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BP knew the truth about climate change 30 years ago. Now, it’s time to ban fossil industry advertising

Twenty-three years ago, BP became the first oil major to explicitly acknowledge the realities of man-made climate change. A recently re-discovered videotape proves that by that time, the company had been well aware of the issue for some 7 years. What comes next?

Read this article in 1 minute:
  • In 1997, oil major BP publicly acknowledged the reality of climate change for the first time, when former CEO John Browne gave a landmark speech about the matter.
  • A long-forgotten documentary, made by the oil company, shows that BP knew about causes and effects of climate change in 1990 — seven years before Browne's speech.
  • In the film, BP explains the greenhouse effect and notes that fossil fuel combustion contributes to global temperature rise. It also depicts various ‘devastating consequences’ of a disrupted climate such as ‘catastrophic floods’, against which it identifies low-lying countries like Bangladesh as ‘defenseless’.
  • The film may have implications for litigation against BP. Despite knowing about the threat of climate change thirty years ago, BP downplayed these threats and continues to work against emission control.
  • By portraying itself as an ally in the fight against climate change, BP attempts to maintain its social license to operate. At its core however, BP’s business model still largely relies on the combustion of fossil fuels.
  • To counter this corporate strategy and accelerate the energy transition culturally, the author argues that a total ban on advertising from fossil fuel companies is in order.
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On May 19th, 1997, BP chief executive officer John Browne took an unprecedented step. In a speech at Stanford University, he became the first head of a major oil company to directly and publicly accept the emerging consensus on climate change.

Over the course of his address, Browne called it ‘unwise and potentially dangerous’ to ignore the possibility of catastrophic climate change. He also said that ‘[i]f we are all to take responsibility for the future of our planet, then it falls to us to begin to take precautionary action now’.

In his 2011 autobiography — self-flatteringly titled Beyond Business: An Inspirational Memoir From a Visionary Leader — Browne would later recall: ‘No other speech in BP has probably undergone so much scrutiny and so many iterations. I was the chief executive of an oil company and I was about to become an environmental activist.’

Browne specifically mentions the concern of then-BP chairman David Simon about the reaction the rest of the petroleum industry would have. ‘You know, if you start to support climate change, [former chairman and Exxon chief executive] Lee Raymond is likely to come over and lecture you about how you've got it all wrong’, Simon is quoted as saying. Indeed, Browne recollects he was later visited by various oil chief executives, who came to ask if he had ‘lost the plot’.

Browne hadn’t lost the plot. BP was widely hailed for its new stance on climate change. In August, 1997, environmental journalist Geoffrey Lean wrote in the Independent that Browne’s speech had cast him as somewhat of a ‘green icon’, and his company as the ‘most sympathetic’ to the cause of environmental group Greenpeace. One year later, in the 1998 winter issue of the journal Corporate Environmental Strategy industrial ecology specialists Ernest Lowe and Robert Harris wrote that BP had ‘raised the bar’ and was ‘fundamentally changing’ to become a climate friendly oil company.

How accurate is the idea of ‘Stanford’ as BP’s turning point?

Even nowadays, Browne’s 1997 address is seen as a turning point for BP. One example of this was visible during a web conference with its new chief executive officer Bernard Looney, in February this year. Asked when he, Looney, realized that ‘the stuff [he had] devoted [his] life digging out of the ground was the problem that the world needed to address’, he mentioned the ‘great speech’ by his predecessor.

But how accurate is the idea of ‘Stanford’ as BP’s turning point? A long-forgotten documentary, made by BP and recently tracked down by sustainability think tank Changerism, shows that the oil company was already well aware of the causes and effects of climate change in 1990 — seven years before Browne’s landmark speech.

‘Devastating consequences’

What makes weather?, as the 24-minute documentary is called, can be found on tape in the British Film Institute’s archive. A digital copy is freely available online, via BP’s own video library. The film explains how the weather works, and how it can be altered by humans.

The film introduces the problem of man-made climate change around the 18 minute mark. Accompanied by dramatic music, the narrator explains: ‘Our whole energy intensive way of life and its dependence on carbon based fuels is now a cause for concern. When coal, oil, or gas are burned, they release carbon dioxide and other reactive gases. Since the industrial revolution, their use has increased hundredfold. In the last forty years, the mass burning of the tropical forests has freed even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It has taken time to realize what damage this extra carbon dioxide can do.’

After an explanation of the warming potential of CO2 as a greenhouse gas, the film discusses the ‘devastating consequences’ of a disrupted climate, should there be ‘an overall increase in temperature of even a few degrees’. Powerful imagery shows the havoc caused by melting ice sheets, sea level rise, storms, and droughts. The message is clear: climate change is ‘one of our urgent concerns’.

Watch a 4 minute-clip from the video below, or see the entire film here.

Going by BP’s history of producing popular films, What makes weather? must have introduced hundreds if not thousands of students to the stark realities of life in a world with a broken climate. Clearly intended for educational purposes, it was available through BP’s education service for £12,95 in the mid-1990s. According to BP, the film was even awarded a bronze plaque at the 39th Annual Columbus International Film and Video Festival in 1991.

In the 30 years since, What makes weather? has faded from memory. None of the activists and researchers Changerism consulted were aware of the video; an internet search for the title yields no results apart from the BP archive.

One possible explanation for the video’s obscurity is a development in school curricula. According to BP’s video library webpage, the company ran a ‘free film distribution library for schools’ from the 1950s onwards. By the 1990s however, ‘the greater centralization and tightening of the school curriculum meant that teachers had less leeway to include commercially produced material.’ The company states it ceased active distribution of its moving image work in the late 1980s.

One year after What makes weather?, Dutch oil company Shell published its own documentary about global warming, called A climate of concern. This film, too, had slipped from public memory — that is, until Dutch journalism platform De Correspondent re-published it in 2017.

A collaborative effort between the two oil companies cannot be ruled out. A climate of concern and What makes weather? employ similar audio-visual styling and narratives; both films were produced by Shell Film Unit’s Gordon Douglas and animated by Rod Lord. At times, the films even contain the same footage.

Where Climate of concern helped prove that Shell had been well aware of the realities of global warming for decades, What makes weather? shows us the same for BP: that already in 1990, the company explicitly and publicly addressed the threat of climate change and the role fossil fuels play in the greenhouse effect.

‘Disinformation at its very worst’

This much is clear: BP knew about the grave threats of climate breakdown in 1990. That did not, however, stop the company from taking part in activities to openly deny or downplay these threats for at least another seven years.

‘This film makes it all the harder for BP to say “We didn’t know”. It shows, all too clearly, that they did’

Illustrative of this is BP’s work through the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), arguably the most impactful industry association to challenge climate science and regulatory action in the 1990s. In 1991, the oil company appeared on a GCC member list and remained there until its public course reversal on the topic of climate change in 1997.

But by that time, the damage had already been done. In the years of BP’s membership, the GCC intervened in ways that have been characterized by eye-witness Jeremy Leggett as ‘distortion’, ‘manipulation’, and ‘disinformation at its very worst’. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, for example, GCC executive director John Schlaes led ‘a concerted effort to emphasise the growing emissions of developing countries, preparing the way for a sustained attack by the carbon club on the soft underbelly of the Convention, which ultimately led to long-running deadlock in the build-up to the Kyoto climate summit.’ 

Throughout the decade, the group would continue to oppose mandatory regulations on emission control. At times, this had significant consequences. Shortly before the GCC’s dissolution in 2001, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky told its representatives that president George W. Bush had decided to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol ‘in part based on input from you’.

This gives rise to potentially profound legal implications. A similar constellation of facts gave birth to the climate litigation movement in the United States. This movement has managed to drag Exxon and other fossil fuel companies through courtrooms over its role in global warming. In the Netherlands, the environmental group Milieudefensie took Shell to trial in 2019, thereby referring to A climate of concern and the efforts Shell nevertheless undertook to hamper climate policies.

In this context, the existence of What makes weather? represents a similar argument lawyers can use to strengthen cases against BP. The film provides documentary proof that BP long recognized the threat of unabated fossil fuel use to the climate, but then continued to act as if this problem simply did not exist.

‘From a litigation perspective, [What makes weather?] is significant for several reasons’, says Carroll Muffett, president and chief executive of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). ‘In the film, BP recognizes that the combustion of oil, gas and other fossil fuels is a major driver in global increases in atmospheric CO2 and describes the mechanism by which these emissions can affect the global climate. In so doing, BP is explicitly acknowledging an intrinsic risk in using the products that form the core of its business.’

Muffett continues: ‘The film recognizes the potentially “devastating consequences” of climate change if fossil fuel use continues to grow. (...) Unfortunately for BP, this film makes it all the harder for the company to say “We didn’t know”. It shows, all too clearly, that they did.’

Read Muffett’s unabridged statement here:

‘From a litigation perspective, the film is significant for several reasons.  

In the film, BP recognizes that the combustion of oil, gas and other fossil fuels is a major driver in global increases in atmospheric CO2 and describes the mechanism by which these emissions can affect the global climate. In so doing, BP is explicitly acknowledging an intrinsic risk in using the products that form the core of its business.

The film recognizes the potentially “devastating consequences” of climate change if fossil fuel use continues to grow: including sea level rise, increased severe weather events, catastrophic flooding, droughts that create dust bowl conditions on a “more disastrous scale”. And through words and imagery it identifies broad categories of plaintiffs likely to be harmed by these events — from subsistence farmers in Africa and Asia to low-lying nations like Bangladesh.

Yet, despite recognizing these risks more than three decades ago (and indeed, decades earlier), BP continued producing oil and gas in ever greater quantities. Within 10 years of making this film, BP was on track to become the world’s third biggest investor owned oil company. Two decades later it was pushing into the ultra deep water oil frontiers that created the BP Horizon disaster.

By the end of last year — three decades after acknowledging these risks — BP and its subsidiaries were producing 4 million barrels of oil and gas every day and planning to grow production still further over the next two years.  

The film makes an abrupt turn in its final minutes from the compelling science of climate change to humankind’s inability to predict the “weather” or to control it. “It’s the weather that’s in charge,” ends the film. “Not us.”

This subtle shift — in which the company first acknowledges climate science and climate risk and then uses narrative sleight of hand to suggest there’s nothing that can be done about it — follows a pattern we have seen BP and other oil companies exploit repeatedly for decades to sow confusion and uncertainty in the face of the climate crisis.

It’s precisely that divergence between what these companies knew about the climate risks from their products — and what they did and said about those risks — that underpins the growing number of climate suits against them worldwide. Unfortunately for BP, this film makes it all the harder for the company to say “We didn’t know.” It shows, all too clearly, that they did.’

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Green words, carbon black actions

If the Stanford speech helped BP brand itself as a ‘conscious’ oil company, aware of the threats of climate change, that green conscience was largely absent in its actions. For almost two decades after its exit from the GCC, BP was a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). This lobby organization, made up of conservative state legislators and representatives from companies like Shell, ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy, has been part of what the Union of Concerned Scientists calls a ‘decades-long climate deception campaign’. In the words of corporate accountability specialist Kert Davies: ‘ALEC Hates the Climate’.

In 1999, ALEC had already blocked laws to reduce greenhouse gases in 16 US states. By the time BP parted ways with the group in 2015, its legislators had promoted numerous more anti-environment bills and resolutions.

This was by no means the end. In the three years following its departure from ALEC, BP successfully lobbied the US government to roll back central regulations to counter methane leakage (which happens in small quantities everywhere in the gas infrastructure), venting (releasing gas unburned), and flaring (burning gas at release). In 2017, BP lobbied the Trump administration to open up the Alaskan Arctic for oil and gas drilling; it did so together with several trade groups it co-funded, such as the Alaska Oil & Gas Association (AOGA) and the Resource Development Council for Alaska (RDC). That same year, the oil giant targeted the Brazilian government to ease environmental and taxation rules for drilling in its newly discovered offshore oil fields.

In 2018, BP was the top donor in opposition to a Washington state ballot initiative which would have imposed a $15-a-ton fee on carbon emissions. The carbon tax would have been the nation’s first but was ultimately defeated. BP poured more than $13 million into the campaign, breaking the state’s record of the most money donated in opposition to any initiative. In 2020, BP’s Political Action Committee (PAC) contributed to multiple federal candidates who are against progressive climate policy.

Liz Cheney, Republican federal candidate and former vice president Dick Cheney’s daughter, received $2.500 from the PAC. She applauded Trump for his announcement that the US was pulling out of the landmark Paris climate agreement and voted against a bill that would have required Trump to plan for meeting the United States' contribution to emission reductions under ‘Paris’.

There is a glaring divide between the image BP portrays in public and the actions it takes behind closed doors

BP funded more Republican candidates. Ohio representative Robert Latta, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy and House representative Minority Whip Steve Scalise all received $5.000 and voted against the bill. The latter, when asked last year if he accepts the science of man made climate change, answered: ‘[The earth’s temperature] goes up and down. In the 1970s they said we were entering a new cooling,… another “freeze”’.

A social license to operate

If there’s one thing these activities make clear, it’s that there is a glaring divide between the image BP portrays in public and the actions it takes behind closed doors. Although it has publicly taken a progressive stance on climate change for 23 years, the company still derives the vast majority of its profit from the hydrocarbon business. Since 2010, BP has spent just 2.3% of its budget on low-carbon forms of energy.

None of this should come as a surprise. BP needs to keep its shareholders happy, meaning that it needs to keep extracting fossil fuels from the earth. Unfortunately for BP, as a recent study in the journal Energy Research & Social Science reiterated, only 20% of the world’s fossil fuel reserves can be extracted if humanity is to have a good chance of meeting the Paris agreement’s 2°C objective. For BP to survive, then, the company has to make it seem that its quest for profit and humanity’s quest to keep the planet liveable are somehow compatible, even when BP knows that they are not.

Failing to keep up such an appearance is a direct threat to the company’s social license to operate and will eventually lead to its downfall. BP knows this all too well, as it experienced a sudden and violent turn of public sentiment following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

A refresher: on April 20th, 2010, a blowout on the BP-leased oil rig Deepwater Horizon caused an explosion that killed 11 people and ignited a fireball visible from 64 kilometers away. The fire proved inextinguishable; two days later, the oil rig sank to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Over the next three months, a total of 3.19 million barrels of crude oil spilled into the ocean, causing one of the largest environmental disasters in human history. The spill was later linked to a series of cost-cutting decisions by BP and its partners, as well as an overall lack of safety standards

When the general public in the United States noticed the gap between the company’s publicly stated environmental stewardship and the devastation of the oil spill, it all started to dangerously fall apart for BP. Political concern flared, which made it harder for BP to borrow money. This, in turn, fueled concerns over its liquidity. The ‘political environment’ and the market, in the words of former chief executive officer Tony Hayward in a documentary, ‘began to feed on each other’.

In a 2011 paper, law professors Miriam Cherry and Judd Sneirson articulate another connection between public trust in BP and the viability of its business: ‘Beyond the environmental damage, beyond the lives lost, beyond the ruins of the Gulf economy, there was another aspect of the oil spill that was especially galling to the public. Many felt a sense of betrayal, because [...] there was such an extreme disconnect between the spill and BP's advertising, which had portrayed the company as being different (read: better) than traditional oil companies. Consumers and the public therefore trusted BP and many went out of their way to purchase gasoline from BP when possible. Socially conscious investors purchased BP stock, believing the claims that BP was engaged in better environmental practices than its competitors. Those investor and consumer expectations were built through BP's own advertising that challenged the traditional view of an oil company; acknowledgement of difficult environmental problems, most notably climate change; and the necessity of exploring forms of alternative fuels.’

Advertising as a strategy for public trust

Historically, BP’s primary way of keeping up the appearance that its corporate interests and those of the public were somehow compatible has been to sow doubt about the realities of man-made climate change. That game is more or less over; BP recognized as much in the 1990s. It now mostly relies on a second, less-often scrutinized strategy: to firmly acknowledge climate change’s causes and effects, but to then present itself as part of the solution, rather than the problem.

Last year, the non-profit group Influencemap described this strategy as ‘climate-positive branding’ and calculated that in the three years after the Paris climate conference, BP spent some 30 million dollars on this type of branding. This is hardly a novel strategy, however. BP already laid out its workings in another long-forgotten company film from 1990.

Titled ‘We can’t afford to gamble’, this video shows several global warming related headlines and refers to various other environmental issues. Afterwards, it shows BP chairman Robert Horton saying that ‘where human life or health is at stake, or where environmental damage may occur, we cannot be seen to have fallen short of our responsibilities’. Later on, the narrator says that BP ‘will tell the community about the nature of our operations, their potential hazards, and [its] emergency preparedness’. The goal: ‘to gain public confidence, and thus secure our continued license to operate’.

This is BP’s public relations plan, laid bare in its own words from thirty years ago

Another narrator emphasizes the exact relationship between social acceptance and business success: ‘BP businesses need this license to operate’, ‘but if BP gets it wrong and its customers lose confidence in the business, (…) if the community becomes hostile, then shareholders will desert and there will be no business. We cannot afford to gamble with BP’s prosperity by gambling with health, safety, and environment’.

At first sight, the strategies of spreading lies and telling the truth seem completely opposed to each other. But BP’s toying around with reality always serves the same goal of getting the much desired public legitimacy, so it can more easily do the things it needs to turn a profit. As head of government and public affairs at BP David Walton toldthe Financial Times in 1989: BP’s image is a ‘major commercial and political asset’.

This is BP’s public relations plan, laid bare in its own words from thirty years ago. It aims to culturally grease the teeth of its business and policy interventions, which it knows full well chip away at our future. The PR strategy it uses to achieve this goal merely changes — radically, if needed — in tandem with society’s moving sensibilities.

Why we need to ban fossil fuel advertising

Critical constituencies have long understood this. Launched in 2000, BP’s $200 million ‘Beyond Petroleum’ rebranding campaign was dismissed from the outset, with commenters referring to the company as the ‘mother of all greenwashing’. Last year, environmental law charity ClientEarth made a legal complaint against BP’s ‘Possibilities Everywhere’ advertisements, stating that they ‘misled people into thinking that BP are a renewables company, when 96% of the company’s spend is on oil and gas’. 

The oil major pulled the campaign this February, but it faced new accusations of greenwashing as recently as two weeks ago. A study by The Pathway Institute (TPI) concluded that the company’s ambition to ‘become a net zero company by 2050 or sooner’ — set only four months ago by BP’s new chief executive Bernard Looney — ‘fail[s] to align with the Paris pledges and are far from alignment with 2°C or net zero’. The Guardian’s global environment editor Jonathan Watts also analyzed BP’s full statement, concluding that it was ‘too little, too late to tackle the climate crisis’.

These efforts to counteract the destructive effects of Big Fossil’s cultural productions are important, but they only do so advertisement by advertisement, campaign by campaign, ambition by ambition. By the time the greenwash has been exposed, it will have done its job. It is a constant, low-return, reactive, time-and-resource consuming activity.

The fossil fuel industry is not just ‘any’ industry. Its core product drives extinction on a global level

ClientEarth’s campaign ‘The whole truth’ smartened things up. Launched in December 2019, it calls for a ban on fossil fuel advertising, ‘unless it comes with a tobacco-style health warning about the dangers that climate change poses to you and your planet’. But the initiative is based on the assumption that telling the truth would hurt the oil and gas business. As BP shows, this is not the case. The company exploits both truth and lie to secure a license to operate.

We need something more radical. To culturally depreciate the fossil fuel industry in a systematic way, its advertising must be banned altogether. 

I have called (in Dutch) for such bans before. In my experience, the proposal is prone to trigger some expected responses. One of them is the fear that any industry could be next. If the fossil fuel industry would be disallowed advertising, why not others, when they are perceived as harmful? Accompanying accusations of censorship are, of course, just around the corner. 

Such knee-jerk reactions are misguided: the fossil fuel industry is not just ‘any’ industry. Its core product drives extinction on a global level. It is an industry, as philosophers would say, sui generis (‘of its own kind’). At most, it shares some similarity with the tobacco industry.

In many countries, the latter, too, is banned from public advertisement. Moreover, the tobacco industry is often stripped from its privileged access to public funds. Public pension funds, for example, regularly exclude tobacco companies from future investments (as they do with companies that produce cluster munitions). These funds legitimate their decisions by referring to various treaties and principles, such as the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG), which started out as an oil fund, regularly adds fossil fuel companies to its exclusion list. This isn’t censorship or, worse, a slide into totalitarianism. It is integrating science and human rights into financing decisions.

A total ban on fossil fuel advertising, then, is a way to integrate these ideas into cultural decisions. It deprives the fossil fuel industry of privileged access to public space, in the hopes of staving off catastrophic climate change and mass extinction. The longer companies like BP are allowed to drill into our senses, the easier we are pushed towards climate cataclysm. Banning hydrocarbon messages, enforced by law and policy, gives us a fighting chance to reverse-engineer our way out of such a predicament — before it is too late. 

The author has reached out to BP for comment multiple times since May 13, but did not receive a response.