British Petroleum hired PR professionals to blame climate change on individuals rather than oil giants.
The oil giants are the real culprits.
A ‘successful, deceptive’ PR campaign
In a dark TV ad aired in 1971, a jerk tosses a bag of trash from a moving car. The garbage spills onto the moccasins of a buckskin-clad Native American, played by Italian American actor Espera Oscar de Corti. He sheds a tear on camera, because his world has been defiled, uglied, and corrupted by trash. The poignant ad, which won awards for excellence in advertising, promotes the catchline “People Start Pollution. People can stop it.” What’s lesser known is the nonprofit group Keep America Beautiful, funded by the very beverage and packaging juggernauts pumping out billions of plastic bottleseach year (the likes of The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, and Anheuser-Busch Companies), created the PSA.
The real message, underlying the staged tear and feather headdress, is that pollution is your problem, not the fault of the industry mass-producing cheap bottles.
Another heralded environmental advertising campaign, launched three decades later in 2000, also won a laudatory advertising award, a “Gold Effie.” The campaign impressed upon the American public that a different type of pollution, heat-trapping carbon pollution, is also your problem, not the problem of companies drilling deep into the Earth for, and then selling, carbonaceous fuels refined from ancient, decomposed creatures. British Petroleum, the second largest non-state owned oil company in the world, with 18,700 gas and service stations worldwide, hired the public relations professionals Ogilvy & Mather to promote the slant that climate change is not the fault of an oil giant, but that of individuals.
It’s here that British Petroleum, or BP, first promoted and soon successfully popularized the term “carbon footprint” in the early aughts. The company unveiled its “carbon footprint calculator” in 2004 so one could assess how their normal daily life — going to work, buying food, and (gasp) traveling — is largely responsible for heating the globe. A decade and a half later, “carbon footprint” is everywhere. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a carbon calculator. The New York Times has a guide on “How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.” Mashable published a story in 2019 entitled “How to shrink your carbon footprint when you travel.” Outdoorsy brands love the term.
“This is one of the most successful, deceptive PR campaigns maybe ever,” said Benjamin Franta, who researches law and history of science as a J.D.-Ph.D. student at Stanford Law School.
Of course, no one should be shamed for declaring an intention to “reduce their carbon footprint.” That’s because BP’s advertising campaign proved brilliant. The oil giant infused the term into our normal, everyday lexicon. (And the sentiment is not totally wrong — some personal efforts to strive for a cleaner world do matter.) But there’s now powerful, plain evidence that the term “carbon footprint” was always a sham, and should be considered in a new light — not the way a giant oil conglomerate, who just a decade ago leaked hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, wants to frame your climate impact.
The evidence, unfortunately, comes in the form of the worst pandemic to hit humanity in a century. We were confined. We were quarantined, and in many places still are. Forced by an insidious parasite, many of us dramatically slashed our individual carbon footprintsby not driving to work and flying on planes. Yet, critically, the true number global warming cares about — the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide saturating the atmosphere — won’t be impacted much by an unprecedented drop in carbon emissionsin 2020 (a drop the International Energy Agency estimates at nearly eight percentcompared to 2019). This means bounties of carbon from civilization’s cars, power plants, and industries will still be added (like a bank deposit) to a swelling atmospheric bank account of carbon dioxide. But 2020’s deposit will just be slightly less than last year’s. In fact, the levels of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere peaked at an all-time high in May— because we’re still making big carbon deposits.
So when BP tweets an ad encouraging you to “Find out your #carbonfootprint” with their “new calculator,” it’s time to rethink the use of the term. While superficially innocuous, “carbon footprint” is intended to manipulate your thinking about one of the greatest environmental threats of our time. (The threat of nuclear warfare with the potential for both the harrowing spread of radioactive material and the development of a nuclear winter are in the running, too.)
“This industry has a proven track record of communicating strategically to confuse the public and undermine action, so we should avoid falling into their rhetorical traps,” said Geoffrey Supran, a science historian at Harvard University who investigates the tactics of fossil fuel interests.
“You have to admit it’s very compelling. It’s sticky,” said Susan Joy Hassol, a climate change communicator who worked as a senior science writer on three congressionally mandated National Climate Assessments. “It’s effective propaganda.”
“It’s time to go on a low-carbon diet,” BP wrote in bold letters on its website in 2006, with its “carbon footprint calculator” just a click away. (In 2004 alone, 278,000 people calculated their footprints.) The site was part of BP’s ad campaign, “Beyond Petroleum.”
Fast forward, and BP is still producing bounties of oil and gas every day (4 million barrels a day in 2005 versus 3.8 million barrels today). In 2019, BP purchased its “biggest acquisition in 20 years,” new oil and gas reserves in West Texas that gave the oil giant “a strong position in one of the world’s hottest oil patches,” according to the company. Today, BP touts its foray into lower-carbon fuels, but these are limited in scope. In 2018, BP invested 2.3 percent of its budget on renewable energies. Its bread and butter is still black oil and gas. What low-carbon diet?
It’s evident that BP didn’t expect to slash its carbon footprint. But the company certainly wanted the public — who commuted to work in gas-powered cars and stored their groceries in refrigerators largely powered by coal and gas generated electricity — to attempt, futilely, to significantly shrink their carbon footprint. In 14-year-old web pages no longer accessible online but documented by Julie Doyle, a professor of media and communication at the University of Brighton, BP published ads asking “What on earth is a carbon footprint?”, “Reducing our footprint. Here’s where we stand,” and “What size is your carbon footprint?”
SCREENSHOT OF BP WEBPAGE AS DOCUMENTED BY THE INTERNET ARCHIVE WAYBACK MACHINE ON FEB. 12, 2006
Doyle concludes BP sought to explain what a carbon footprint is “in a way which assigns responsibility for climate impact to the individual, while BP registers its own concerns by appearing already to be doing something about it.”
Yet in a society largely powered by fossil fuels, even someone without a car, home, or job will still carry a sizable carbon footprint. A few years after BP began promoting the “carbon footprint,” MIT researchers calculated the carbon emissions for “a homeless person who ate in soup kitchens and slept in homeless shelters” in the U.S. That destitute individual will still indirectly emit some 8.5 tons of carbon dioxide each year.
“Even a homeless person living in a fossil fuel powered society has an unsustainably high carbon footprint,” said Stanford’s Franta. “As long as fossil fuels are the basis for the energy system, you could never have a sustainable carbon footprint. You simply can’t do it.”
The genius of the “carbon footprint” is that it gives us something to ostensibly do about the climate problem. No ordinary person can slash 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. But we can toss a plastic bottle into a recycling bin, carpool to work, or eat fewer cheeseburgers. “Psychologically we’re not built for big global transformations,” said John Cook, a cognitive scientist at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. “It’s hard to wrap our head around it.”
Ogilvy & Mather, the marketers hired by British Petroleum, wove the overwhelming challenges inherent in transforming the dominant global energy system with manipulative tactics that made something intangible (carbon dioxide and methane — both potent greenhouse gases — are invisible), tangible. A footprint. Your footprint.
“It’s a perfect storm of industry, culture, and psychology,” said Cook.
British Petroleum didn’t just deploy the “Beyond Petroleum” ad campaign in the U.S. In the UK, the marketing firm filmed regular people on the streets of London for a TV ad. The marketers asked questions like “Do you worry about global climate change?” so people would naturally reply with “I” or “We” when responding to a weighty question about global warming. This allowed BP “linguistically to remove itself as a contributor to the problem of climate change,” explained Doyle.
One of the creators of BP’s ad campaign who approached Londoners on the street, the PR professional John Kenney, later acknowledged it was all a marketing scheme, not a sincere effort to promote BP’s low-carbon or renewable energy transformation. “I guess, looking at it now, ‘beyond petroleum’ is just advertising,” Kenney wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed in 2006. “It’s become mere marketing — perhaps it always was — instead of a genuine attempt to engage the public in the debate or a corporate rallying cry to change the paradigm.”
BP, powerful and wealthy, signaled it would wean itself from oil. “Only they didn’t go beyond petroleum,” wrote Kenney. “They are petroleum.”
Rewriting the narrative
The term “carbon footprint” isn’t going anywhere. “I think it would be hard to undo that phrase or to change it,” said Jennifer Marlon, a researcher at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Some people certainly might want to jettison the term. “I apply the general rule of thumb that climate advocates shouldn’t amplify fossil fuel industry propaganda,” said Harvard University’s Supran. Rather than perpetuating “carbon footprint,” Supran suggested instead “fossil fuel emissions,” “fossil fuel pollution,” or “fossil fuel footprint.”
But because the phrase is here to stay, climate communication researchers emphasize that the meaning behind “carbon footprint” can be expanded, far beyond what BP wants it to mean. Lowering your carbon footprint should include being an engaged citizen who recognizes how to actually curb the planet’s warming, explained Hassol. It’s critical to talk about climate change with people so it’s consistently a matter of concern. It’s not enough for the issue to pop up as a viral news story during a disaster exacerbated by climate change, before fading into a chaotic ether of vitriolic politics, celebrity gossip, and a grim pandemic.
And then there’s an individual’s most potent tool: “Voting is the number one action,” said Hassol. Voting for what?
JASMIN PAWLOWICZ | GETTY IMAGES
It’s (relatively) simple. Voting for leaders who, among other things, have plans or strategies to slash the rampant flow of fossil fuels through the economy, mandate buildings that use less energy, and accelerate the electrification of America’s cars and trucks (transportation is the leading U.S. contributor of greenhouse gas emissions). In the U.S., the choice is clear. Democrats have a new, comprehensive 547-page climate plan that includes bold legislation to create a national electric vehicle charging system. To boot, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, has a climate task force that recommends transitioning to 100 percent renewable electricity (wind, solar, geothermal) in 15 years.
On the other hand, Republicans have a plan that hinges on planting a trillion trees over the next 30 years. Yes, plants do soak up carbon from the atmosphere, but even 1 trillion trees will make only a dent in civilization’s burgeoning carbon problem (not to mention that trees are more susceptible to wildfires in a warming world, and this burning pumps loads of carbon dioxide into the air).
While the pandemic has laid bare that our personal actions alone won’t stabilize the planet’s disrupted climate, some voluntary decisions beyond voting can still be important, and influential. Here’s a poignant example: When someone installs solar panels on their roof, their neighbors are more likely to install the panels too, a trend that’s shown in multiple studies. “It’s the effect of social contagion,” said Hassol.
Critically, our voluntary, independent choices will pack a bigger climate punch if we have options to make significantly better choices. Perhaps the greatest deterrent to Americans buying electric cars (electric vehicles only make up about 1.8 percent of carspurchased in the U.S. today) is people’s understandable concern about running out of power on long trips. The U.S has some 111,000 gas stations. What if there were 100,000 electric filling stations? Beyond cars, a survey of both city and suburban bikers said they would bike more if there were safe, accessible bike paths and easy parking (cars get their own lots and multi-story parking garages!).
It’s true that each time we fill up at the pump and drive off we’re inevitably emitting heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere. That’s technically a “carbon footprint.” But we’re given no other choice. “The strategy is to put as much blame on the consumer as possible, knowing the consumer is not in a good place to control the situation,” said Franta. “It basically ensures that nothing changes.”
And as ambitious changes are stymied, Earth relentlessly warms. Globally, nineteen of the last 20 years are now the warmest on record. Forests in the Arctic Circle are aflame, the Southwestern U.S. is mired in a megadrought, storms are becoming more intense, glaciers are fast receding, and a colossal Antarctic ice shelf has destabilized and threatens to redraw maps all over the globe. The ocean is warming, rising, acidifying, and losing oxygen. Climate change is here, even if half of Americans don’t think climate change will harm them personally, but a majority acknowledge the globe is warming.
“It reveals how we think this is something that is far away,” said Yale’s Marlon.
BP wants you to accept responsibility for the globally disrupted climate. Just like beverage industrialists wanted people to feel bad about the amassing pollution created by their plastics and cans, or more sinisterly, tobacco companies blamed smokers for becoming addicted to addictive carcinogenic products. We’ve seen this manipulative playbook before, and BP played it well.
What’s your carbon footprint?
“They were brilliant,” said Marlon. “They had good marketers.”