Earth Day is a chance to win the message war against polluters

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Last October, top executives from some of the world’s most powerful oil companies testified before the House Oversight Committee about their industry’s disinformation campaigns on climate change. For the past 30 years, Big Oil has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, political campaigns, super PACs, and a network of think tanks. Using tactics from the tobacco industry, they have created doubts about climate science and environmental regulation. During the hearing, the leaders declined and proclaimed their support for clean energy, while denying their role in misleading the public about the cause of climate change: the use of their products.

Their PR campaign works.

Climate protectors have fallen behind in the message war with the petrochemical industry. And it’s a war – it’s been understood as such by chemical companies since the first Earth Day in 1970, when they decided to use their PR offices to discredit concerned citizens and dismantle the federal regulatory state.

Earth Day began at the University of Michigan’s basketball arena on March 11, 1970, with nearly 14,000 people attending an environmental education. The event included performances by folk singer Gordon Lightfoot and the cast of “Hair”, speeches by Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) And ecologist Barry Commoner, and symposia on pesticide pollution, nutrient runoff in the Great Lakes and the new. the area of ​​the environment. The organizers, Environmental Action for Survival (ENACT), used grassroots protest strategies developed by black civil rights activists and anti-Vietnam War protesters, and it worked. That spring, their Michigan event served as a template for organizers at about 2,000 colleges and thousands of more schools across the country.

Dow Chemical, headquartered north of Ann Arbor in Midland, was alert. Speaking to the Chemical Public Relations Association in New York City in March, Dow’s director of public relations, Ned Brandt, predicted that Earth Day education would likely be “a mixed blessing” for the chemical industry. The danger was that students might embarrass a local factory, take legal action, or organize a boycott or “some other kind of trouble.”

The opportunity, however, was enormous. The industry had the chance to take control of the environmental narrative. “If we could have a thousand representatives of the chemical industry to tell about their concern and their efforts to control pollution on a thousand campuses, to the future generation,” Brandt argued, “it would be the greatest public relations effort this industry could make. . right now.”

Such an approach came out of their PR experience with napalm. The Dow became a target of anti-war protests in 1966 because it produced napalm for the U.S. military, which used it to burn bunkers, villages, forests, and farms in Vietnam. Dow claimed that it merely fulfilled a government contract and that it was not responsible for how the government used its product. Initially, Dow treated student activists as misleading but well-meaning and as potential collaborators. They took editors of student newspapers on tours of the Midland facility and collaborated with campus PR offices to bring pro-chemical industry speakers to campus.

In 1969, however, Dow’s PR office decided that their strategy of “minimizing harm” was not working. Campus protests had successfully made Dow, a former sub-radar manufacturer of chemical intermediaries (a “chemical company chemical company”), a household name. They moved to “Phase II” of what Brandt called “their napalm war”, which involved “spotting problems” Before it happens and goes out to meet it. “Prior to campus protests, Dow sent a PR man to speak to local news media and the campus newspaper to ensure Dow would be” coordinated with the college in matters of news coverage, politics and security. “

Dow implemented the same strategy to address environmentalists’ valid concerns about Dow’s polluting facilities. The company framed itself as an environmentally responsible company that was a leader in innovation in pollution control.

The growing intensity of campus activism caused the Dow to go on the offensive. Activists had pressured university administrators to reevaluate their relationship with the company at a huge cost to its brand. A university president even rejected a “substantial” gift from Dow that would have set up a special research institute, while a major charity asked for comprehensive information on Dow’s napalm contracts because it received a call from a congressman asking it to justify the detention. Dow stock. Dow’s name had become toxic, and Brandt warned that other large companies would also soon find themselves targeted by student activists.

Over the next decade, Dow executives treated environmental activists as business competitors, even enemies. In a 1979 speech to the Arizona Business Forum, Dow President Paul Oreffice described environmentalists as “a small, powerful and resourceful enemy” and “professional underdogs” who destroyed free enterprise. In a speech filled with exclamation marks, he proclaimed: “These people are a well-funded, highly educated, highly organized professional army that uses hundreds of thousands of well-meaning Americans as their weapons to commercialize their ideas. They are the most dangerous competitors the industry has ever faced. . […] We are all in a fight for our lives. “

But environmental activists were not the only “competitors” of the chemical industry. Federal agencies, Oreffice warned later that year, were also their enemies. Environmentalists had “taken over the regulatory process”, “infiltrated the media” and “planted colleagues in important congressional staffing tasks.” It was time for the chemical industry to fight back with the “weapon” of a “united, strong voice” and by cultivating new alliances – especially with workers’ leaders and elected representatives – to place the men of the industry in regulatory agencies and the executive.

Oreffice’s plan worked, especially during the anti-regulatory Reagan administration. In the 1980s, many Environmental Protection Agency graduates came from precisely the industries that the EPA was tasked with regulating, including Aerojet General and Exxon. That was exactly what Oreffice had imagined in 1979, when he told other business leaders: “[W]I must be willing to fight regulatory violations in court, in the media, in Congress, in the White House, and we must fight it with our best people. “

Along with discrediting environmental activists and dismantling important environmental regulations from within the government, the petrochemical industry also launched an aggressive media strategy to convince many Americans that environmental solutions were a matter of lifestyle rather than politics. These tactics continue. To fly? Buy carbon compensation. Driving? Buy an electric car. eat? Grow your own food. In fact, it was one of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, BP, that popularized the term “carbon footprint” in the early 2000s, and released a “carbon footprint calculator” that framed greenhouse gas emissions as a result of individual choices.

Many environmentalists personally see opting out of the dominant economy as the only thing they can do to counter climate change. This is a sign both of our poor political system and of our poor imagination, an effect of the petrochemical industry’s PR campaign to make a world without fossil fuels seem impossible. But such a world existed less than a century ago, and a new, healthier world is possible in the future.

In January 2022, more than 450 scientists urged PR and advertising companies to stop working for fossil fuels. Independently, members of the House of Representatives have asked PR firms to explain their role in obscuring the link between fossil fuel burning and climate change. Activists are increasingly acknowledging the power of public relations firms, along with insurance companies, law firms, lobby organizations, industry groups and think tanks in pushing the fossil fuel industry out of regulation. In this way, climate activists are trying to dismantle the robust defenses that the petrochemical industry has amassed over half a century.

This Earth Week is worth reflecting on the power of collective action. The first Earth Day, nationally in scope, prompted the chemical industry to reform its PR practices. Today, the environmental movement faces the challenge of pressuring petrochemical companies to reform their industrial practices. To do so, we need political action that meaningfully holds petrochemical companies accountable for harming our common world.

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