Past sins are past no more: an overdue historical recalibration is under way, with monuments being pulled down, dorms renamed, restitution offered. People did things, bad things; even across the span of centuries, they’re being held to account, and there’s something noble about that. The Reverend Robert W. Lee IV, for instance, recently backed the removal of his famous ancestor’s statue from Richmond, Virginia. The memorial, he wrote, “is a hollow reminder of a painful ideology and acts of oppression against black people. Taking it down will provide new opportunities for conversations, relationships and policy change.” Such a response raises an uncomfortable question: What are we doing now that our descendants will need to apologize for? Might we be able to get ahead of the sin this time?
The most urgent practical question currently facing the species is almost certainly whether we can rapidly transform our energy systems and stop pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Chief executives of oil companies keep the conflagration going, but the industry doesn’t work alone. Last year—before the final fully intact ice shelf in Canada collapsed into the Arctic Ocean; before record fires killed or displaced nearly three billion animals across Australia; before the world measured its first reliable hundred-and-thirty-degree-Fahrenheit temperature, in Death Valley, California; before that state faced the largest fires in its history; before at least five tropical cyclones spun at once
through the Atlantic—I wrote about the role that banks, asset managers, and insurance companies have played in supplying the capital required to keep the fossil-fuel industry humming. In the months since, those industries, pressed hard by activists, have begun to shift; giants such as BlackRock have announced sweeping new policies, even if they’re still far from matching their rhetoric with action.
Now I want to focus on another industry that buttresses the status quo: the advertising, lobbying, and public-relations firms that help provide the rationalizations and the justifications that slow the pace of change. Although these agencies are less significant monetarily than the banks, they are more so intellectually; if money is the oxygen on which the fire of global warming burns, then P.R. campaigns and snappy catchphrases are the kindling.
Climate change is sometimes compared to the Holocaust or to slavery, because all three have killed and degraded human lives on an almost unimaginable scale. But the comparisons are, at their root, wrong, at least on moral terms—among many other things, for most of the more than three centuries that people have been burning fossil fuels, they had no idea that they were damaging the future. Coal and oil and gas were seen as—and, at one time, probably were—more liberating than oppressing for the societies that burned them, despite the pollution they produced. It was just around three decades ago that the heat-trapping molecular structure of carbon dioxide, and hence the “greenhouse effect,” became a pressing public issue, and, by that time, fossil fuel was one of the world’s largest industrial enterprises. The burning of fossil fuel wasn’t evil in its origins, in other words—no one need feel guilty for having been a part of it, which is good, because all of us in the rich world are, even if we have solar panels on the roof and a Tesla in the garage.
By this point, however, we know precisely how dangerous the continued combustion of hydrocarbons is. And we have seen that there are affordable alternatives to them. Indeed, solar and wind power can now be produced more cheaply than fossil-fuel energy. And we’ve seen great investigative reporting lay out the fact that the big oil companies have known of the causes of climate change since at least the nineteen-eighties, and worked actively to deny them or cover them up. Clearly, that was immoral. So what do we say in 2020 about the people who are still helping the oil majors and the gas utilities in their efforts to slow a transition to clean energy?
I’m not talking here about coal miners or natural-gas pipeliners or people who work at filling stations, much less people who drive cars or heat their homes—they participate in a world that they didn’t create. But lobbyists and P.R. firms develop promotional campaigns for the industry, and people are starting to hold them accountable for it. In August, Storebrand, a ninety-one-billion-dollar asset manager based in Norway, divested from companies including ExxonMobil and Chevron precisely because of their lobbying activities. “Climate change is one of the greatest risks facing humanity, and lobbying activities which undermine action to solve this crisis are simply unacceptable. The Exxons and Chevrons of the world are holding us back,” Jan Erik Saugestad, Storebrand’s chief executive, said.
What’s interesting about many of the current P.R. campaigns is that they don’t involve classic climate denial. Outside of the Trump Administration and the right wing of the Republican Party, that’s now a dead letter. You could no more persuade a Madison Avenue agency to argue that carbon dioxide is harmless than you could persuade it to argue that Black lives don’t matter. Instead, these campaigns often look for ways to leverage people’s environmental concern in service of precisely the companies that are causing the trouble.
Let’s start with a completely charming series of online ads that B.B.D.O. put together, in 2019, for Exxon. B.B.D.O. is one of the iconic ad agencies (it was frequently mentioned on “Mad Men”), responsible for everything from “Better Things for Better Living . . . Through Chemistry” (DuPont) to “Ring Around the Collar” (Wisk detergent). Building on a YouTube craze for videos showing cooks preparing tiny cakes and hamburgers, a creative team put together a series of four Web ads called “Miniature Science.” In the second ad, algae is grown in little dishes, cultivated in a tiny seawater pond, and kept circulating by a minuscule paddle wheel. After a few days, the algae is drained from the pond, and a pocket-size pestle crushes its cell walls to free its oil. Once the paste has been mixed with traces of hexane, sodium hydroxide, and methanol, it produces “a low-emission biofuel.” In the next installment, the mixture is used to propel a boat around a bowl. This algae biofuel, a sprightly narrator notes, could power “entire fleets of ships tomorrow.” In fact, the ad contends, algae could fuel “the trucks, ships and planes of tomorrow.” It concludes, “This is big.”
But it’s not big. The algae tech dates back more than a decade, when a number of oil companies invested relatively small sums in the project. In 2009, Exxon partnered with a company called Synthetic Genomics to conduct research and figure out how to scale production; the oil giant estimates that, between 2008 and 2018, it invested about two hundred and fifty million dollars into biofuel technology. Some five years after that partnership began, Exxon was spending about a hundred million dollars a day trying to find and develop new sources of oil and natural gas and on other costs. Considering this, the algae money represents a rounding error: a few days’ worth worth of capital expenditures from a company still fully committed to its legacy products. And, in any event, by the time B.B.D.O. was producing Exxon’s ads, most other companies had ceased work on algae biofuel, because it had become obvious that it would never make economic sense. As the industry newsletter Oilprice.com put it, you’d need oil to trade at five hundred dollars a barrel—more than ten times its current price—for algae to ever compete with it. As a result, Exxon itself has essentially conceded that this technology won’t amount to much. The company’s latest forecast put off until as late as 2025 the date for actually producing algae fuel, and even then it will be producing just an estimated ten thousand barrels a day, or roughly 0.2 per cent of its refinery capacity. Meanwhile, a trial at Swansea University, in Wales, showed that, if you wanted to supply, say, ten per cent of Europe’s transport-fuel needs with algae, you’d need growing ponds three times the size of Belgium. According to one blog, you’d need ponds covering eighteen per cent of the agricultural land in the United Kingdom just to cover Britain’s transportation habits.
But, if algae has underachieved scientifically, it has dramatically overachieved as a greenwashing tool. The B.B.D.O. Web ads were the least of it; there were also TV campaigns and print ads from agencies such as Universal McCann. “If you look on ExxonMobil’s Facebook or Instagram, you’d think that algae is all they’re thinking about all the time,” Zoya Teirstein, a reporter for Grist, told the Harvard Political Review. According to Kert Davies, the director of the nonprofit Climate Investigations Center, Exxon began running algae ads during the 2016 Olympics, and has spent more than fifty million dollars buying TV time to tout the biofuel’s wonders. Another example: a long “paid post” prepared with the Times’ brand marketing team (the editorial and news staffs were not involved) which aims to explain “how scientists are tapping algae and plant waste to fuel a sustainable energy future.” As a researcher explains, “Eventually, we want to power something the size of UPS or FedEx’s global fleet with renewable diesel. That would be pretty aspirational. It’d be a real ‘We did it’ moment.”
In fact, both UPS and FedEx are busily electrifying their delivery-truck fleets. (Amazon and Ikea, too.) As experts have been saying for years, a working climate future depends on the rapid electrification of almost everything—because, if something runs on electricity, it can be powered by the sun and the wind. A decade ago, that was still a hopeful idea, but, in recent years, as the price of solar and wind power has plummeted, it’s become an eminently practical one. It’s already true for domestic consumption, and increasingly it’s even the case for heavy industry, including steel production. Here is the energy expert Saul Griffith speaking to Ezra Klein, of Vox: “We don’t really have a vision for how to create the same amount of liquid fuels as we do today to drive our cars. So really the only answer if we’re going to continue to have a lot of cars is to electrify them. Similarly, we don’t really have an answer to providing heat to our homes that’s zero carbon unless we electrify. It’s really the only pathway that’s viable to get to zero carbon.” Again, a decade ago, this could have seemed a dream. But, as lithium-ion batteries have got more efficient, and electric vehicles have got cheaper, it’s now clearly the only way forward. And it has to happen fast: as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pointed out two years ago, if we don’t make “fundamental transformations” in our energy systems by 2030—which the group defined as cutting emissions by nearly half—we have no chance of meeting even the modest targets set by the world’s nations in Paris five years ago. There is no time to waste.