United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on September 20, 2022.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on September 20, 2022. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

UN Chief Blasts PR Industry for Spearheading Big Oil's Propaganda Machine

"Just as they did for the tobacco industry decades before, lobbyists and spin doctors have spewed harmful misinformation," said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.

During his wide-ranging plea for fundamental change delivered Tuesday at the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres denounced public relations and advertising firms for enabling the fossil fuel pollution currently destroying the planet.

"Fossil fuel interests need to spend less time averting a PR disaster--and more time averting a planetary one."

"Our world is addicted to fossil fuels," said Guterres. "We need to hold fossil fuel companies and their enablers to account."

"That includes the banks, private equity, asset managers, and other financial institutions that continue to invest and underwrite carbon pollution," he continued. "And it includes the massive public relations machine raking in billions to shield the fossil fuel industry from scrutiny."

"Just as they did for the tobacco industry decades before, lobbyists and spin doctors have spewed harmful misinformation," Guterres added, echoing the findings of a yearslong U.S. congressional probe and recent warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Fossil fuel interests need to spend less time averting a PR disaster--and more time averting a planetary one."

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Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media, welcomed Guterres' speech, saying in a statement that "the secretary general's address to the U.N. General Assembly is his most important speech of the year."

"The fact that he used it to directly call out PR and advertising agencies," said Henn, "is a big freaking deal."

Guterres' speech follows the publication of the latest "F-List" report by Fossil Free Media's Clean Creatives campaign. The report details the relationships between nearly 240 public relations and advertising companies and their fossil fuel industry clients.

"For decades, Big Oil has known of the devastating health and climate impacts of fossil fuels and partnered with advertising agencies and PR firms to create a multi-billion dollar campaign to mislead and confuse the public, downplay the urgency of the climate crisis, and overstate the work they have done to find a solution," states the report.

Although global greenhouse gas emissions must be halved by 2030 to have a chance of limiting temperature rise to 1.5oC above preindustrial levels, "every major oil and gas company is currently planning to continue their expansion of fossil fuel production," the report points out. "Their business plans will ensure that the climate emergency continues, with worsening impacts particularly affecting poor and vulnerable people worldwide."

The report continues:

Fossil fuel advertising and PR does not match business reality. Shell has admitted that their "operating plans and budgets do not reflect Shell's Net-Zero Emissions target" that is widely featured in their advertising. In 2020 and 2021, 80% of Chevron advertisements mentioned sustainability, while only 1.8% of their capital spending went to non-oil and gas projects.

These ads are creating legal and reputational risk for agencies. Over 1,800 cases are pending worldwide related to climate action, many of them focused on misleading advertising. Both Shell and BP have been rebuked by regulators in the Netherlands and U.K., respectively, demanding that they end campaigns that mislead the public.

Now, fossil fuel advertisements have been banned in France, and bans are being considered many places elsewhere. There has never been a better time to drop fossil fuel clients.

Praising Guterres' remarks, Henn noted that "just a couple of years ago, hardly anybody was talking about the role of PR and ad agencies in driving the climate crisis--now it's being highlighted on one of the most important stages in the world."

"With this sort of spotlight, there's no way the public relations industry can keep shirking responsibility for their climate footprint," he added. "If agencies want to maintain any sort of ethical or moral reputation, it's time to come clean and drop their fossil fuel clients."

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