The Truth About Climate Change and Corporate Greenwashing: We Can Fight Them, Together

First off, I am not a scientist. I’m a PR guy; always have been, always will be. And as I look back on however many years it’s been in this business, I like to think I’ve made a positive impact on the world; when I founded my current agency, I vowed to never take on a client I didn’t feel good about working with, and I’ve reaped the benefits of sticking to that promise. I can’t, in good conscience, help promote something I don’t believe in, and certainly not something that’s antithetical to the common good. My mission has been, as it has always been, to try and leave the world a little better every day. To that end, in the late ’00s, I embarked on a quixotic mission to help rid the world of mountains upon mountains of plastic waste.

We called it Tappening, as in tap water, and our goal was simple: to promote reusable water bottles filled from public water sources. It caught fire for a minute there; we had a catchy slogan, cool products, and we were still, as a country, reeling from the mid-00s energy shock, and “peak oil” was on everyone’s tongues. Surely we could get everyone to make a small but collective change to reduce our plastic usage and leave the planet a little better for it.

The thinking was to make bottled water giants akin to tobacco companies in the public eye. Alas, I can’t say we pulled it off. I really did think we were onto something special, something people could literally wrap their hands around (and do so figuratively with their heads). It was so simple: buy a reusable bottle, save money on bottled water, and make the world a bit better. And for a moment, it seemed to work. But the country moved on to other problems; the financial crisis was in full swing, the Tea Party was coming into obnoxious, shrieking tri-cornered-hat-wearing existence, and we were still fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan. What was a little bottled water in the grand scheme of things?

While I think we had the right idea — collective action that would push major corporations to be better, to adapt or get left behind — the truth is, of course, that it really wasn’t something I could fix with so simple, and critically, so consumer-focused a silver bullet as a water bottle. And as we hurtle, day after day, towards further catastrophic climate change while the world literally burns, that fact has become increasingly clear to more and more people.

A recent UN report pinpoints what needs to change with laser precision: large corporations and the ultra-wealthy. Periodically, I still see articles about “our addiction to plastic;” but it’s not consumers out there begging for more plastic packaging; those decisions are being made for them by the companies pumping out those plastic bottles among countless other things. The same can be said for our reliance on fossil fuels. And while, yes, you can work to reduce your own carbon footprint in meaningful ways — which I think everyone should aim to do as best they can — the report makes clear that that alone isn’t enough; nothing you or I can do will change the fact that billions of people spend every day in a world powered by coal and fossil fuels, where large corporations fight tooth and nail any and all attempts to wean us off of them in favor of renewable energy, where water still comes in plastic bottles. And while, sure, you can say “well that wouldn’t be true without the demand,” at a certain point, it would be easier to change the behavior of a few dozen companies than the behavior of a few billion individuals (many of whom have little choice in these matters).

Again, I’m not a scientist; I’m a PR guy. And let me tell you, this is a massive PR failure (or success, sadly, depending on whose perspective you’re looking at it from). Corporations have spent decades imbibing and propagating the message that, well, “only YOU can prevent forest fires,” that saving the world is my responsibility and yours (anyone’s but their own). Corporations have spent countless dollars on greenwashing PR campaigns convincing consumers that we need to change, because surely, they shouldn’t have to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions (like this famously offensive, anti-littering and recycling classic, funded by the very same beverage corporations that fought against legislation that would require them to use reusable containers).

This realization — that the problem is much bigger than something that can be solved on the individual level by recycling and driving a hybrid — is a tough pill to swallow, and it’s exactly where you might be inclined to throw your hands up and leave the ring. It’s clear, we need massive change on a systemic level, the sheer scale of which is unnerving. And in the face of rising temperatures and rising oceans, that can be a very disheartening thing to hear; after all, it doesn’t matter what you or I do if we can’t get those with the most power to change along with us. Meanwhile, our kids are developing mental health problems from the constant news of our helpless doom. They know the stakes better than we do; theirs are the futures being stolen.

But there is hope — quite a lot actually — and there is a message to spread it. It requires frank, forthright, and open discussion of the real culprits behind our ongoing environmental collapse; it requires the political mobilization of entire peoples; it requires the wealthy to take up their own burdens and sacrifice for the sake of the world, or else to have the choice taken from them. There is a whole lot of space for optimism, as long as it’s tempered by realism about what it’s going to take and who stands in the way. Water bottles are nice. Taking fewer flights is certainly a positive step. But the biggest contributors to climate change are just several dozen companies, overwhelmingly energy producers and agricultural combines. What we really need is a groundswell of collective action to force their hand.

Doomerism is not the answer. It never is. Even and especially when the scope of the problem is this pervasive and the stakes this high. Recognizing that the fight is bigger than ourselves doesn’t mean it’s time to throw in the towel; it means it’s time for us all to join together and be ready to fight like our lives depend on it, because they literally do. We can course correct, we can set things right, but not individually and certainly not separately; it’s going to take a collective fight to push the powers that be toward meaningful change. Personally, I think we’re up to it.

This should be the message: stopping climate change isn’t on you; it’s on them, and it’s on us to make them. That requires coordinated political action, the willingness to think long-term, job retraining for workers in affected industries, and severe economic sanctions on companies refusing to comply. This is 100% achievable. That is cause for hope.

But we actually have to do something to make it happen, and we must do it now. Together.

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Eric Yaverbaum

New York Times Bestselling author of seven books. CEO of Ericho Communications