advertisement
advertisement

Climate scientists demand PR firms stop helping fossil fuel companies cover up their impact

‘As scientists who study and communicate the realities of climate change, we are consistently faced with a major and needless challenge: overcoming advertising and PR efforts by fossil fuel companies.’

Climate scientists demand PR firms stop helping fossil fuel companies cover up their impact
[Photos: Hal Bergman/Getty Images, DNY59/Getty Images, Spooh/Getty Images]

The billions of dollars that fossil fuel companies have poured into advertising and PR campaigns over the past few decades have helped play a major role in slowing down climate action, convincing the public that their actions and product weren’t as harmful as the companies knew them to be. Now, hundreds of climate scientists are asking ad and PR agencies to drop polluters as clients.

advertisement
advertisement

“As scientists who study and communicate the realities of climate change, we are consistently faced with a major and needless challenge: overcoming advertising and PR efforts by fossil fuel companies that seek to obfuscate or downplay our data and the risks posed by the climate crisis,” the authors write in a new open letter to PR companies. “In fact, these misinformation campaigns represent one of the biggest barriers to the government action science shows is necessary to mitigate the ongoing climate emergency.”

The letter is part of a bigger campaign, called Clean Creatives, that’s pushing creative agencies to move away from fossil fuels. Launched just over a year ago by the nonprofit Fossil Free Media, the campaign has already convinced more than 200 PR and advertising agencies to pledge to stop representing fossil clients. Around 700 people working at creative agencies—from copywriters to video producers to account executives—have also signed. “That number’s equally important in many ways, because those are folks who are now organizing within their agencies to get them to take the pledge and move in this direction,” says Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media.

Edelman, one of the largest public relations firms in the world, recently told employees that it would “put science and facts first” when working with clients. In an internal review, the company looked closely at 20 “emissions-intensive” clients, though it hasn’t said that it would drop those clients. (Edelman declined to comment.)

advertisement
advertisement

A recent study detailed some of the ways that PR firms have helped slow down support for climate policy. The PR agency Ogilvy, for example, created a campaign for BP in the year 2000 that popularized the idea of individual “carbon footprints,” offering an online calculator that people could use. The approach “sought to divert attention from the fossil fuel industry by reframing climate change as an issue of individual responsibility,” the study authors wrote. Among other campaigns, PR agencies also helped promote the term clean coal, and branded natural gas as “clean burning,” though gas is a major source of emissions.

Campaigns have also targeted scientists. “I have been at the receiving end of attacks for decades funded by fossil fuel interests and facilitated by fossil-fuel-funded PR firms like Edelman,” says Michael Mann, a climatologist at Pennsylvania State University, who has written several books, including 2021’s The New Climate War, which examines the decades-long campaigns waged by fossil fuel companies.

“I have been publicly vilified, experienced death threats, faced demands that I be fired from my job,” Mann says, noting that those actions are the result of “PR firm-orchestrated character attacks.” He adds, “Until these PR firms refuse to work for fossil fuel companies, they are part of the problem, no matter what greenwash campaigns they may engage in.”

advertisement

The campaign approaches have changed over time, Henn says, in the same way that the tobacco industry’s messaging changed. “The fossil fuel industry has moved from outright denial to predatory delay,” he says. “So the whole strategy is to convince the public, and by extension their representatives, that the fossil fuel industry is already working to solve the climate crisis, and that fossil fuels can be part of the solution. They want to delay the adoption of renewables by just another year or two so that they can continue to profit off of oil and gas.”

advertisement
advertisement
advertisement

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley

More