When the CEO of the world's largest PR firm called me at home, he sounded sincerely distraught, though I was immediately wary of a master at work. The connection wasn't great, so Richard Edelman's voice was static-flecked as he exhorted, "I'm totally unequivocal about climate change."
It's rare that a chief executive of any PR firm, much less that of the biggest shop going, would take the trouble to call a journalist directly. But the day before, I had published an article that explained how his company, Edelman, had helped—mostly indirectly, but sometimes directly—to promote climate change denial. That piece enumerated some of the ways that Edelman assists organizations like the American Petroleum Institute, which fund efforts to publicize the scientifically invalid views that global warming is either not manmade or not occurring to any substantial degree.
My story grew out of a survey conducted by the Climate Investigations Center last April and published by the Guardian this August. Ten of the world's largest PR firms said they would refuse to represent clients that trafficked in climate denial. Among the heaviest hitters who responded, only Edelman wouldn't commit to the same.
Mark Hass, then the head of Edelman US, replied to the CIC's email questionnaire on April 4th, perhaps inadvertently CCing the survey-giver on what may have been intended as an internal message. "I do not believe we are obligated in any way to participate," he wrote. "There are no right answers for this guy."
Edelman was calling to tell me that this email wasn't reflective of his firm's work, and that the Guardian and I had his firm's stance on climate all wrong.
"I just want you to know we're not bad people, that's all," he said.
He also wanted to apologize, he said, because it wasn't really our fault: his team had failed to respond appropriately, first to the survey, then to any of my multiple requests for comment.
Edelman would not deny continuing to work with at least three major organs of climate change denial
"We fired the head of our US [division] in part because of that stupid note he wrote, about, you know, how we don't answer these kinds of things," Edelman said. (In an article published in Ad Age on April 23rd, Hass said he was stepping down due to issues with the firm's "succession plan," and made no mention of the survey or climate change.)
I asked Edelman if he felt his firm’s stance on climate change had been misrepresented. "Yes. Deeply. Deeply. I don't blame the Guardian reporter any more than I blame you—I blame the ham-head who filled out the questionnaire to be a little, uh, slick. And I don't like that," he said.
"I do want you to know I respect what you did as a journalist and, you know, you haunted me," he added.
The next day, Edelman wrote a blog post on his company's website that stated that I had "completely misrepresented [his] firm's position on climate change."
"I want to set the record straight," he wrote. "Edelman recognizes the reality of climate change and accepts the science behind the claim. We do not accept clients that seek to deny climate change."
"Our long-standing position on the issue is available on our site," he wrote, linking to the blog post his company had published the day before. An extensive search on the site yielded no other definitive climate policy statements.
In fact, upon its publication, the Guardian hailed Edelman’s initial blog post as a new milestone in the PR industry—"Statement by America's biggest public relations firm may be the industry’s first official position on climate denial," the article's subhead read.
"It's good that they put in writing that they have a climate policy," Kert Davies, the executive director of the Climate Investigations Center, wrote me in an email. "That didn't exist before."
Unfortunately, for the policy to amount to a laudable milestone, the company actually has to adhere to it. As this story goes to press, Edelman would not deny continuing to work with at least three major organs of climate change denial: The American Petroleum Institute (API), the energy company E.On, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
API, as I noted in my previous article, has funded a network of individuals, campaigns, and shell groups that seek to deny climate change. According to a 2012 report from the liberal watchdog group Media Matters, API funds at least four think tanks and public figures that spread messages of climate denial through television appearances, policy papers, and congressional testimony.
I also wrote that API had organized, with Edelman's help, the astroturf group Energy Citizens to oppose climate legislation back in 2009. So I thought it was a little strange when Richard Edelman wrote in his rebuttal to my piece, "We do not work with astroturf groups and we have never created a website for a client with the intent to deny climate change."
Because here is a leaked document wherein API president Jack Gerard unveiled the blueprint for creating the Energy Citizens, and called for support from oil companies. And here is a detailed Washington Post story about how Edelman and API collaborated to promote that astroturf group.
"The nation’s biggest oil and gas lobby and its public relations firm recruited ordinary people to be cast members in an upcoming ad campaign," the Post reported—and of course, the whole thing was scripted.
The Center for Media and Democracy provided more details on how Edelman coordinated a print and TV ad campaign for the Energy Citizens astroturf group called "I'm an Energy Voter." Edelman also built affiliated websites (Vote4Energy, Energy Tomorrow) for the astroturf group—all of which contain materials that downplay climate change, and at least one that promotes links to websites like GlobalWarming.org that work to deny outright that it is occurring. (In a separate report, the Sightline Institute found that "Edelman has a well-documented history of astroturf activities.")
One product of API's astroturf campaign, which portrays efforts to reduce carbon emissions proposed by Congress as an "energy tax."
The explicit purpose of Energy Citizens was to oppose Congress's efforts to address climate change. It did so by promoting through media buys and staged rallies the message that curbing greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change would amount to an "energy tax."
Edelman, in other words, worked to help kill what many agreed was the single best chance the nation has ever had to pass climate legislation.
For all of the above, API earned the No. 5 spot on Mother Jones' "Dirty Dozen of Climate Change Denial." Materials on API's website do limply acknowledge that climate change exists, though the copy greatly misrepresents the science: "The contribution of possible man-made warming is uncertain as are the extent and timing of potential future impacts," reads An Overview of the Climate Change Issue from the U.S. Oil and Natural Gas Industry. Though science is always filled with uncertainties, climatologists no longer consider manmade warming merely "possible"—97 percent of them agree that it is occurring, right now.
"I actually don't believe that API is a bad actor in this, I really don't," Richard Edelman told me. He said he thinks API is a "broad coalition," and compared it to the Democratic Party. As far as the climate change denial, "some guys are for it, and some are not," he said.
As for E.On, an energy company that was working to open the UK's newest coal plant—the one that so angered environmental activists that they gathered at Edelman’s UK office with a banner that read "Edelman is spinning the climate out of control"—Edelman said that contract's still fair game, too.
"Look, yes, we do represent in the UK office that E.On factory, whatever, the coal plant," he told me. "But they also do a lot of work on renewables, and whatever."
Edelman has also caught flack for flacking for the Keystone XL pipeline, the latest estimates for which conclude the project will produce 110 million tons of carbon pollution every year. The CEO brought that one up himself.
"By the way, I don't know where you are on Keystone and anything to do with Canada and the oil sands," he said. "My view is, if it's done properly, it's at least something to consider. We do a lot of work with GE. And GE says there's a good way to do this and a bad way. I'm not enough of a scientist to know."
So Edelman represents coal and oil companies, and helps spin their efforts to sell the public on their products, which are the prime drivers of climate change. Though each entity definitely "seeks to deny climate change" in different ways, there is perhaps a shred of ambiguity in the manner in which they do so.
There is little ambiguity with ALEC. The American Legislative Exchange Council is a consortium of conservative politicians and businessmen who work together to push legislation at the state level. Critics call the group a "bill mill." Edelman represented ALEC after it came under fire for its role in crafting so-called Stand Your Ground laws after one of them allowed George Zimmerman to walk free after shooting and killing Trayvon Martin.
In 2012, ALEC also began pushing model bills "mandating the teaching of climate change denial or 'skepticism'" in public school systems, according to investigative journalist Steve Horn.
"Texas and Louisiana have introduced education standards that require educators to teach climate change denial as a valid scientific position," the LA Times reported in 2012. "Tennessee and Oklahoma also have introduced legislation to give climate change skeptics a place in the classroom."
"What the excellent Times coverage missed is that key language in these anti-science bills all emanated from a single source: the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC," Horn wrote in his follow-up.
The legislation was written in tandem with the Heartland Institute, which is, by most counts, the veritable epicenter of American climate denial. (Heartland is perhaps most famous for putting up a billboard in Chicago that compared anyone who believed in global warming to the Unabomber.) Such bills sought to force teachers to inject doubt into their climate science curricula—they literally try to teach climate change denial to children. Some of them passed. In Tennessee, teaching climate change denial to kids is the law of the land.
THESE AD FIRMS STILL HAVE MULTIMILLION-DOLLAR CONTRACTS WITH FOSSIL FUEL COMPANIES TO PROMOTE MORE OIL, GAS AND COAL MINING AND DRILLING
Heartland, which was a member of ALEC at least in 2010-2011, continues to partner with the group to wage attacks on climate science and clean energy. Recently, the Washington Post reported that ALEC and Heartland had teamed up to work to repeal clean energy laws across the country.
Presumably, Edelman continues to represent ALEC, too. I say presumably, because Richard Edelman wouldn’t answer my question about ALEC. Or any of my follow-ups, for that matter. We’d concluded the phone call with an agreement: Richard Edelman would publish his blog post, and then circle back.
"If you feel like you want to talk further after that, I'm happy to do that," he said. He reiterated the sentiment in another email to me, sent before his post went live. But apparently, he changed his mind. After he indicted me for misrepresenting his firm, then accepting responsibility for not replying to my questions, he decided not to reply to my questions.
"I am going to let my blog be my last comment," he wrote, upon their receipt.
Perhaps the years spent helping companies say one thing and do another have inoculated Edelman against actual truthfulness. Perhaps its executives genuinely believe the spin they're shellacking onto their own spin. Perhaps that's how Edelman can write in a July blog post, without a trace of irony, that "40 percent of Americans believe that humans are not changing the climate. There is a significant failure of communications regarding the environment."
But it’s pretty simple: enacting a policy that states you will not "accept a client that seeks to deny climate change” requires dismissing those clients that seek to deny climate change. Otherwise, it's not a policy, it's just a blog post. The firm can only credibly claim that policy is sincere by severing ties with ALEC and API.
In our conversation and on his blog, Richard points to the good things he and his firm are doing—Edelman PR has a rigorous in-house carbon accounting scheme, for one, and he told me that "we do more in climate change work for Walmart, Unilever, Heinz by far," than for API. And he stresses he's working with environmentalist Jeffrey Sachs "on messaging to get nations behind the Paris 2015 goals on emissions."
Those are commendable deeds. But it doesn't change the fact that Edelman is safeguarding the image of companies that are working, sometimes mightily, to misinform the public about climate change so that they can continue, unencumbered, to emit the pollution that is contributing to it.
"We got their attention and hope that Edelman and others will be making decisions as a company with climate change more top of mind here forward. But there is a long way to go," the Climate Investigation Center’s Davies said. "These ad firms still have multimillion-dollar contracts with fossil fuel companies to promote more oil, gas and coal mining and drilling, access to public lands, and avoidance of taxes and regulations."
"If they are doing a campaign to promote fossil fuels and they avoid talking about the climate impacts," he said, "that's climate denial."