Our most serious global (and national) problem is climate change. It does not seem as immediately threatening as inflation, political polarization, or Russian aggression in Ukraine, but the seriousness of this climate threat grows worse every year. In July 2022, with western Europe and the USA experiencing record-breaking climate-change related heat waves, wildfires, and drought, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned that “half of humanity is in the danger zone from floods, droughts, extreme storms and wildfires.”
A few months later, he again expressed his alarm: “The climate crisis is the defining issue of our time. It must be the first priority of every government and multilateral organization.” And earlier this month A UN Report, which spelled out many of this year’s climate disasters, declared, “We are at a critical moment for humanity. The window to limit dangerous global warming and ensure a sustainable future is quickly closing.”
One of the reasons world nations have been deficient in dealing with climate change, which threatens to heat our globe in life-threatening ways, is the complexity of the issue—there are many others reasons also, including an unwise values prioritization. But recently one of these other reasons has begun to attract more attention—greenwashing. A UN publication defines it as “misleading the public to believe that a company or entity is doing more to protect the environment than it is.” (Note: greenwashing can apply to other environmental problems besides climate change.)
As Jamie Henn, a co-founder of the influential environmental group 350.org and director of Fossil Free Media points out, a good deal of this misleading propaganda comes from the false advertising and public relations (PR) operations of big companies, especially in the fossil fuel industry.
The main problem with that is that advertising has become so enmeshed in our brains, especially in the USA, that it very difficult to separate the true from the false or even the half-true but misleading. Everywhere we go, we are bombarded by various types of ads, often so omnipresent that we hardly even realize we are being targeted. As U.S. humorist Dave Barry once stated, “television's message has always been that the need for truth, wisdom and world peace pales by comparison with the need for a toothpaste that offers whiter teeth and fresher breath.”
And it is not just advertising for products. What I wrote a decade ago is even more true today: In The Selling of the President, 1968 Joe McGinniss recorded how political advertising was done. And “ever since, spending on political advertising has skyrocketed.”
Compounding the whole misleading advertising problem, has been the complete denigration of truth by Donald Trump, already evident after his first year as president. (Witness Republican Senator Jeff Flake’s statement: “2017 was a year which saw the truth—objective, empirical, evidence-based truth—more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government.”) But from 2018 to the present, the truth violations of Trump and followers have just continued to muddy any possible political discourse. (See Jonathan Rauch’s 2021 book The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth for some attacks on truth from sources such as Trump and social media.)
Thus, as we attempt to grapple with all the threats of global warming (see, e.g., here on the 27th annual Climate Change Conference), and to arrive at the truth of what is actually going on and what needs to be done, we must battle against that difficult and slippery enemy—greenwashing. To help us do that the UN High-Level Expert Group on the Net Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities just weeks ago issued a 42-page report, “Integrity Matters: Net Zero Commitments by Businesses, Financial Institutions, Cities and Regions,’ the UN High-Level Expert Group on the Net Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities.”
The report provides many excellent recommendations. Most importantly, it insists that businesses and other entities have to emphasize various realistic steps to reach net zero by 2050 (the term refers to “a state in which the greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere are balanced by removal out of the atmosphere”). Towards that goal, compared to 2010 carbon dioxide (CO2), emissions need to fall by about 45 percent by 2030. By 2025, deforestation (especially significant in such areas as Brazil under outgoing President Bolsonaro) has to stop. And new investment in fossil fuels has to cease. Moreover, “deceptive or misleading net zero claims” by corporations and other entities must end and more “regulation will be needed.”
The UN report, however, does not focus on any individual companies or detail the villainous and untruthful ways that they engage in greenwashing. For that information we have to turn to other sources. One of them is the website of ClientEarth, an organization of more than 150 lawyers and policy experts spread out over 50 countries.
In a posting providing nine detailed examples of fossil fuel companies’ greenwashing, a ClientEarth lawyer states that for decades such companies have “delayed meaningful climate action” in order to protect their usual profits. In false advertising and PR they have “routinely misrepresented the sustainability of their activities, avoided the full scale of their greenhouse gas emissions, overrepresented clean energy investments and promoted commercially unproven ‘solutions’ to ongoing fossil fuel production.”
Some specific examples include Aramco, the state-owned Saudi Arabian company that is the globe’s largest corporate greenhouse gas emitter. Despite all types of misleading advertising, a 2019 estimate projected that between 2018 and 2030 Armaco would sell the equivalent of 27 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide—the primary greenhouse gas we humans emit. Partly because of Armaco the Saudi government “is working to keep fossil fuels at the center of the world economy for decades to come by lobbying, funding research and using its diplomatic muscle to obstruct climate action.”
The Texas-based ExxonMobil since 1998 has “spent over $33 million on groups that spread doubt and disinformation about climate change.” It also belongs to trade associations, like the American Petroleum Institute (API), “with a history of lobbying against climate measures.” (In 2021 a U.S. committee, headed by a Democratic congresswoman, stated that “Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP, and API spent a combined $452.6 million lobbying the federal government since 2011.” While the four oil companies “employed an average of around 40 lobbyists per year,” API’s per year average was 48 lobbyists.)
The Dutch-based Shell engages in various greenwashing practices. For example, it claims that by 2050 it will meet its net-zero target, but in considering that target it “entirely excludes its petrochemicals business,” which produces 17 million tonnes of chemicals per year, chemicals that increase global-warming temperatures. Shell also overestimates the extent that carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques and nature-based offsets like planting trees will allow it to reach net zero while still continuing to produce massive amounts of fossil fuels.
Even though the recent UN report entitled Integrity Matters . . . proclaimed that “net zero plans must not support new supply of fossil fuels: there is no room for new investment in fossil fuel supply and there is a need to decommission and cancel existing assets,” the net zero allowance of offsets has provided an escape hatch for “Big Oil” to murky the already complex climate-change picture.
By providing Republicans a House of Representatives majority, American voters in recent mid-term U. S. elections have also contributed to what is likely to be more climate-change confusion. In that Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to side with fossil fuel lobbyists and to underplay the dangers of climate change, it is difficult to see how progress like that made in the recent Inflation Reduction Act (passed without any congressional Republican support) will continue.
Thus, it seems we are faced with a David-and-Goliath problem, with the giant Goliath being the billion-dollar fossil-fuel corporations, many Republican congressional representatives, and at least half of the U.S. electorate who do not think climate change is one our three or four most serious issues. Given this opposition and relative indifference, how does a little David (those of us who agree with Guterres that the “climate crisis is the defining issue of our time”) hope to overcome such roadblocks?
To answer that question let’s review the resistance that must be overcome. In addition to that mentioned in the above paragraph, there are the following obstacles:
- Leaders in many countries prioritize other issues before climate change. Because their countries and greenhouse gas emissions are so significant, Presidents Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China are two notable examples. Among poorer nations, many of their leaders believe transitioning to cleaner energy sources is a luxury they cannot afford. (At the conclusion of the recent 27th annual U.N. Climate Conference [COP27], one news report stated that it “made little progress on emissions-cutting measures that could avert even worse disasters to come. . . . Many wealthy nations argued for deeper, faster climate action and poorer countries said they first needed help dealing with the consequences of warming fueled mostly by the industrialized world.)
- In the U.S., another major global-warming contributor, advertising and the capitalist system that produces most of it, is so entrenched in its consumer culture that curtailing the profit-seeking of those who benefit financially from the system is very difficult. Beneficiaries include fossil fuel companies, banks, shareholders, and recipients of “big oil” political contributions.
- Also in the U.S., significant opposition to government regulation (witness, for example, the popularity of President Reagan) is ingrained in many voters. But limiting climate-change’s destruction is going to require just such government regulation.
- Although when climate-change-caused damages are figured in, coal, oil, and gas may already be more expensive than cleaner energy sources, transitioning and more extensive regulation costs might be more than taxpayers are willing to pay.
- Such unwillingness is tied in with people’s tendency to favor short-term rather than long-term thinking. One of the reasons many more Republican voters in our recent elections thought inflation rather than climate-change was a more serious problem was exactly because of such short-term thinking.
- Also connected to people’s thinking is the complexity of climate-change and its solutions, increasing disrespect for truth, and short-attention spans, probably worsened by modern media.
Allied against that powerful Goliath is our collective David. On our side we have many progressives (including the LA Progressive), environmental organizations such as 350.org, and many Democratic-party leaders and young people.
Perhaps the best known young climate activist is the Swedish nineteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, who is already a seasoned veteran of the climate wars. (She recently wrote: “We are approaching a precipice. And I would strongly suggest that those of us who have not yet been greenwashed out of our senses stand our ground. Do not let them drag us another inch closer to the edge. Not one inch.”)
But in addition to Thunberg, there are many other youth. At the recent COP27, a 10-year-old girl from Ghana told delegates that children were the best people to sound climate alarms because they would still be around to suffer the consequences of failures to act on climate change. A 2021 survey, whose results were published in the British medical journal Lancet, asked 10,000 youth (ages 16-25) in 10 countries (including those as varied as the USA, India, Nigeria, and Brazil) about their feelings regarding climate change. 59 percent said they “were very or extremely worried” and 84 percent replied that they “were at least moderately worried.” 75 percent responded that “they think the future is frightening” and 83 percent said that “they think people have failed to take care of the planet.” Conductors of the survey also concluded that “climate anxiety and distress were correlated with perceived inadequate government response and associated feelings of betrayal.”
Such a response gives us progressives hope. It was youth that led the countercultural revolution of the 1960s. Perhaps now, more than a half-century later, they can play a similar role. Yet, as I previously pointed out, “What followed in the 1970s and 1980s was the disappearance of the 1960s counterculture and the absorption of many of its former adherents into the “system.” The resiliency of our capitalist consumer culture and the influence of lobbyists (at this year’s COP27 there were “a record number of fossil fuel lobbyists”) should not be underestimated. Nor should the dogged determination, or the incredible amount of sticktoitiveness that will be necessary to overcome all the climate-change-catastrophes deniers.
We must take hope from the victories of earlier progressives—during the Progressive Era (1890-1914), under Franklin Roosevelt, and for a while during the civil-rights gains of the early and mid 1960s. And then there have been all the victories against companies like Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS that now must pay billions of dollars to settle thousands of U.S. state and local lawsuits accusing the chains of furthering the opioid crises.
At the same time, however, we must remain realistic. It was much easier for Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, to agree that aiding opioid addiction was wrong, than it will be for such divergent political groups to agree on how to deal with climate change—and for some to even admit that human-caused climate change is a reality.
To end on an upbeat note, however, to engage in what Barack Obama once labeled the “audacity of hope,” we can recall the ideas of Hannah Arendt in her 1967 essay “Truth and Politics.” She believed that truth possesses a stubborn staying power that lies lack. More than a half-century later, we can hope that before climate change inflicts too much more damage—from floods, droughts, extreme storms, wildfires, etc.—nations can come together, acknowledge the full gamut of climate-change realities, and take steps to prevent even more horrendous horrors.