Carbon Consciousness & Action

Advertising and Climate: Who’s on Top?

Clean coalHave 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 CO2 emissions.    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.

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5 thoughts on “Advertising and Climate: Who’s on Top?

  1. John Shoesmith on said:

    This is a good and thought provoking post. The millions of dollars spent on advertising translate into long hours by the best professionals in creating and checking the effectiveness of their message. The sponsors have a clear objective – to support their businesses and the employment that they provide. They also have influence with politicians and media professionals.

    I doubt that public opinion will swing soon unless the best professionals are employed to create a long and consistent campaign. The funding required is probably beyond the means of private benefactors. Nor will it be easy for an individual nation to fund a campaign because their electors will not support the expenditure until their opinion has changed – Catch-22.

    I wonder if the international conferences on climate change, which seem relatively ineffective because individual nations are driven by self-interest, might agree to fund an advertising campaign. Your post makes some good suggestions for the objectives of the campaign, which should be seen as an essential pre-requisite for more effective action in future.

    • John:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      Governments, environmental groups, and most everyone else are still tip-toeing around asking consumers to take personal responsibility for their emissions, hoping that a barely noticeable carbon tax will shift consumer behavior enough to meet carbon reduction goals without unduly inconveniencing consumers.

      In the U.S., U.K. and most other advanced economies, 60-70% of people are concerned about climate change and believe that fossil fuel emissions are driving it, but those beliefs and concerns are not translating into personal carbon reduction action. Many of my friends profess grave concern about the environmental crisis, but then fly all over the world for their vacations, drive gasoline-powered cars and have a carbon footprint well over the 18 ton American mean.

      The advertising campaign should be targeted initially at those already convinced about climate change. It needs to tell people how much they are emitting (1 gallon of gas =20 lbs of CO2, 1 airplane mile=1 lb of CO2), that they have a responsibility to reduce, and make them feel a sharp prick of conscience when they are tempted to do something that will emit a lot of CO2.

      The leaders at the climate summit could commit themselves to asking their peoples to know what their personal CO2 emissions are and to make concrete steps in their daily lives to reduce them significantly (10-20%?) on an annual basis. Once this threshold decision is reached, they should organize public/private mass media educational campaigns to give consumers the conceptual and moral tools they need to effectively join the fight. Once consumers are engaged, fast political progress for carbon taxes and other measures becomes much more doable.

      • John Shoesmith on said:

        Thanks for your reply. I’d like to take one point from it a little further because I think it lies at the heart of effective and rapid action.

        You say that many people are concerned about climate change but those beliefs do not translate into personal action. I’m an engineer. I can do the calculations and I understand those actions that lead to large emissions. Where little personal sacrifice is involved I minimise emissions, but often I don’t. Why not?

        Suppose that I take an personal action to minimise emissions, for example I cycle rather than taking the car. What effect does that action have? In global terms the effect is minuscule – impossible to measure. I therefore use my bike when it is convenient or the sacrifice is small, but if it is raining, or hot, or windy, or the traffic is dangerous, I take the car. Why make a personal sacrifice when it achieves virtually nothing?

        This argument is the biggest barrier to action. It applies to many individual decisions every day. It is even applied at the national level – what is the point in reducing our emissions when the rest of the world isn’t?

        If in contrast my decision was part of a coordinated whole, with all the people on the planet involved making similar small sacrifices, I’d take a very different view.

        So I agree that initially the advertising should simply educate, and that will produce some benefits. To get deeper cuts however we will need something more. Firstly a moral basis – perhaps stating that people will ultimately need to reduce personal carbon emissions to an equal low level across the planet. That needs to be agreed so that sacrifices are seen to be fair.

        We also need an agreed global carbon reduction plan, so that personal emissions reductions are seen to be part of a success story rather than a futile idealistic personal gesture. The plan would also hopefully show that the ultimate level of sacrifice is not too great.

        Lastly we need a discussion on the mechanism by which we induce action. Carbon taxes are fine in theory, but there are huge gaps in wealth between the rich and the poor. Even a small carbon tax produces problems for poor people, while the rich will continue to burn large amounts of fossil fuel in their toys. Some form of cost mechanism will be essential but an unfair system will never gain electoral support.

      • John:

        The “what difference does it make so why should I bother” position is logical and difficult to overcome. Still, most people vote (example of people taking part of your “coordinated whole” ?) and take other voluntary actions (donate $100 to a large museum) that infinitesimally benefit the group. Taking these objectively “meaningless” actions makes people feel good about who they are.

        Fossil fuels are big power enhancers–they help us go powerfully, fast and far, and that power drives our sense of who we are–strong, vital people, doing things, going places. Can media and advertising can somehow taint this carbon-power feeling–and instead spread a vibe that burning lots of carbon indiscriminately is greedy, messy, corpulent, sweaty, passe? If this happens, will it give us all more pause when we take the car out unnecessarily or plan a 20,000 mile trip?

        Could being low carbon become chic–like being thin? Can the low-carbon diet become the next diet craze? These sound like silly questions, but they need to be looked at to maximize voluntary reduction. The carbon debate has been mostly been dominated by scientists, bureaucrats, and politicians–the most boring people in the world.

        Perhaps little groups of people on Facebook, through churches, etc. could pledge to use under 10,000 pounds of CO2 a year.Others might try to beat them and pledge to be 0 carbon, with offsets. . Celebrities could create groups challenging their people to match a certain carbon level. People not willing to stop fliying could pledge to go low carbon as then can, and then offset by 2x to 100x every pound of CO2 they release.

        Once a critical mass of people involved in these types of campaigns gets going, much stronger support for carbon pricing is not far behind.

      • John Shoesmith on said:

        I really hope you are right. I look forward to reading your next post since you raise some interesting and different issues.

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