This is a two-part article – read part 1 here.
A companion to greenwashing is ‘astroturfing’ – a practice intended to give people or organisations undue environmental credibility by infiltrating or creating supposedly trustworthy platforms while withholding information about their true interests or funding.
Their spokespeople are unquestioningly introduced on the BBC or welcomed by publications with a vested interest in business as usual as respectable objective commentators. This is undoubtedly because the right-wing press is staffed with editors allied to Tufton St who give spokespeople for the think tanks, such as the Global Warming Policy Foundation’s Andrew Montford or Matt Ridley, a regular platform for denial. And since Richard Sharp, an alumnus of the Centre for Policy Studies was appointed Chair of Governors (albeit for a short tenure), the BBC has embedded Conservative enforcers such as Robbie Gibb to make sure they are heard.
Climate denying Global Warming Policy Foundation funder Michael Hintze’s generous gift to the Natural History Museum, which led to the grand entrance being named after him, has made him an unassailable member of the establishment. ‘Making Nature History’ would seem to be a new direction for the museum.
Google’s connection with ‘Big Oil’
By far the most insidious and far-reaching scandal, involving both greenwashing and astroturfing, is that presented by search engines.
Google bestrides the globe. Whether academics or shoppers, we all rely on one of the most useful tech advances of the last 20 years. Almost a monopoly as gatekeepers to knowledge, the company would seem to take the duties of this exalted position seriously. In their mission statement they declare nobly:
“We never provide special treatment to advertisers in how our Search algorithms rank their websites, and nobody can pay us to do so […] We believe you should be able to trust what you find using Google.”
That brazen promise has been found to be a lie following a 2022 investigation by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a non-profit NGO based in the US with a mission to take on the promoters of online hate and misinformation.
Google states categorically that searches, “reflect what the online community believes is important, not what we or our partners think you ought to see”, and that “no one can buy better placement in the search results themselves.”
However, in this report, the CCDH systematically details how Google, in spite of its commitment to sustainability, is complicit in Big Oil’s attempts to greenwash/astroturf its image by selling companies the application of search descriptors such as ‘sustainable’ and ‘renewable’, and “by allowing fossil fuel giants to advertise on searches like ‘how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?’, ‘eco-friendly companies’, and ‘net zero.”
This subterfuge not only casts companies in an ‘eco-friendly’ light, it pushes their results to the top of the search page. The prominence then lends them undeserved authority.
Using the data analytics tool SEMrush, their investigation showed that, “nearly half of the $23.7 million spent on Google search ads by five major oil and gas companies in the last two years have targeted search terms on environmental sustainability.”
This includes occasions when users ask about the validity of the science or political choices.
Encouraging climate denial through ads
We have long known that, since the seventies, fossil fuel companies have been involved in a massive cover up as they attempted to downplay their culpability in climate breakdown.
In September 2022, the US House Committee on Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on the Environment has now found, through an investigation of internal documents, that Big Oil continues to ‘gaslight’ the public and that their aim is deliberately to mislead Google Search users.
ExxonMobil, British Petroleum (BP), Chevron, Shell, and Aramco, which are together accountable for 14% of global carbon emissions since 1965, are the main culprits polluting our search results. Ads placed by Shell assure a commitment to “net-zero emissions”, while internal memos reveal that that net-zero is not on their agenda.
To compound the offence, in spite of promises to the contrary, Google continues to accept hundreds of thousands in back handers for outright climate denial, including $421,000 from the notorious Competitive Enterprise Institute, for ads that claimed: “climate campaigners hype the risks of global warming” and “fossil fuels make the planet safer.”
It raises the question as to why they have also removed reference to key drivers of global heating from their online flight carbon calculator, Google Flights, which is ostensibly designed to “help you make more sustainable travel choices”. Aviation is responsible for around 2% of global CO2 emissions, but more broadly responsible for around 3.5% of the warming caused by human activity. Dr Doug Parr, chief scientist of Greenpeace calls them out: “Google has airbrushed a huge chunk of the aviation industry’s climate impacts from its pages.” – essentially halving the real impact on the climate of flights.
The company openly said it made the change following consultations with its “industry partners”. Would these be the same partners that Google guaranteed would not restrict what “you ought to see”? We will never know as the company exploits the absence of compulsory transparency laws in this sector, which allows the company to operate without an ad library open to scrutiny as to where ads are placed.
António Guterres Secretary-General of the United Nations called out the PR industry for its willingness to “shield the fossil-fuel industry from scrutiny.” The campaign refers to such actors as perpetrators of a ‘digital Counter-Enlightenment’ who have colonised and exploited the tools of mass communication and denunciates Google’s complicity and shameless profiteering on the back of climate destruction.
Ecosia – an eco-friendly search engine?
With its promise to plant trees, even Ecosia launched in 2009 and the ‘go to’ search engine for the concerned environmentalist, is to an extent guilty.
It is not a search engine in its own right and is reliant on the technology of Microsoft Bing. Although Ecosia’s website states that Microsoft Bing has committed to making all its operations carbon neutral, they have plans to continue partnerships with oil companies including ExxonMobile, a company which has pledged to expand their production to 50,000 oil-equivalent barrels a day by 2025.
There is a fable about the inventor of chess. When he presented his new game to his King, he asked for a simple reward: that a single grain of rice be placed on the first square. Then two grains on the second, four grains on the third, and so on, doubling each time. Thinking this was cheap at half the price, the King agreed before realising that by the time you get to square 64, there are over 18 quintillion grains of rice on the board: more than the entire kingdom possessed.
Josef Goebbels said: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
Like the chessboard, the internet provides the wherewithal to have lies not just repeated, but replicated exponentially. The sheer weight of the lie makes it an almost unstoppable currency.
The direction of travel is clear, but we as consumers need to continue to be vigilant.