Despite the overwhelming evidence of deadly damage to humans and the planet by major oil companies, and despite the fact that fossil fuel extraction remains at the core of their business, major oil companies continue to pump false narratives about their so-called “climate-friendly” business models. While ExxonMobil and BP claim they are “developing climate solutions” and “enhancing the energy transition,” Shell pledges “net zero emissions by 2050” while Chevron claims it produces “always cleaner energy.” However, the rhetoric does not match the reality. This is Greenwash.
Despite being responsible for 10 percent of global emissions since 1965, a new peer-reviewed academic paper on the clean-energy claims of the four largest oil companies – the first and most comprehensive analysis of its kind – shows “the continued reliance of the business model on Fossil fuels coupled with meager and opaque spending on clean energy.” In essence, a truly green transition is not taking place with multinational corporations that run on fossil fuels.
In fact, while we must switch to 100 percent renewable energy, the 20 largest oil companies are expected to spend $1.5 trillion developing fossil fuel sources by 2041, according to Global Witness and Oil Change International. Why is there such a huge disparity between the direction the global economy should be headed, and what those who benefit most say they are doing to prevent the worst effects of climate chaos, and what they are actually doing?
Since the 1980s, scientists have led the response to the unfolding climate emergency. To counter this, an industrial complex has been developed to deny what is happening and thwart any meaningful work, financed by the world’s most profitable fossil fuel companies.
Their “greenwashing” tactics include: sponsoring cultural events and institutions to portray themselves in a positive, climate-friendly light; pay for science and its conclusions; corporate pressure; dissemination of misinformation by front organizations; and “savage marketing,” the term used to describe groups that falsify popular support. Greenwashing has evolved, both in terms of sophistication and sophistry.
The impact of greenwashing was made clear by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, when speaking during the launch of a landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) earlier this year: “Some government and business leaders are saying one thing, doing another. Simply put, they are lying. The results will be catastrophic. This is a climate emergency.”
Strong Narrative Challenge Once
However, resistance to green washing continues to expand and innovate. In May 2021, after pressure from environmental activists, Amsterdam became the first city to ban advertising in public places by oil companies and other big polluters. France followed suit in August 2022 with a nationwide ban on fossil fuel ads. this is important. Every year oil companies pour hundreds of millions of dollars into ads to buy a social license to continue their lethal business model. These bans keep oil company propaganda out of public places.
Cities are also challenging the corporate greenwash process in court. As indexed in a recent report by the London School of Economics, at least 25 cities and local governments in the United States are prosecuting major oil companies for making false claims in advertising, including New York’s lawsuit against ExxonMobil for “definitely misrepresenting the environmental benefits” of the fuel.
Besides cities, civil society is also suing big oil companies for making false promises. For example, ClientEarth – an organization that uses litigation to stop environmental damage – has joined a coalition of NGOs that takes TotalEnergies to court over its promises to become “net zero by 2050”. Overall, the LSE report shows that climate litigation is on the rise: Of the more than 2,000 cases ever filed, a quarter have been since 2020. From 2016 onward, litigation against Greenwash has been an increasing part of this story.
Disruptive advertising (which is a combination of “subversion” and “advertising”) offers another creative way to prevent oil companies from etching their messages into people’s minds through advertisements. In addition to being part of the growing movement against outdoor advertising, advertisers are also calling for green washing. In the run-up to the COP26 conference in Glasgow, for example, Brandalism collective has put out 200 posters across the UK calling Barclays’ support for fossil fuels as ‘banking on future extinction’.
Advertisements, lawsuits and ad bans have culminated before: against the big tobacco companies. Like Big Oil, the industry initially denied the scientifically proven risks associated with its products and business model.
One early group was BUGA-UP, (Billboard Utilizing Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions) in Australia from the late 1970s onwards against cigarette advertising. After several failed cases, Rose Cipollone’s family filed their first successful lawsuit, winning $400,000 in damages in 1992 for failing to warn people about the dangers of smoking before 1966.
Since then, more and more countries have followed in the footsteps of Iceland, which was the first country to ban outdoor advertising of cigarettes in 1971. In 2005, the World Health Organization required all of its member states to ban tobacco advertising, which suggests they have saved Millions of lives and saw a decrease in the number of smokers year after year. Just as we have reached a tipping point when the harmful nature of nicotine’s addiction can no longer be denied, the ability of oil companies to wash their harmful activities green faces a similar erosion in their legitimacy.
Just as protests and campaigns have been crucial in undermining the tobacco industry, they are calling for climate action and increasingly taking action against greenwashing. The first anti-greenwashing protests often targeted fossil fuel sponsorship of cultural events. Activists have prompted more than a decade of protests, and led them in the UK, to pressure cultural institutions such as the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to end their sponsorship of oil. However, many institutions continue to resist the protests, including the Louvre in Paris. One criticism of the French advertising ban is that it does not extend to banning major oil companies from sponsoring cultural or sporting events.
Climate science and the Greenwash effect is now undeniable
To be sure, these anti-care protests have pushed greenwashing higher up the climate agenda. And besides this there were other seismic shifts.
Previous models of climate change since the 1970s accurately predicted the climate crisis we now face. One of Big Oil’s major successes has been in exploiting the degrees of uncertainty, which all come with scientific predictions. Science is now undeniable. The scale of the crisis is clear. The scientific attribution of the high-carbon industries that caused the damage is more accurate than ever. Whistleblowers and investigative journalists are opening the lid on what companies know, compared to the counter-messages they have paid.
However, despite the prevailing scientific and even political consensus, as the continued greenwashing shows, oil companies still want to erode any popular consensus.
Against this backdrop, there are new fronts against Greenwash including the rally of scientists against the big oil companies that buy science. Two recent examples of this are the more than 400 British teachers who boycotted the British Museum because of its links to the Adani coal company, and the Fossil Free Research campaign, which focuses on getting oil money out of academic institutions, initially in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Whistleblowing and investigations into nefarious activities were a major factor in uncovering the greenwashing phenomenon. These leaks and insights lift the lid on the Greenwash industrial complex. One reported example is a 2021 leak describing how a major oil company pressured politicians to make international climate action toothless. Another is climate researchers Desmog, whose work includes mapping the pressure network and front groups, relevant to climate denial and Brexit, with close links to the UK government. And these are hardly isolated examples, something that the number of whistleblowers, from scientists to former fossil fuel workers to advertisers, has made clear in BBCA three-hour documentary Variety for 2022: Big Oil for the World.
There is a broader awareness of greenwashing tactics — and even more understanding of how it is an industrial complex of its own — yet Greenwash is also innovating. It may be unacceptable to promise a healthy green future against a backdrop of severe floods, fires and other disasters. But judging by the feeders’ playbook, that won’t stop them from trying, even if their industry is costing the earth.