March 25


Dark money lobbying: How to undermine sustainability

By Rhys Herbert

March 25, 2019

Dark money lobbying: How to undermine sustainability

When positive change is blocked by financial giants, it’s time to take a stand.

Our planet is at risk. The lives of human beings and animals are at risk. The delicate ecosystems that we depend upon are at risk.

These risks are created, supported and encouraged by dark money lobbying.

In private meetings and secret funding channels, we find a network of companies seeking to profit from the planet’s demise.

Through the lobbying of government officials, fossil fuel companies preserve their commercial interests. And through the power of good PR, seeding climate change doubt and telling outright lies, they get away with it.

Today, we’re going to look at the power of dark money lobbying, and how it puts the planet in grave danger.

Before we get into how sustainability is at risk, it’s important to understand the power of perception.

How good PR fuels political power

A positive public image does a business the power of good. So when there are billions of dollars — or political power — at stake, some go to drastic lengths to improve their PR.

Take Russia, for example. After a hugely successful Winter Olympic games, hosted in Sochi, public spirit was skyrocketing. Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings were high. In the following months, he ordered a bloody invasion of Ukraine. He used sport to garner approval, then exploited it for his own gain.

And on home shores, look to the world of football — specifically, Manchester City’s owner. He’s the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi.

The UAE has been criticised by Human Rights Watch for “arbitrarily [detaining] and forcibly [disappearing] individuals who criticize authorities.” In Abu Dhabi, “unnatural sex with another person” can be punished with up to 14 years in prison. In this context, “unnatural” can be read as “homosexual”.

So how does football come into this?

The accusation is that prominent UAE figures are using Manchester City as a ‘soft power’ vehicle. In other words, a sports team performing well softens their image, distracting the world from the abuses on their shores.

As we’ll see, efforts like these can be incredibly lucrative. Now, we’ll turn our attention to how dark money lobbying is threatening our very survival.

Climate change and the fossil fuel industry

Fossil fuels are big business. The industry is valued at $4.65 trillion — a number too big for most of us to comprehend.

To put it into perspective, the world’s most valuable company (Amazon) is worth $795 billion. That makes fossil fuels almost 6x more valuable than the online retail giant.

Public support for climate action is a threat to that number. So for companies that profit from fossil fuels, political lobbying is a must.

A recent report showed that the five largest oil and gas companies spend nearly $200m a year lobbying to delay, control or block policies to tackle climate change

At the same time, they publicly show their support for renewables and sustainability. The companies spent $197m on branding campaigns suggesting they support climate action.

Reason for hope?

The EU is taking action. ExxonMobil were due to appear at an EU hearing on climate change denial, but failed to show up. They are now facing a ban from lobbying privileges — that is, access to Members of the European Parliament, parliamentary meetings and digital resources. This could be a turning point for the future of lobbying.

When the public sees ExxonMobil, Shell or BP talking about the bright future of renewables, it sees an industry looking to change.

Dig a little deeper and we find that not only are their efforts pitiful — 1% of their budgets went to renewables in 2018 — but they’re actively lobbying to block, delay and control climate change policies.

This is greenwashing at its worst. The future of the planet and the prosperity of human life is at stake. Oil and gas companies cannot get away with this any longer.

Climate change denial: How to harness the power of doubt

We’ve seen the power of good PR, so it’s no surprise that the oil giants are expert greenwashers. But there’s another tool they use to great effect: doubt.

With billions of dollars at stake, planting seeds of doubt around climate change is big business.

In 1977, Exxon scientist James Black briefed the company that “doubling CO2 could increase global average temperatures 1C to 3C by 2050AD”.

In the following years, ExxonMobil paid for newspaper advertorials that cast doubt on anthropogenic climate change:

“Let’s face it: the science of climate change is too uncertain,” read an advertorial in 1997. “We still don’t know what role man-made greenhouse gases might play in warming the planet.”

But they did know. Their own scientist told them.

This wilful misleading of the public has created doubt for the past 40 years. Even today, climate change deniers have loud voices and similarly unsubstantiated views.

So why is denying and disregarding the facts so common?

Climate change is a threat to the planet. Doing something about climate change is a threat to the status quo.

When we admit that our actions have caused damage to the earth, the next step is to change our ways. That means changing capitalism and adding regulations.

Of course, regulation is the enemy of big business. Reducing emissions, paying carbon taxes and making products in a more environmentally-friendly way all carry a price tag.

So when the fossil fuel giants come together to fight against climate action, it’s a commercial decision. They know the dangers of their actions, but there’s too much at stake for them to commit to sustainability.

But, of course, there’s much more at stake for the planet.

In The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, denying climate change is seen as a defence of the modern Western social order. Conservative thinktanks and fossil fuel lobbyists use short-term profits to fuel their actions and defend the status quo.

In short, they just want to be left alone to make their trillions without opposition.

But we’re not going to let them do that, are we?

How to hold fossil fuel giants to account

We’ve already shown how much is at stake for these companies. It might seem that, with a stranglehold on politicians, there’s nothing we can do.

But with a global movement of activists and concerned individuals, we can make a change.

If you’re fed up with the power of fossil fuel companies, stop giving them your money. Switch to a renewable energy provider at home and at work.

Protesting is a huge part of environmentalism. In recent weeks, schoolchildren around the UK took to the streets in an unprecedented climate strike. They rejected their normal school day to stand up for the environment that has been betrayed by the generations before them.

And these protests can have a literal, immediate effect. It’s often the case that investment decisions — new power plants or airport terminals — are made on a local level. That means your elected politicians can and do have the power to say no.

Take back control and do some lobbying of your own — letters, emails, face-to-face meetings and social media posts all have an impact.

Demand transparency and scrutinise their funding channels. Create a groundswell of support in your constituency and your local politician will have no choice but to do the right thing — or face a defeat at the next election.

When we demand transparency from our politicians, we take control away from the fossil fuel giants. If it’s all just a PR game to them, then it’s time we started playing.

About the Author

Rhys is Conscious Creatives' resident writer and photographer. His work has been published in various online publications, and he was recently chosen to update a bestselling book on SEO. He continues to seek new and interesting angles for his photography work, shooting his local streets on 35mm film.

Rhys Herbert

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