UN Secretary-General Calls for Ban on Fossil Fuel Advertising, Says Next 18 Months Are Critical for Climate Action

In a special address, António Guterres called out fossil fuel industry greenwashing and highlighted a new report showing the world will likely pass the 1.5 degree Celsius warming threshold within five years.

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UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers a special address on climate action at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on Wednesday, World Environment Day. Credit: Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers a special address on climate action at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on Wednesday, World Environment Day. Credit: Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

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NEW YORK — At a special address on climate action on Wednesday, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called for the world’s governments, news media and tech companies to ban advertising from fossil fuel companies in light of the industry’s continued greenwashing of its role in perpetuating the climate crisis.

The explicit call for a global ban on fossil fuel advertising was a first for Guterres, whose special address also echoed his consistent advocacy for an urgent, global transition off of oil, gas and coal and increased mitigation of the disproportionate impacts of climate change on the world’s most vulnerable populations.

“Climate change is the mother of all stealth taxes paid by everyday people and vulnerable countries and communities,” Guterres said in his address, delivered on the United Nations’ World Environment Day at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. “Meanwhile, the godfathers of climate chaos—the fossil fuel industry—rake in record profits and feast off trillions in taxpayer-funded subsidies.”

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Comparing the fossil fuel industry to the tobacco industry, Guterres also called on public relations and advertising firms to “stop acting as enablers to planetary destruction,” by dropping fossil fuel clients from their rosters.

“Billions of dollars have been thrown at distorting the truth, deceiving the public and sowing doubt,” Guterres said. “Many in the fossil fuel industry have shamelessly greenwashed, even as they have sought to delay climate action with lobbying, legal threats,and massive ad campaigns.”

The address comes a month after the hearing held by U.S. Senate Democrats scrutinizing Big Oil’s decades of denial and misinformation, which reiterated past evidence that the fossil fuel industry deliberately misled the public in order to continue profiting off of petroleum products, despite their heating of the climate, and called for a Department of Justice investigation.

The special address was introduced by former NYC mayor and media mogul Michael Bloomberg, who is the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Climate Ambition and Solutions. At the event, he reaffirmed Bloomberg Philanthropies’ commitment to the UN’s climate agenda over the next 18 months. But Bloomberg’s involvement also highlights the complex challenges media companies will face if they choose to step up to Guterres’s challenge.

An investigation last year from Drilled and DeSmog listed Bloomberg’s news venture among a long list of major news companies connected with brand studios that create advertising content for oil and gas companies, citing a video by Bloomberg Media Studios and Exxon Mobil on carbon capture and storage that featured ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods. Bloomberg has said such advertorial content is separate from its editorial content.

Guterres also highlighted a new annual report from the World Meteorological Organization, which predicts that global temperatures will likely continue to reach record levels during the next five years. The report identified an 80 percent chance that in the next five years, at least one year’s global average temperature will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming since industrialization—a limit nations that signed the Paris Agreement committed to avoid breaking—and an 86 percent chance that at least one of those years will beat 2023 to be the hottest year on record.

2023’s average temperature already surpassed the 1.5 degree threshold, as have the past 11 months straight. Despite these dire milestones, public understanding of how quickly the Earth is warming continues to lag, leading some climate scientists and experts to question the utility of focusing communications on the 1.5 degree benchmark, or allowing fossil fuel companies to advertise the products driving global warming.

“There’s absolutely no way humanity is going to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of global heating at this point,” said climate scientist Peter Kalmus. “The only question is, how much longer are we going to let sociopath executives destroy life on Earth and increasingly threaten billions of lives for their profit. Every increment of heating is worth fighting to stop, because every increment of heating will further damage habitability and kill more humans and other beings.”

Calling his address “a moment of truth,” Guterres said the next 18 months will be “climate crunch time”—a crucial window for global actors to ramp up restrictions on fossil fuels and investments in renewable energy. 

Guterres also emphasized the financial pragmatism of climate action, calling for just and scalable levies on shipping, aviation and fossil fuel extraction sectors to help fund climate action, and advocating for financial institutions to redefine their evaluations of the risks involved with climate change.

“None of this is charity,” he said. “It is enlightened self-interest.”

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Pointing out that the oil and gas industry invested just 2.5 percent of its total capital spending in renewable energy, he also called on fossil fuel companies to use their “massive profits” to lead the clean energy transition.

“Doubling down on fossil fuels in the twenty-first century is like doubling down on horse-shoes and carriage-wheels in the nineteenth,” he said.

Guterres ended his speech by thanking activists, civil society, businesses and governments that have been leading the charge on the clean energy transition, and calling on world leaders to choose a side. 

“It’s We the Peoples versus the polluters and the profiteers,” Guterres said. “It’s time for leaders to decide whose side they’re on. Tomorrow, it will be too late.”

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