Scientists Call on COP27 PR Firm Hill+Knowlton to Drop Fossil Fuel Clients

Published Nov 4, 2022

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Over 420 scientists are calling on Hill+Knowlton Strategies — the agency leading PR for the upcoming United Nations climate talks (COP27) — to drop fossil fuel clients and commit to climate action ahead of the annual summit. In their open letter, the experts argue the company’s work for fossil fuel interests such as Saudi Aramco, ExxonMobil, and the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative is incompatible with its role leading public communications at the international climate talks later this month. Signers of the letter include scientists from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Harvard University, among others.

“Climate advocates are working tirelessly to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for decades of greenwashing and deception that have enabled them to mislead people and policymakers, emit deadly levels of carbon pollution, and prioritize private gain over public interest,” said Dr. Astrid Caldas, Senior Climate Scientist for Community Resilience at UCS. “Hill+Knowlton’s work with fossil fuel clients is an egregious conflict of interest with the mission of COP27 and what is needed to address the worsening impacts of climate change.”

“The UNFCCC is one of the most important international institutions, and deserves support from talented communicators who are not saddled by such a conflict,” the scientists write in the letter. “Representing the fossil fuel industry undermines Hill+Knowlton’s legitimacy and credibility in working on behalf of COP27.”

The Clean Creatives campaign and UCS organized the letter as a part of their ongoing work to pressure PR and advertising industries to stop working with fossil fuel companies to spread climate disinformation. According to the groups, what Hill+Knowlton communicates alongside summit leaders will affect the development of a delicate international process and shape public, investor, and policymaker understanding of the outcomes.

“Hill+Knowlton’s fossil fuel clients have told investors and regulators that they plan to dig up and burn enough coal, oil, and gas to make achieving the Paris Climate Agreement impossible. Working with these clients is incompatible with H+K’s ability to be an effective advocate for action to stop the climate emergency at COP27.” said Duncan Meisel, Clean Creatives campaign director.

Historically, meaningful progress at the U.N. climate negotiations has been delayed in part by fossil fuel industry-funded deception campaigns. Last year's negotiations were notable as the first COP to mention fossil fuels in the final decision document. But still, during the COP26 negotiations there were more than 500 delegates associated with the fossil fuel industry, including the World Petroleum Council and the World Coal Council. This meant that the combined number of delegates from the fossil fuel industry was larger than the delegations of some entire countries.

“Letting Hill+Knowlton run communications for the climate talks is like putting the fox’s PR hack in charge of branding the chicken coop. There’s nothing to stop H+K from spinning the outcomes of the talks to benefit their fossil fuel clients or sharing key intelligence with industry partners. If H+K is unwilling to address these conflicts of interest, they should have no role at COP27 or future negotiations,” said Jamie Henn, the director of Fossil Free Media, home of the Clean Creatives campaign. Leading letter signers include Drs. Astrid Caldas and Rachel Cleetus at UCS, Drs. Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran at Harvard University, and Dr. Gary Yohe, emeritus professor at Wesleyan University.

"Hill and Knowlton was one of the central players who developed the 'tobacco playbook,' which used half-truths and disinformation to discredit the scientific evidence of the harms of smoking. Then that playbook was used for decades by Big Oil to discredit the scientific evidence of the harms of burning fossil fuels. It’s unconscionable to me that COP would hire them to help with climate change PR," said Naomi Oreskes, Ph.D., Harvard University.

The full letter and list of signers can be found here.