Earth & Environment
January 13, 2024: Climate Misinformation and Disinformation - Greenwashing in the 2020s
Posted on January 24, 2024 at 12:00 AM
by Jean Stewart, Chair, Earth & Environment Task Force
In 2010, historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway authored a book, entitled Merchants of Doubt. This book shows how some scientists and PR specialists, with corporate political and financial backing, have run effective campaigns to sow doubt about well-established scientific knowledge on the harms of tobacco, DDT, chemicals on fabrics, and global warming, warping public knowledge concerning some of the most important issues of our day. In 2014, a documentary based on the book showed how “pundits-for-hire” spread disinformation about toxins in the environment and about climate change, intending to sow doubt about science and scientists for the benefit and profit of producers of toxins, including fossil fuels.
With recent and strong campaigns against pollution, as well as increasing knowledge among growing segments of society about the impending climate crisis, these huge, well-heeled corporations are pushing back hard with torrents of misinformation and disinformation. Slick advertisements, some portrayed as editorials, are appearing with considerable frequency on TV screens, about the supposed benefits of fossil fuels, including their importance to American national security, justifying still more production of American fossil fuels.
The American Petroleum Institute claims the following: “Increased U.S. natural gas use and energy efficiencies have reduced CO2 emissions as energy demand has grown…. As energy consumption grows in the future, energy efficiency improvements and increased renewables and natural gas use should restrain CO2 emissions.”1 BP calls “natural gas” a “low carbon fuel”—and that is true when compared to coal, but it is mostly methane,2 a major contributor to global warming.3
Another type of ad that is becoming more frequent claims that fossil fuel corporations are using new technology to moderate the harms of methane production in the fracking process and in pipeline transmission. They are also touting their investments in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, while still pumping out vast amounts of oil and gas. This is “greenwashing,” where these corporations portray themselves as climate friendly in an effort to deflect attention from their primary business of oil and gas extraction. As pointed out in
an NPR broadcast,4 this propaganda is designed to confuse the public and to delay the political will needed for major action on climate. As Professor Geoffrey Supran said, “There is simply no credible decarbonization scenario that doesn’t include leaving most fossil fuels in the ground and transitioning as quickly as possible to clean energy.”5
A unique tactic described in the NPR broadcast6 is Exxon/Mobil’s introduction of the concept of each individual’s carbon footprint, thereby shifting the blame for the climate crisis to consumers instead of corporations. This is not to say that we don’t each have individual responsibility. While none of us can do everything to combat the climate emergency, each of us can do something. Some of the somethings we each can do—more effective when we do them with others—are to 1) be aware of corporate greenwashing, and 2) to call it out, to neighbors, friends, our communities, news organizations, and our elected representatives. Becoming knowledgeable about corporate disinformation enables each of us to engage in this crucial struggle to get off fossil fuels and mitigate the climate crisis.
1 API website, www.api.org; this argument is used in many advertisements.
2 methane is a greenhouse gas, 84% more powerful than carbon dioxide. Atmospheric methane deteriorates in decades, whereas CO2 lasts for centuries, but the immediate greenhouse effect of methane emissions on the atmosphere is huge.
3 BP website, www.bp.com/en_us/united-states/home.html.
4 NPR “On Point”, Dec. 19, 2023, Geoffrey Supran, Director of the Climate Accountability Lab at the University of Miami, and Amy Westerveld, climate journalist and head of investigative newsroom Drilled.
5 Ibid., Geoffrey Supran
6 Ibid., Amy Westervelt