Top climate leaders will participate in Big Oil-sponsored "sustainability" conference

This is a special joint edition of Popular Information and HEATED, a climate newsletter by journalist Emily Atkin. HEATED is a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of the planet earth. Sign up HERE.

Beginning Wednesday, the political news outlet The Hill is hosting a multi-day, virtual climate conference called “The Sustainability Imperative.” The Hill is promoting the conference as an event that will bring together “policy leaders and practitioners in the sustainability ecosystem” to discuss the "greening of energy sources" and "responsible environmental stewardship."

That agenda has attracted high-profile figures in the climate movement. White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and NRDC Chief Science Advisor Kristi Pullen Fedinick are all included among the event’s listed speakers.

But joining these environmental leaders will be representatives from the oil and tobacco industry, who are sponsoring and participating in the event. 

Specifically, the sponsor list includes the oil and gas industry's largest trade group, the American Petroleum Institute (API). The API, according to multiple investigations, “was one of the first trade associations to orchestrate behind-the-scenes climate change denial campaigns.” In recent years, the lobbying group has been “fighting against...climate-friendly policies in at least 16 different states,” and running sophisticated PR campaigns to paint the high-polluting industry as climate-friendly.  

The President and CEO of API, Mike Sommers, will provide the “Sponsor Perspective” for a series of events about “The Energy Equation.” Those sessions will look at "the energy industry’s sustainability goals." It features speakers such as Connecticut Department of Energy Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, and Occidental CEO Vicki Hollub. Occidental Petroleum is a member of API.

Tobacco giant Philip Morris International is also a sponsor. In 2019, leaked corporate disclosure statements revealed that the cigarette giant had begun to outline how the climate crisis, specifically higher temperatures and heavier rains, could lead to higher profits. According to the documents, the company also noted that promoting its sustainability initiatives would enhance the company’s reputation. Philip Morris International’s Chief Sustainability Officer will offer the "sponsor perspective" for a panel on Impact Investing.

In response to questions about the nature of the event, The Hill said that the event's sponsors were funding "an incredibly important, non-partisan and balanced discussion on sustainability, one of the key issues shaping our world." The Hill said that API, Phillip Morris, and other sponsors would have "no editorial role in the program." The Hill, however, acknowledged that oil and tobacco industry "sponsors have received a sponsor perspective segment within the program." These segments, The Hill claimed, were "non-editorial" and would be "clearly labeled."  

Regardless of how it is labeled, the oil and tobacco industry have purchased the ability to be included in the event programming and insert their messaging into the discussion. Climate experts and activists told HEATED and Popular Information they had serious concerns about the nature of the event and the participation of environmental leaders inside and outside of government.  

The greenwashing of two deadly industries 

HEATED and Popular Information spoke with a half dozen leading climate researchers and activists about The Hill’s oil and tobacco industry-sponsored climate event. Each criticized the sponsorships as deceitful greenwashing efforts intended to soften the image of two deadly industries.

“It seems to me that the most committed and powerful climate champions in government are being co-opted by the oil and gas industry in their latest public relations gambit, which is to misrepresent themselves as good-faith partners in decarbonization while they continue to develop and extract new fossil-fuel reserves and lobby relentlessly behind the scenes to block the passage of robust climate policy,” said Genevieve Guenther, the founder of End Climate Silence, which advocates for more media coverage of climate change. 

“I think it's telling that Phillip Morris and API are sponsoring this event together,” said Duncan Meisel, the director of Fossil Free Media’s Clean Creatives campaign. “The communication strategies of fossil fuels and big tobacco are virtually identical: they are both pretending to change, while obstructing real solutions that would impact your business model.”

API and Phillip Morris are “two of the worst offenders” when it comes to downplaying the harms of their industry’s products, said Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist and author of The New Climate War. In this case, Mann said the groups are using The Hill’s event to promote “solutions” that sound nice but ultimately do nothing to transition away from fossil fuels. 

“These are delay tactics intended to forestall meaningful action while the fossil fuel industry continues to make windfall profits,” Mann wrote in his book. “It is essential that we recognize and expose these efforts for what they are.”

John Cook, a research fellow with Monash University’s Climate Change Communication Research Hub, said viewers of the event should be “on high alert, keeping in mind the types of redirection strategies these groups have implemented in the past.” Those strategies include greenwashing the industry’s climate commitments to seem bigger than they really are, and “arguments focused on blaming individuals, which distract from the systemic change that’s really needed.”

Featured panelists weigh in on corporate sponsors, one panelist drops out

Of the panelists contacted, one speaker, fashion designer Tracy Reese, shared that they will no longer be speaking in light of HEATED and Popular Information’s inquiry on the event’s sponsorships. Reese was slated to speak during a session titled “Leadership in Action.”

Most panelists, however, told HEATED and Popular Information that they were aware of the event’s sponsorship and view the event as an opportunity to share their perspectives with those who may disagree.

Massachusetts State Senator Marc Pacheco, the founding chair of the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, said that he welcomes the opportunity to speak at a panel sponsored by API. The State Senator learned of the sponsors at the time of his invitation and followed up with The Hill to ensure they had “the right guy.” Pacheco, however, said that he was not aware that API, which will offer a "sponsor perspective" during his panel, would have a speaking role. 

Other panelists shared Pacheco's perspective. “We think it is important to talk to anyone, and especially those who might not agree with us already,” Morgan Folger, a director at Environment America, said. Folger is speaking during the “Leadership in Action” event.

A spokesperson for the Rockefeller Foundation said that the organization believed “we need to go beyond preaching to the choir and bring more people to the table to solve it.” Rockefeller Foundation CEO Dr. Rajiv J. Shah is speaking during the “Checking the Temperature of Planet Earth” session.

Not all speakers, however, knew who the sponsors were when they agreed to participate. A spokesperson from Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s office told HEATED and Popular Information that they “did not know who the sponsors were when the governor agreed to participate,” but that they were moving forward with the event as “a good opportunity for the governor to highlight the importance of clean energy.” The Hill said that all participants were informed of the sponsors at the time of their invitation.

Should Biden climate officials participate?

The Hill’s event provides two benefits to the fossil fuel industry, said Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist at Drexel University. It gives them social reputation points “for demonstrating that they are an engaged actor,” and the ability to influence policy through speaking directly to “the elites that listen to these events.”

On the flip side, climate policy advocates like McCarthy and Inslee potentially benefit by getting the industry at least partially on their side. “If these interests are dead set against any proposed actions, it will make the likelihood of any action that much harder,” Brulle said. 

But activists like Maisel, Guenther and Mann reject the idea that there is any real benefit to playing nice with Big Oil or Big Tobacco. “No organization has done more to obstruct, delay, and water down climate action than the American Petroleum Institute,” Maisel said. “Their history of support for environmental racism and climate denial makes them inappropriate partners for any effort to build towards a solution to the climate crisis.”

“It is absolutely inappropriate for McCarthy to be there,” Guenther said. “The false credibility she would bestow on the organizers of the conference is invaluable to them.”

Mann agreed. “Climate advocates like Gina McCarthy and Jay Inslee should not be lending their imprimatur to this event given the bad faith actors who are sponsoring it,” he said. “It grants credibility to known bad actors.”

Kert Davies, director of the Climate Investigations Center, also said climate advocates were giving “instant cache” to API and Phillip Morris by participating in the event alongside them. “It's as if the speakers like Gov. Inslee, Sen. Carper or Gina McCarthy have signaled that they have no problem hanging out with Big Oil and Big Tobacco,” he said. 

Ed Maibach, the director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, had a bit more faith. “Gina McCarthy is extremely savvy,” he said. “She surely knows exactly what she is getting into, and has her reasons for expecting that her views will hold sway.” 

For him, the more important question is why a leading news organization like The Hill would allow the oil and tobacco industries to buy this type of influence.

“Frankly, I think that shows poor judgement on their part,” he said.