A storm is brewing and we’re only in the middle of it.
Earlier this month, Greenpeace Canada was sent a leaked copy of a strategy to kill a major piece of the federal government’s climate plan. When I opened up my email, I knew it was a big deal.
The strategy, ostensibly designed by the high-powered elite PR firm Navigator for an unknown industry client, outlines a sophisticated digital, media and influencer campaign to convince Canadians that “fighting climate change is a losing battle”.
When we tweeted the leaked strategy out, the reactions from people across Canada were swift and immediate.
Naked disgust: “Yuck”.
Incredulous horror: “How do they sleep at night?”
Knowingly disappointed: “Not shocking and yet still appalling”.
Straight up cynical: “Navigator gonna Navigator”.
Canadians of all identities, movements and walks of life expressed their disapproval: former Green Party leader Elizabeth May, young climate strikers, professors, parents, feminists, LGBTQi2+ activists, a marine scientist, a library employee, an architect, a beer podcaster — even fellow PR flacks were scandalized.
But it’s one poignant response that has me fuming: “As I read this, what comes to mind most is that, in all likelihood, people with children discussed, agreed, documented, and then shared this strategy for convincing those children to just. give. up.”
I don’t shock easily. I’m a mother to a toddler and a digital campaigner who has spent a good chunk of the past year supporting young climate strikers fighting an uphill battle for a safe and liveable planet to grow up on. I’ve worked on Greenpeace campaigns to expose the impacts of the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long climate denial. Even so, the audacity of industry and their PR firms getting together to seed climate despair at a time when Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, fills me with anger on my daughter’s behalf.
The leaked strategy, entitled Canadians for Fairness in Clean Fuel Policy, was drafted in 2018 and attacks a sensible and much-needed climate policy: the Clean Fuel Standard, a plan to make sure that fuels like gas and diesel burn more cleanly. It’s a stepping stone to the clean energy transition our kids deserve. But while the rest of us pull together, the oil industry and other businesses are trying to avoid doing even the bare minimum of making fossil fuels less harmful. Instead, the strategy advises building a coalition that is “broader than Big Oil” but which will “appear organic and not stage managed” and which will target Canadians online with a “digital campaign toolbox”.
Greenpeace Canada has collected evidence — op-eds, reports by think tanks and more — that the strategy may have been implemented over the past two years. Groups including those named in the strategy have spent thousands of dollars altogether on Facebook ads opposing the Clean Fuel Standard and positioning the financial costs as insurmountable. Of course, these ads ignore the fact that industry polluters are avoiding paying their fair share for pollution.
The strategy further recommends quietly supporting the government’s climate agenda and counsels against fighting climate science … all the while having the ultimate effect of undermining the government’s ability to act on that science by (falsely) convincing Canadians that we can’t act.
There’s a word for that: gaslighting. Manipulating a person or group by making them doubt their reality.
Canadians are right to be outraged, demoralized and upset. They’ve danced this dance with industry before, throughout the 90s as companies sowed doubt about climate change. This kind of climate denial updated for 21st century politics has no place on or off the pages of PR company pitches.
With youth-led climate litigation on the rise and a generation of digitally literate young leaders coming of age while frustrated by industry’s efforts to impede government action on climate change, it’s not something companies are going to be able to keep getting away with.
Lydie Padilla is a digital campaigner and leads Greenpeace Canada’s Green Recovery project.