Google Climate, Get Fossil Fuel Ads

Climate Related Google Search Results Are Fossil Fuel Ads

According to a new analysis conducted by the Guardian and InfluenceMap, a climate finance think tank, fossil fuel companies are spending money on Google Ads designed to look like regular search results for climate-related terms. Out of more than 1,600 ads that appeared in Google searches using 78 climate change related keywords, more than 20% promoted companies "with significant interests in fossil fuels."

Often indistinguishable from other results at first glance -- a 2020 survey indicated that 58% of people could not tell the difference between paid ads and organic links. According to InfluenceMap data analyst Jake Carbone, ad labeling ambiguity is risky when it comes to discussions on climate change and "Google is letting groups with a vested interest in the continued use of fossil fuels pay to influence the resources people receive when they are trying to educate themselves."

When it came to these search terms, the top 20 advertisers included Shell, ExxonMobil, Aramco, and a number of fossil fuel producers and financiers.

Al Jazeera: Should fossil fuel advertising be regulated?, October 20, 2021.

Why This Matters

The role these powerful companies will play in the clean energy transition remains to be seen and fossil fuel companies and investment firms alike have a long history of spreading climate disinformation. Many have repeatedly undertaken dangerous PR strategies to shape public opinion in favor of the industry, lobbied against climate action, and de-emphasized the extent of their negative climate impacts. If companies are using Google ads to boost the interests of the fossil fuel industry while also claiming to be part of the net-zero solution -- the strategy will be yet another example of coordinated greenwashing.

Fact or Fiction?

Shell's advertisements call the company a "willing and able player in the energy transition,'' and appear most prominently under searches for "net zero." However, the fossil fuel giant's own net-zero strategy relies on carbon capture and offset purchasing rather than decarbonization. Shell's ads are misleading given their fossil fuel energy production plans remain "essentially the same."

Ads for McKinsey state the consulting firm is committed to its "work with clients on innovation & growth that advances sustainability." Meanwhile, the company remains dependent on fossil fuel clients, advising 43 of the 100 most highly polluting companies in the world, according to the New York Times.

Google has previously indicated an intention to help provide the public with further information as to which search results are paid ads and which are organic. In October, the company created a new policy that prohibits ads from any advertisers promoting climate denial -- energy companies and investment firms included.

Fossil fuel interests have only grown more creative in their quest to shape public opinion, and continual enforcement of Google's new policy has proven to be easier said than done. As ClientEarth lawyer Johnny White told the Guardian, "damaging greenwashing has become endemic -- to stamp it out we need to legislate bans on all fossil fuel advertisements, just like what happened with tobacco.

VICE: The Fossil Fuel Industry Wants You to Think It’s Solving Climate Change, July 14, 2021.