Fossil-fuel companies' climate messaging may have changed to fit the new century, but the goal is the same as the industry has had for decades: to delay action and protect profits for as long as possible. Even in the face of an increasingly obvious climate emergency, this message still resonates with many people. Maybe that's because the biggest social media companies help amplify it.
In the latest example, a study finds that industry groups, including an arm of the American Petroleum Institute, spent up to $4 million on nearly 4,000 Facebook and Instagram ads sowing climate misinformation before and during the United Nations climate conference last November, also known as COP27.
Some ads, such as those from PragerU and other conservative groups, promoted old-school climate denialism of the sort Exxon and others peddled for decades, contradicting their own scientists. Others were more subtle, acknowledging human-caused climate change while raising doubts about the viability of green energy and the need to quit using fossil fuels. Some warned a quick transition could hurt national security and cause inflation.
Some of the advertisers were fossil-fuel companies themselves, including Chevron Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp., which bragged of green credentials while eliding how their businesses keep pumping carbon into the atmosphere. Many companies and petrostates used a technique known as "nature-rinsing," or associating their product with images of sparkling, clean wilderness. The study, by Climate Action Against Disinformation, an advocacy-group coalition, was based partly on data from the publicly available advertising database of Facebook and Instagram parent Meta Platforms Inc.
These ads are part of a media strategy that oil companies and utilities have tapped in recent years aimed at dressing up their messages in socially acceptable garb. Maybe it's placing sponsored content with big media brands or quietly pumping money and talking points to local news networks. Maybe it's sponsoring climate-change newsletters, which is how we ended up with the debacle of Semafor Climate, a newsletter reporting on climate change that was twice sponsored by Chevron.
And sometimes the work is a little less socially acceptable, such as when a freelance ABC News producer reportedly was paid by representatives of Florida Power & Light and other companies to attack environmentally minded politicians.
It's also a reminder of the problem social media has with addressing climate misinformation. Most companies lack clearly defined standards or procedures for handling it, and transparency around how their algorithms promote false ideas is scarce. Twitter, currently run by electric vehicle mogul Elon Musk, is the least transparent of the major platforms, according to CAAD's metrics.
All these companies must do a better job of exposing and combating misinformation. Ad-tech companies, ad agencies and government regulators have a role to play, too. Their inaction risks weakening the world's defenses at a critical moment in the fight against climate change.
After decades of fossil-fuel companies pushing what some environmental activists call "predatory delay," we are running out of time to make the hard changes needed to avert catastrophic global warming. Today's climate denialism may be more subtle — now it's "delayism" and "inactivism" — but it's still damaging.
Momentum seems to be on the side of denial. COP27 was swarmed by fossil-fuel lobbyists pushing their go-slow agenda, and this year's confab will be, too. It will be hosted by an oil-company CEO from the United Arab Emirates. Another burst of propaganda to go along with it would only make necessary change even more difficult to achieve.
Mark Gongloff is a Bloomberg Opinion editor and writer of the Opinion Today newsletter. A former managing editor of Fortune.com, he ran the HuffPost's business and technology coverage and was a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal. @markgongloff
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.