Behind the Greenwash: Robert Noyes explains how advertising obscures the role of fossil fuel companies in climate change

Taken from a talk given by Robert Noyes, a researcher at climate and social justice collective Platform, and a coordinator of UK Divest – a nationwide campaign to end fossil fuel finance and build the movement for a fossil free world.

I’m sure all of you are concerned about climate change. I’m sure many of you are part of campaigns to tackle climate change. So I guess I want this talk to explain why adverts are so important to fossil fuel companies, and why this makes fossil fuel adverts such an urgent and politically important domain of struggle. 

But I don’t think we should focus much on actual fossil fuel adverts themselves. They’re bad, they’re boring, and they lie. To understand why we need to ban them now, we need to understand where this current tactic of climate delay comes from.

For decades, fossil fuel companies have delayed climate action. Myth-making is the key to their continued survival – ultimately their aim is to irreversibly link themselves to human progress. Starting here, we can better understand their current focus for achieving this aim – advertising. And understanding why it’s so important to them can explain why ending it is so important for the rest of us. 

Fundamentally, fossil fuel companies don’t want you to know what they do, what they’ve done, and what they plan to do. They tell stories about themselves, to themselves – and sell those stories to us. We can’t offset stories – so we have to stop them being told, and tell different ones. 

The common narrative of the climate crisis, as told by fossil fuel companies – is as follows: people in the west developed technologies that drove innovation, built the world, and improved everyone’s lives – by using fossil fuels. Then, tragically, we discovered the harm that burning fossil fuels was causing, but too late – emissions were locked in, and now we’re doing all we can to halt climate breakdown, and prevent more emissions. 

This is compelling. It’s no one’s fault. It just happened. And now we know it’s happening – we’re acting. 

But there is a small problem… it’s just not true. The overwhelming majority of emissions have taken place after we knew beyond doubt the damage fossil fuels cause. 

Image from a subvertising action in Zurich for the European Days of Action Against Fossil Fuel Advertising and Sponsorship October 2021

This is easy to show through graphs and figures, but instead of that, of all people, I’m going to use Taylor Swift to show you what I mean…

More than half of all the carbon emissions ever produced in the entire history of humanity have been produced in Taylor Swift’s lifetime. 

More than a quarter have been produced since she released her first album. 

For those of you less up-to-date on Taylor’s back catalogue and life story, her first album came out in 2006. She was born in 1989. 

It might surprise some of us, but when Taylor was born – climate change was high on the political agenda. George Bush Sr., soon to be president, says on the campaign trail that “he will tackle the Greenhouse effect with the Whitehouse effect“. NASA scientist Jim Hansen has just published his famous research. 5,000 people have just died of heat stroke in the hottest summer the US has ever seen

Big oil is in crisis. With climate change rising up the political agenda, oil companies are gathering in urgent huddles to work out what to do. By February of 1989, we know from litigation that climate change was at the very top of the agenda in oil company board rooms. 

Are they concerned about how they implement measures to stop climate change? No. Rather, they are worried about how a tidal wave in public opinion might impact their companies. In a meeting now in the public record, Duane LeVine, Exxon’s manager of Science and Strategy Development told the company’s board of directors in February 1989 that scientists generally agreed that burning fossil fuels could raise global temperatures significantly – with catastrophic consequences. 

But he adds a crucial line after this primer: “Arguments that we can’t tolerate delay and must act now can lead to irreversible and costly draconian steps…. A more rational response will require efforts to extend the science and increase emphasis on costs, and political realities”.

Exxon’s position at this time is a playbook honoured by fossil fuel companies around the world ever since, and is best summed up in another quote from 1989, this time in an internal memo from their Public Affairs Manager: “Exxon Position: emphasise the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced greenhouse effect”.

This approach – of manufacturing doubt about the climate crisis – was the central approach of the oil industry in maintaining itself over the last decades of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century. 

Now of course, there are different tactics employed by fossil fuel companies. Doubt about whether climate change is real is no longer palatable to the public. So now it’s a different doubt they seek to develop – the role of fossil fuel companies in tackling climate change. But the logic is still the same – above all else, fossil fuel companies must prevail. 

Image from a subvertising action in Reading for the European Days of Action Against Fossil Fuel Advertising and Sponsorship October 2021

Today, the tactic of oil companies is different – it’s what we’re talking about today – advertising. The tidal wave in popular opinion against fossil fuel companies has happened – tackling climate change is high on the political agenda again. In the UK public support for climate action is higher than it has ever been. 

So fossil fuel companies need to ally themselves with this cause – and they need to make a lot of noise about it. They make nonsense net zero commitments – Shell’s net zero commitments are based on more trees than there are in the whole offset market; talk of the urgent need to develop solutions; and crucially, make sure everyone knows just how committed to climate action they are. 

Over the past three decades, just five major oil companies have spent at least £2.5 Billion on ads specifically to rebrand themselves as part of the solution to the climate crisis. 

I’m not really very interested in showcasing any of these adverts. Or in unpicking why they are all utter nonsense. In 2020, fossil fuel companies spent just over 1% of their average annual capital expenditure on alternative energy. At a push, some might get to 4% soonNo ‘net zero’ plan is compliant with the Paris Agreement

What I am interested in doing, is talking about why they do this, and what we need to do to challenge it. 

Fossil Fuel companies exist to extract, produce and burn fossil fuels. The only other thing they’ve focused nearly as much on for the lifespan of their existence is myth-making. After all, it’s not just the hydrocarbons that a fossil fuel company is selling – it’s a culture – closely associated with American, Capitalist, culture – fast cars, freedom, open roads – even the smell of petrol is to be romanticised. The coupling of ‘progress’ and ‘fossil fuels’ is sacrosanct – a universal law. 

This drenching of our culture was not an accidental oil spill – it was by design. Some of you may know, for example, the wonderful Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.  What you may not know, however, is that at the height of his pre-eminence, in 1951, he was commissioned by a company called ‘Anglo-Iranian Oil’, to write a film script about the work the company did – and the benefits it gave to local people in Iran. 

He described what he found in letters to his wife: “I saw rows and rows of tiny little Persian children suffering from starvation, [and after that] I had lunch with a man from the company worth 30 million pounds, from the rents of peasants all over Iran and from a thousand crooked deals. A charming, cultivated man”. He never finished the script. But the company that hired him? You may know it better by its current name – BP. 

Even in 1950 – this industry was aware of the need to use the arts, to use cultural propaganda – and what is advertising but cultural propaganda – to launder their image. 

No one would allow them to do what they were doing if they didn’t. And honestly – what’s changed? Now they use glossy adverts. Why? To keep on doing what they do – making money. And to convince people of their vital role in the past, present and future. Sustainable? Sure why not. 

And it works. At UK Divest, we run campaigns aimed at changing local council investments. 

The most common objection by far comes from the incorrect belief that fossil fuel companies are changing, and/ or that they must play a significant role in building the new world. We must invest in them to help them change. This is just not true.

Were Blockbuster key partners in the drive to steaming services? Can your dog help you learn how to speak French? 

Until we release ourselves from the boundaries of imagination imposed upon us by these companies, we will continue to be constrained in the fight to curb global heating. 

Image from a subvertising action in Canterbury for the European Days of Action Against Fossil Fuel Advertising and Sponsorship October 2021

Ending fossil fuel adverts helps us delink fossil fuel companies and their role in tackling climate change – ultimately – this is what is needed.

Our children, and our children’s children – need never hear the names Shell, BP, Exxon. By campaigning to end fossil fuel adverts, you can help achieve this. After all, it should  not be our ambition to save the world, but to end this world – and build a new one. 

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