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Khanna at fossil fuel subsidies rally

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) speaks at a rally near the U.S. Capitol about ending fossil fuel subsidies on June 29, 2021. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Ro Khanna Vows to Put Big Oil, PR Firms in Hot Seat 'Like the Big Tobacco Hearings'

"You can't address the climate crisis without addressing climate misinformation," said the California Democrat, who plans to call fossil fuel, ad, and PR executives to testify before Congress.

Brett Wilkins

Rep. Ro Khanna on Thursday fired a broadside at an often-overlooked enabler and profiteer of the worsening climate emergency—the public relations and advertising firms that continue to serve the fossil fuel industry—by announcing that their deceptive practices would be scrutinized during forthcoming congressional hearings on Big Oil climate misinformation.

"You can't address the climate crisis without addressing climate misinformation."
—Rep. Ro Khanna

In a new video recorded by Khanna (D-Calif.) for the Clean Creatives campaign, the congressman—who chairs the House Oversight Environmental Subcommittee—said that "for the first time ever in Congress," Big Oil executives would be compelled to "testify about misinformation."

"We are going to be going after Chevron, BP, Shell," and other companies, said Khanna. "Part of it will be accountability in the past, but a lot of it will be getting these companies on the record to stop doing the climate disinformation."

"It will be like the Big Tobacco hearings," he vowed, referring to the watershed 1994 congressional inquiry into cigarette companies' lies and longtime knowledge of their products' deadly harm. Like Big Tobacco, Big Oil has for decades known about the dangers of its products, while misleading the public about the connection between fossil fuel use and global heating.

"You can't address the climate crisis without addressing climate misinformation," said Khanna, who then took aim at a key creator and amplifier of fossil fuel industry misinformation. "A lot of these PR and ad agencies talk about trust and building trust. They can't be engaged in propaganda campaigns that are blatantly misleading."

Often, this does not take the form of "absolute climate denialism," the congressman continued. "It is actually more subtle, and that's why it's more pernicious. It is downplaying the risk, it is downplaying human agency, and deceiving people about the solutions."

Following the publication in July of undercover footage showing current and former ExxonMobil lobbyists boasting about their access to U.S. lawmakers and their work to thwart attempts to combat the climate emergency, Khanna—who has stated his intent to hold Big Oil hearings since at least May—demanded that fossil fuel executives testify before Congress. He threatened to subpoena them if they did not voluntarily comply.

PR and advertising firms have long escaped the scrutiny to which fossil fuel companies and their leaders have increasingly been subjected. However, that is now changing. According to Clean Creatives:

Public relations and advertising agencies are increasingly in the spotlight for their "dirty" work on behalf of fossil fuel companies. In March, The New York Times ran a headline, "Ad Agencies Step Away From Oil and Gas in Echo of Cigarette Exodus." The same month, BuzzFeed took Edelman to task for working with "one of the most extreme fossil fuel trade groups."

"It's important to remember that most of the climate denial and disinformation that we see in the media and online isn't crafted by engineers at Exxon, but by advertising agencies and PR firms hired by the fossil fuel industry," Jamie Henn, founder and director of Fossil Free Media, which supports Clean Creatives, told Common Dreams.

"A lot of people have never heard of firms like Edelman, Fleishman Hillard, or FTI Consulting, but these are some of the largest purveyors of fossil fuel propaganda in the world," said Henn. "The sickening thing is that these same advertising and PR firms also constantly tout their green credentials to attract major consumer brands who are starting to care more about sustainability. That's the hypocrisy that I think these hearings, and campaigns like Clean Creatives, can help reveal."

"Most of the climate denial and disinformation that we see in the media and online isn't crafted by engineers at Exxon, but by advertising agencies and PR firms hired by the fossil fuel industry."
—Jamie Henn, Fossil Free Media

Geoffrey Supran, a Harvard researcher who investigates fossil fuel industry misinformation, said in a statement that "it's no surprise that Big Oil and Big Tobacco have used the same propaganda playbook to confuse the public and undermine political action, because they rely on many of the same PR firms and advertising agencies to do their dirty work."

"I think these hearings are going to pull back the curtain on how these agencies have abetted their fossil fuel clients to pollute public discourse, and therefore why they must be held accountable," Supran added.

Jeffrey Nesbit, director of the strategic communications group Climate Nexus, said that "the tobacco hearings fundamentally reshaped American life and the Big Oil hearings will do the same." 

Nesbit—who led public affairs at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration during Big Tobacco's reckoning—warned that "public relations and advertising agencies should be worried about being caught on the wrong side of history."

"There isn't an agency CEO in the country who wants to get called before Congress to explain why they're spreading climate misinformation on behalf of a fossil fuel company," he added.

In the new video, Khanna said that "if we can stop the disinformation, if we can stop the lobbying against climate legislation, then we have a chance to do what people around this country and world want us to do, which is to take bold, decisive action for a clean energy standard, for a massive investment in renewable energy."

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