UN calls on tech and media to stop taking fossil fuel ad money — but gets nothing in response

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called for an end to fossil fuel advertising yesterday in a fiery call to action following the release of alarming new climate data.

“I urge every country to ban advertising from fossil fuel companies. And I urge news media and tech companies to stop taking fossil fuel advertising,” Guterres said during a speech in New York City yesterday.

Guterres called out tech, media, and PR companies for accepting ad money from the fossil fuel industry even though a safe climate depends on replacing coal, oil, and gas with cleaner energy. Each of the past 12 months has smashed heat records, the European Commission’s Copernicus Climate Change Service confirmed yesterday.

“I call on these companies to stop acting as enablers to planetary destruction.”

To keep global temperatures from rising even more dramatically, countries likely only have around five years left to curb their pollution, according to more data released yesterday by the World Meteorological Organization and researchers at the University of Leeds. To meet the most ambitious goal set out in the Paris climate agreement of preventing more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels need to drop steeply each year before reaching net zero around 2050.

And yet, that planet heating pollution from fossil fuels has continued to rise since nearly every nation on Earth agreed to the Paris accord in 2015. While urging countries to make bigger commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, Guterres said that the private sector — particularly tech and media — needs to step up action. The fossil fuel industry uses PR companies to greenwash and delay action on climate change, he said.

“I call on these companies to stop acting as enablers to planetary destruction. Stop taking on new fossil fuel clients, from today, and set out plans to drop your existing ones,” he said. “Fossil fuels are not only poisoning our planet – they’re toxic for your brand.”

For years, environmental advocates and investigative reporters have worked to expose the relationships fossil fuel companies have forged with tech and media brands that otherwise say they want to take action on climate change.

Google, Facebook, and Instagram rake in tens of millions of dollars each year from fossil fuel advertising, according to estimates in a 2023 report from the campaign Stop Funding Heat. The New York Times and Reuters topped a ranking of media companies enabling fossil fuel ad campaigns by climate reporting groups Drilled and DeSmog last year.

The stakes have gotten even higher with the rise of energy-hungry AI. Data centers burn through more electricity than ever to train new generative AI models like ChatGPT. Companies that have pledged to reach net zero emissions, like Google, could move further away from their climate goals now that they’re obsessed with developing AI tools. Media juggernauts, meanwhile, have started to cut deals with OpenAI to get their own slice of the AI pie.

The Verge’s parent company, Vox Media, announced a deal with OpenAI last week but decided in 2021 to stop accepting ad dollars from fossil fuel companies. The New York Times, on the other hand, has filed suit against OpenAI over copyright infringement.

The Verge reached out to Meta, Google, Reuters, and The New York Times for responses to Guterres’ remarks. Only Google replied on the record but didn’t answer our question about how much it earns from fossil fuel companies’ advertising. The company pointed to its climate change denial policy in an email to The Verge. “Generally speaking, this policy (as with most of our policies) does not block specific types of advertisers on our platform, provided their ads comply with all of our policies,” Google spokesperson Michael Aciman said in the email.

Earlier this year, researchers from the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate published a report documenting a new form of climate denial flourishing on YouTube. Instead of just attacking climate science, the content casts undue doubt on solutions like renewable energy. It also found that Google was running ads on that kind of misleading content. Google, in response, said it removed ads from some of the videos mentioned in the report that violated its policy against climate denial.

“Your sector is full of creative minds who are already mobilizing around this cause,” Guterres said to advertising and PR companies during his address. “They are gravitating towards companies that are fighting for our planet – not trashing it.” 

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