I Left a Major Agency Because of Its Stance on Climate Change

Firms like Edelman are a dominant force in U.S. climate change obstruction, a new study finds

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I am a 20-year veteran of the marketing communications industry, with a career-long focus on helping to elevate social and environmental issues. Since resigning from my role as executive vice president at Edelman in 2015, I have continued to collaborate with large agencies but watched with an increasing sense of unease as the problems that led me to leave my former post spiraled out of control.

Our nation faces grave and interconnected challenges, including a climate crisis that threatens human health and international stability, alongside a disinformation crisis that makes responding to pressing risks ever more difficult. Business leaders have not played a neutral role in perpetuating these crises, but a central one.

A major new peer-reviewed study reveals how agencies play a dominant role in U.S. climate change obstruction. Not only do they continue to represent fossil fuel clients, such as powerful oil and gas corporations and trade associations that oppose climate action, but the strategies and tactics executed on clients’ behalf have effectively manipulated cultural understanding of climate change and thwarted related policy progress in Washington.

The majority of fossil fuel advertising is found to be misleading, relying heavily on greenwashing and factual distortions. The language used to shape public opinion for over a decade (ie: “clean coal,” “renewable natural gas,” “carbon footprint”) runs contrary to science and stems directly from these agency campaigns. The activities used to advance fossil fuel client agendas—from astroturfing to opposition research and lobbying—lean increasingly political and polarizing.

Despite an ongoing congressional investigation into Big Oil disinformation, agencies remain resistant to changing course. When leaders do speak publicly about these issues, they defend the ongoing work for fossil fuel clients and fail to mention the fact that just 1 percent of their assets are invested in clean technologies. Agencies tout their commitment to advancing environmental solutions while obscuring the reality that a large portion of the business is funded by fossil fuel contracts.

Just as slickly as their oil clients, they play both sides.

Herein lies the perfect recipe for climate obstruction: A powerful and unrestricted fossil fuel industry thrives by a failure to self-police against climate disinformation, greenwashing and other harmful practices. These practices will be put under the magnifying glass in the coming months, as public policy experts and lawmakers escalate their inquiries.

But more importantly, this moment will lead to an industrywide reckoning fueled by a new generation of creative professionals who refuse to take part in such dirty work.

On behalf of those of us working to help counter climate disinformation, I call upon agencies to divest from this work, acknowledge the extent of these crises and account for their role in perpetuating them. They must apologize, open their records to review and use their own resources to help undo the damage caused.

As Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said during October’s House hearings on climate disinformation: “You are powerful leaders at the top of the corporate world at a turning point for our planet. Be better. Spare us the spin today—really we have no interest in it.”