What can one person do to help solve the huge problem of climate change? We attempted an answer to that question with Monday’s newsletter. The response has been incredible. In two days, it’s become the fifth-most-read piece in HEATED’s near-two-year history. There are over 90 comments from readers suggesting more actions to inspire systemic change, and many more in the responses to the piece on Twitter.
All of the actions suggested are worthwhile, from phone calls to protests to civil disobedience. So are all of the targets, from fossil fuel infrastructure to state climate laws to bad corporate behavior.
This newsletter has a special affinity, though, for the Clean Creatives campaign. It’s part of a larger project called Fossil Free Media, a non-profit that “strengthens the movement to end fossil fuels through creative communications.”
Mentioned briefly in Monday’s piece, the goal of Clean Creatives is to rid society of misleading marketing and PR from fossil fuel companies—something this newsletter has been going on about for quite some time. To do that, Clean Creatives is targeting “leading agencies, their employees, and clients,” trying to get them to sign a pledge promising not to work with fossil fuel companies.
That’s not all they’re doing, though. On Tuesday, co-founders Jamie Henn and Duncan Meisel teamed up with climate and energy researcher Leah Stokes to make it easier for regular people to push for more ambitious climate policies at the federal level. The result is #Call4Climate.
“Basically, we looked around and realized that no one had set up a *super simple* way for people to call Congress for climate,” Henn said. “We’ve set up a dial-in number (202-318-1885) that anyone can call, punch in their zip, get some talking points, and be directly connected to their Senate offices.”
In addition to that, Clean Creatives also recently launched a petition to get social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to stop running fossil fuel ads. Since that’s a huge focus of this newsletter, we caught up with Meisel to get more information about the campaign. Our interview, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, is below.
Emily Atkin: Can you briefly summarize your new campaign against fossil fuel ads for me?
Duncan Meisel: We are asking major social media platforms to ban fossil fuel advertisements that are misleading and because they are contributing to major threats to public health. All these social media platforms have banned advertising from tobacco companies for the same reasons. So we think it's appropriate to ban fossil fuel ads as well.
EA: What do harmful fossil fuel ads look like?
DM: Overall, what they're doing is greenwashing the reputation of corporations that are major funders of the climate crisis.
For instance, Exxon just had this shareholder challenge where a bunch of people were asking them to take more action on climate change and take responsibility for their stranded assets. In response, Exxon ran millions of dollars of ads on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and Google to get their shareholders to vote against that proposal. This is just one way they're using these advertisements to stop accountability and to stop climate action.
EA: How do you plan to get social networks to stop running fossil fuel ads?
DM: Well, we're just starting with just asking. We're starting to do some public engagement, asking people who use these networks to make their voices heard. These people are ultimately the ones most directly impacted by these ads. We're working with Greenpeace USA, Hip Hop Caucus and a few others that are still coming on board, asking their members to advocate for the change. And we are collecting signatures on a petition, which we’ll then deliver and see what the response is.
Our hope is to open the dialog, and we’re hoping that we won't have to escalate too far. But we're willing to do that if we have to.
EA: We’re having this conversation right now in front of the White House at a protest led by the Sunrise Movement. This action has nothing to do with your advocacy group. What is the importance of this event, and more broadly, advocacy in general at this particular moment?
DM: This protest is the reason that fossil fuel companies need to advertise. Because there is a vibrant, rising generation of young people demanding action. Fossil fuel companies are doing everything they can to stretch out their business as long as they can; 99 percent of their capital expenditures are on new oil and gas projects. And they expect to make money from that over 30 years. That's their business. That's what Sunrise is here to fight.
EA: Why doesn’t Sunrise just launch similar advertising campaigns on social media to counteract fossil fuel ads?
DM: It’s really hard. The bar advocacy organizations have to clear is so high when it comes this type of advertising. They’re not allowed to mention climate change on Facebook, because that’s considered political. Twitter also doesn’t allow “political” ads, but still allows fossil fuel companies to advertise. It’s much easier for the corporations, because they can do this sort of soft focus. “Isn't our company great, and green, and right.” That’s effectively lobbying, but because they don't mention a specific issue, it’s not banned.
So it's been much harder for grassroots organizations like Sunrise. At one point, they had to run ads on Facebook that just said, “We can't run ads on Facebook that mention our issues. But could you please give money to us anyways?”
EA: That’s wild. You're not the only organization starting a climate campaign right now. A lot of groups are ramping up their actions and trying to get things moving. How do you make the case to somebody that they should be participating?
DM: There's a couple of things. One is that the clock is ticking. This is literally the last generation of people that can take meaningful climate action, and this is the most important time to be involved.
Another is that everybody has some sort of relationship or association with power, whether it with their employer or the corporations they consume from or with their government as a taxpayer. So this is an opportunity to take your grievance to them, instead of just thinking about yourself, and how many flights you take. Being part of the movement in that way is much more exciting and consequential than just what you can do.
EA: I know sometimes people discount the power of small actions, like even just doing a tweet, or saying something on social media. How have you seen that be effective?
DM: The more conversations that exist about this, the more solutions people will be able to find. I don't have all the solutions, but if I can start a conversation about it, we can bring in a lot of experts and perspectives that can be really consequential.
The Clean Creatives campaign is a great example of that. It started with me and Jamie just putting something into the world, and now we have this professional cadre of people who have expertise in things that I will never know, bringing all this to bear. And it’s incredibly powerful.
EA: How did Clean Creatives come together? I've never actually heard the story.
DM: We were looking at ads running on social media during the 2020 election, and so many were from the American Petroleum Institute. And we just thought to ourselves, “who is making these ads?” We found out it was this ad company in Austin, Texas. And we were like, “There's no way that these young, smart people from Austin, Texas are excited about working for the fossil fuel industry. This is not their dream.”
Then Jamie came across this ad from Philip Morris talking about the future of smoking. And it was so poorly made, I thought it was just terrible. So we realized, this is the impact of creative people refusing to work with an immoral industry. Let’s do it all over again.
EA: So this must have been fairly recently, too. Because I don't think Clean Creatives existed when I started writing about fossil fuel ads in 2019, otherwise I would have called you.
DM: Yeah, I think we were actually reading something you wrote in HEATED, and thought “Oh, we should do this.”
EA: Wow ok, definitely putting that in the newsletter. What's the impact you guys have had so far?
DM: We’ve have 92 marketing and PR agencies that have signed the pledge against working with fossil fuel companies. We’ve also have 200 individuals, and a small number of nonprofits. We know more companies want to. So I feel great about it.
We also have this service that tells you when someone else opens your e-mail. And for some reason, the head of Edelman, the world’s largest PR agency, has opened every single one of our e-mails. Some he’s opened multiple times. So we know we’re getting inside their brains. This is getting to the C-suites.
We also ran some ads on LinkedIn, ironically, that targeted employees of [British ad agency WPP]. We got 4,000 people to watch this entire ad about their sustainability program.
So it’s really clicking. We're looking at this like equivalent of a lot of seeds. If we keep watering them with attention and pressure, some of them are going to sprout.
EA: How do you view the importance of advertising for fossil fuel companies? What do you think it would mean for them to have to lose ability to advertise on social media and elsewhere?
DM: Fossil fuel companies spend so much money on advertising for a reason. They think it works. That’s why you saw big spikes in advertising ahead of the big climate conventions in Paris, and in Copenhagen. They think this works to deter action.
Advertising is the only way fossil fuel companies get to speak to the public uninterrupted. It’s the only way they get to tell their story without having to fact-checked or challenged. It is their last bastion of public credibility that they can manifest. We want to take it away.
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Catch of the Day
Fish missed you on Monday. He was busy dreaming of ways to fight the system.
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It’s insane that Facebook won’t allow ads with climate change in them, as that’s considered political. Is this definitely the case (I know the bar is low for them, but this level of complicity is staggering)?
Fantastic work, Emily! Thank you for all you do! 👏👏👏