The reality of the climate crisis is undeniable – and so is the fact that this crisis is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Fossil fuel companies themselves have known this for decades, and knew that the action needed to prevent global climate catastrophe posed an existential risk to their business models. That’s why, rather than make the risks of burning fossil fuels public, they buried the evidence and actively spread disinformation to hide the reality of climate change from the world.

However, the game is now up. The science has been proven beyond a doubt, and the general public overwhelmingly recognise the need for rapid climate action – including by keeping fossil fuels in the ground. So have fossil fuel companies recognised that they had a good run, and begun ramping down their operations? Not exactly…

Social license

Companies need to change with the times. As public attitudes shift, companies need to adjust their public image accordingly or risk alienating their consumers. This is sometimes referred to as losing their social license to operate. If the public decide that an industry is too outdated, or is doing more harm than good, they may stop purchasing their products altogether, or support government regulation to close them down.
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As consumers have grown more socially conscious, companies have bent over backwards to portray themselves as progressive changemakers who care about their ‘values’ rather than just making money. For an example, by adorning their logos in rainbow colours during Pride Month, or posting a black square on their Instagram to show their support for Black Lives Matter.

Fossil fuel companies are well aware of this trend, and that the public expect companies to care about environmental sustainability. But when your entire business model is predicated on releasing climate-wrecking CO2 into the atmosphere, being environmentally sustainable is easier said than done. Instead, many of these companies have resorted to one of their old tactics: disinformation.

Wolves in sheep’s clothing

Rather than actually becoming environmentally friendly, these companies simply make it look as if they are. Through selective advertising, slick PR, and sometimes outright lying, the same companies which brought us to the brink of climate disaster are selling themselves as part of the solution to the climate crisis. This practice is known as greenwashing.

Fossil fuel companies market fossil gas as ‘natural gas’, and make it out to be the clean, green fuel of the future. For example one major gas company, Equinor, put up an advert just down the street from the Houses of Parliament in London, UK, claiming that “We’re the low carbon energy just over the horizon.” That is, until we successfully forced them to backtrack on their claims.
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Oil and gas firms highlight their projects developing renewable energy sources in their advertising, without mentioning the fact that these projects make up only a tiny fraction of their overall budgets – most of which is being ploughed into expanding fossil fuel production.

Banks which have been found to be funnelling billions of dollars to companies which are complicit in destroying the Amazon rainforest announce new ‘environmental sustainability’ policies, or make voluntary commitments to remove deforestation from their books by some far-off date in the future. All the while, they continue to rake in huge profits from their destructive investments, knowing that they can’t be held accountable for failing to live up to their self-professed standards.

Victim blaming

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Climate-wrecking companies have also sought to deflect attention away from themselves by instead blaming consumers for not doing enough to tackle the climate crisis. For years, discourse surrounding climate change has focused on calculating people’s individual ‘carbon footprints’, and making small lifestyle changes such as switching to energy-saving light bulbs.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with individuals making environmentally friendly choices. However, when just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s hardly the most important conversation to be having.

Cleaning up the greenwash

Greenwashing matters. By peddling false or meaningless climate solutions, companies distract our politicians from taking the action which is actually needed. By portraying themselves to be something they’re not, they dodge accountability for the mess they have caused – and allow themselves to keep influencing important decisions on climate policy.

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To get the urgent climate action we need, we need to make it harder for climate-wrecking corporations to lie.
  • Politicians must ensure companies are held accountable for the harms they cause, identify greenwashing and get it removed.
  • Media, big tech, and social media must stop the spread of climate disinformation, ensuring that only accurate, fact-based information reaches us.
  • All advertising and PR agencies must stand up to climate-wrecking companies, by refusing to work with them or peddle their lies.
  • Journalists and NGOs like us must expose the lies and climate disinformation, and you can help us by calling it out wherever you see it.
Climate action