It’s well-known that the fossil fuel industry and other major polluters have used misleading advertising to sway public opinion on climate issues. But a new peer-reviewed analysis brings the influence of those efforts into sharp relief, showing they’ve had an enduring impact on environmental politics.
The study from Brown University scholars provides the most comprehensive picture to date of the public relations firms behind those ads and argues they are partially culpable for the lack of sufficient climate action in the United States.
The report, published in the scientific journal Climatic Change on Tuesday, examines the influence of PR agencies on climate politics over the past three decades. The authors identified hundreds of campaigns that agencies orchestrated for polluting industries, including oil and gas, utilities, coal, and steel.
The authors found that a small number of big-name PR firms handled most of the campaigns they identified and that the firms used a slew of tactics to promote climate delay, including advertising, social media, and the creation of faux-grass-roots “front groups.” All told, polluting companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars on such efforts, the authors said.
The analysis found that PR has had a major impact on domestic climate discourse. The term “carbon footprint,” for instance, was first popularized by the Beyond Petroleum campaign that Ogilvy, a leading PR agency, conducted for the energy giant BP in 2000. Ogilvy swapped out BP’s 70-year-old, shield-style logo for a new green and yellow sunburst and rebranded the firm as environmentally conscious. The effort included an online “carbon footprint calculator” that told users about the environmental toll of personal eating, traveling, and spending habits, encouraging individuals to make changes. Hundreds of thousands of people used the calculator, and the term soon reached ubiquity.
The carbon footprint concept “sought to divert attention from the fossil fuel industry by reframing climate change as an issue of individual responsibility,” the authors write. As Oglivy and BP were urging customers to make better choices, it was skirting the fact that BP was steadily increasing its investments in planet-warming oil and gas. A 2017 study found that just 100 companies — including BP — are responsible for 71 percent of emissions since 1988, but the “carbon footprint” framework subtly diverts attention away from how fossil fuel producers drive planetary warming.
“The [PR agencies] shape the very nature of the issue, and as such they shape the nature of the cultural and political debate,” said Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist at Brown and coauthor of the paper.
The study also traced popularization of the term “clean coal” to a campaign launched on behalf of a fossil fuel leader. Proof Communications (a subsidiary of the PR giant Burson Cohn & Wolfe) in 2014 launched the Advanced Energy for Life campaign for Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company. It focused on building opposition to the Clean Power Plan — an Obama-era policy that set the first-ever national limits on carbon pollution from power plants — and used the term “clean coal” to suggest that coal’s environmental impact could be scrubbed by filtering out particulates or using unproven carbon capture and sequestration technology.
The ads didn’t mention that no technology can reduce planet-warming carbon dioxide from being emitted when coal burns. In 2014, the U.K. Advertising Standards Authority asked Peabody to withdraw some advertisements after the environmental group World Wildlife Fund filed a lawsuit claiming the term “clean coal” was “misleading.” Yet the phrase is still used.
Another PR push — the “Energy from Shale” campaign from the firm FleishmanHillard — used similar tactics to influence perceptions of gas. The American Petroleum Institute spent over $28 million between 2011 and 2016 on FleishmanHillard ads that promoted natural gas as “clean burning.” The ads failed to note that while natural gas emits less carbon per unit of energy than coal or oil, it is still a leading contributor to global warming.
Melissa Aronczyk, a media studies scholar at Rutgers University and coauthor of a forthcoming book on PR and climate action obstruction, who didn’t work on the study, said that advertisers’ focus on obstructing climate policy without denying the existence of human-caused climate change makes them particularly insidious.
“What PR firms are able to do so well is continue to obstruct climate action by claiming that companies are doing all these things to try to address climate change as a social and political problem.” Today, she sees companies using the same tactics to promote questionable solutions like the use of algae-based biofuels and plastic recycling instead of transforming their business models.
Brulle said that despite its clear influence, PR’s role in delaying climate action has been largely overlooked. Much more focus has been put on the think tanks that promote doubt in climate science, like the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute. Yet his research shows that while polluting companies and lobbying groups spend some $36 million annually to fund those organizations’ efforts, that number pales in comparison to the stunning $500 million to $700 million per year they spend on advertising.
“We’re looking at the 5 percent of money being spent on outright climate science denial, and we’re missing the other 95 percent of the political and cultural manipulation that goes on,” he said.
Scrutiny of PR is increasing. Last year, the advocacy group Fossil Free Media launched the Clean Creatives project to push for PR and advertising industries to cut ties with fossil fuel companies. Yet major PR agencies are still resisting public pressure to break off these relationships. Earlier this month, Edelman — the world’s largest PR firm and the firm most frequently contracted by the US oil and gas sector — announced a new plan to “put science and facts first” when it comes to climate change, yet refused to halt its contracts with oil companies.
Earlier this month, oil executives testified before Congress about their obstruction of climate policy, and in recent years, states and cities — including Massachusetts — have sued energy giants over alleged greenwashing. Kert Davies, the founder of the Climate Investigations Center, who studies climate-related disinformation, said to hold PR firms accountable for their role in climate delay, they should be drawn into such hearings and lawsuits.
“The PR industry has been a silent accomplice in the long campaign by oil and gas companies, electric utilities, and other fossil fuel interests to control the court of public opinion around climate change,” he said.