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An Extinction Rebellion demonstrator protests against oil companies in London on August 23, 2021. (Photo: Tejas Sandhu/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Young PR and Ad Professionals Demand Industry Ditch Fossil Fuel Clients

"If agencies want to remain relevant, and attractive places to work for top young talent, they need to end their work for the worst polluters on the planet."

Jessica Corbett

"You had a future, and so should we."

"We, tomorrow's leaders, call on all agencies, from the holding companies to the independent shops, to stop working with fossil fuel clients. This means oil giants as well as the alphabet soup of trade associations and front groups."
—71 young professionals

That's the first line of an open letter released Tuesday by 71 young professionals and students in the advertising and public relations industry calling for an end to contracts with fossil fuel companies, given their significant contributions to the climate emergency.

"The biggest threat to our future is climate change," they write. "The world's 20 biggest polluters are fossil fuel companies, with the entire energy sector responsible for creating 75% of carbon emissions. They are blocking necessary and urgently needed climate action."

"And our industry is helping them do it," the young professionals continue. "We're angry. We're afraid. And we refuse to sit back and watch it happen."

The letter is clear in its demand: "We, tomorrow's leaders, call on all agencies, from the holding companies to the independent shops, to stop working with fossil fuel clients. This means oil giants as well as the alphabet soup of trade associations and front groups."

"No more marketing climate denial and disinformation" or "setting up fake front groups," the letter adds, further calling for an end to "amplifying lies about how action will hurt the economy" and "greenwashing oil, gas, and coal companies, aiding them in their attempts to dodge pollution safeguards and block meaningful change."

The signatories urge everyone in the industry—especially agency heads, founders, and leadership teams—to take a stand against continuing to work with polluters, emphasizing that the climate emergency is already taking a toll.

"We won't be able to reduce, reuse, recycle our way out of tomorrow's catastrophe—because it is already happening today," says the letter, which is open for new signatories through the end of the week. "Over the last few years, we've seen the devastating impacts of climate-related disasters, like record-breaking wildfires, droughts, heatwaves, and hurricanes. Bold action is needed, at all levels and segments of society. The time has come for our industry to do its part."

Fires are devouring swaths of the Western United States, forcing evacuations and shutting down every national forest in California. On Sunday, Hurricane Ida, a "poster child for a climate change-driven disaster," slammed into the Gulf Coast as a Category 4 storm, killing at least four people, leaving more than a million without power amid widespread destruction, and sparking calls for President Joe Biden to declare a climate emergency.

"At some point in the recent past, climate change was something that was happening in some distant future, and maybe of little concern to most people. Well, that distant future is now today—everyone will experience climate change as a series of horrific front-page photos and videos until they themselves are taking those photos and videos. It's no longer some abstract threat," letter leader Joe Cole told Common Dreams.

Cole is strategist working with Clean Creatives, a campaign supported by Fossil Free Media that pressures ad and PR agencies to drop fossil fuel accounts.

The letter comes as the New York Times is under fire for allowing fossil fuel industry advertising, thanks to a new campaign and reporting by climate journalist Emily Atkin in her newsletter HEATED.

As Atkin reported Monday:

[A] new activist campaign to pressure the Times to stop creating and running fossil fuel ads is launching today. Called Ads Not Fit to Print, the campaign argues that fossil fuel advertisements endanger Times readers' health in the same way now-banned cigarette ads did—and likely, even more.

"What the Times is doing right now is shameful," said Genevieve Guenther, whose group End Climate Silence is spearheading the campaign. "On one hand, they're trying to seem like part of the reality-based community who acknowledges the climate crisis and wants to solve it. On the other, they're doing everything they can to keep the fossil fuel economy going because it is one of the sources of their own power and they believe in it."

Activists aren't the only ones taking issue with this practice, either. In conversations with HEATED over the last week, several current and former Times newsroom employees expressed concerns about the paper's practice of creating and running fossil fuel ads. Their concerns ranged from undermining the Times' own climate reporting, to harming Times readers' health, to aiding industry attempts to mislead the public about the deadly effects of fossil fuels.

Cole highlighted energy giants' contributions to planet-heating pollution and told Common Dreams that "these clients are represented by some of the most storied ad agencies in the world like BBDO, Edelman, Ogilvy, and WundermanThompson."

"These ads go on to be featured in some of the most prominent real estate around the world, from billboards to the NYT," he said. "Although the tobacco industry was and is responsible for a personal health crisis, the fossil fuel industry is killing the entire planet."

Praising Times journalists' work on the climate emergency, Fossil Free Media director Jamie Henn tweeted that "the paper should stop doing them—and all of us—a disservice by continuing to make and run ads for fossil fuel corporations."

In a statement about the letter Tuesday, Cole said that "any time our industry starts to change for the better, it is through a combination of outside and internal pressure. I believe in the power of young professionals in our industry—the leaders of tomorrow—to hasten the necessary transition away from fossil fuel clients."

The strategist pointed to recent findings that July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded and asserted that "it's no longer acceptable for agency executives to ignore the damage their work with fossil fuel clients is doing to the planet."

He argued that "even a single contract with a client like BP, Shell, or Exxon can wipe out the impact of an agency's sustainability pledge. If agencies are serious about not only protecting the future of their young staff, but recruiting them in the first place they need to begin by transitioning away from fossil fuel work and rejecting new contracts."

"The people signing this letter truly are the leaders of tomorrow," Cole added, "and if agencies want to remain relevant, and attractive places to work for top young talent, they need to end their work for the worst polluters on the planet."

This post has been updated with additional comment from Joe Cole.

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