How we took big coal by surprise

That coal causes childhood asthma isn't funny.

Because attacks on fossil-fuel industries tends to be about climate change, a large environmental organization jumped at the chance to make waves over something else: an American Lung Association study showing a link between coal plants and childhood asthma, i.e. that children who live close to coal plants are more likely to have asthma.

The organization asked the Yes Men to come up with an action around this, and we got to work.

Soon enough, during (the real) National Asthma Awareness Month, the fossil fuel industry launched one of its more bizarre public health initiatives to date: Coal Cares™ (archived version:

The campaign, which promised to “make asthma cool” with decorative and pop-culture inspired inhalers (“The Bieber,” “Harry Potter,” “My Little Pony,” and “My First Inhaler”), was purportedly a cheeky initiative from Peabody Energy, America’s largest coal company. The slick website also announced that Peabody would offer $10 coupons towards asthma medication to families living within 200 miles of a coal-fired plant, featured a “Kidz Koal Korner” with asthma-related games for tots, an extensive asthma trivia section and FAQ (Peter the Great was asthmatic, who knew!), and a passionate condemnation of solar and wind alternatives.

The project, which unleashed threats of lawsuits and hysterical recriminations from Peabody Coal, pretended to be a collaboration between a group called "Coal is Killing Kids" (an impromptu name) and the Yes Lab. The Coal Cares campaign quickly became a major phenomenon on social media, with hundreds signing up to follow Coal Cares cheeky missives on Twitter, and tens of thousands sharing the campaign on Facebook.

More importantly it put Big Coal on the defensive at a time when they were spending millions of dollars on lobby and phony "greenwashing" campaigns to oppose important Federal updates to clean air laws. The fact that the coal industry is one of the biggest known contributors to childhood asthma in the United States got the front page attention it deserved -- it also highlighted a similar atrocious effort by Big Coal to subvert the education system by teaming up with Scholastic publishers to publish a pro-coal propaganda text book for fourth graders. A week after Coal Cares made a splash, Scholastic dumped the faux text book after widespread publicity and outrage.

After an interesting exchange with Peabody's lawyers, we broadened the range of the campaign.