Doctors in Canada are using billboard campaigns and a newly-published toolkit to warn policy-makers and the public about the health hazards of burning fossil fuels, as well as the deceptive tactics Big Oil uses to dodge these issues and delay change.
While clearly designed to pull the heartstrings—its image depicting a tearful girl wearing an oxygen mask over her face against a backdrop of haze and smoke—a billboard in downtown Ottawa paid for by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) communicates a fact that multiple research studies have confirmed: “Rising childhood asthma rates: Brought to you by Oil & Gas.” Below the bold headline, CAPE adds in smaller lettering: “Burning fossil fuels is causing a health emergency. Doctors are calling on the government to protect our health.”
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But parliamentarians out for a stroll these days needn’t go far before they encounter other billboards, big green ones asserting that fossil fuels are an indispensable public good. Ostensibly paid for by a benign-sounding entity called Canada Action, one asks amblers, “As long as the world needs oil and natural gas, shouldn’t it be Canadian?” Others claim “Canadian LNG exports will reduce global emissions” and that “Global oil and natural gas demand is growing.” A fourth, posted directly across from the cenotaph, alleges: “A cap on Canadian oil and natural gas is a cap on energy security.”
To be fair, several other groups lobby for attention on street corners around Parliament. A Fertilizer Canada billboard asserts “Tomorrow’s green ambitions demand bold investments today,” while yet others, paid for by clearly identifiable Canadian mining lobby groups, claim a pole position in the race to mine critical minerals.
Canada Action is less transparent. A 2020 investigation by The Narwhal revealed that the group received $100,000 from a fossil fuel company and has “deep ties to the oil and gas industry.” Nowhere on its billboards does Canada Action mention this affiliation, though a CAPE report on the “fossil fuel deception playbook” points it out.
CAPE’s poster warning of childhood asthma, like others, supplies a QR code that can be scanned for more information. Anyone availing themselves of the offer will discover that the billboard is just the start of the non-profit’s many efforts to hold the oil industry accountable as it moves to maintain social licence—even though its products pollute the air and cook the planet, as the outcome of this year’s COP28 climate summit in Dubai firmly recognized.
Health Professionals Unite with Climate Activists
CAPE’s recent efforts to put an end to fossil greenwashing in Canada include an open letter submitted to a number of federal ministers on June 8, 2022, on behalf of some 700,000 health professionals. Arguing that fossil fuel marketing and promotion is “poisonous to human and planetary health”—it maintains demand for carbon-intensive goods and services, obstructs climate action, and obscures the myriad harms fossil products generate—the letter called on the Canadian government to follow France’s lead and ban fossil fuel advertising outright. It also asked Ottawa to “proactively pursue false claims to carbon neutrality and sustainability.”
In a phone interview with The Energy Mix, family physician and CAPE President Melissa Lem said the letter, signed by “mainstream organizations like the College of Family Physicians of Canada and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada,” effectively represents “every single physician in the country.”
That support reflects the reality that “doctors across Canada have seen the increasing effects of the climate emergency in our clinics and hospitals every year, whether it’s from wildfire smoke or heatwaves,” Lem said. “We’re calling out for a public health policy that will stop fossil fuels from pouring fuel on the fire of climate change.”
Last week, CAPE released a new two-part report co-authored with Greenpeace Canada. Titled ‘Greenwashing big oil and gas: the fossil fuel deception playbook,’ it breaks down the “sophisticated greenwashing tactics that fossil fuel companies use to mislead the public into believing they are acting responsibly,” CAPE said in a release.
The report’s first part lists what the doctors see as the industry’s top seven tactics—paltering (a form of cherry-picking), “the con-artistry of carbon offsets,” “pseudo-science fiction”(here’s looking at you, carbon capture), vague buzzwords (clean, green, etc.), double-dipping or presenting what is required by law as occurring by the grace of corporate goodness, “nature-rinsing” (for an irony-free blast-from-the-past, see this 1997 Chevron ad, or this cannier one from six months ago) and “plain old lies”—like the Canada Action billboard on energy security.
The report authors refer to ongoing investigations into greenwashing in Canada and abroad, as well as cases of fossils being “busted”.
The second part offers detailed guidance to citizens and organizations on how to report greenwashing ads to Canadian regulatory bodies responsible for ensuring fair practice, namely, Ad Standards and the Competition Bureau.
Here, the authors cite a “massive regulatory gap” at the federal level that continues to allow “an abundance of greenwashing throughout the country.” That disconnect “has put the onus on citizens to report harmful advertising after it is already out in the world.”
“We shouldn’t have to play whack-a-mole through reporting deceptive advertisements, but until the government steps up with clear, concrete legislation, this is the boat we are in,” CAPE and Greenpeace wrote.
Greenwash Restrictions a ‘Welcome’ First Step
The release of the CAPE and Greenpeace Canada report coincides with ongoing deliberations about newly-tabled amendments to the federal Competition Act, which do contain some measures to crack down on greenwashing.
The amendments are a “welcome improvement,” CAPE writes [pdf] in a separate release co-authored with Ecojustice, given that the current legislation is “completely silent on climate change, the environment, and sustainability.”
One amendment “would require businesses who claim a product has environmental protection or climate change benefits to base their statements on an adequate and proper test,” while another “would allow individuals and environmental organizations to challenge deceptive marketing, like greenwashing, before the Competition Tribunal directly,” CAPE says.
This change would be “a key step to empowering people to challenge greenwashing practices.”
Another amendment “would allow businesses working together to protect the environment to get assurance that they will not be prosecuted for conspiracy or other anti-competitive practices.”
But CAPE and Ecojustice say the amendments don’t go far enough, warning that vague language and a lack of enforcement capacity still provide greenwashers ample cover to continue their messaging.
The public health campaigners therefore recommend that the greenwashing provisions in the Act “be extended to apply to non-product statements, like a company’s net zero commitments and plans,” with all modeling “to be made publicly available so consumers and the competition regulator can easily see the company’s proof of its green marketing claims.” The legislation should also be amended to “outline clear prohibitions against specific forms of greenwashing,” instead of relying on a generic ban.
CAPE and Ecojustice also recommend that the Competition Bureau publish guidance on greenwashing, “to help businesses and financial institutions understand the standards and meet necessary requirements,” and establish a dedicated sustainability unit with “specialized expertise to tackle greenwashing and ensure Canada is a leader and not a laggard on green competition issues.”
“Addressing greenwashing should not be controversial,” Ecojustice lawyer Tanya Jemec, said in the release. “It does not require businesses to do anything but ensure that they are telling the truth.”
Companies’ “rampant greenwashing harms our health, our wallets, and our future,” added Leah Temper, CAPE’s health and economic policy program director. “The federal government’s proposed changes to the Competition Act could signal a turning point—but only if the government follows up with strong regulations and other necessary measures.”
Battle of the Billboards
Back on the streets that fall away from Parliament Hill, the battle of the billboards continues. On the face of it, CAPE’s efforts to galvanize policy-makers with images of the public health harms linked to fossil fuels might seem doomed to fail, given that for every billboard space the non-profit can afford, the fossil fuel industry can rent multiples more.
“We hoped to have billboards in spaces where our elected officials would see them and where we have often seen ads by fossil fuel companies and lobby groups like Canada Action,” CAPE’s Leah Temper told the Mix in an email. “Since our resources and budget are admittedly limited compared to fossil fuel companies, we grabbed the spaces we could for the time we could afford.”
The truth is that CAPE and Canada Action are not equal participants on a level playing field where entities exert their right to engage policy-makers. They may seem to occupy the same rhetorical, social, and ethical space, but CAPE is a non-profit with limited budget whose only goal is protect public and planetary health from corporate harms. Canada Action is a lobby group whose raison d’etre appears to be to ensure business as usual for Big Oil.
And whereas claims like “A cap on Canadian oil & natural gas is a cap on energy security,” and “Canadian LNG Exports will reduce global emissions,” are demonstrably false (see here, here, and here) and textbook “paltering,” CAPE’s claim that rising cases of childhood asthma are being “brought to us by oil and gas” is the incontrovertible truth.