Advertising the apocalypse
Utilities encourage us to burn “clean” gas to cook and heat our homes. Cars and trucks are pitched as vehicles to commune with nature. In this environment, It’s hardly surprising that so many Canadians are so unclear on the causes of climate destruction.
There’s a growing movement against all this fossil advertising. Amsterdam just banned advertising for “fossil products” (including airlines and cars) from metro stations. France’s new climate law will prohibit ads for oil, coal or gas.
A new initiative called Clean Creatives is getting ad agencies to stop taking contracts that promote coal, oil or gas. And activists around the world are pressuring museums and event organizers to refuse sponsorships from oil, gas or coal companies.
ClientEarth, a group of environmental lawyers, just published a new report accusing the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies of greenwashing their climate impacts with their advertising campaigns. The lawyers have already forced BP to withdraw its “possibilities everywhere” campaign — the company pulled the ads last year rather than face a complaint filed in the U.K. ClientEarth argued the ad campaign “could mislead people into thinking that BP are a renewables company, when 96% of the company’s spend is on oil and gas.”
In Canada, oil and gas promoters are willing to fight back. Regina’s city council had to withdraw a motion to stop fossil fuel companies from advertising or sponsoring with the city. A majority of Regina’s executive committee had moved the motion forward, but council retreated after blowback from industry supporters and threats by Premier Scott Moe to withhold provincial funding to the city.
Quebec-based Equiterre just took a serious look into the power and influence of ad campaigns, specifically the auto industry’s. In most provinces, including Ontario, B.C. and Quebec, vehicles are the biggest source of carbon emissions. And pollution from the sector is still growing year after year. One major reason is the size of the vehicles themselves. So-called “light-duty trucks'' — SUVs, pickups and vans — haven’t just overtaken cars, they’ve completely stomped the market with almost 80 per cent of new personal vehicle sales.
Your own media diet surely corroborates Equiterre’s findings: the ads are relentless — the auto sector is the top spender on digital advertising, and their ads are overwhelmingly for light-duty trucks. Most diabolically, the vast majority of ads (68 per cent) use nature to sell the gas-guzzlers.
Does this feel like a country that has declared itself to be combating a climate emergency? You might wonder why we allow any fossil-fuelled vehicle advertising at all. At the very least, why don’t we require ads to include carbon emissions like the U.K. or other European countries?
Which brings us to the role of government itself. Ask a random Canadian how to stop climate change and you’re way more likely to hear about recycling than getting rid of pollution from fossil fuels. It’s depressing but not really surprising. We’ve had years of public education campaigns about different coloured bins and arrows bent into triangles. But when was the last time you saw government making any sustained effort to communicate the causes and solutions to climate destruction?
The last campaign that penetrated public consciousness at all was probably the “One-Tonne Challenge” aimed at our personal carbon footprints — back in 2004.
We see billboards and government campaigns all the time for things they deem important. We know our tax dollars are at work on highways and bridges and overpasses. We hear that vaping is bad. That tax credits are available. We’ve had information campaigns about COVID. And understandably so — it’s an emergency requiring public mobilization and support for government action...
Seth Klein, in his book A Good War, says the climate emergency “sparks the question — where is the public advertising?”
“Where are the online, TV, radio and print ads from our governments telling us — meaningfully — about their climate action plans? Where are the ads informing us about zero-emissions vehicle subsidies and electric heat pumps?… Where are the promotional ads inviting young people to train as renewable electricity technicians and installers, building retrofitters… And where are the public notices advising people that, within a few short years, they will not be able to pipe fossil fuels into their homes or fill up their cars at a gas station so they can plan accordingly?”
The Canadian government and governments around the world have actually committed themselves to run these kinds of programs. It’s a little known — and even less operationalized — part of the Paris Agreement where every country signed up to promote public awareness, training and education.
There are good examples of governments running programs that aren’t heavy-handed or Big Brotherish. The U.K. and France set up citizens commissions on climate. Scotland has been running a sustained program supporting local climate conversations, putting the public at the heart of its plans for climate change.
As George Marshall wrote this week in the Guardian, “ambition is a fantasy unless it is widely shared and supported. Public engagement is not window dressing; it is the essential foundation for all policy.”
Just last week, Germany’s highest court sided with young people suing the government because its climate plan wasn’t aggressive enough to protect them. The court ordered the government to come up with a new plan by the end of next year.
The government’s reaction was pretty extraordinary. Angela Merkel’s spokesperson hailed the ruling as a “success” for the young campaigners and thanked the court for its “groundbreaking” decision. Just one week later, Germany announced new targets, supported by left- and right-leaning parties.
The government now commits to cutting Germany’s emissions 65 per cent by 2030, 88 per cent by 2040 and going neutral by 2045. In a revealing turn of phrase, the minister in charge says it’s “a fair offer to the younger generation.”
How does that compare to Canada’s target? You’ll recall that Germany sets targets relative to its emissions in 1990. Canada uses 2005. So, if we do the conversion for ambition this decade, Germany’s goal is to cut 65 per cent in contrast to Canada at 26 per cent.
German climate politics are fascinating right now. There’s an election looming in September. Angela Merkel is leaving politics, and the Green Party is leading in the polls.
On the topic of young people taking governments to court, the 15 young climate activists moving to sue the Canadian government filed their arguments with the Federal Court of Appeal on Monday. They’re arguing their constitutional rights to life, liberty, security and equality are at risk. They’re moving to the next level after a Federal Court judge struck down their claim last fall.
Western U.S. is scary dry
Last year was a brutal fire season in the western United States, the most severe in modern history. And this year could be even worse. Just look at this map from the U.S. Drought Monitor. Red is “extreme drought;” brown is even drier.
Meteorologist Jeff Berardelli is worth listening to on these issues. “What is happening right now appears to be the beginning stages of something even more severe,” he says. “The stage is set for an escalation of extreme dry conditions… and yet another dangerous fire season ahead.”
I can’t help thinking of Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Obama picked as his first energy secretary. Soon after his appointment and before the comms team put a vice on him, he admitted his fears out loud:
“I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen. We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.
“I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going.”
The situation doesn’t look as dire north of the border, but you can see below there is a lot of “abnormally dry” and worse in Canada as well. Note that the maps for all of North America are updated less frequently than the U.S. ones.
If you look at the top left corner of the map, you’ll see that Alaska pops out “abnormally dry.” Just this week, a U.S. agency updated the “new climate normals” for the country. One notable change: Fairbanks, Alaska, officially changed from “sub-Arctic” to “warm summer continental climate.”
Gas companies fighting electrification
If there are two words that summarize the enormous challenge of decarbonization, they are “electrify everything.” Leaked documents obtained by E&E News reveal both Enbridge and FortisBC have joined a consortium “to combat electrification.”
The leaked presentation encourages industry to “take advantage of power outage fear” to promote natural gas. Another slide says “natural gas (fossil fuel) is in for the fight of its life.”
Earther figures the “Leaked Slides Show the Gas Industry is Freaking Out.” And they ought to be. A new report out of Australia shows kids living in a house with gas stoves might as well be living with someone smoking in the house. They are 32 per cent more likely to develop asthma.
In a perverse recognition of the growing strength of the climate justice movement, Canada’s energy regulator has decided Trans Mountain can keep the names of its pipeline insurers secret.
The Tsleil-Waututh Nation had been contacting insurers to "inform them that the project violates our rights and our unextinguished laws." Zurich, Munich Re and HDI had all confirmed they would not renew insurance for the pipeline.
“The Canada Energy Regulator is expanding Trans Mountain’s culture of secrecy when it should be doing the opposite, especially for a government-owned company during a climate crisis,” said Charlene Aleck, spokesperson for Tsleil-Waututh Nation Sacred Trust Initiative.
Alberta renewables keep on booming
Some big news this week from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. Already co-owner of the biggest off-grid solar project in Canada, the ACFN is now investing in 67 megawatts of solar in southern Alberta and construction is underway.
Chief Allan Adam says: “ACFN want to be a leader in helping Alberta and Canada protect climate. Solar is now one of the cheapest and best choices for power.”
Overall in Alberta, there’s roughly $4 billion of capital investment for solar and wind projects under construction right now. It’s not a story you hear the provincial government talking much about but it’s getting into the same league as the oilsands, which saw $6.7 billion of capital invested in 2020.
I’ll leave you this week with a podcast. It’s a conversation between Seth Klein, who wrote A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, and David Coletto, who runs polling and public opinion research for Abacus. I'm still savouring the image of any politician making climate pronouncements having a top scientist hovering two metres away to hold them accountable.
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