Resistance to greenwashing grows in the struggle for a liveable planet

Resistance to greenwashing grows in the struggle for a liveable planet

A poster put up by environmental activists from Fridays for Future in front of Deutsche Bank’s headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany, reads: ‘Deutsche Bank - Greenwashing kills, get out of coal, oil and gas!’

(DPA via AFP/Boris Roessler)

Despite irrefutable proof of the mortal damage caused to people and planet by Big Oil, and despite the fact that the extraction of fossil fuels remains their core business, major oil companies continue to pump false narratives about their supposedly ‘climate-friendly’ business models. While ExxonMobil and BP claim to be “Advancing climate solutions” and “Advancing the energy transition”, Shell is pledging “Net zero emissions by 2050” while Chevron claims to be producing “Ever-cleaner energy”. However, the rhetoric does not match the reality. This is greenwash.

Despite being responsible for 10 per cent of global emissions since 1965, a new peer-reviewed academic paper on the clean-energy claims of the four biggest oil companies – the first and most comprehensive analysis of its kind – shows “a continuing business model dependence on fossil fuels along with insignificant and opaque spending on clean energy”. In essence, no green transition is actually taking place with fossil fuel multinationals.

In fact, at a time where we should be transitioning to 100 per cent renewable energy, the 20 largest oil majors are projected to spend US$1.5 trillion developing fossil fuel sources by 2041, according to Global Witness and Oil Change International. Why is there such a monumental mismatch between where the world economy should be going, what those who profit most from it say they are doing to prevent the worst impacts of climate chaos, and what they are actually doing?

Since the 1980s, scientists have driven the response to the unfolding climate emergency. Countering this, an industrial complex has developed to deny what is happening and stymie meaningful action, funded 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; paying for science and its conclusions; corporate lobbying; spreading misinformation via front organisations; and ‘astroturfing’, the term used to describe groups that fake grassroots support. Greenwashing has developed, both in sophistication and sophistry.

The impact of greenwashing was made clear by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, when he spoke at 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, but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic. This is a climate emergency.”

Challenging once all-powerful narratives

However, resistance to greenwashing continues to broaden and innovate. In May 2021, following pressure from environmental activists, Amsterdam became the first city to ban advertising in public spaces by oil companies and other big polluters. France followed in August 2022 by prohibiting fossil fuel advertising nationwide. This is significant. Every year oil companies pour hundreds of millions of dollars into adverts to buy a social licence to continue with their deadly business model. These bans effectively keep oil company propaganda out of public spaces.

Cities are also challenging corporate greenwash in court. As catalogued in a recent London School of Economics report, at least 25 cities and local governments in the United States are taking oil majors to court for making false claims in advertising, including New York suing ExxonMobil for “affirmatively misrepresenting the environmental benefits” of their fuels.

Alongside cities, civil society is also suing Big Oil for making false promises. For instance, ClientEarth – an organisation that uses litigation to stop environmental harm – has joined a coalition of NGOs taking TotalEnergies to court for their promises to become “net zero by 2050”. Overall, the LSE report shows that climate litigation is on the rise: of over 2,000 cases ever filed, one-quarter are since 2020. From 2016 onwards, anti-greenwash litigation has been an ever-growing part of this story.

Subvertising (a portmanteau of ‘subversion’ and ‘advertising’) offers another, creative means to stop oil companies drilling their messages into peoples’ minds via advertising. As well as forming part of the growing movement against outdoor advertising, subvertisers are also calling out greenwashing. During the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow, for example, subvertising collective Brandalism put up 200 posters across the UK calling out Barclays Bank’s support for fossil fuels as “Banking on our future extinction”.

Subvertising, lawsuits and advertising bans have culminated before: against Big Tobacco. Like Big Oil, this industry initially denied the scientifically proven dangers associated with its products and business model.

One early group was BUGA-UP, (Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions) subvertising in Australia from the late 1970s onwards against cigarette advertising. After many failed cases, the first successful court case was brought by the family of Rose Cipollone, who were awarded US$400,000 in damages in 1992 for failing to warn people of the dangers of smoking prior to 1966.

Since then, more and more countries have followed in the footsteps of Iceland, which was the first country to ban outdoor advertising for cigarettes in 1971. In 2005, the World Health Organization required all its member countries to ban tobacco advertising, which it suggests has saved millions of lives and have seen the number of smokers drop, year on year. Just as we have reached a tipping point when the highly addictive, harmful nature of nicotine can no longer be denied, the ability of oil companies to greenwash their damaging activities faces a similar erosion of its legitimacy.

Just as protests and campaigns were crucial in undermining the tobacco industry, so they are in demanding climate action and increasingly, action against greenwashing. The earliest anti-greenwashing protests often targeted fossil fuel sponsorship of cultural events. Pushed by over a decade of protests, and spearheaded in the UK, activists have pressured cultural institutions such as the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company and Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum to ending their oil sponsorship. However, many institutions continue to resist protests, including Paris’s Louvre. One criticism of the French advertising ban is it does not extend to stopping oil majors sponsoring cultural or sporting events.

Climate science and greenwash’s impact are now undeniable

These anti-sponsorship protests have certainly pushed greenwashing further up the climate agenda. Alongside this there have been other seismic shifts.

Past models of climate change since the 1970s have accurately predicted the climate crisis we now face. One key success of Big Oil greenwashing was to exploit the degrees of uncertainty, which comes with all scientific predictions. The science is now undeniable. The scale of the crisis is obvious. The science attributing which high-carbon industries caused what damage is ever-more precise. Whistle-blowers and investigative journalists are blowing the lid on what the companies knew, compared to the counter-messages they pushed.

Yet despite the scientific and even mainstream 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 scientists combining against oil majors buying science. Two recent examples of this are over 400 British teachers boycotting the British Museum over its links to coal company Adani, and the Fossil Free Research campaign, which focuses on getting oil money out of academic institutions, initially in the US and UK.

Whistleblowing and investigations of nefarious activity has been key to revealing greenwashing. These leaks and insights are lifting the lid of the greenwash industrial complex. One reported example is a 2021 leak describing how an oil major lobbied politicians to make international climate action toothless. Another is from climate researchers DeSmog, whose work includes mapping a lobbying network and front groups, related to climate denial and Brexit, with close connections to the UK government. And these are hardly isolated examples, something made clear by the number of whistle-blowers, from scientists to former fossil fuel workers to advertisers, in the BBC’s three-hour, seminal 2022 documentary: Big Oil vs the World.

There is broader awareness of greenwashing tactics – even more understanding of how it is its own industrial complex – however greenwash is also innovating. It might be untenable to promise a green healthy future against a backdrop of floods, fires and other man-intensified disasters. But judging by the playbook of the greenwashers, this will not stop them trying, even if their industry costs the Earth.