The Lie of Greenwashing 

    As early as the 1970s, oil companies like ExxonMobil knew the implications of releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. Internal documents have shown that ExxonMobil’s own scientists knew the risks of anthropogenic climate change. ExxonMobil’s research was advanced enough to make predictions consistent with current climate science. Their own scientists warned the company’s administration about the impending disaster. But armed with this knowledge and forewarned, what did ExxonMobil and other oil and gas companies choose to do? They chose to lie.

    To protect profits, the ExxonMobil executives lied to lawmakers and to the public. They denied the validity of their own scientists’ work: at a company conference, ExxonMobil’s CEO stated that projections of global warming are “based on completely unproven climate models, or, more often, on sheer speculation.” But they knew that global warming was a real threat. At the very same time that ExxonMobil was denying the predictions of climate science, they were also preparing for the future they knew was coming — by building taller drilling rigs in order to account for rising sea levels.

    Muddying the Waters

    By the late 90s, the strategy of lying outright had worn thin. As climate science grew ever more sophisticated and predictions of the catastrophic effects of global warming became harder to ignore, oil companies shifted from outright denial to a strategy of muddying the waters. As Naomi Oreskes documented in her book Merchants of Doubt, oil companies like ExxonMobil employed numerous strategies to mislead the public. Oil companies would purchase advertisements which were designed to look like news articles; these disguised advertisements would portray climate change as if there were still scientific uncertainty. They funneled over $30 million dollars, according to GreenPeace, into think tanks which promoted climate change denial. ExxonMobil even had an employee rewrite significant portions of its own Wikipedia page to portray the company in a positive light. All of these efforts were attempts to control the public dialogue about climate change, in defense of profit.

    Skirting the Blame

    With growing public concern over the state of our climate, it has become far less acceptable to refute the scientific basis of climate change. Most governments and corporations acknowledge the basic outline of climate change (although they rarely take any meaningful action). Even conservatives in the US are changing their tune. Oil companies and others switched their strategy from denying climate change outright to acknowledging it while shifting the blame: “It’s getting warmer but it’s not our fault.” And even this strategy is now changing as public concerns grow; many conservatives have begun to grudgingly accept climate change but fatalistically claim “It’s too big an issue to deal with. So, why bother trying.” Of course, it is not too late and every bit of CO2 we prevent from entering the atmosphere matters. 

    With the mainstream acceptance of climate change, it is no longer effective for oil companies to deny the facts. In addition, public perception has turned broadly against  oil companies after the discovery of the lies they told the American people. Oil companies are aware that their public image has suffered: “The reputation of the energy sector, among much of the population, is that it is fundamentally at odds with environmental progress,” wrote a PR firm in 2019. “It’s not hyperbole to suggest that PR in the oil and gas industry is more important now than ever before.” Oil executives are concluding that “only sustained PR campaigns… can change public perceptions and reshape [the reputation of oil and gas companies].” So what are these companies doing now? They are joining the battle against climate change, attempting to cast themselves as heroes in the development of sustainable energy. Rather than a real shift towards meaningful change, this move is just the next iteration of the oil companies’ empty rhetoric.

    Over the past 40 years oil companies have honed their skills at misleading the public. So, often the difference between meaningful change and empty rhetoric can be hard for the public to spot. British Petroleum, BP, has begun promoting its investment in carbon capture utilization and sequestration (CCUS). CCUS allows for the removal of carbon dioxide from the air, either directly from the atmosphere or from the smokestacks of power plants. The captured carbon is then either utilized in industrial processes, or sequestered in natural geological reservoirs beneath the ground: the hope is that it will stay there. CCUS is a highly speculative technology and, except for its use on smokestacks, is prohibitively expensive. It is also unclear if the technology is scalable to any substantial size.Despite these hurdles, companies like BP are aggressively promoting CCUS as a “magic bullet” solution: “We believe CCUS has a key role to play in reducing emissions, in line with global climate ambitions. C-Capture’s technology could reduce the cost of capturing carbon dioxide,” stated a BP director research. But this magic bullet solution — the promise that we can just grab carbon out of the sky — diverts attention from the only real solution: we must  stop burning fossil fuels. 

    Oil to the Rescue?

    Jumping on the PR bandwagon, on January 16, 2020, Microsoft announced its goal of being carbon negative by 2030. In addition, Microsoft pledged to help their business partners reduce carbon emissions: “Our cloud and AI services help businesses cut energy consumption, reduce physical footprint, and design sustainable products.” How exactly is Microsoft planning to accomplish these goals? By partnering with BP and Halliburton, another giant of the oil and gas industry. The partnership will allow for development of “intelligent cloud solutions to drive the next generation of efficient oil and gas exploration and production,” said Jason Zander, Corporate Vice President of Microsoft Azure. As one report described, the partnership will “apply deep-learning models to optimize drilling and production to lower costs for customers.” In other words, computer programming and artificial intelligence provided by Microsoft will allow BP to offer more oil at lower prices.

    Microsoft’s “partnership” with Halliburton has similar goals. “The future of energy is digital,” Halliburton’s website boldly proclaims. The Halliburton 4.0 program aims to use a “digital approach to all phases of well construction to minimize lifecycle cost and maximize productivity.” One of the products that Halliburton 4.0 includes is the SmartFleet™ Intelligent Fracturing System, which allows users to “Connect to the subsurface through real-time reservoir measurements and intelligent automation, enabling you to control fracture outcomes while pumping.” In effect, Microsoft’s “environmental partnership” is designed to help Halliburton extract more natural gas through algorithmically-enhanced fracking. They are offering the false promise that we will mitigate climate change by using technology to facilitate increased oil and gas extraction.  

    Consumerism to the Rescue?

    It’s not just oil companies that have jumped on the bandwagon of environmentalism. Many PR campaigns for global corporations have begun to take advantage of growing concern about climate change. Amazon recently announced its plan to be carbon neutral by 2040 while continuing to support an unsustainable level of consumerism. Apple announced plans to be carbon neutral by 2030, while at the same time pushing customers to buy a new phone every year. Plastic and cardboard water bottles are being marketed as “environmentally friendly.” Volkswagen and other car companies are cheating in emissions regulations, while advertising efficient and environmental cars. 

    These corporations – and many others – are taking advantage of genuine environmental concern to sell their products, offering the false hope that we can buy our way out of the climate crisis. 

    These PR campaigns may appear to be simple opportunistic marketing strategies, but while many of the campaigns do advertise products, they also sell an idea. The idea that these companies are taking responsibility and that, somehow, the capitalist profit incentive and consumer choice will solve the climate crisis. Climate change and its many consequences, from increasingly extreme weather and rising sea levels to severe drought and mass migration, will be extremely costly (both in human and economic terms) to society overall. But for an individual corporation, environmental sustainability will almost never be as profitable as recklessly ignoring the externalities. Environmental sustainability requires taking responsibility for externalities. Externalities are operating costs that the company does not have to pay for (usually externalities are paid for by society), so paying for these “unnecessary expenses” reduces profit. On there own corporations will not change. They might promote their “environmentalism” but to actually act environmentally would require large cuts in profit for shareholders, the incentives just aren’t there. It will require concerted public pressure and legislation to force any change. Powerful corporations understand this, so to protect profits they promote their ‘environmental endeavors’ as a shield, a façade of public relations that allows the companies to continue engaging in profitable and environmentally destructive practices, while the public thinks they are taking responsibility. 

    The Lie of Greenwashing 

    As early as the 1970s, oil companies like ExxonMobil knew the implications of releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. Internal documents have shown that ExxonMobil’s own scientists knew the risks of anthropogenic climate change. ExxonMobil’s research was advanced enough to make predictions consistent with current climate science. Their own scientists warned the company’s administration about the impending disaster. But armed with this knowledge and forewarned, what did ExxonMobil and other oil and gas companies choose to do? They chose to lie.

    To protect profits, the ExxonMobil executives lied to lawmakers and to the public. They denied the validity of their own scientists’ work: at a company conference, ExxonMobil’s CEO stated that projections of global warming are “based on completely unproven climate models, or, more often, on sheer speculation.” But they knew that global warming was a real threat. At the very same time that ExxonMobil was denying the predictions of climate science, they were also preparing for the future they knew was coming — by building taller drilling rigs in order to account for rising sea levels.

    Muddying the Waters

    By the late 90s, the strategy of lying outright had worn thin. As climate science grew ever more sophisticated and predictions of the catastrophic effects of global warming became harder to ignore, oil companies shifted from outright denial to a strategy of muddying the waters. As Naomi Oreskes documented in her book Merchants of Doubt, oil companies like ExxonMobil employed numerous strategies to mislead the public. Oil companies would purchase advertisements which were designed to look like news articles; these disguised advertisements would portray climate change as if there were still scientific uncertainty. They funneled over $30 million dollars, according to GreenPeace, into think tanks which promoted climate change denial. ExxonMobil even had an employee rewrite significant portions of its own Wikipedia page to portray the company in a positive light. All of these efforts were attempts to control the public dialogue about climate change, in defense of profit.

    Skirting the Blame

    With growing public concern over the state of our climate, it has become far less acceptable to refute the scientific basis of climate change. Most governments and corporations acknowledge the basic outline of climate change (although they rarely take any meaningful action). Even conservatives in the US are changing their tune. Oil companies and others switched their strategy from denying climate change outright to acknowledging it while shifting the blame: “It’s getting warmer but it’s not our fault.” And even this strategy is now changing as public concerns grow; many conservatives have begun to grudgingly accept climate change but fatalistically claim “It’s too big an issue to deal with. So, why bother trying.” Of course, it is not too late and every bit of CO2 we prevent from entering the atmosphere matters. 

    With the mainstream acceptance of climate change, it is no longer effective for oil companies to deny the facts. In addition, public perception has turned broadly against  oil companies after the discovery of the lies they told the American people. Oil companies are aware that their public image has suffered: “The reputation of the energy sector, among much of the population, is that it is fundamentally at odds with environmental progress,” wrote a PR firm in 2019. “It’s not hyperbole to suggest that PR in the oil and gas industry is more important now than ever before.” Oil executives are concluding that “only sustained PR campaigns… can change public perceptions and reshape [the reputation of oil and gas companies].” So what are these companies doing now? They are joining the battle against climate change, attempting to cast themselves as heroes in the development of sustainable energy. Rather than a real shift towards meaningful change, this move is just the next iteration of the oil companies’ empty rhetoric.

    Over the past 40 years oil companies have honed their skills at misleading the public. So, often the difference between meaningful change and empty rhetoric can be hard for the public to spot. British Petroleum, BP, has begun promoting its investment in carbon capture utilization and sequestration (CCUS). CCUS allows for the removal of carbon dioxide from the air, either directly from the atmosphere or from the smokestacks of power plants. The captured carbon is then either utilized in industrial processes, or sequestered in natural geological reservoirs beneath the ground: the hope is that it will stay there. CCUS is a highly speculative technology and, except for its use on smokestacks, is prohibitively expensive. It is also unclear if the technology is scalable to any substantial size.Despite these hurdles, companies like BP are aggressively promoting CCUS as a “magic bullet” solution: “We believe CCUS has a key role to play in reducing emissions, in line with global climate ambitions. C-Capture’s technology could reduce the cost of capturing carbon dioxide,” stated a BP director research. But this magic bullet solution — the promise that we can just grab carbon out of the sky — diverts attention from the only real solution: we must  stop burning fossil fuels. 

    Oil to the Rescue?

    Jumping on the PR bandwagon, on January 16, 2020, Microsoft announced its goal of being carbon negative by 2030. In addition, Microsoft pledged to help their business partners reduce carbon emissions: “Our cloud and AI services help businesses cut energy consumption, reduce physical footprint, and design sustainable products.” How exactly is Microsoft planning to accomplish these goals? By partnering with BP and Halliburton, another giant of the oil and gas industry. The partnership will allow for development of “intelligent cloud solutions to drive the next generation of efficient oil and gas exploration and production,” said Jason Zander, Corporate Vice President of Microsoft Azure. As one report described, the partnership will “apply deep-learning models to optimize drilling and production to lower costs for customers.” In other words, computer programming and artificial intelligence provided by Microsoft will allow BP to offer more oil at lower prices.

    Microsoft’s “partnership” with Halliburton has similar goals. “The future of energy is digital,” Halliburton’s website boldly proclaims. The Halliburton 4.0 program aims to use a “digital approach to all phases of well construction to minimize lifecycle cost and maximize productivity.” One of the products that Halliburton 4.0 includes is the SmartFleet™ Intelligent Fracturing System, which allows users to “Connect to the subsurface through real-time reservoir measurements and intelligent automation, enabling you to control fracture outcomes while pumping.” In effect, Microsoft’s “environmental partnership” is designed to help Halliburton extract more natural gas through algorithmically-enhanced fracking. They are offering the false promise that we will mitigate climate change by using technology to facilitate increased oil and gas extraction.  

    Consumerism to the Rescue?

    It’s not just oil companies that have jumped on the bandwagon of environmentalism. Many PR campaigns for global corporations have begun to take advantage of growing concern about climate change. Amazon recently announced its plan to be carbon neutral by 2040 while continuing to support an unsustainable level of consumerism. Apple announced plans to be carbon neutral by 2030, while at the same time pushing customers to buy a new phone every year. Plastic and cardboard water bottles are being marketed as “environmentally friendly.” Volkswagen and other car companies are cheating in emissions regulations, while advertising efficient and environmental cars. 

    These corporations – and many others – are taking advantage of genuine environmental concern to sell their products, offering the false hope that we can buy our way out of the climate crisis. 

    These PR campaigns may appear to be simple opportunistic marketing strategies, but while many of the campaigns do advertise products, they also sell an idea. The idea that these companies are taking responsibility and that, somehow, the capitalist profit incentive and consumer choice will solve the climate crisis. Climate change and its many consequences, from increasingly extreme weather and rising sea levels to severe drought and mass migration, will be extremely costly (both in human and economic terms) to society overall. But for an individual corporation, environmental sustainability will almost never be as profitable as recklessly ignoring the externalities. Environmental sustainability requires taking responsibility for externalities. Externalities are operating costs that the company does not have to pay for (usually externalities are paid for by society), so paying for these “unnecessary expenses” reduces profit. On there own corporations will not change. They might promote their “environmentalism” but to actually act environmentally would require large cuts in profit for shareholders, the incentives just aren’t there. It will require concerted public pressure and legislation to force any change. Powerful corporations understand this, so to protect profits they promote their ‘environmental endeavors’ as a shield, a façade of public relations that allows the companies to continue engaging in profitable and environmentally destructive practices, while the public thinks they are taking responsibility. 

    As early as the 1970s, oil companies like ExxonMobil knew the implications of releasing CO2 into the atmosphere.

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