transition? How does that show up in their PR work?
LEAH STOKES Well, I've spent most of my research on electric utilities, but I'm actually becoming much more optimistic about the electric utility sector because through electrification, through things like electric vehicles, through things like induction stoves, as well as heat pumps, these are basically ways we can use electricity rather than fossil gas in our homes. We've got a whole plan for electric utilities to make a lot of money, actually, but that is not the case for the gas companies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So this is a legitimate existential fear.
LEAH STOKES Yeah, but, you know, let's not feel too bad because, for example, my gas company, SoCal Gas, was responsible for the Porter Ranch leak, which was a gas leak at a storage facility that went on for months, caused hundreds of people to have to evacuate their homes and led to a bigger greenhouse gas footprint than the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. And there are gas companies in the Northeast, as well as in places like Baltimore, where there are so many leaks that people's entire houses have been exploding. So gas companies are not exactly good actors. Homes with a gas stove actually have 42 percent more risk of children developing asthma because it turns out you're putting out nitrous oxide into the air at such a rate that if you're cooking for 20 minutes or 30 minutes, you're getting to levels of indoor air pollution that are not even allowed in other kinds of facilities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So if I find out that my gas provider is lying to me, they still have a monopoly on my kitchen and my furnace and my landlord's furnace. If I'm a renter, there's a lot we can't do.
LEAH STOKES Yeah, it's particularly hard if you're a renter, although you can do things like getting in a little electric space heater. I have one in my bedroom, for example. You could get a toaster oven. There are some little ways that you can defect from the system and resist even if you're renting. But if you own a home, I'd really encourage people to start looking into electrifying their home. Can I get a heat pump, for example? Can I get an electric hot water heater? Can I get an induction stove? I just bought an induction stove, the cost was basically the same. And I think especially if you have young kids at home, this is a really important thing to look into for your family's health.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We're doing this interview because we're really interested in the space between public relations and reality. The question is, how important is public relations to these companies?
LEAH STOKES We do have levers in our democracy to call out these front groups, and actually that's why journalism is so important. People like Rebecca Leber at Mother Jones, who did reporting that these Instagram influencers, young women, were being paid by the gas industry to go on Instagram and say, "oh, I love my gas stove so much" to a new generation of millennials. Well millennials got to realize that gas stoves are toxic. So journalists play a really critical role, and if you're reading these kinds of stories, reach out to our government offices, reach out to your representatives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We went solar.
LEAH STOKES Oh cool.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In eight years, we'll have paid it off.
LEAH STOKES That's not so bad for a payback period, right!
BROOKE GLADSTONE But we do have a gas stove.
LEAH STOKES Next stop is an induction stove, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE [LAUGHS] Thank you so much.
LEAH STOKES Thank you so much. This was a lot of fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Leah Stokes is an energy policy expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of The Dirty Truth about Climate Pledges.
We asked Duke Energy and Southern Company for comment. Duke told us that it is, quote, exploring faster coal retirement and the addition of more renewables and storage and that it has, quote, reduced emissions 39 percent since 2005, but that its efforts require, quote, supportive policy. And Southern, similarly notes that its greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 44 percent since 2007, that it is working to expand its renewables, and that it is, quote, embracing an orderly transition of its coal fleet. You can find Duke's and Southern’s full statements at onthemedia.org.
BOB GARFIELD Leah Stokes told Brooke that all in all, she's actually optimistic about the very electricity sector she tends to excoriate. Electrification, the transition towards heating homes and moving goods and people using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels has emerged as a viable carbon free next chapter for much of American life. Not such a bright future, however, for its so-called clean natural gas.
NEWS REPORT The Berkeley City Council unanimously voted to ban natural gas from new buildings starting January the 1st next year, requiring an electric infrastructure. Hoping the regulations will help with pollution and climate change, and don't think this is just a local issue, California officials say more than 50 other cities are looking into the ban and it's only a matter of time before more states jump on the turn-off-the-gas bandwagon. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Wait, really? We've been told for ages that gas is the perfect household fuel.
GAS STOVE AD A gas water heater operates for about half the cost of a comparable electric model. And you can save with gas cooking, clothes drying and home heating. Now, more than ever, gas works for less. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD In any event, you'd think Home Gas Service was small potatoes compared to the carbon emissions of cars, factories and coal burning power plants, but no. Turns out natural gas presents its own environmental perils. Phase out plants are now commonplace, and the gas utility industry is raising the alarms from sea to shining sea. And as Rebecca Leber of Mother Jones has reported, big gas has attempted to influence public opinion every which way, including your social media feeds. Rebecca, welcome to On the Media.
REBECCA LEBER Thanks for having me. Now, maybe this is obvious, but in practice, if you have a gas range, you also most likely have gas hot water heating and a gas furnace. But there is no phrase now you're heating hot water with gas. Decades ago, the gas industry used a campaign so successful that the phrase became part of the vernacular: "now, you're cooking with gas" wholly apart from its literal meaning. Can you tell me about that?
BOB GARFIELD They recruited celebrities. There was Bob Hope in the forties who used cooking with gas as a punch line in a stand up. And in the 50s and 60s, the industry used celebrities in ads to market to housewives.
GAS STOVE AD Hello, I'm Jinx Falkenberg and this handsome gas range is the new double oven magic chef. Because it's gas, it seals in juiciness and flavor while it broiled and it bakes beautifully. [END CLIP]
GAS COMPANY Tonight's Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet is brought to you by your gas company. With pipeline companies and gas appliance and equipment manufacturers. For dependable comfort and modern convenience, gas makes the big difference. Cost less too. [END CLIP]
REBECCA LEBER Now I looked at newspaper ads throughout the last century and it's really remarkable how many talking points the industry used that is still part of our vernacular today, to defend the gas stove.
BOB GARFIELD Why did they focus on the kitchen?
REBECCA LEBER The stove is our most visible appliance. People generally don't care about what heats their water as long as the water is hot. So the gas stove is really the industry's wedge issue here.
BOB GARFIELD It's like Trump's trickle-y showerheads or Dr. Seuss. How specifically are they making our stoves a battlefront in the culture wars?
REBECCA LEBER Cities across the nation are considering electrifying the building sector. They're targeting new construction. While that doesn't mean people will lose the gas stove that's currently sitting in their home, the industry has really capitalized on this alarmist messaging that you'll lose your favorite appliance.
BOB GARFIELD And this time around, no Bob Hope or Ozzie and Harriet, but minor social media influencers paid to promote gas ranges versus electric. It's a fossil fuels battle waged on Instagram. What does it look like?
REBECCA LEBER Well, the industry's own documents describe the strategy that they have targeted lesser influencers in our culture, not quite celebrities to market to specific demographics, including women, including women of color, to tell us that the gas stove is superior.
INFLUENCER This only works on a natural gas stove, and I'll show you why. When we turn on the stove, [STOVE CLICKS] you'll see that blue flame come up and you can tell that it's heating the entire bottom of the wok, which is key for that really great caramelization that you want in most of your stir fries, and to make sure that the heat is distributed perfectly. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD All right, a lot of the action in this fight is in California, 42 municipalities have banned or otherwise complicated new gas connections in private homes. Give me an example, please, of how the industry's PR contractors have worked to sway public opinion there.
REBECCA LEBER We've seen in California robo text from industry groups. I found in my reporting a PR representative for the company Imprenta, going on Nextdoor, a social media platform where people are only supposed to post in their community. He posted in a Culver City community page, Culver City Banning Gas Stoves: "I use an electric stove, but I never cooked as well as a gas stove, so I ended up switching back." Wilson Truong, the PR rep, wasn't a member of Culver City at all. He was working on behalf of the largest gas utility in California, trying to fight city efforts to pursue electrification. Now, I went to this man's employer, they confirmed to me that they were trying a tactic of infiltrating Nextdoor. They were going to find a member of the community to do this, but they did confirm to me that this was another tactic.
BOB GARFIELD There's another example from social media that you reported, and this was also a giant fail. Just tell me, please, about "Women for Natural Gas" and who the women were.
REBECCA LEBER So there was a group, Texans for Natural Gas, that had a testimonials page and micro website called Women for Natural Gas drenched in pink cursive font. It showed three professionally dressed women with quotes attached about how they are women for natural gas, just praising the virtues. What I found was these women weren't real. One of the women actually was a LinkedIn editor. When I went to her, she said she has never heard of this group, they did not have permission to use her photo and then she demanded it taken down. When I went to the contractor for the group, they distanced themselves entirely from this, saying that this was someone else's fault. No one ever pointed me to the person who was at fault, but this website is still up. They did take the headshots down and last I checked, they were just pink outlines of women instead of real headshots.
BOB GARFIELD All right, now earlier we discussed the risks posed by burning, especially unvented hydrocarbons inside the home. The gas industry has always come back and said, look, if you go through all the regulatory agencies, you will not find one single documented case of poor health outcomes based on gas heating or cooking.
REBECCA LEBER The industry is basically arguing that lack of regulation means a product is safe. Now, we know from experience, like when we look at lead in paint and secondhand smoke, that just because they have not regulated something doesn't mean it is safe for the public to use. The EPA has looked at this issue and it has found links between burning a gas stove in your home and asthma and respiratory illness. It just hasn't taken the step to regulate indoor air pollution. Generally, indoor air pollution is very poorly regulated. Now, California Air Resources Board, back in the fall, issued its strongest statement yet linking the stove to respiratory illness like asthma. And this is a big deal because this is California's powerful environmental agency, just as the state is considering whether to phase out gas and new buildings. So just because we don't see the EPA taking a firm stance on this now doesn't mean this won't be definitive in a few years.
BOB GARFIELD Going back to the 60s and the 70s, in spite of the vast amount of propaganda and denial by the tobacco industry, there were a few advertising agencies that refused to handle tobacco accounts, very lucrative tobacco accounts. They said, "nope, we're not going to be a part of that." Some of the PR firms that had been up to these hijinks on behalf of Big Gas have also walked away.
REBECCA LEBER One major PR firm is Porter Novelli, which confirmed in November after I originally wrote about their influencer campaign, that it would no longer work with gas companies because of the emerging science on public health. We're at this turning point where the use of gas is starting to become unjustifiable, just like we've seen with the coal industry and tobacco. We're just at the beginning of this, but I think we can start to see PR companies are going to face a lot more pressure to leave these clients, especially because they have the same PR companies that often tout their good work for the climate and environment. That environmentalists have really pointed out the hypocrisy, if they're also simultaneously helping fossil fuels advance their agenda.
BOB GARFIELD So you found these social media scandals in a teapot. Since you broke that story, has gas continued to show up in influencer feeds?
REBECCA LEBER The industry hasn't shown any signs of stopping. In fact, emails that I obtained from the industry after my original reporting said they would not stop for even one hour. One of the more obstinate executives, Sue Christensen, said in one email: "if we wait to promote natural gas stoves until we have scientific data that they are not causing any air quality issues, we'll be done." I think that just sums up the industry's position here. She would disagree that gas stoves are a problem for air quality, but she's also saying she doesn't care. Let's continue marketing this to the public.
BOB GARFIELD Rebecca, thank you so much.
REBECCA LEBER Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD Rebecca Leber covers environmental politics and policy for Mother Jones.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, recycling plastic, our favorite environmental delusion.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And Bob Garfield. If you are a well-trained environmental citizen, no doubt you separate your recyclables to make it easier for your soda cans and applesauce jars and especially your plastic milk jugs, yogurt cups and shampoo bottles to find new life as car bumpers or traffic cones or whatever. Landfills aren't burdened, plastic trash doesn't clog waterways. And you are righteous because you and your blue bins are doing your part. And because plastic is still the wonder product we've believed it to be from its very beginning.
PLASTIC AD Here they are in our homes, augmenting our comfort, serving our needs. When we take to the open road, we find them again in our car. Plastic, plastic, plastic. [END CLIP]
LAURA SULLIVAN Nobody had seen anything like this.
BOB GARFIELD Laura Sullivan is an investigative correspondent for NPR News.
LAURA SULLIVAN Food could be kept safe for days, you could see through it, but it wouldn't break. Nobody could conceive of a product like that. It changed the world and it was a huge part of the economic growth of our country. With it came this growing problem of where is all this stuff going to go?
BOB GARFIELD As she reported late last year for NPR and PBS Frontline, the oil and petrochemical industries’ answer has always been to tell the public that plastic is recyclable, even though that has never been economical or feasible. Rather that than admit the truth: that the vast majority of our plastic trash is and has always been dumped, burned or buried in our backyards or in someone else's. That first became clear to Sullivan during a reporting trip to the current destination of so much American mixed plastics – Indonesia.
LAURA SULLIVAN What was so shocking to me was to walk around in people's neighborhoods and see our plastic trash, not the stuff that was thrown into the trash bin, but the stuff that we threw into the blue bins dumped in people's neighborhoods. What we ended up finding out was that the vast majority of plastic is never recycled. Less than nine percent of all plastic waste has ever been recycled. And even the stuff that we think we're recycling by putting it in the blue bin is heading to countries like Indonesia where they are sorting it. Sort of. Kind of. But they really just want the good bits, which is the plastic bottles in the milk jugs and then in some cases dumping the rest.
BOB GARFIELD It was an "aha!" episode for you.
LAURA SULLIVAN Yes.
BOB GARFIELD It turns out that plastic manufacturers and the oil industry are way past "aha," when did they first know that recycling plastic was just economically unsustainable?
LAURA SULLIVAN From the very beginning. So what we found in hundreds and thousands of pages of documents all the way back to the 1970s was that they knew from the beginning that recycling plastic, in the words of one of their documents, was "never going to be economically viable". It was difficult to sort, there were too many kinds of plastics. The public was getting uneasy with plastic. There was so much plastic trash everywhere.
BOB GARFIELD There was this iconic public service announcement in the 60s and 70s showing some litter on the side of a road and a Native American man looking at how we have despoiled the environment and a tear flows down his cheek.
RECYCLING AD Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don't. People start pollution, people can stop it. [END CLIP]
LAURA SULLIVAN Actually, he was an Italian man from New Jersey, I believe, so he was a Native American, but the whole commercial was itself paid for by the oil and gas industry. They got behind this public relations campaign. In a lot of cases, sided with environmentalists saying you got to pick up the trash, but the point of this message was that it's the public's responsibility to clean up this problem.
BOB GARFIELD We weren’t just part of the problem. We were the solution, we could recycle.
DUPONT AD We've pioneered the country's largest, most comprehensive plastic recycling program to help plastic fill valuable uses and roles instead of filling valuable land. At Dupont, we make the things that make a difference. [END CLIP]
LAURA SULLIVAN Their messaging from that time was twofold. One, they told the public that plastic is amazing, don't worry about its bad side. And two, if you have a trash problem, you can recycle it. And the two together were a powerful message to the public that there's nothing wrong with this product, that if you're going to complain about it, look to yourself, don't look at us.
BOB GARFIELD These ads portrayed a false reality, but it wasn't just ads, there were other reinforcements everywhere. Like on the bottoms of milk jugs, those friendly little triangles that seemed to say, oh, don't worry, you'll recycle me.
LAURA SULLIVAN Exactly, what you see in the 90s is these public relations campaigns, we looked at 12 of them. All of them had fallen apart and shuttered within five years. Stuff like we're going to recycle all the plastic in national parks, it made it to, you know, seven out of 400 and some national parks before they cut funding. We're going to recycle the plastic in New York schools, and that shuttered as well. The plastic bench outside your grocery store. This is made out of plastic, recycled materials. Nobody would ever spend the kind of money it costs to actually produce that bench. Then, the broadest campaign of all happened at about the same time. All of a sudden, recyclers across the country who were trying to recycle metals and glass started getting inundated with plastic waste. They say that what happened was if you flipped all these containers over, there was the recycling symbol with the number in it and you would think, well, why would they put that on there? Well, some of the documents that we found show that the plastic industry put this recycling symbol with the number in the middle on the bottom of plastic. They say they want it to help the public sort plastic. But what ended up happening was it made everybody think all plastic is recyclable. And all of these containers and tubs started inundating recycling companies and they were they couldn't take this trash anymore. Environmentalists fought the plastic industry for years trying to get them to take the recycling symbol off and they have refused to do so. What we found is a document that found that they knew that this was a problem all along, that this was confusing the consumer, that it was greenwashing, that it was making the plastic appear more recyclable than it really was.
BOB GARFIELD We've been talking about, til now, 20th century messaging, but the scheme seems to have crossed into 21st century reality as well. Messaging that says if we only work together as a community, we can solve every problem. All we have to do is just keep innovating.
LAURA SULLIVAN When I went back to the oil and gas and plastic industry this time and said, OK, what is the plan now? It's been 40 years. Less than 10 percent of all plastic has ever been recycled. What are we doing now? The answer was, well, we're going to recycle it all. When I sat down with Chevron Phillips and I sat down with the head lobbyist for the oil and gas industry, they both said our plan is to recycle all plastic by 2040. Same pitch that they made 40 years ago. Except now plastic is more difficult to recycle than it's ever been. There's more of it. There's hundreds of more different kinds of it. And oil and gas is cheaper than it's ever been as well, so the economics are even worse than they've been. And so how are they going to do now what they were unable to do before? They basically said technology is going to save the day. We're going to find a way. They say that they're now going to be putting 1.5 billion dollars into this campaign to clean up the trash and recycle the plastic. And they have a new ad.
PLASTIC AD The world we know finds a way to overcome. [END CLIP]
LAURA SULLIVAN There's kids on the beach and then people picking up trash.
PLASTIC AD And we have the tools. We have the people that can change the world. [END CLIP]
LAURA SULLIVAN I sat down with two of the people who had put together the original ads from the 90s. One of them, Larry Thomas, the former top official in the oil and gas industry, said that they're right back where they started.
BOB GARFIELD All right, Loreta, up to now we've been talking about plastic waste, but this hour we're focusing on carbon. So I wonder if you could tie it all together. Please remind us of how much greenhouse gas emissions are attached to the manufacturing of plastic each year.
LAURA SULLIVAN Well, think about it this way, the World Economic Forum found that the manufacture of four plastic bottles releases the equivalent greenhouse gas of driving one mile in a car. And we're producing billions of these, let alone all the other kinds of plastic that we're producing. There is a greenhouse gas price to pay for plastic. And not only the creation of plastic, but in the recycling of plastic. And in the reality of burning it or landfilling it that causes greenhouse gases as well. So there's no escaping what plastic does to the environment, and it's increasing production that's only going to grow exponentially.
BOB GARFIELD All right. One last thing, Laura. I presume you consider yourself a good citizen of your community and if your country and of the world, right?
LAURA SULLIVAN I try. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD You've got those blue bins at your place, right?
LAURA SULLIVAN I do.
BOB GARFIELD Do you fill one with plastic?
LAURA SULLIVAN Oh, so I get into the grocery store sometimes and I feel nothing but defeat and nothing but confusion over what I'm supposed to do, and I know this subject. And I don't know how to not use plastic. I do recycle, you know, the things I know what the recycling company in Indonesia said was really the only things they wanted, which were soda bottles and milk jugs. I put those in my blue bin. Everything else I put in my trash can because I don't want them to land in somebody's neighborhood in Indonesia.
BOB GARFIELD Laura, thank you.
LAURA SULLIVAN Thanks so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Laura Sullivan is an investigative correspondent for NPR.
That's it for this week's show On the Media is produced by Micah Lowinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Eloise Blondiau and Rebecca Clark-Callender with help from Alex Hanesworth. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter, and our show was edited... By Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, our engineer this week was Adrianne Lilly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media, is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.
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