Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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My Seven Years as a Corporate Token

By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside

December, 2001

In December, 2000, the American Chemistry Council (formerly the Chemical Manufacturers Association) disbanded its "Public Advisory Panel." The Gadfly served on that Panel during its final seven years. The following reflections on that experience are not necessarily shared by other members of the Panel. The Panel's "Valedictory Message," released to the public on July 23, 2001, may be accessed through this link.

A briefer version of this paper appeared in the December, 2001 issue of The Ecologist, under the title "My Life as a Corporate Pawn."  The title was chosen and the article was revised, abridged and published by the Ecologist Editor, without my awareness or consent. 

The Gadfly is nobody's "pawn."

While flattered by the decision of this esteemed British journal to publish the article, however mangled, I complained vehemently.  The Editor explained that he assumed that the Managing Editor had contacted me, and vice versa.  The essay below is by far the better version.  (EP)


At the final meeting of the Public Advisory Panel of the American Chemistry Council, attended by ACC President Fred Webber and three senior ACC officers, The Gadfly read the following statement:

I joined the Panel seven years ago, with an open mind and a willingness to be persuaded by evidence that the industry could effectively accept the responsibility of self-regulation. During that time, I have been genuinely impressed by the sense of public responsibility that I have found among many industry officials. Nonetheless, I leave with renewed conviction in the necessity of persistent and circumspect governmental regulation of this industry as well as any other industry with a significant impact upon the larger populations of "stakeholders" who lack direct means to protect themselves from the "externalities" of business as usual. 

Regulation can and should be a cooperative enterprise between private enterprise and public government. And industry, through regulation, gains the advantage of an explicit statutory guidance and a "floor" of acceptable behavior which eliminates, to the advantage of both industry and the public, the dangers of a competitive "race to the bottom" at the expense of the public interest.

Four decades of disparagement of "big government" have taken a heavy toll on the natural environment, on public health, and on citizen confidence in our public institutions. This reckless slander must now come to an end and be reversed. In a legitimate democratic polity, "government" is the appropriate watchdog of the public interest. True, in every government one can find "waste, fraud and abuse" – for no human institution is or can be perfect. But the remedy for poor government is better government, not the abolition of government or, worst of all, the privatization of government.. This truth is validated in the experience of every civilized society.

Accordingly, the ACC's advocacy must become less private and tied to campaign finance, and become more public and dependent upon rational argument and scientific evidence. If this comes about due to ACC initiative, then it will deserve the gratitude and admiration of all citizens. If, on the other hand, an enlightened legislature must impose upon industry a regime of advocacy by means of public debate and free of financial influence, then so be it. 

More than any other industry, the chemical industry is science-based. Thus industry policy and practice should be expected to yield to the weight of scientific evidence. Forty years ago, with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the industry faced the test – and failed it. The response of the Chemical industry to the Bhopal disaster – the establishment of the Responsible Care initiative – stands as a monument of corporate responsibility to the public. But the industry's commitment to that initiative appears to have eroded with time.

Now there is a new test issuing from a world-wide scientific consensus regarding the chemistry and physics of the atmosphere – the issue of global warming. Sadly, the public pronouncements of the ACC seem to indicate that the Council has failed this test as well.

Nothing would please me more than to be proven wrong in this opinion. Be that as it may, the responsibility of the industry in the face of global warming is as clear and unequivocal as the scientific consensus. 

As this Panel ends its association with ACC, I am reminded of the remark of Elena Bonner to Mikhail Gorbachev, at the funeral of Bonner's husband, Andrei Sakharov: "I pity you, for you have lost an honest critic."

I urge ACC to scrupulously select, in our successors, critics who will be equally honest.

"Responsible Care"ฎ – "A Public Commitment"

On December 3, 1984, a worker at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India turned a "wrong" valve, allowing water  into a tank of methyl isocyanate. The resulting explosion released some 40 tons of gas into the atmosphere, resulting in from at least 2000 to more than 5000 fatalities, and from 10,000 to 200,000 serious injuries. (The lesser figure is from Union Carbide, the larger figure from the Indian government). 

While Bhopal was the worst industrial disaster in recent history, it followed numerous other incidents, including the release of dioxin at a chemical plant in Seveso, Italy in 1976, and the discovery in 1978 of toxic waste beneath a housing development at Love Canal, near Buffalo, New York.

Because of these and other incidents, including the industry's well-publicized public relations campaigns against such environmental reformers as Rachel Carson, by the late 1980s, the level of public trust in the chemical industry was alongside that of the tobacco industry, near the bottom of the list of business enterprises,

The Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA), the trade association of the chemical industry, felt that some dramatic initiatives would have to be taken to restore the confidence of the public in the industry. As industry leaders remarked at the time, "if we don't clean up our act, then the government will." Following the lead of the Canadian Chemical Producers Association, in 1988 the CMA launched a program called "Responsible Care," and in the following year established a Public Advisory Panel.

In an informational brochure (December, 1996), the CMA states that Responsible Care "requires [member] companies to: (a) continually improve their health, safety and environmental performance; (b) listen and respond to public concerns; ( c) assist each other to achieve optimum performance; and (d) report their progress to the public." The brochure continues: "Two aspects of Responsible Care make it unique. First, CMA member companies must participate in Responsible Care as an obligation of membership in the Association. And second, through a Public Advisory Panel, the public is directly involved in shaping the initiative." (My emphasis, EP. For a statement of the ten CMA "Guiding Principles of Responsible Care" follow this link).

Personal Reflections of an ACC Panel Member

I was invited to join the Public Advisory Panel in 1994, and met with the Panel for the first time in August, 1994, in Sarnia, Ontario (directly across the St. Clair River from Port Huron, Michigan). This was a typical meeting, unique only in the respect that it was held jointly with the Panel of the Canadian Chemical Producers Association. We toured some local chemical plants, were given presentations by local and national industry officials, and engaged in several hours of free-flowing discussions, unattended by industry personnel.

For the next two years, the Panel met four times a year – twice in Washington, DC, and twice at a chemical industry facility, and generally for three days. After 1996 the meetings were reduced in frequency to three times a year and in duration to two days.

I will not elaborate on the content of these meetings, since the "Valedictory Message" gives a good summary of our work, our accomplishments, and our complaints. And while there is much that I might add by way of detail, it is important that the length of these remarks be contained. However, some general impressions might well be in order.

The corporate initiators and implementers of Responsible Care deserve all the credit that they are due – and that credit is considerable. At our meetings we were shown (and I have no reason to doubt) statistics indicating significant reductions of industrial accidents and toxic releases. Numerous chemical facilities throughout the nation established "CAPS" – Community Advisory Panels – actively involving community leaders and citizens in the implementation and supervision of the Responsible Care program. 

The plant facilities that we visited were also impressive. To the best of my recollection, at none of the score of large chemical manufacturing plants that I visited did I encounter the sort of pervading "chemical odor" that one might have expected. At the Dow facility in Midland, Michigan, and the DuPont plant near Victoria, Texas, the water "outflows" were so clean that they fed wetland wildlife preserves, set aside by the industries. I was equally impressed by the dedication of several senior corporate executives and plant managers to the Responsible Care ethic. Former CMA Chairmen Earnie Deavenport and Art Siegel, Bill Stavropolous of Dow Chemical, and Dick Knowles of the LaBelle DuPont plant in West Virginia come immediately to mind. In fact, the Panel came to sense that many of the executives of the member corporations were well ahead of the CMA officers in their commitment to "Responsible Care."

However, the Panel was not favorably impressed with all representatives of CMA organizations. In particular, I vividly remember a presentation by an official of the Chlorine Chemistry Council in Charleston, West Virginia. He was warned beforehand not to give the standard "Rotary Club PR Spiel" to the Panel. "This is a tough group," he was told. He found this out when he chose to disregard that warning, whereupon the Panel pushed aside the PR fluff and asked tough questions, which the poor presenter was ill-prepared to answer.

Each year, the panel composed a "letter" to the CMA which was published in its Annual Report, and each year (through 2000) a Panel member was selected to give a presentation to the Annual April meeting of the Association (usually in Orlando, Florida). We endeavored to make these messages and presentations as positive and upbeat as good conscience would allow. But we never doubted that we owed the CMA our candor. Each year, our primary concern was about "responsible advocacy" – our euphemism for lobbying and public relations. We were especially concerned about reports (gained from "outside sources") that soon after the Republican takeover of the Congress in 1994, CMA and industry officials had met privately with GOP congressional leaders and had virtually written their "revision" to the Clean Water Act. We did not hesitate to express these concerns to the CMA.

Recently, the Panel came to sense that the CMA's enthusiasm for its Public Advisory Panel was beginning to wear thin. As noted above, beginning in 1997 our meetings were reduced in frequency to three a year and in duration to two days. Less often were we presented with proposals and work-in-progress for our "advisory" opinions, and more often we were give reports of settled policy. Especially vexing was the presenters' habit of handing out copies of reports, published weeks and months earlier and then commenting on these items, thus denying us the opportunity to read them beforehand. Throughout, we continued to express our candid concern about CMA "advocacy" practices – i.e., lobbying and public relations.

Probably the most important cause of the Panel's eclipse took place "in the background," beyond the influence of the Panel itself. The "pioneer" corporate executives who established and sustained Responsible Care were retiring and leaving the scene, and were being replaced by a more politically active, profit-oriented, and institutionally defensive corps of officers. The "public commitment" proclaimed by Responsible Care was slowly but inexorably being replaced by the Milton Friedman rule: "The social responsibility of business to increase profits." (New York Times, September 13, 1970).

And so, when the Chemical Manufacturers Association officially decided, in its April, 2000 meeting, to change its name to "The American Chemistry Council" (announced June 8) and to adopt the slogan, "Good Chemistry Makes it Possible," the Panel was (typically by now) presented with a fait accompli. Even so, the Panel did not hesitate to express its displeasure with the name and slogan change. "Chemical Manufacturers Association," we felt, precisely describes the organization, while "American Chemistry Council" connotes an academic association (like the existing academic "American Chemical Society"). The Panel's response to the slogan, "Good Chemistry Makes it Possible" bordered on the derisive. "Sounds like a resurrection of DuPont's old "'Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry.'" "And just what is the antecedent of that ‘it.' Just what does ‘good chemistry' make possible?" And so on. We were later to discover (sans consultation) that the Responsible Care slogan of "A Public Commitment" was to be replaced with "Good Chemistry at Work."

Though we may not have fully realized it at the time, that meeting quite possibly sealed the fate of the Public Advisory Panel of the (now) American Chemistry Council. Those name and slogan changes were no doubt the result of expensive and extensive public opinion and focus-group studies. Ours was not the response that ACC had hoped for.

Our next meeting was in Arlington, Virginia, in late October, 2000 (the date may be significant). At the close of that meeting, we were advised that "ACC is re-evaluating its public dialogue processes, including the Public Advisory Panel." We were also told that a continuation of the Panel was a distinct possibility, and that we would be informed individually by phone of the Council's decision in mid-November.

We can only speculate about the deliberations of the Council concerning the future of the Panel. However, the timing of the decision in the light of subsequent events makes such speculation irresistible. Was the Panel and Responsible Care, "window dressing" designed to give the industry the public appearance of responsibility? If so, then the Panel would be more useful to the Council in the event of a Gore victory and Democratic Congress, and a consequent threat of government oversight and regulation.. But if Bush and the Republicans brought in an administration and Congress much more friendly to the industry, then ACC could adopt a posture more along the lines of Commodore Vanderbilt: "the public be damned, I work for my stockholders." 

All this would be presumably settled a week from the Tuesday following the meeting: November 7, Election Day, whereupon ACC, as promised, would phone its decision to the Panel members. Trouble is, a funny thing happened on the way to that decision. The election was not decided until a month later, December 12, by the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore. A couple of days after that decision, we received our phone call: The Public Advisory Panel was toast.

Go figure!

At our final meeting in June, we were told that a new panel would be selected that would interact directly with the ACC President.  On "deep background" a list of names of possible members was read to us (which, of course, I can not repeat) -- "the sort of high-profile and prestigious individuals that we are seeking for this group."  It is doubtful that any of these estimable individuals are at all aware of the ACC's intentions, and even more doubtful, in my opinion, that they would accept such an invitation.  The ACC was vague about its plans and timing for "the new Panel."  Quite frankly, I strongly suspect that the plan will be shelved and, if convenient, forgotten.  On the other hand, a Panel of "experts" and corporate lackeys may be rounded up for public relations purposes.  After all, there was no shortage of "scientific experts" available to slander Rachel Carson and her work, neither has the Global Climate Coalition, ABC's John Stossel and other corporate apologists been unable to round up "expert" opinion that is contrary to overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming (see below).

Try as it might, the ACC is unlikely to gather a finer group of individuals than those who served on the now-defunct Public Advisory Panel.  This collection of scholars, engineers, scientists, environmental and consumer activists, and community leaders carried out their voluntary service with energy, intelligence, dedication and integrity.  They felt that they owed the Council nothing more than their attention, their judgment, and their candor, which, it appears, was more than the Council was willing to tolerate.  Honorable mention is also due to the Panel's skilled facilitators, John Vincett and Francis Gillis of PDA Associates in Toronto, who conducted our meetings with consummate skill and patience, never intruding their own opinions and biases, and with full independence from the ACC.  (Panel members are listed at the end of the "Valedictory Message").

In their "Valedictory Message," the Panel wisely chose to ignore speculations regarding the successor "Panel" or the political motives of the ACC.  Such speculations are superfluous in the face of a much more troubling and verifiable indication of the decline of "Responsible Care – A Public Commitment:" namely, the Council's response to the issue of global warming.

The American Chemistry Council and Global Warming

In its "Valedictory Message," the Panel noted "with disappointment the failure of the Council to respond appropriately to the prospect of global climate change, brought about by the release of "greenhouse gases" into the atmosphere. In view of the overwhelming scientific validation of this grave threat to the global environment and to the welfare of future generations, the Panel urges the Council to reconsider its policy and to join the coordinated efforts of governments, non-governmental organizations and the scientific community to counteract this global threat." 

In view of the abundance of public relations fog that has recently been generated over the issue of global warming, it would be useful to review the weight of scientific opinion on the issue.

The Scientific Consensus: In January, 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations consortium of more than two thousand scientists, published its third report. The IPCC report concluded, with 90% confidence, that by 2100, average global temperatures will rise between 2.3 and 9 degrees Fahrenheit. Commenting on this report, seventeen of the world's scientific academies stated:

The work of the IGCC represents the consensus of the international scientific community on climate change science. We recognize the IPCC as the world's most reliable source of information on climate change and its causes, and we endorse its method of achieving this consensus. Despite increasing consensus on the science underpinning predictions of global climate change, doubts have been expressed recently about the need to mitigate the risks posed by global climate change. We do not consider such doubts justified... The balance of the scientific evidence demands effective steps now to avert damaging changes to Earth's climate. (Science, 18 May 2001, p. 1261).

Responding to the IPCC report, Donald Kennedy, editor of Science (the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) wrote: 

The scientific consensus on global warming is so strong that it leaves little room for the defensive assertions that keep emerging from the cleverly labeled industrial consortium called the Global Climate Coalition and from a shrinking coterie of scientific skeptics... [Scientific] consensus as strong as the one that has developed around this topic is rare in science... [T]here is little room for doubt about the seriousness of the problem the world faces... (Science, 30 March 2001).

At the request of the Bush administration, the National Academy of Sciences prepared a report which "summed up science's current understanding of global climate change." That report effectively added the United States to the list of international scientific academies, as the NAS committee wrote: "the conclusion of the IPCC that the global warming that has occurred in the last 50 years is likely the result of increases in greenhouse gases accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community." (National Academy of Sciences, June 6, 2001).

ACC Policy on Global Warming: The response of the American Chemistry Council to these scientific studies and reports has been inappropriate and disappointing. 

At my request for information, the staff of the Council sent me a copy of a letter from ACC President Frederick Webber to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, dated April 26, 2001. In addition, I personally asked an ACC Vice President, face-to-face, for information regarding the Council's response to the IPCC and NAS reports, and the Council's support and endorsement of the Global Climate Coalition (an advocacy group supported primarily by the petroleum and coal industries). I was told that "this will be discussed at our meeting tonight." It was not. And so I followed up with an e-mail request to that same individual. That message has not been answered. Accordingly, I have had to rely upon media and NGO sources for additional information regarding the Council's position on global warming.

In his letter to Sec .Abraham, ACC President Webber reported that the ACC is actively promoting "voluntary programs" among its members to "contribute to shared national and industry goals ... specifically improved energy efficiency and strengthened international competitiveness; conservation of energy resources; and, reduction of energy-related and other greenhouse gas emission." Despite this promising beginning, the remainder of the letter is not reassuring. There is no further mention of energy conservation. Instead, the letter calls for (a) the "use of all available and proven energy sources," (b) the removal of "regulatory barriers to safe and reliable energy," (c) "encouragement of voluntary action," and (d) further study. Missing from that letter is any reference to the IPCC report (released in January, 2001), the Kyoto Treaty, or proposals for federal or international regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

From sources outside the Council, I have learned that the ACC "pushed to kill the carbon cap" on power plant emissions (Newsweek, March 26, 2001). Also, I have learned that the ACC is a contributor to the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a group funded by the coal and petroleum industries, and described (above) by Science Editor (and former Presidential Science Advisor) Donald Kennedy as a "cleverly labeled industrial consortium." (Hard documentation of this association between the ACC and GCC is not immediately at hand. The GCC website does not list its sponsors and contributors. I have sent out several requests for documentation, and when they arrive I will immediately update confirmation).

Learning from Past Mistakes: In 1963, the Manufacturing Chemists Association (predecessor to the American Chemistry Council) launched a public relations campaign to counteract public and governmental reaction to the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Eventually, ongoing scientific research combined with public opinion and governmental regulation overwhelmed this industry effort, as DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides were phased out of commercial use. (John H. Cushman, "After ‘Silent Spring,' Chemical Industry Put Spin on All it Brewed," New York Times, March 26, 2001).

In our meetings with the staff of the American Chemistry Council and with leaders of its member companies, the Panel repeatedly heard admissions by these individuals that the response of the chemical industry to "Silent Spring" was a colossal blunder. Indeed, the "Responsible Care" program, we were told, was established, in part, to ensure that such a mistake would never happen again. 

Regrettably, it is now apparent to this former Panel member that, in the face of an even greater challenge, the Council is well-embarked upon a course which will repeat that past mistake.

Global Warming and "Responsible Care:" In my opinion, "Responsible Care" means nothing if it does not entail "careful stewardship" of the planetary life-support mechanisms, and "responsible concern" for the welfare of future generations.

"Responsible Care" toward the common atmosphere and future generations may well exact sacrifices in the immediate future and curtail private-sector prosperity in the short term. But the weight of scientific evidence combined with the long-term perspective of human and biotic history together lead to an inescapable moral conclusion: industrial civilization must act collectively and decisively to halt and reverse this global threat, brought about by human industrial activity. For in the long run, there can be no prosperity on a ruined planet.

De-regulation, "voluntary action," continuing use of "all available energy sources," and continuation of "business as usual" while we await the results of "further study" are inappropriate responses to the global emergency which is now upon us.

If the American Chemistry Council persists in its effort to persuade the public and the government of the United States to delay appropriate action in the face of global climate change, it may or may not succeed. What it can not change are the facts of atmospheric chemistry and physics which continue to strengthen the already overwhelming scientific case for global concern and global action.

In the face of these facts, the responsibility of the American Chemistry Council is clear, and contrary to its current course of action.

The late Nobel Laureate physicist, Richard Feynman, closed his dissent to the Challenger Commission with an observations which will serve well as a warning to the American Chemistry Council:
"For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations for nature cannot be fooled."

Copyright 2001, by Ernest Partridge


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .