Advertising and Climate: Who’s on Top?

Have you ever seen a television ad or billboard asking you to cut your carbon usage?  Aside from a very small amount of innocuous advertising promoting energy efficiency, the vast majority of energy-related advertising promotes fossil fuel usage.   The coal industry has spent tens of millions of dollars on its “clean coal” campaign.    Oil giants such as BP and Chevron and their front organizations spend lavishly promoting their commitment to “meeting America’s energy demand.”    Auto companies such as GM, Ford, Toyota, and Chrysler are all among the top 15 U.S. advertisers, each spending billions of dollars annually to promote their gasoline-burning cars.   Climate-denial organizations and politicians have received nearly $1 billion from the Koch brothers and their allies to advance a carbon-friendly message in the media in recent years.  The combined power of this advertising explains a lot about the American public’s muddled and ambivalent attitude on climate issues. 

Overcoming the overwhelmingly carbon-friendly bias of energy-related advertising is essential to forming a societal consensus to reduce national and personal CO2emissions.    A good first step is to understand the reach, magnitude, and effectiveness of carbon-promoting advertising.  The few analyses that have delved into the imbalance in carbon messaging, with most studies focusing more narrowly on climate-denial spending, rather than on the entire array of carbon-friendly spending.  A second step is to develop and implement strategies to blunt the effectiveness of carbon-friendly advertising.  This may include campaigns mocking carbon-friendly advertising, demonstrating the dirtiness of gasoline-powered vehicles, as well as positive campaigns showing how a clean-energy future is possible.  So far, major environmental philanthropists, governments, and anyone else with the means to do so have largely avoided this type of expenditure.

Tom Steyer’s Next Gen Climate campaign to spend $100 million in the 2014 midterm elections to defeat climate change-denying candidates.  While the campaign is generally a helpful counterbalance to the dominance of carbon-friendly advertising, its politicization of climate issues plays into the extremely partisan and gridlocked nature of climate politics.  Furthermore, it reinforces the belief that climate change is mostly a problem to be dealt with by politicians, leaving consumers free of personal responsibility to address their own CO2 emissions and for the need to sacrifice for future generations.  (NextGen Climate has recently veered towards more traditional campaign issues such as jobs and the economy, rather than climate change, because climate issues don’t resonate sufficiently with voters.)

Because durable and effective carbon taxes will ultimately require significant sacrifices from consumers, consumers need to be well educated on climate change and their personal responsibility for minimizing their carbon emissions before they will support the decisive political action necessary to meet emission reduction targets.  This educational process will require a powerful, consistent, and ongoing media campaign to maintain awareness of the carbon/climate problem, and the personal and political options to address the problem.   The campaign has barely begun.

-Matthew Metz