Agency Business

Why the IPCC shone a spotlight on ad agencies still working with fossil fuel clients

By Duncan Meisel | Duncan Meisel

April 7, 2022 | 6 min read

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists see a vital role for advertisers in creating positive change for the planet. But all of that good work will be undone if the fossil fuel industry, aided by PR and advertising, continues to grow the amount it pollutes, says Clean Creatives director Duncan Meisel.

This week, a group of thousands of scientists from 195 countries released the final chapter of the sixth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The IPCC is the world’s most authoritative study on the science of climate change, and the final chapter is focused on mitigation: the steps we need to take to reduce pollution from fossil fuels, stop the climate emergency from growing and begin making a sustainable future for all.

Fossil fuels

‘Fossil fuel polluters are killing the planet, and it is our responsibility to stop them,’ says Duncan Meisel/Image via Unsplash

Fossil fuel combustion makes up fully 90% of global carbon pollution. The IPCC did not mince words about the speed at which we need to act to eliminate that pollution – or on the role of the advertising industry in blocking progress towards that goal.

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UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres summed it up in his speech introducing the report’s findings: “Some government and business leaders are saying one thing but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic.” In the text of the report, the IPCC authors clearly lay responsibility for these lies at the feet of the advertising and PR industry.

The IPCC scientists make two arguments about the impact of advertising. The first is simply that the advertising and media strategies of the fossil fuel industry have become central obstacles to climate action by sowing doubt in the minds of the public and policy-makers: “A good number of corporate agents have attempted to derail climate change mitigation by targeted lobbying and doubt-inducing media strategies. A number of corporations that are involved in the supply chain of both upstream and downstream of fossil fuel companies make up the majority of organizations opposed to climate action.”

The second case is that advertising and PR are used as tools by major polluters to avoid taking the steps needed to stop the emergency. Working with major PR and ad agencies, they shift blame on to individuals, and greenwash their way out of real action by governments: “Corporate advertisement and brand-building strategies also attempt to deflect corporate responsibility to individuals, and/or to appropriate climate care sentiments in their own brand building; climate change mitigation is uniquely framed through choice of products and consumption, avoiding the notion of the political collective action sphere.”

Any casual news consumer can recognize both of these strategies in the fossil fuel ads that flood their screens and feeds on a daily basis.

Industry associations such as the American Petroleum Institute (API) or United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG) make dire warnings about the impact of essential climate policy. Corporate advertisers such as Exxon, Shell and BP give you tools to measure your own carbon footprint and pump up alternative fuels that never actually make it to market. Agencies such as Edelman, BBDO, Ogilvy and nearly 90 others worldwide (that we know of) still represent these clients, and put their leading creative minds behind the work of misleading the public about the climate emergency.

The good news is that IPCC scientists also see a vital role for advertisers in creating positive change for the planet. A key section of the report is dedicated to the impact of narrative and culture in creating capacity for change, and pushing individuals towards tipping points in behavior that will trigger deep transformations in our energy system.

But all of that good work will be undone if the fossil fuel industry, aided by PR and advertising, continues to grow the amount it pollutes. The UN secretary-general was clear and direct on this issue: “Increasing fossil fuel production will only make matters worse. Choices made by countries now will make or break the commitment to 1.5 degrees ... It is time to stop burning our planet and start investing in the abundant renewable energy all around us.”

That choice is now before the advertising and PR industry as well. The IPCC report consists of over 3000 pages of documentation and sourcing. But the takeaway for advertisers can be summed up quite simply: fossil fuel polluters are killing the planet, and it is our responsibility to stop them – not assist with the crime.

Duncan Meisel is director of Clean Creatives.

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