Ice melting during warm up caused by the climate crisis. Photo, Ramona du Houx

Advertising and public relations campaigns for fossil fuels must stop or they’ll make the climate crisis worse, say over 450 scientists.

By Ramona du Houx

January 19, 2022

Over 450 scientists have signed a letter released this morning calling on public relations and advertising agencies to stop working with fossil fuel companies and spreading climate disinformation. This is the first time that so many scientists have come together to call out the role of PR and advertising in fueling the climate crisis. 

“As scientists who study, and seek to communicate, the realities of the climate emergency on both the planet and people, we are constantly faced with the challenge of overcoming advertising and PR efforts by fossil fuel companies that seek to obfuscate or downplay our data, and the risk of the climate emergency. In fact, these campaigns represent one of the biggest barriers to the government action science shows is necessary to mitigate the ongoing climate emergency, and avert total disaster,” the authors wrote. “A scientifically sound approach for PR and advertising agencies considering what clients to continue working with leads to only one conclusion: end all relationships with companies that plan to expand their production of oil and gas. Stop all work that weakens legislative efforts to reduce carbon pollution.” 

There has been increasing scrutiny of the role that advertising and PR firms play complicity helping oil and gas companies to sanitize their role in exacerbating the climate crisis with claims the companies offer tangible climate solutions.

A U.S. House panel questioned oil company CEOs in October of 2021, about their role in spreading climate change misinformation and subpoenaed them for documents related to money they spent on PR and marketing firms as well as social media firms.

The letter was organized by a group of leading scientists including Dr. Jason Box, Dr. Astrid Caldas, Dr. Peter Gleick, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Dr. Michael Mann, Dr. Kate Marvel and Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, in partnership with the Clean Creatives campaign and the Union of Concerned Scientists. 

“For decades, the fossil fuel industry has misled the public with greenwashing campaigns and sabotaged climate action, even as the climate crisis worsens,” said Dr. Astrid Caldas, Senior Climate Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s clear we need to sharply cut carbon pollution as soon as possible—by at least 50 percent this decade and reaching net-zero preferably well before but no later than 2050—to avoid the most dangerous climate change impacts. But the PR and advertising companies that abet the spread of climate disinformation are standing in the way. We’re calling on them to use their skills and resources to align with the science instead, and promote bold, ambitious, equitable climate action beginning with the Build Back Better Act.”

The letter comes at a time of mounting pressure on PR and advertising agencies to stop working with fossil fuel companies to spread climate disinformation. A first-of-its-kind, peer reviewed study published in the scientific journal Climatic Change this December identified hundreds of campaigns by PR, advertising and marketing firms designed to obstruct climate action. 

“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,” said climate scientist, Dr. 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.”

A number of PR and advertising agencies have defended their work with fossil fuel clients as helping those companies address the climate crisis, but the letter from the scientists was clear: any work with clients planning to expand fossil fuel production was counterproductive and could be seen as greenwashing. 

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

The scientists are releasing their letter just over a week after Edelman, the world’s largest PR company, announced that after an internal review of their clients they wouldn’t be dropping any fossil fuel contracts, but that future work would be guided by scientific principles.

“Edelman said that they will use the best available science to evaluate whether they will continue to work with fossil fuel clients,” said Duncan Meisel, Clean Creatives campaign director. “Well, here are 450 of the world’s best scientists telling firms like Edelman that work needs to cease immediately. Edelman wants to confuse the issue, but these climate experts are crystal clear: there are no excuses for continuing to greenwash fossil fuel companies.” 

Amongst the various new initiatives that Edelman announced was a pledge to, “finalise an independent council of external climate experts to offer input and guidance on strategy and on assignments and client situations of concern.” 

“For decades, fossil fuel companies have used greenwashing campaigns to hide from public accountability and attack climate scientists who speak the truth even though they have frequently spread misinformation. PR and advertising agencies that support greenwashing hold major responsibility for letting the climate crisis get this far. I hope this letter will serve as a wakeup call for them to preserve their credibility by ending their complicity,” said Dr. Gary Yohe, Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, at Wesleyan University, who has been involved as a senior author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and served as vice-Chair of the third US National Climate Assessment. 

Clean Creatives will be sending the scientist letter to other top PR and advertising agencies including Edelman, WPP, and IPG. They will also be sending it to some of the agencies’ largest sustainability oriented clients, companies like Unilever, Amazon, Microsoft, North Face and more. 

“Scientists have been sounding the climate alarm for decades, but they’ve been drowned out by billions of dollars of PR and Advertising from the fossil fuel industry,” said Jamie Henn, the director of Fossil Free Media, home of the Clean Creatives campaign. “Now, scientists are saying enough is enough. The pollution of our airwaves is inextricably tied to the pollution of our atmosphere. The only way to clean up both is to stop this propaganda at the source: the PR and ad agencies that continue to work on behalf of fossil fuels. It’s time for creatives to come clean.” 

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