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Energy, Media, Action: Brown researchers investigate climate change countermovement

Climate and Development Lab faculty, students conduct studies on corporations, climate change policy

As of Wednesday, Earth Day has completed its orbit around the world for the 50th time, carrying with it a global reminder to respect the environment. This 50th anniversary also marks another year of University researchers’ ongoing, daily dedication to studying climate change. Several faculty, graduate and undergraduate researchers based at the Climate and Development Lab have spent the past year investigating and analyzing influencers in climate change discourse, action and policy. 

Their studies have identified how some organizations have had a hand in the perception of climate change. The climate change countermovement, as these actions are collectively referred to, comprises the ideology and efforts driving many groups that obstruct climate change policies by turning to public relations firms, trade groups, think tanks and political campaigns, said J. Timmons Roberts, professor of environmental studies, environment and society and sociology and founder of the Climate and Development Lab.

Researchers hope that their work will facilitate future efforts in cleaning both the physical and societal atmosphere of contaminants and movements that have slowed progress and tainted climate action’s goals.   

This installment of a two-part series highlights the research of Visiting Professor of Environment and Society Robert Brulle and of the students that have collaborated with him and Roberts over the past year.

Mass media measures: addressing action through advertisements

Organizations utilize advertisements on the screen to shape perceptions in the context of climate change, Brulle has shown through his research. 

Given his interest in the organizational and financial fuel behind the environmental movement and its efficacy, Brulle began looking into the climate change countermovement. Groups behind this movement have invested in think tanks and lobbying, but about half of spending has gone to advertisements, Brulle said. The counter movement “is really a very sophisticated effort to convince people that climate change isn’t that big of a problem,” he said, adding that this public relations work can convince people that the issue “is not worth worrying about” because corporations appear to be addressing some concerns.

Major oil companies have allocated about $3.6 billion between 1986 and 2015 to advertisements presenting them in a positive light in regards to their impacts on the climate, according to Brulle and the results of a study he led and published in December 2019. For example, ExxonMobil has released ads discussing its creation of biofuels out of algae, a nonflowering, plantlike organism, he added. These ads include picturesque images of floating green blobs, bright, vibrant, colorful visuals and serene instrumental music. But, only under one percent of the company’s budget actually goes towards environmentally friendly efforts, Brulle added.

The ads target political leaders who are making decisions that affect climate change — designed to “influence the influencers” — and their messages cascade down to the general public, Brulle said. “That amount of spending that oil companies do is directly related to what is Congress doing about (climate change) and what are the prospects for climate change legislation.” Following political debate on the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 and the American Power Act, the oil companies’ ad expenditure totaled around $315 million in 2010, according to the study.

Cash spent toward these advertisements also increases in response to political discourse on the matter, the research showed. Brulle is now continuing studies on the advertising companies themselves.

Brulle is working with students to compile a database on 38 years’ worth of ExxonMobil’s grant funding since 1980, part of which they will use to determine the “relationship between Exxon and environmental groups,” he wrote in an email to The Herald.

“The practical question is, what is the climate movement actually up against, how do they operate … (and) how do you develop strategies to overcome what they’re doing?” Brulle said. “I’m sort of trying to provide the intellectual groundwork so that people that want to do something about climate action have an idea of what they’re up against,” he said.  

Brulle said this work hopes to help the climate movement consider: “How are you going to counter their efforts with your efforts?” 

Oil, fossil fuels, railroads, utilities

Brulle’s research efforts have inspired additional studies spearheaded by undergraduate students. What started as projects for the course ENVS 1574: “Engaged Climate Policy in the U.S.: Rhode Island and Washington, DC” — co-taught by Roberts and Brulle — developed into two reports on the involvement of public relations firms and fossil fuel, railroad and utility corporations. Cartie Werthman ’21 and Cole Triedman ’21 led these studies, which included students from the class, due to their role as teaching assistants for the class in the fall of 2019.

Building on the research Werthman began with Brulle over the summer, she is helping to answer the broad question of who are the people and the corporations specifically involved in perpetuating climate change denial. …If you can understand the other side, it’ll be easier to actually implement climate action,” she said. 

Fossil fuel corporations throw large sums towards public relations firms in attempts to disseminate messages to reduce concerns of carbon and oil emissions, Werthman said. These PR firms may in turn put out advertisements. 

This relationship with the firms is “almost never discussed. That area is so wide open, and we have so much more work to do,” Roberts added. 

Collaborating with Kimberly Collins ’22, Eve Lukens-Day ’21 and Olivia Williams ’22 on a report, Werthman identified some of the main public relations firms that are assisting businesses, like ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute, in influencing public perspectives on the urgency of climate change. 

Digging into the firms’ contractual partners, related finances and end products this year, the students found that their ads “make you think, ‘oh, there’s no problem with using oil, oil is essential to the American economy, and there’s nothing that could ever replace it,’ which obviously undermines the message of climate action,” Werthman said. Their findings made it all the way to Congress and the U.S. Special Task Force on Climate Change and Energy.

The discrepancy in advertising from organizations producing different forms of energy is “pretty shocking,” Werthman said. Without even considering private companies, “the fossil fuel energy trade groups spent something like 15 times more money than the renewable energy trade groups on PR and advertising.”

Some firms have outwardly expressed their refusal to partner with these corporations in recent years in response to public disapproval, but not all of these organizations have since maintained this mindset, she added.

Researching sources of funding has been complicated by the fact that relevant information “is hard to find because it’s largely hidden from the public view,” Werthman said. But she plans to use what she can gather to continue her work as documents gradually become available. “The ultimate goal for a lot of this (research) is to make sure people understand what big oil is doing to the United States,” she said.  

Meanwhile, Triedman, an undergraduate co-coordinator of the Climate and Development Lab, and fellow researchers Andrew Javens ’21, Jessie Sugarman ’20 and David Wingate ’20 turned their attention to utility companies, which light up and heat residences across the country. 

The students focused on 10 utility companies known to be prominent contributors to the climate change countermovement for their report published in December 2019. After gathering robust amounts of information on the utilities’ inner workings, they found strong links between these corporations, power plants and a couple key rail and coal companies that serviced them, as well as connections with political, trade and climate groups and think tanks, Triedman said. Specifically, they discovered that four rail companies dominate the country’s coal freight that comprises 70 percent of transport of the resource, he added.

Like the PR firms in Werthman’s findings, the utility companies did not openly deny climate change. But the glossy facade they imbue through public climate reports diverges from the information contained within the complicated text of their personal progress, or 10-K, reports, Triedman said. “There’s often numbers that won’t match up with numbers in the outward-facing climate reports.” 

The study suggests that, moving forward, the utility companies can now either continue with this methodology or follow the lead of companies like Xcel Energy that are increasing their accountability, actively reducing carbon emissions and distancing themselves from coal companies that are denying climate change, he said. The latter option may decrease demand for the materials that result in greenhouse gas emissions, Triedman added.

 Triedman is now working on a study to uncover the degree of industries’ and legislatures’ involvement in public utility commissions, which should be representing consumers, for their own agendas across a handful of states. To make sense of commissioners’ actions, “you have to go all the way back and look at how the system that selects commissioners operates and how industry officials lobby and pump money into senators that have a role” in choosing them, he said. 

“Even though these were separate projects, it was really cool to be able to see how they basically linked up,” Werthman said. “The groups that (Triedman) was looking at for their climate plans ... were being represented by the public relations firms that my group was looking at.” 

Earth Week often revolves around emphasizing the little ways through which individuals can alleviate their burden on the planet, whether it be by substituting a quick drive with a walk or remembering to turn off that extra light, but this research has examined how larger groups of people also leave an impact, good or bad.  

 “I think most of us who care about our future in climate change suffer from varying degrees of climate anxiety (and) climate guilt,” Triedman said. Getting rid of that self-doubt … among individuals whose head and heart is in the right place is a huge step towards movement-building and power-building” that may be accomplished by recognizing the role of companies in influencing climate policy.


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