The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Earth Day is a chance to win the messaging war against polluters

Public relations will play a major role in whether we successfully combat climate change

Demonstrators outside the White House on Oct. 13 in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Last October, top executives from some of the world’s most powerful oil companies testified before the House Oversight Committee about their industry’s climate change disinformation campaigns. For the past 30 years, Big Oil has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, political campaigns, super PACs and a network of think tanks. Using tactics from the tobacco industry, they have manufactured doubt about climate science and environmental regulation. At the hearing, the executives deflected, touting their support of clean energy while denying their role in misleading the public about the cause of climate change: the use of their products.

Their PR campaign is working.

Climate protectors have fallen behind in the messaging war with the petrochemical industry. And it is a war — it has been understood as such by chemical companies since the first Earth Day in 1970 when they decided to use their PR offices to discredit concerned citizens and dismantle the federal regulatory state.

Earth Day began in the University of Michigan’s basketball arena on March 11, 1970, when nearly 14,000 people attended a teach-in on the environment. The event included performances by the folk singer Gordon Lightfoot and the cast of “Hair,” speeches by Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) and ecologist Barry Commoner, and symposia on pesticide pollution, nutrient runoff in the Great Lakes and the new field of environmental law. The organizers, Environmental Action for Survival (ENACT), used grass-roots protest strategies developed by Black civil rights activists and anti-Vietnam War protesters, and it worked. That spring, their Michigan event served as a template for organizers at some 2,000 colleges and several thousand more schools across the country.

Dow Chemical, headquartered north of Ann Arbor in Midland, was paying attention. Speaking to the Chemical Public Relations Association in New York City that March, Dow’s director of public relations, Ned Brandt, predicted the Earth Day teach-ins probably would be “a mixed blessing” for the chemical industry. The hazard was that students might embarrass a local plant, take legal action, or organize a boycott or “some other form of trouble.”

The opportunity, though, was enormous. The industry had the chance to seize control of the environmental narrative. “If we could have a thousand representatives of the chemical industry telling about their concern and their efforts to control pollution on a thousand campuses, to the generation of tomorrow,” Brandt argued, “that would be the greatest public relations effort this industry could make just now.”

Such an approach came out of their PR experience with napalm. Dow became a target of antiwar protests in 1966 because it produced napalm for the U.S. military, which used it to incinerate bunkers, villages, forests and farms in Vietnam. Dow argued that it was merely fulfilling a government contract and that it wasn’t responsible for how the government applied its product. At first, Dow treated student activists as misguided but well-intentioned, and as potential collaborators. They brought editors of student newspapers on tours of the Midland facility and collaborated with campus PR offices to bring pro-chemical industry speakers to campus.

In 1969, however, Dow’s public relations office decided that their strategy aimed at “minimizing the damage” wasn’t working. Campus protests had successfully turned Dow, formerly an under-the-radar producer of chemical intermediaries (a “chemical company’s chemical company”), into a household name. They moved to “Phase II” of what Brandt called “their napalm war,” which involved “spotting trouble before it occurs and going out to meet it.” In advance of campus protests, Dow sent a PR man to talk to the local news media and campus newspaper to ensure that Dow would be “coordinated with the college in matters of news coverage, policy, and security.”

Dow implemented the same strategy to counter environmentalists’ valid concerns about Dow’s polluting plants. The company framed itself as an environmentally responsible business that was leading the way in pollution control innovation.

The growing intensity of campus activism led Dow to go on the offensive. Activists had pushed university administrators to reevaluate their relationships with the company, at an enormous cost to its brand. One university president even turned down a “substantial” gift from Dow that would have set up a special research institute, while a major charitable foundation asked for extensive information on Dow’s napalm contracts because it received a call from a Congress member asking it to justify holding Dow stock. Dow’s name had become toxic, and Brandt warned that other major corporations would also soon find themselves the targets of student activists.

Over the next decade, Dow executives treated environmental activists as business competitors, even enemies. In a 1979 speech to the Arizona Business Forum, Dow President Paul Oreffice described environmentalists as “a small, powerful, and resourceful enemy” and “professional merchants of doom” who were destroying free enterprise. In a speech transcript riddled with exclamation points, he proclaimed: “These people are a well-financed, highly-trained, highly-organized professional army, using hundreds of thousands of well-meaning Americans as their weapon to commercialize their ideas. They are the most dangerous competitors industry has ever faced. […] All of us are in a fight for our lives.”

But environmentalist activists were not the chemical industry’s only “competitors.” Federal agencies, Oreffice warned later that year, were their enemies too. Environmentalists had “taken over the regulatory process,” “infiltrated the media” and “planted colleagues in key congressional staff assignments.” It was time for the chemical industry to fight back with the “weapon” of a “united, strong voice” and by cultivating new alliances — notably with labor leaders and elected officials — to place industry men into regulatory agencies and the executive branch.

Oreffice’s plan worked, particularly during the antiregulatory Reagan administration. In the 1980s, many Environmental Protection Agency appointees came from the very industries that the EPA was tasked with regulating, including Aerojet General and Exxon. This was exactly what Oreffice had imagined in 1979, when he told fellow business executives: “[W]e must be willing to fight regulatory excesses in court, in the media, in the Congress, at the White House, and we must fight it with our best people.”

Along with discrediting environmental activists and dismantling key environmental regulations from inside government, the petrochemical industry also launched an aggressive media strategy to convince many Americans that environmental solutions were a matter of lifestyle rather than politics. These tactics continue. Flying? Purchase carbon offsets. Driving? Buy an electric car. Eating? Grow your own food. Indeed, it was one of the world’s largest fossil fuel corporations, BP, that popularized the term “carbon footprint” in the early 2000s, releasing a “carbon footprint calculator” that framed greenhouse gas emissions as the result of individual choices.

Many environmentalists see personally opting out of the dominant economy as the only thing they can do to counter climate change. This is a sign both of our impoverished political system and of our impoverished imagination, an effect of the petrochemical industry’s public relations campaign to make a world without fossil fuels seem impossible. But such a world existed less than a century ago, and a new, healthier world is possible in the future.

In January 2022, more than 450 scientists called upon public relations and advertising firms to stop working for fossil fuel companies. Independently, members of the House of Representatives have asked public relations firms to account for their role in obscuring the link between fossil fuel burning and climate change. Increasingly, activists are acknowledging the power of PR firms, along with insurers, law firms, lobbying organizations, industry groups and think tanks in buffering the fossil fuel industry from regulation. In so doing, climate activists are attempting to chip away at the sturdy defenses that the petrochemical industry has assembled over half a century.

This Earth Week, it is worth reflecting on the power of collective action. The first Earth Day, national in scope, led the chemical industry to reform its PR practices. Today, the environmental movement faces the challenge of pushing petrochemical corporations to reform their industrial practices. To do that we need political action that meaningfully holds petrochemical companies accountable for harming our shared world.