By Chris Garrard, member of campaign group Art Not Oil
It’s crunch time for the climate. But as delegates gather in Madrid for the latest round of UN Climate Talks, there’s still a major obstacle that needs to be tackled: the greenwash and spin of the fossil fuel industry.
Oil and gas giants such as BP, Shell and Exxon have known about the role fossil fuels play in driving global temperature rise for decades. But, instead of taking the action we urgently need and shifting their business away from fossil fuels, they have spent millions mounting misleading PR campaigns to just give the impression that they are. And even now, many of these fossil fuel firms plan to ramp up production. BP alone plans to boost its production of fossil fuels by 20 percent over the next 10 years.
Communities in the Global South have faced the destructive impacts of fossil fuel extraction for decades and now they are the ones also facing climate impacts. And yet, if you’d come across one of BP’s many slick and shiny adverts on billboards, TV screens and newspaper pages, you might have thought BP had undergone an overhaul and become a bold, reinvented renewable energy company.
As these ads trot out the slogan “we see possibilities everywhere” and are told that BP wants to “keep advancing”, you get the clear impression that BP is at the forefront of the energy transition we so urgently need. Except it’s not. In reality, BP is constantly finding possibilities not to shift its business to meet the climate challenge but to lobby governments so that it can water down climate legislation and stick to business as usual.
Now, lawyers at Client Earth have made an official complaint about BP’s misleading ads and, at the same time, have called for there to be health warnings placed on all fossil fuel industry adverts. Those warnings would highlight the clear risks that the fossil fuel industry continue to pose to people and the planet.
It’s a step that is long overdue.
Just as the tobacco industry deceived people over the health impacts of smoking, the fossil fuel industry has drawn from its playbook and cynically deceived people about the climate impacts of their core products for years. In some cases, it has directly funded the denial and disinformation that cast doubt on climate science and delayed action.
So now, just as tobacco advertising was once forced to carry mandatory health warnings, it’s time that the fossil fuel industry was forced to do the same.
The parallels between tobacco and fossil fuels don’t stop there. While they were spending millions on misleading advertising campaigns, tobacco firms also sought to shore up their so-called “social license to operate” by sponsoring major museums, galleries and cultural events. These sponsorship deals allowed them to misleadingly pose as responsible philanthropists, with their logos and brands uncritically placed alongside paintings, plays and sculptures. And these partnerships came much cheaper than their major PR campaigns.
For what was, in effect, their loose change, these firms got some very effective advertising.
Today, the fossil fuel industry has taken on this tactic too. In fact, before the National Portrait Gallery’s “BP Portrait Award” was sponsored by Big Oil it was sponsored by – you guessed it – John Player, a Tobacco company. Elsewhere, the British Museum, Royal Opera House and Science Museum continue to partner with BP and lend it a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve, as well as the opportunity to schmooze policy-makers at VIP events.
What is particularly troubling is that all of these cultural institutions are funded, in part, by the taxpayer. By displaying these logos without context or critique, our cultural institutions are taking a bold stance and brazenly backing BP, preventing the company from being seen for what it really is. In a time of climate emergency, our cultural institutions should be on the side of the people, not the polluters.
Time for change
The good news though is that the tide is turning.
In October, the Royal Shakespeare Company announced that its BP sponsorship deal would come to an end some three years before the partnership was due to elapse. Just two days later, the National Theatre in London declared a climate emergency and confirmed that it would not be renewing oil giant Shell’s corporate membership of the theatre.
And a few weeks ago, National Galleries Scotland announced that it would no longer host the BP Portrait Award because “for many people, the association of this competition with BP” was seen as being at odds with doing all it could to address the climate emergency.
Through sponsorship deals and misleading advertising campaigns, BP is still spreading the myth about its business that it is green and progressive when, in reality, it is pushing us deeper into climate crisis. Somewhat appropriately, the British Museum’s latest BP-sponsored exhibition is called “Troy: Myth and Reality” and arts activists have already used it as a platform to expose the truth about BP.
With Client Earth’s latest challenge, the clouds of spin are being cleared. From the greenwash on our screens to the artwash in our museums, there’s a growing movement of truth-tellers that are steadily turning the tide.