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How Big Oil helped push the idea of a 'carbon footprint'

Oil pump jack on Great Plains, southeastern Wyoming. (Photo by: Marli Miller/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Oil pump jack on Great Plains, southeastern Wyoming. (Photo by: Marli Miller/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Your carbon footprint. Plug in your lifestyle to an online calculator, and instantly find out how much you are impacting the climate. It individualizes the climate crisis, so you focus on yourself, rather than the petrochemical companies pumping fossil fuels out of the ground.

If that’s politically convenient for Big Oil, it’s because the carbon footprint concept was popularized in part by oil giant BP. And the creation of the carbon footprint idea isn’t the only place oil companies are shaping public opinion.

Today, On Point: Big Oil’s big PR.

Guests

Geoffrey Supran, Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Miami, where he directs the Climate Accountability Lab.

Amy Westervelt, Climate journalist. Head of the investigative newsroom Drilled.

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Each December, the Oxford University Press, which publishes the Oxford English Dictionary, names a word of the year. The publisher says the word or expression is one that reflects “the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the past 12 months. One that has potential as a term of lasting cultural significance.”

This year’s winner? “Rizz,” the ubiquitous Gen Z slang edit of charisma. For further explanation, see TikTok. Back in 2007 though, Oxford’s UK word of the year, or phrase rather, was “carbon footprint.”

UNIDENTIFIED MAN [Tape]: You should probably reduce it. But what exactly is your carbon footprint?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: In three steps, you can cut your carbon footprint by 60 percent just by not  —

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: People are always talking about the carbon footprint of cars and deforestation. But what about something simple like my lunch, this delicious BLT sandwich?

CHAKRABARTI: Those clips are from the BBC, a TED Talk, and NPR. Your carbon footprint is basically how much you’re contributing to climate change. I’m gonna guess you already know that. But it includes food, travel, stuff you own, the size of your home. They can all go in a simple online calculator which spits out your impact on the planet.

Now, “carbon footprint” achieving the 2007 word of the year status might have seemed like a huge messaging win for climate activists. But the idea was first unleashed into the wild four years earlier.

UNINDENTIFIED WOMAN [Tape]: What size is your carbon footprint?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: Ah, the carbon footprint, I dunno.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Whatever it is, the whole population of the world make that a very big number.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 3: How much carbon I produce. Is that it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: You mean the effect that my living has on the Earth in terms of the products I consume?

CHAKRABARTI: That is a 2003 ad, 20 years old now, from oil giant BP.

Geoffrey Supran joins us. He’s a professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami. Professor Supran, welcome.

GEOFFREY SUPRAN: Thanks, Meghna, lovely to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so first of all, do you remember seeing that ad or the associated print ads back in the early 2000s from BP?

SUPRAN: I do. Growing up as a young kid in the UK, I remember seeing them both on print and in TV. And very much, clearly it’s had an imprint on our society.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Did it have an imprint on you? Did you think, “Oh, this is a really interesting way of understanding climate change?”

SUPRAN: Yeah. I mean, I think it had — I was just a sort of aspiring young scientist and I think you just sort of absorb the stuff around you, right? And I think it had the sort of subconscious impact of just normalizing this concept that we are all individually responsible for the climate crisis.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So obviously, by playing that ad, we’re implying something — that the idea didn’t necessarily come from climate activists to have this individual and unique measure of climate impact that everyone can figure out for themselves. So start at the beginning of the story of this concept of an individual’s carbon footprint. Where, how far back should we look?

SUPRAN: Well, whe term “ecological footprint” was coined by a well-known ecologist, William Rees, in the early 1990s. But as far as we know, the actual expression, “carbon footprint,” specifically, was seemingly coined — or at least introduced and popularized — by BP as part of this 2004 to 2006 campaign where they spent more than $100 million per year rebranding their company BP as “Beyond Petroleum.”

CHAKRABARTI: Rather than “British Petroleum,” which it once was, right?

SUPRAN: Right.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so Beyond Petroleum, even though they were then and still remain a fossil fuel giant.

SUPRAN: Yeah, so this was in the late 1980s, BP acquired Amoco, another oil company. And the CEO then of BP, John Brown, he set out to reposition the company as this “Beyond Petroleum.” And so BP strategized with corporate image consultants, Landor and Associates, and they ran this marketing campaign through the ad agency Ogilvy and Mather, which is part of one of the big four ad giants, WBP. So this was a major 360 degree marketing effort that sought to reposition the company in an era in which they were then very well aware that the climate crisis was threatening their business operations.

CHAKRABARTI: So the whole notion of having individuals think about what their climate impact is and was, just to be clear, you’re saying it was part of a marketing campaign to reposition what BP was in the minds of basically anyone?

SUPRAN: That seems to be the case. I mean,  we’re still looking for those smoking gun documents that really articulate from the inside the detailed strategy, but we do know from some of the basically, the portfolios of the ad agents involved in these campaigns that there was a goal to focus attention on people’s individual responsibility.

Like the TV ad that you just played that ran in the UK, the way they ask questions like, “Do you worry about climate change?” It basically forces people to naturally reply with language like, “I” or “we,” which allows BP to linguistically remove itself as a contributor to this problem.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, in hearing you describe that BP had some of the biggest names in advertising and PR to come up with this idea as part of their campaign — again, I note that you say that there isn’t necessarily a smoking gun document yet that you or other researchers have been able to dig up. But presuming for a moment that that is what happened, honestly, it brings to mind sort of a Mad Men-type moment of Don Draper sitting in front of the Kodak slide machine and thinking, “Ah yes, the carousel. We’re gonna make this amazing story out of it.” (LAUGHS) You remember that episode.

SUPRAN: I do.

CHAKRABARTI: And so, I mean, it feels as if, obviously, it was very effective. But what I want to know is why do you think they wanted to come up with a portion of this campaign, this PR campaign, that had people focus on themselves versus on this company that was now trying to call itself Beyond Petroleum?

SUPRAN: I mean, part of it is that we have to see BP as part of a lineage of industrial producers of harmful commodities that have for decades used personal responsibility framings to disavow themselves. Regardless of the extent to which we have the strategy memos to substantiate that internal goal, that is the end effect. So, we have — it’s been well-documented that everything from tobacco to junk food to lead, cars, alcohol, the gun lobby, they’ve all emphasized consumer responsibility and downplayed corporate responsibility in their public affairs and often litigation. Recycling perhaps being the most famous other example of that. So, yeah, that it’s sort of, it’s a well-trodden path that the oil industry and BP in particular have tapped into and applied to the climate crisis.

CHAKRABARTI: I have to say that we did reach out to BP to ask them about their response regarding this history we were going to sort of stir up again. And they emailed us a statement, Professor Supran, that says, “BP did not popularize carbon calculators or the concept of a carbon footprint. Various NGOs, governments, and news organizations had already popularized carbon calculators before BP offered such a tool around 2005.” What’s your response to that?

SUPRAN: To my knowledge, that’s not correct. But I welcome them to correct the facts with more than just a sort of blanket statement. To my knowledge, they did introduce one of the very first carbon calculators. In fact, we know that they put it on their website and then they pointed to it in their advertisements which ask questions like, “What on earth is a carbon footprint?” And according to their own website, they had almost a quarter of a million users calculate their carbon footprints in just the first year that it was deployed.

So their response is, to be honest, disingenuous at best in the sense that clearly, they played a key role in this popularization as you led with the top of the segment. I myself have done some research looking at the prominence of the term “carbon footprint” in public discourse. And basically prior to their 2004 to 2006 campaign, it was not a commonly used word. And then of course, the year after their campaign, it was literally Oxford’s word of the year. So for them to claim that spending $100 million-plus per year on a marketing campaign involving this messaging didn’t play a role seems rather disingenuous.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, and you know what’s interesting? Several years ago — I’m sure you know about this, but just for listeners’ sake — there was a 2020 article I read by Kate Yoder at Grist and the environmental journalism group. And BP hasn’t stepped away from offering the public tools to calculate their own climate impact. Apparently there’s at least one app called Vive and it is created by a group called Launchpad, which is a subsidiary of BP. Launchpad supposedly makes apps, or they’re a venture capital group that funds low-carbon startups. But ultimately they’re owned by BP.

So, but I, what I’m curious is: Would you consider the success of the carbon footprint story part of the bigger story, as you said, of how expertly oil companies have used public relations campaigns for decades, if not generations? Because I also clearly remember that first moment where I plugged in my numbers into that very website, right? (LAUGHS)

SUPRAN: (LAUGHS) Right. Me, too.

CHAKRABARTI: And in a sense, it wasn’t actually, it was not a negative experience. I guess that’s what I’m trying to get to. It was a very positive experience for me. Because I thought now I have this number, this way to understand what I’m doing to planet Earth. And maybe even it’s got some strategies built into it of how I might reduce my my carbon impact if I so want to. I mean, what’s so wrong with that, Geoffrey?

SUPRAN: So yeah, there were several things there. I’ll try to touch on each of them. So actually going back to Kate Yoder’s Grist article, which I do vaguely recall and it’s a bit more straightforward than that. This carbon footprint campaign was literally continued by BP. I mean, in 2019, they launched a new “know your carbon footprint” publicity campaign with a “new calculator.” Like I remember the tweets. I have the tweets. So it’s not like some sort of tangential connection. They literally continued this campaign. And as you said, it’s very much part of a wider effort, which —

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, Professor Supran, let me just jump in here for a second because I just have to take us quickly to a break and I’ll let you complete your thought when we come back.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: So Professor Supran, you were talking about the fact that BP has continued this climate footprint campaign over the past many years after that 2003 launch, or soft launch, I should say. But you were also going to tell me about when I said, “Hey what’s wrong with this? Because it gives people at least a tool to to feel more self-empowered or get to understand what their impact on the climate is.”

SUPRAN: Yeah, and that’s a very valid question. I think it would be wrong to profess — we are all complicit to some degree in climate change, right? It’s important to preface this conversation with that. But you and I are passively guilty, stuck in and born into a fossil fuel system. Fossil fuel interests and political ideologues, including BP, on the other hand, are actively guilty, working to stop the system from changing. So you and I drive and fly when we have to, but we haven’t engaged in a multi-decade, multi-billion dollar propaganda campaign to deny climate science or attack climate scientists or lobby against clean energy regulations.

So we all have some responsibility, but that responsibility is not distributed equally. So yes, by all means, we should take all personal actions that we can. But personal action is limited because we all live in a society run on fossil fuel power and fossil fuel politics. So it’s in that sense that this kind of campaign is highly problematic, even if it does serve the function also of drawing our attention to our individual footprints, which we should do all we can to reduce as individuals.

CHAKRABARTI: Let me just push on that a little bit. Because I received an email from a listener this morning — to be perfectly honest, she emails me every day so maybe I should put an asterisk by this question. But she did ask, like, “Why are you making a big deal out of this? Because these fossil fuel companies, these oil companies, they are, regardless of what one individual’s carbon footprint is, they are providing the things that given how modern society works, things that not only we need, but want.”

And then she went on and said, “You want heat. You want hot water. You want all of these things. So get off BP’s back,” essentially. And I think there are a lot of people who do think that.

SUPRAN: Yeah. So the issue there is that it ignores the fact that these companies, as I said, have spent billions of dollars and decades of time working to actively lock us into this fossil fuel system, to lock us into a crisis such that we then, as a result, become, as your listener was alluding to, reliant on these companies and their products. So it’s a self-fulfilling behavior that they’ve engaged in. And in that sense we need to break that cycle.

And part of breaking the cycle means recognizing that the climate crisis is no longer fundamentally a technological problem. I myself come from a physics and renewable energy engineering background. We already have most of the technologies we need to address the climate crisis. What we lack is the political will. This is about mobilizing people and overcoming political power. And it’s for that reason that engaging in these conversations where we shine a light on the propaganda schemes that have confused and delayed action, that’s where this comes in.

CHAKRABARTI: Now you’ve authored many papers about this. I’m looking at one in particular that you co-authored with Naomi Oreskes. And in that paper you say that from 2004 to 2006, the $100 million-plus a year BP marketing campaign “introduced the idea of the carbon footprint before it was a common buzzword, according to the PR agent in charge of the campaign.” So that’s in contrast to the statement BP sent us today about this show and denying that they had really much influence over the world’s embrace of the concept of a carbon footprint.

But, more interestingly, in your paper, you note that the targets of the campaign — so the specific targets — were routine human activities and life choices of individuals in the average American household. I think it’s important to understand how specifically they defined what they were trying to change in people’s minds. I mean, when written that way, when understood that way, targeting routine human activities. It’s impossible not to come away as the recipient of this messaging and looking at the carbon calculator, it’s impossible not to come away thinking maybe not fully empowered, but actually rather guilty about what an individual’s contribution to climate change. I mean, do you think — was that part of the goal of the campaign?

SUPRAN: Yeah, it’s focusing us on the edges of the problem. So I think an easy way to see this is to recognize, for instance, the result of one MIT study a few years ago that found that even a homeless person in America has a carbon footprint of roughly eight and a half tons of carbon dioxide per year. That’s eight and a half tons higher than we need.

And so even if we reduce our lifestyles to nothing, frankly, as scaremongers and climate deniers would put it, to “living in a cave,” it won’t be enough. That’s not the main way to solve this problem. Think also about during the pandemic. Global emissions only dropped by about 7%. Even when people worldwide came to a halt and changed their personal behavior dramatically, it only made a small blip. And this really highlights the systemic nature of the climate crisis.

And yes, systemic problems demand systemic solutions. And 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. And literally every country in the world just agreed to do that at the UN climate talks the other day. So this isn’t sort of speculative. This is very much mainstream scientific consensus.

CHAKRABARTI: So we’re going to come back to what came out of the COP 28, I think we’re at, a little later in the show. But Professor Supran, over the years, what has been the response from these same big oil companies to your research?

SUPRAN: We’re not, they’re not our biggest fans. So my research and Naomi’s in particular has focused heavily on ExxonMobil, another sort of major oil producer. And we have identified actually exactly on point with this conversation, ExxonMobil’s role in using rhetoric to systematically shift blame from themselves onto their consumers. And in response to that, and other academic research we’ve published, frankly, Exxon have come at us with everything from accusations of cherry-picking and falsehoods to just outright ad hominem attacks.

They ran a four year social media campaign, accusing us and colleagues of being part of a mass political conspiracy. They paid an academic-for-hire to write a non-peer-reviewed report that attacked our work to help them defend against litigation that cites our research. They distributed memos to members of European parliament when I was testifying to EU parliament and had their talking points read at me by sympathetic politicians.

So yeah, as a researcher, you start to feel the machinations of this sort of propaganda machine. But you know, I don’t want to overplay it. I feel like I’ve come off relatively lightly so far, but certainly we’ve seen that the tiger hasn’t changed its stripes, so to speak. They engage in what I call basically now misleading the public about their history of misleading the public. And unfortunately, BP’s statements today seem to corroborate that observation.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. We do have you and Naomi and a few others to credit for really helping the public understand Exxon’s role specifically in advancing climate denialism. But Geoffrey, hang on here for a minute because I want to bring Amy Westervelt into the conversation. She’s a climate —

SUPRAN: Wonderful.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. She’s a climate journalist and head of the investigative newsroom Drilled. Amy, thank you for coming back on the show. Welcome back.

AMY WESTERVELT: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So we could talk with you for hours about all the reporting you’ve done around this same topic. But I wanted to talk with you for a very specific reason, to help us go way back in time and understand if this ability or strategy of using PR is as old as the established oil business in the United States, in particular, itself. Would you say we should go back to, I don’t know, the Standard Oil days?

WESTERVELT: Yes, definitely. The fossil fuel industry was an early and ardent user of PR from the very early days of corporate PR itself. So really starting with Standard Oil, in the early 1900s even, they were starting to spend a fair bit of money on PR.

I went to one early publicist’s archive a while back who had worked for Standard from around the 19-teens to the 1960s. And as early as 1914, Standard Oil was spending a million dollars a year just with him, and he was of only one of a few PR consultants that they were using. So yes, this is an industry that’s availed itself of these tools for a very long time.

CHAKRABARTI: A million dollars a year in 1914.

WESTERVELT:  Yeah. In 1914. That’s a lot! That’s a lot today.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I cannot automatically do that inflation calculation in my head, but look, we’ve got producers who are doing it for me right now. What were they paying him to do, to message? What did they need to message in 1914?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, this is an important thing, too. Because I think sometimes people think of PR as just pitching stories or holding press conferences or sending out press releases or those kinds of things. And yes, those are all kind of basic things. But this guy in particular — his name was Earl Newsom — was more of a trusted advisor who is getting involved in all kinds of things.

So for example, there were memos about whether or not they should announce that they had won a particular award. Because they actually won a PR award in, I want to say 1917, 1918. And he was like, “Let’s not talk about this because we don’t really want people to know that you’re doing PR,” for example.

He advised them on their university research investment strategy as part of what they were doing on the PR front. So it was like, “Look, it looks good for you to be giving money to universities, but also this is a way for us to start to shape people’s understanding of the economy and of your industry at a very early stage. And also it’s a way for us to get research going that can later underpin policy.” Those are the kinds of things that he was doing.

And even doing really early use of focus groups and market research, too. Like, Standard was a beta tester for Elmo Roper and early, early Roper surveys trying to gauge how people felt about the oil industry, how people felt about Standard in particular and other companies. Where Standard fit in the list of great American companies in general, all of that kind of stuff. And even, looking at schools and “Okay, how should we talk to students? And how should we talk to their parents? And is there some way we can get teachers to be getting our message to students so it’s not so obvious that it’s us saying it?”

Those are the kinds of things that they are already starting to think about in, like I said, the 19-teens, 1920s. So, it’s no surprise that they’re pretty good at this today.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Hold that thought. Just to follow up with the “I can’t do inflation calculations in my head live on the radio –”

WESTERVELT: Yes.

CHAKRABARTI: Our producers did it for us, and $1 million in 1914 is now $30.7 million today.

WESTERVELT: Wow.

CHAKRABARTI: So $30 million, almost $31 million, to that one person that you mentioned. Huge amount of money. Okay. So let me — Geoffrey, I’m going to come back to you. But Amy, I want to circle back to something that you just said. First of all, Standard Oil by 1914 had been dissolved. It was not the monopoly that it once was, right?

WESTERVELT: This was Standard Oil of New Jersey was the client for Earl Newsom, yes.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay.

WESTERVELT: Which is today,  Exxon.

CHAKRABARTI: Today’s Exxon. So was the pre-dissolution Standard Oil also trying to use some kind of early 20th century marketing?

WESTERVELT: They were. Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: To fight off being broken up?

WESTERVELT: They were. And not just for the company, but also for the Rockefellers themselves. So they were, I mean, in a lot of ways, like philanthropy gets born out of this. It was very much part of an endeavor by one of if not the first corporate PR guy, I.B. Lee, to rehabilitate the reputation of the Rockefellers who, you know at a certain point were the cartoon villain rich guys. And by the time John D. Rockefeller passed was considered a great philanthropist in large part due to his PR guy.

CHAKRABARTI: Interesting. Wow. And to this day, the Rockefeller Foundation funding many things, including various projects from public radio.

WESTERVELT: Lots of climate reporting, yes! (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So, one more thing, Amy. You had mentioned that they didn’t use PR just to shape views of the company, both pre- and post-breakup, but other things, including how people viewed or understood the economy?

WESTERVELT: Yes. Yes. This is something that I feel like is my soapbox. Really there are so many economics programs and universities and speeches to sort of local chambers of commerce, local economics clubs, all of that. You see it so much over the years up into more recently. Ben Franta at Oxford University did a study a couple years ago on specific economists that were hired by the American Petroleum Institute to look at the “cost of acting on climate,” which did not include the cost of not acting on climate. To develop models where, they’re trying to say, “Look, it’s way too expensive to act on this issue.” That fed into the whole idea that “we need the science to be more robust in order for us to justify spending all this money,” all of those things.

Meanwhile, this huge issue. What’s the cost of not doing anything? What’s the cost of increased extreme weather events and things like that was never part of that economic model. So you can see where even in that kind of small way, they’re shaping how we see economic policy, climate policy, all of that stuff.

But then there’s also this whole narrative work that they’re doing really from, again, like early 1900s to today to sort of shape how we view the economy, how it’s supposed to work, and how we view the environment. And how we view the relationship between the two in particular.

CHAKRABARTI: And Geoffrey had mentioned earlier that this is falls in the tradition of how Big Tobacco used messaging. And I would say Big Tech now is doing the same thing. I can’t count the number of times that Mark Zuckerberg insists that he believes in free and open speech but definitely does not do that on Facebook. So, Amy, hang on here for a second, and Geoffrey, you too. There’s a lot more to talk about when we come back.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: And Professor Supran, just pick up where Amy left off about the long history here of PR use by petrochemical companies. Because I guess what I wanted to jump to is: How does their use of messaging and PR differ from the other big industries that you had mentioned before, tobacco, et cetera? Or is it just sort of part and parcel of the same large corporate strategies?

SUPRAN: That’s a really good question. When Amy was talking and I was thinking about how do we join the dots between this early 20th century history and today, it reminded me of what was called the “first general principle of effective public affairs” by the pioneering spin doctor Herb Schmertz at Mobil Oil. I think a favorite character of mine and Amy’s. And I think it speaks to your question just now because of the specific way in which things like this carbon footprint campaign have changed the lexicon of the way we talk about these problems and their solutions.

So his “first general principle of effective public affairs” — I was looking it up while you were chatting — was, “Grab the good words and the good concepts for yourself. Be sensitive to semantic infiltration, the process whereby language does the dirty work of politics. Your objective is to wrap yourself in the good phrases while sticking your opponents with the bad ones.”

And I think that one thing that we’ve seen in perhaps an outsized way by the industry is — and the PR agents who have abetted it — is their success in shaping the way that we think about the climate crisis. When it’s an interesting sort of aside to this BP campaign on the carbon footprint that actually is part of the same Beyond Petroleum campaign.

Just a couple of years later, in 2006 to 2008, BP also deployed what they called an “all of the above” strategy for marketing energy. And the campaign called methane, which is more popularly known as natural gas, they called it a “clean bridge fuel.” And they argued on that basis that methane could be, or should be, considered part of an “all of the above” solution to climate change alongside solar and wind. And so conflating methane with renewables and calling it “clean” was highly deceptive, basically serving to perpetuate a narrative whereby the fossil fuel industry asserts that fossil fuels will be essential for the foreseeable future. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen playing out over the last decade, including at the recent COP negotiation.

WESTERVELT: That’s —

CHAKRABARTI: What a fascinating man. No, Amy, go ahead.

WESTERVELT: Yeah, sorry. That’s had another step of evolution just in the last couple of years where in, I want to say 2020, we were leaked a marketing strategy document from BP. And they are the ones that led the charge on rebranding gas once again, as now it’s a “low carbon fuel.” (LAUGHS) And you saw that that wording all over the place at COP. So, I mean, I think “bridge fuel” is back, too, but they’ve also really leaned into this whole idea of “low carbon fossil fuels” and “low carbon gas.”

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So now when anybody gets — any name on the show gets a kind of knowing chuckle from the guests, I want to know more about that person. Because when Geoffrey mentioned Herb Schmertz, both of you at the same time went, “Oh yeah, it’s one of our favorites.”

SUPRAN: (LAUGHS) Inside jokes.

WESTERVELT: (LAUGHS) I’m obsessed with Herb!

CHAKRABARTI: And I’m seeing here, I’m looking at his obituary in the New York Times from, I think he died in 2018. Obviously I’m saying, I don’t know much about this guy. But the Times pointed out that, okay, so he joined Mobil in 1966 as a labor lawyer, took a couple of years’ leave to work on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign —

WESTERVELT: He worked on all of the Kennedys’ campaigns!

CHAKRABARTI: All of the Kennedys?

WESTERVELT: Yes.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So how did this fellow then turn into this honestly semantic genius as Geoffrey was describing from that quote?

WESTERVELT: He is.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Tell me more about him.

WESTERVELT: Yes. Above and beyond the stuff that, that Geoffrey just talked about, he’s the guy who worked with the New York Times to create the advertorial. He is the guy that got Mobil sponsoring Masterpiece Theater. He more or less, I mean, he didn’t invent the idea of issue advertising. Other folks were doing it, but he certainly made it a much bigger thing than it had been. And in order to protect a lot of that stuff, he really got Mobil involved in some legal battles to lay the legal groundwork to really to eventually create the whole legal framework for corporate free speech.

I don’t, I mean, without Herb Schmertz, you might not have ended up having Citizens United. That’s how much impact this guy has had on just really the flow of information and how corporations are allowed to and get to engage in public life.  As Geoffrey knows, I’m a big Herb Schmertz-head. I’m so obsessed with this guy. I think he’s really fascinating!

SUPRAN: I think Amy and I have both spent too much time reading about Herb Schmertz. But yeah, I think —

WESTERVELT: He’s an entertaining character!

SUPRAN: Yeah. I mean, I mean, to add to what Amy said — and by the way, I think it’s dangerous to put me and Amy in a room because I feel like every time she talks, it gives me like 10 things I want to say — I think it’s also important to mention, so advertorials, for anyone who doesn’t know, are basically advertisements disguised as editorials. They are paid ads that look like op-eds.

And as Amy said, Mobil Oil, under the leadership of Herb Schmertz, completely dominated the New York Times advertorials. They took out one in four of all their advertorials. They had one every single Thursday for 30 years. And in doing so they really raised to a fine art, this practice of advocacy advertising or issue advertising. Basically the idea of selling ideas rather than products. It’s a form of what we call “outside lobbying,” lobbying the public. And it has really shaped, as we’ve been touching on in multiple directions, the way we as the public and policy makers think about the climate crisis, but also just the environment, capitalism and its role in addressing crises.

And also worthwhile noting is that the direct digital descendant of the print advertorial are the native news ads that pop up on your screen every time you read an article in The Washington Post or New York Times or many other places and you see an oil piece of messaging alongside a climate piece of messaging. That’s Herb Schmertz’s fingerprints all over that. So yeah, he’s an exciting guy.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. So were those advertorials identified as having been associated with Mobil?

SUPRAN: So they they were, yes. They typically, yes, they had Mobil, ExxonMobil’s logo on the bottom. They varyingly either did or didn’t say paid for but, as a lot of like academic scholarship has shown, the public in general, unfortunately, generally don’t pick up on those little tags, whether it be on the old fashioned print ads or the new ones you see online.

CHAKRABARTI: And the new ones you see online in many cases, you don’t have, there is no actual like explicit “paid for by.” But also if there is, it’s oftentimes sort of “Americans for Fresh Air and Clean Fuels,” right?

WESTERVELT: Yes.

SUPRAN: Like the light gray in the top left corner.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, exactly. Okay. So, to get us — this is all interesting, so I do not apologize for any of our digressions because it’s all part of the story here. But I also note that Schmertz really advocated for corporations meeting head-on criticism, right? And that’s, of course, perhaps no greater issue than climate change has heaped criticism on all these companies. And they’ve taken that sort of aggressive stance into a lot of different areas.

For example, speaking now of Mobil, what about Exxon Mobil? Of course, they being a major funder of research and advertising regarding climate denial, but they’ve also spent, here’s another one, years advertising a program to develop biofuels from algae. And this is an ad from 2019 and it shows a scientist dipping a beaker into a pool of greenish water.

EXXONMOBIL ADVERTISEMENT [Tape]: Some farms grow food. This one grows fuel. Exxon Mobil is growing algae for biofuels that could one day power planes, propel ships, and fuel trucks, and cut their emissions in half.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s a biofuels ad from Exxon Mobil. And according to the podcast How to Save a Planet, Exxon spent about $30 million on actual biofuels operations annually. But they spent way more than that on green marketing, more than $56 million, for example, in the year before this ad aired.

Now, we reached out to Exxon for comment. They did not get back to us, but the company did shut down the algae biofuel research program earlier this year. So another example there. And Geoffrey and Amy, this brings us to not just the messaging impact that these companies have, but actually the policy impacts as well. One feeds into the other.

The Global Climate Conference, Geoffrey, as you mentioned, just wrapped up. Do you see any fingerprints of Big Oil there, even as countries reach some very significant agreements?

SUPRAN: Amy, go ahead.

WESTERVELT: Oh, gosh. Yes. I would say, entire handprints, not just fingerprints. (LAUGHS) Yeah, I mean, it’s been very well-publicized that the president of this year’s climate summit is also the president of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. There were many times more fossil fuel lobbyists at this COP than ever before, all of those things.

And, I would temper some of the — there’s been quite a lot of excitement about the fact that, finally at COP 28, we’ve explicitly said that fossil fuels contribute to climate change. I’m not sure how exciting that really is 28 years in, especially given that we also got rid of language around the phase-out of fossil fuels. That language was watered down significantly. And there are so many caveats in this agreement around “transitional fuels,” which we know they mean gas by that. So yes, there are lots and lots of wins for the fossil fuel industry in this agreement and between the lobbyists themselves.

And then, I mean, the UAE alone spent — with just two PR firms that we know of so far that we dug into the data on — they spent around $4 or $5 million in PR around COP. And that’s just two of the six or seven firms that they were using to help create the image of the UAE and this COP president as being big climate leaders.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm. So let me just jump in here for a second, Amy. Because perhaps this is a situation where the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good here. Because I understand your concerns about the watering down of language but, to be clear, this is the first time, as you said, that there’s been this almost universal international agreement to move away from fossil fuels. Now, a lot of countries wanted complete moving away, but they ended up with that phase-out language — or sorry, not even a phase-out language —

WESTERVELT: Phase down.

CHAKRABARTI: Phase down. Yeah. That’s right. That’s right. Because of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, et cetera, pushing back on that. So now the final language says, a global shift away from fossil fuels this decade in a “just, orderly and equitable manner.” And as always, the devil’s in the details.

But Geoffrey, I want to give you the last word here, because bearing that in mind — that at least there is some — not some, an historic a global agreement now —  does it give you perhaps a little bit more hope about any waning influence on the messaging power of these companies? Because even though it may have taken decades, this is a very meaningful agreement amongst the world’s nations.

SUPRAN: Yeah it’s a really tricky case, as Amy was alluding to in terms of how to approach this. Because it’s important to celebrate wins when you have them but at the same time, not to kid ourselves. The recognition that fossil fuels cause climate change and so we need to move away from fossil fuels would have been a great statement during COP 1 back in the early 1990s.

And the reality is that Exxon and their peers have known since, before — like my entire lifetime and more about the fact that this is the case. Back in 1989, Exxon was talking about how addressing climate change would mean “a near-term reduced demand for their current products and long term a transition to entirely new energy systems.” So yeah, I think that Exxon is starting to see the writing on the wall as are other oil companies. And as Herb Schmertz said we expect them to stick their opponents with new bad terms. So I think that the fight is very much ongoing.

CHAKRABARTI: Geoffrey Supran, professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami and director of the Climate Accountability Lab there. Thank you so much for joining us today.

SUPRAN: Thank you, Meghna. Great to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: And Amy Westervelt, climate journalist and head of the investigative newsroom Drilled. Amy, thank you so much.

WESTERVELT: Thank you. So fun.

CHAKRABARTI: I’m gonna go now and read all your papers and reporting about Herb Schmertz. (LAUGHS) That’s gonna be my holiday reading.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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