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Over 450 climate scientists say advertising industry must end ‘complicity’ in climate crisis
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Over 450 climate scientists say advertising industry must end ‘complicity’ in climate crisis

Over 450 climate scientists say advertising industry must end ‘complicity’ in climate crisis


Image Credit: Melissa Joskow/Media Matters

A group of over 450 scientists called for advertising agencies to stop selling fossil fuels to them and to end their ties to a misinformation campaign that has repeatedly stalled progress in addressing the climate crisis. 

In a joint Letter, the scientists say that they are “consistently faced with a major and needless challenge” of having to correct false information and rebut the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to downplay the severity of climate change. The expensive and glossy ad campaigns “represent one of the biggest barriers to the government action science shows is necessary to mitigate the ongoing climate emergency,” the letter stated.

The letter was sent out to WPP and Edelman advertising companies, as well some of their customers, including Unilever, Amazon, and Microsoft. All three have made various climate and sustainability promises.

“The science could not be more clear: We must eliminate carbon pollution as soon as possible — nearly 50% this decade, and fully by 2050. That requires an immediate and rapid transition away from all fossil fuels,” the scientists wrote. “To put it simply, advertising and public relations campaigns for fossil fuels must stop.”

Co-ordinated with Clean Creatives (a climate campaign designed to pressure the advertising sector and the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists), the letter was organized by leading scientists such as Jason Box, AstridCaldas, Peter Gleick and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. The letter was also signed by Katharine Wilkinson and Michael Mann. 

These scientists are intimately acquainted with the rapidly changing climate and its impacts on the planet. They study the oceans, global temperature changes, climate solutions, adaptation, and human impact on global warming. This letter shows that they are fed up.

“I’m glad to see scientists and activists pressuring firms like Edelman, as this elevates a critical issue across the PR and ad industry,” Christine Arena, a former VP at Edelman, who has sought to expose the greenwashing done by the PR industry on behalf of its fossil fuel clients, said in a statement to DeSmog, commenting on the impact of the scientists’ letter.

She said that it’s not about who PR firms represent but how they do it. “While some agencies have come forward with new climate statements and principles, none have acknowledged the peer-reviewed research regarding their role. None have admitted to any wrongdoing or answered the question: What are they doing to contain climate disinformation and greenwash today?” Arena said.

The fossil fuel industry’s spin has long eschewed outright climate science denial and instead shifted to a multi-pronged strategy to delay a reckoning on climate change—and PR firms have played an instrumental role in this effort. 

As researchers at Brown University’s Climate and Development Lab have NotedThe advertising industry has assisted fossil fuel companies in deceiving climate science, promoting misleading solutions, creating astroturf campaigns to confuse and distract the public, as well as attacking environmental groups. PR firms often use their clients as a way to excuse themselves from being complicit in the derailment of climate action. 

Public relations firms have a long history working for fossil fuel interests. In fact, some of the most influential PR professionals started their careers with this industry. Clients who are oil and coalIn the early 20th century. Even more recently, PR firms have assisted in the creation of front groups and organizations for astroturf purposes for Big Oil.

One notable example was Edelman’s creation of Energy Citizens, an astroturf organization purporting to be a “nationwide alliance of organizations and individuals formed to bring together people across America to remind Congress that energy is the backbone of our nation’s economy and our way of life.” 

Paid for by American Petroleum Institute (API) — the nation’s largest oil and gas lobby group — Edelman helped organize 20 rallies in 2009 supposedly led by Energy CitizensTo pressure Congress to reject the landmark cap-and trade legislation currently under consideration. Although these rallies were intended as grassroots opposition, some of the participants were employees of oil companies. During their lunch breaks, they can bring it in

Energy Citizens “rally” in Houston, TX. August 18, 2009. Credit: Energy Citizens. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

API was sold to DDC in PR three years later. UsedEnergy Citizens was established to recruit people to testify at hearings by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in support of fracking. DDC also arranged meetings with Energy Citizens and members Congress to boost support for fracking.

In addition, DDC ran a sister outfit called Energy Nation, which was supposedly “made up of hundreds of thousands of Americans, who are determined to see our nation develop balanced energy policies that support American jobs, economic growth and national security.” Another effort at misleading the public into thinking it was a grassroots effort, the API-funded Energy Nation campaigned against taxes on the natural gas industry, which was flourishing under the fracking boom. 

DeSmog did not reach out to Edelman or DDC. 

With the climate crisis worsening and the impacts increasingly apparent, much of the work by PR firms in recent years has focused on promoting false solutions to climate change’s causes and positioning the fossil fuel industry as a good-faith partner in building a cleaner future.  

One prominent example is ExxonMobil’s promotion of biofuels over the past decade, with its algae-based biofuels program playing an outsized role in its advertising. 

In 2019 New York PR firm BBDO helped ExxonMobil spread this message in its “Miniature Science” ad campaign. Set against upbeat music, a narrator explainsThe virtues of algae-based biofuels with miniature petri dishes, containers of algae liquids, and other small devices. “Algae might just be the future of biofuels,” the ad says. Another ad features miniature power stations. Promote “cleaner electricity” from natural gas, whose methane emissions are a major driver of rising global temperatures.

Brown University researchers point out that BBDO stated the campaign was aimed towards Gen Z, a younger audience who is design-conscious and prefers visual learning. The campaign was seen hundreds of thousands of time on Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook. 

These ads send the message that Exxon is addressing climate change, but in reality, algae-based biofuels are not commercially viable and won’t be for the foreseeable future. Exxon claims that it has spent only $300million on its research into algae biofuels in 2009, according to Exxon. Wall Street JournalThe company made a rounding error of. It spent $500,000,000 on advertising between 2009 – 2015.

BBDO did not respond to a list of questions about its role in creating Exxon’s greenwashing campaign. 

PR firms also helped coin nonsensical terms like “clean coal,” which became a coal industry talking point that caught on as conventional wisdom for a period of time and was even ParodiedBy U.S. presidents.

An example of a recent example: Utilities currently Promoting “renewable natural gas,” which is methane gas that comes from decomposition at landfills and cattle farms, rather than drilled from shale formations. However, it is costly and difficult to implement on a large scale, according to studies by the gas industry. 

Activists believe there is little reason for people to believe renewable natural gas is not a conspiracy to promote a false solution. The goal is to continue support for natural gas infrastructure and natural gas for cooking and heating. Moving forwardTowards electrification of commercial and residential buildings.

PR firms hold ‘major responsibility’ for climate crisis

As DeSmog has. reportedA peer-reviewed study, published late last Year, examined the role played by the PR industry in promoting climate delay and denial over three decades. 

Brown University found that a small group of top ad agencies was as creative as climate misinformation creators. 

“This study adds a new cast of characters to our understanding of the key actors in climate change politics,” Robert J. Brulle and Carter Werthman of Brown University wrote in their study. “Along with ExxonMobil, Koch Enterprises, Greenpeace, the Heartland Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, we need to add in PR firms such as Edelman, Glover Park, Cerrell, and Ogilvy.”

PR and advertising firms make a lot of money from this work. Climate Investigations Center conducted a 2019 study and found that lobbyists associated with the fossil-fuel industry spent an estimated $1.5 billion. $1.4 billionAdvertising and Public Relations between 2008-2017

The American Petroleum InstituteThe accounting for almost half of this total was done by the U.S. Chamber of CommerceThe second-ranked PR firm was FleishmanHillard. FleishmanHillard, FleishmanHillard and Edelman were the PR firms that received this spending. 

“We climate scientists have been trying to raise the climate crisis alarm for decades, but we’ve been drowned out by these fossil fuel industry-funded PR campaigns,” climate scientist Michael Mann. “Greenwashing is a primary tactic in what I call the ‘New War’ on climate action and it must be called out for what it is — denial under another name.”

Edelman responded to the allegations in January. Public criticismafter a two month internal review. The PR giant did not sever ties with its clients, simply promising to “part company” with companies in the future if they do not make progress on climate change.

Adweek ran a telling headline: “After a 60-Day Review of Its Roster, Edelman Is Sticking With Polluters—For Now.”

The more than 450 climate scientists urged the PR industry to stop obstructing climate action in a letter. 

“PR and advertising agencies that support greenwashing hold major responsibility for letting the climate crisis get this far,” Gary Yohe, Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, at Wesleyan University, said in a statement. “I hope this letter will serve as a wakeup call for them to preserve their credibility by ending their complicity.”


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