Ben Franta is trying to collect every climate-related ad the oil and gas industry has ever produced.
Franta, who is pursuing a law degree and PhD at Stanford, is among a small cohort of researchers who track fossil-fuel industry propaganda. These historians, social scientists, and activists have documented the extent to which major oil companies knew their products were changing the climate as early as the 1960s, and how they poured tens of millions of dollars into sowing doubt about the science through the 1990s.
“Not to get too tin-hat-y, but once you start to see these ads over and over again, you see the common elements arise,” Franta told Insider.
So it was clear to him that around the year 2000, fossil-fuel companies changed marketing tactics. After decades of denial, they pivoted to blaming the climate crisis on you and me.
Franta pointed to a 2007 Chevron ad campaign called “Will you join us?” Each poster featured a person’s face and a pledge — promises like, “I will leave the car at home more” and “I will finally get a programmable thermostat.” In small print, Chevron describes its own initiatives to be energy-efficient.
On the campaign’s now-defunct website, users could even make pledges like carpooling to work a few days per week, and a calculator would tell them how many DVDs they could watch with the energy saved.
“The framing is: ‘No, we the companies are the good ones. We’re working on the problem and we want you, the consumer, to join us in our positive efforts,'” Franta said.
This approach — telling people to solve a crisis by changing their own habits — is a tried and true corporate tactic, pioneered by the tobacco and plastics industries. Now, fossil-fuel giants like Chevron, BP, and ExxonMobil have spent millions to convince the public that consumer choices and lifestyle changes will solve the problem.
“It’s almost become natural, when people think about the climate crisis, to think of individual action,” Denali Nalamalapu, a communications specialist for the climate organization 350.org, told Insider. “Which is super convenient for fossil-fuel corporations.”
But at this point, personal lifestyle changes will not turn the climate crisis around. A report from the International Energy Agency, which lays out a path to a net-zero-emissions energy system by 2050, estimates that individual behavioral changes would only account for about 4% of the necessary reductions.
To have even a 50% chance of stopping the world’s temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to a study published this month, 90% of coal and 60% of oil and gas reserves must stay in the ground.
“People start pollution. People can stop it,” a narrator says as the actor looks into the camera, a tear rolling down his cheek.
This “Crying Indian PSA,” as it’s now known, came from a nonprofit called Keep America Beautiful — a group funded by companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dixie Cups. It debuted at a time when single-use packaging lined streets, beaches, and parks, and environmental activists had begun to rail against plastic pollution.
“That was an intentional, well-funded effort to convince us all that the responsibility for pollution was on us, on individuals, on litterbugs, rather than the companies that were flooding the world with single-use packaging,” John Hocevar, a marine biologist who leads Greenpeace’s oceans campaigns, told Insider.
The tobacco industry did something similar in the 1950s, hiring PR firms to create campaigns blaming smoking-related illness on smokers. But the plastics industry took the strategy further.
As local governments considered banning single-use plastics, a council of plastic-producing companies — including Chevron, Exxon, Dow, and DuPont — spent millions to implement recycling programs across the US. Their own scientists, however, had told them that recycling wouldn’t work on a large scale, according to an investigation by PBS and NPR.
“Making recycling work was a way to keep their products in the marketplace,” Ron Liesemer, a former Du Pont manager who led the effort, told PBS and NPR. “It improves the image of the material.”
By 2015, the quantity of plastic produced each year had increased 10-fold from 1971. Less than 10% of that material has ever been recycled. Each square kilometer of ocean contains an average of about 13,000 pieces of plastic.
Microplastics — fragments smaller than a fingernail that never fully break down — have been found in the Mariana Trench and at the top of Mount Everest. The average American ingests about 50,000 microplastic particles each year and inhales about the same amount.
Plastic production is expected to double by 2040 and triple by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum.
“Just about everybody understands that we need to do something about plastic,” Hocevar said. “The challenge is that many companies — well, most companies — and many politicians are still thinking in this personal-responsibility frame and putting the emphasis on individual consumers. And so that really keeps the conversation focused on solutions that can’t solve the problem.”