Ann Carlson of the Legal Planet blog was initially impressed by the Japanese government’s openness about the unfolding nuke crisis. But today there were signs that the U.S. government thinks things are more serious than their Japanese counterparts have been saying, which makes her wonder what’s going on. From Why Do Governments Cover Up the Truth About Environmental Disasters?:
I’m reminded a bit of the Obama Administration’s efforts in the early days of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to seriously understate the rate of leakage of oil even in the face of independent and credible expert conclusions that the spill was far larger than either the government or BP wanted to admit. After investigating the response to the oil spill, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Drilling and Oil Spill blasted the administration for its lack of candor and explained in very clear terms that the consequences of lack of candor go far beyond a PR disaster. To quote the Commission’s staff:
The absence of trust fuels public fears, and those fears in turn can cause major harm, whether because the public loses confidence in the federal government’s assurances that beaches or seafood are safe, or because the government’s lack of credibility makes it harder to build relationships with state and local officials, as well as community leaders, that are necessary for effective response actions.
One could easily substitute a few words and make the same claims about the Japanese government’s handling of the nuclear crisis if the US version turns out to be the correct one.
So why do governments engage in obfuscation in the case of a major environmental crisis? Is it because they fear that the political fallout from a disaster is likely to increase with the size of the calamity and therefore wishful thinking leads them to underestimate the harm? I honestly don’t get it. Candor breeds trust, something badly needed during an emergency. And yet governments seem incapable of learning that lesson.
I think she’s right that wishful thinking is a factor. There’s also this: Politicians are in the business of fostering a particular set of public perceptions. “I’m the best candidate/vote for me.” “The steps our administration has taken have been instrumental in bringing about [good outcome X].” “[Bad outcome Y] had nothing to do with the actions of our administration.” And so on. A lot of those things may have only a tenuous relationship with the truth, yet politicians’ overriding imperative is to convince people that those things are, in fact, true. In a crisis, with solid information in short supply and public perceptions in an especially volatile state, the urge to spin reality in as favorable a direction as possible is surely overwhelming.
Except that with disasters, reality has a way of asserting itself despite the spin. And as Carlson points out, squandering credibility by engaging in politics-as-usual can lead to very real harm.