This column is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration cofounded by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Earlier this month I spoke to a group of climate activists about what I call “information pollution”—the use of various PR tactics to shape the public’s understanding of everything from how the economy works to what can be done to fight climate change. The day before, at the TED Climate Countdown event in Glasgow, Scottish climate activist Lauren MacDonald had accused Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden of being personally responsible for the deaths of thousands. A video of the standoff had gone viral, and one of the activists I was speaking to wondered if, MacDonald’s bravery aside, this was really the best tactic. “Shouldn’t we think about bringing these companies into these discussions more?” she wondered.
It was not the first or even the 100th time I’ve been asked that question. Quick answer: Companies are not people; they do not have moral compasses. But also, these nonhuman entities have had a seat at the table on environmental and climate policy for a century or more, and what they’ve done with that seat is flip the table over and throw their chair at us (see, anthropomorphizing can work both ways). But there’s a longer answer here too, and it has everything to do with the subject of the talk I was giving: information pollution.
Back in 1962, a young Alabaman, E. Bruce Harrison, had just left his job on Capitol Hill to work in communications for the chemical industry’s trade group, the Manufacturing Chemists Association (today known as the American Chemistry Council). He was just another PR person until science writer Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, her book about the impact of the chemical industry on both the environment and human health.
“Rachel Carson’s book appears, and chaos ensues. And people are extremely concerned about the environment,” explained Melissa Aronczyk, coauthor of the forthcoming book A Strategic Nature about the history of environmental PR in America. “It’s at that moment that Harrison is appointed the environmental information manager and sort of given a team of other PR people who worked at companies like DuPont, Dow, Monsanto, and Shell and told, ‘You design the PR response to Rachel Carson, this is a disaster.’”
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Harrison was the first-ever environmental PR guy. He and his team threw everything they could at Carson: She was a woman; she wasn’t a scientist (Carson had stopped short of finishing her degree in biology to care for various family members); she had cancer, so this was probably a personal vendetta; she might even be—gasp—a lesbian. None of it worked. Carson’s work had sounded the alarm, and multiple environmental regulations ensued. But it was a learning experience for Harrison, and he would not repeat his mistakes.
He went on to work for Freeport Sulfur Mining Company (today Freeport-McMoRan), helping to open gold and copper mines in Indonesia and New Guinea, all while retaining a position on the MCA public relations committee. By the time he came back to Washington, in the early 1970s, various polluting industries were struggling with a wave of new environmental regulations.
The year 1972, in particular, was an inflection point for businesses with respect to environmental issues. In the United States, you had the Clean Water Act. And then there was the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which birthed the Stockholm Declaration. This groundbreaking document made environmental issues global, emphasizing conservation, the redistribution of resources, and state responsibility for environmental damage both within and beyond their borders. It also had zero concern for business. “To the extent that industry was included at all, in the UNCHE negotiations, it was as a culprit and a threat,” Aronczyk and coauthor Maria Espinoza write in their book.
The first principle put forth in the Stockholm Declaration reads, “Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being, and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations.” Later on, the declaration reaffirms nations’ sovereign right to extract their own resources, but notably balances that right with the mandate that countries must “ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.”
It led to the creation of new international laws, norms, and organizations focused on environmental protection, including the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), which was formed as a permanent agency to act as “the environmental conscience” of the UN. It was the kind of coordinated global call to action that youth climate activists are calling for today. It was also the culmination of what Carson had kicked off a decade earlier. Again, this was in 1972. So what happened?
Well, all this progress on environmental regulation was a massive PR crisis for American industry, and a huge opportunity for Harrison. Not only did he have contacts in politics thanks to his years working on the Hill; he also had international experience, industry connections because of his involvement with the MCA, and a few critical insights gleaned from the Silent Spring debacle.
His first big idea was to pull multiple industries grappling with environmental regulations together into one group that could collectively represent their interests. In 1972, he formed the National Environmental Development Association, an appropriately vague and “green” sounding name for a group of chemical, petroleum, agricultural, and mining companies; pro-business politicians; and labor groups, all of which felt that new environmental standards were a threat to their livelihoods. Harrison opened his own PR firm that same year with NEDA as his first client and himself as NEDA’s executive director. Harrison’s wife, Patricia de Stacy Harrison, was a cofounder of the firm and a NEDA director. (Today, she’s the president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.)
Harrison also saw the importance of integrating business interests into the international discussion of environmental issues. Central to this endeavor was inventing “sustainability” as a neoliberal, business-friendly approach that privileged voluntary and market-based solutions to ecological problems. Throughout the 1980s, Harrison scored himself invitations and speaking engagements at various UNEP events, where he pushed the idea that the more companies participated in the creation of environmental policies, the more effective those policies would be. To be clear, Harrison wasn’t the only person championing that idea in the 1980s, nor was his message a hard sell. Plenty of people were happy to embrace a business-friendly approach that required no economic tradeoffs. But given his domestic and international influence, Harrison was a driving force in this movement to allow polluting companies to shape environmental policy. In the late 1980s, he created two organizations—the Global Climate Coalition, which brought together manufacturers, oil companies, automotive, rail, and various other industries into a group that could effectively shape the global response to climate change, and EnviroComm, an international network of PR firms that would all use the same corporate messaging on environmental problems. Their stated mission was to monitor emerging environmental policy all over the world for clients and to influence that policy through strategic lobbying.
The idea was to use those 20 years between the Stockholm Declaration in 1972 and the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro to fully integrate industry into the international approach to environmental issues. The strategy was enormously successful. At the 1992 Rio summit, there was none of the urgency or directness of the Stockholm Declaration. Gone, too, was the emphasis on government regulation—replaced by a sort of big-tent approach that included business interests and prioritized compromise. “In order to meet the challenges of environment and development, States have decided to establish a new global partnership,” Agenda 21, one of the defining documents out of the 1992 Rio Summit reads. “It is recognized that, for the success of this new partnership, it is important to overcome confrontation and to foster a climate of genuine cooperation and solidarity.”
That evolution, from regulation to compromise, is a critical one because the Rio Earth Summit also birthed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), which informed the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its reports, as well as every international climate agreement since.
“It was at the many events run by business surrounding that 1992 Rio Earth Summit, convened by the UN, that Harrison presented his paper on the concept of sustainable communication,” Aronczyk said. “And he had very willing ears of all the CEOs from all over the world who were interested in this idea. He was also chairman of the International Public Relations Association at that time, and the International Public Relations Association was also holding events around the Earth Summit. The environment was a very, very hot topic at that time, of real concern to corporate leaders.”
Harrison wasn’t exactly delivering his message to an unfriendly audience. Maurice Strong, the organizer of the Rio Earth Summit, was an oil man himself and often talked about the need for industry to be part of any effective climate solution. A big fan of “doing well by doing good,” Strong often highlighted the financial rewards that could come from solving environmental problems, and believed that companies’ embracing sustainability represented a real and meaningful change. “Not to say that corporations are perfect today, but even grand corporations like DuPont have made immense progress in translating some of their past environmentally damaging practices into new profit opportunities,” he said at a press conference in the early 2000s.
In contrast to the 1972 convening, the UN encouraged business-community participation in 1992—and industry groups were ready to take advantage. They drafted their own “sustainable development charter” to bring to Rio. “And as you can imagine, this charter did not contain anything that would have really transformed how companies did business,” Aronczyk explained. “It was a very business-as-usual document, but it paid a lot of lip service to the idea of going green, of being sustainable, being very concerned about the environment. And because they got out in front of the actual conference, they were really able to put that document forward and stave off other kinds of more binding legislation or more draconian regulations that would have caused problems for these companies’ profits.”
That approach has held strong in the decades since the Rio Earth Summit. To the point where Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UNFCC since 2010, thought it was a good idea to invite the CEO of Shell to that TED climate event in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow.
Bruce Harrison died in January 2021, but at the end of his life, Aroncyk spent a considerable amount of time with him. He told her that battling Carson in the 1960s taught him how to transform the climate policy debate.
“He spoke with me at great length about that moment as being a defining moment, because he felt that the big mistake had been not understanding how to communicate with the public,” Aronczyk said. “If you just tried to discredit existing knowledge by saying it’s wrong, you’ll meet with a lot of resistance.… What Harrison understood, and what ended up defining the rest of his career, was in developing public-relations strategies where consensus was the order of the day.”
For Harrison, that also required making his clients—polluting industries—as valid stakeholders as scientists, environmental advocates, or the public. Aronczyk said, “That’s essentially the beginning of the end as far as environmental policy in the United States is concerned, because what you have, if you always have business voices at the table, is a sense of the self-interest of business, which is always going to be at odds with the need to protect the environment.”
It’s a reality we’re seeing unfold right now, as Senator Joe Manchin argues for a coal-friendly “compromise” on climate in the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better infrastructure bill that amounts to stripping out the cornerstone of the bill’s climate policy—the Clean Electricity Performance Program. And we hear it routinely in President Joe Biden’s comments on the subject too. Throughout the Build Back Better discussions, he has said he’s “willing to hear ideas from both sides” to get an infrastructure bill passed.
It’s also an idea that keeps torpedoing international efforts on climate, and that threatens to once again undermine the UN process as world leaders prepare to meet in Glasgow later this month. The inclusion of oil CEOs in events like the TED Climate Countdown in Glasgow is evidence of the fact that the idea Harrison began pushing in the 1970s is still the norm. Given all the evidence we have of what sort of “compromise” industry is after—one that puts profits before the public good—perhaps it’s time to go back to a Stockholm 1972 approach. Forget the “triple bottom line” approach Harrison and his ilk were after. There’s one bottom line here: We get off fossil fuels and live, or we don’t and die.