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Hundreds of scientists urge COP27 PR agency to drop fossil fuel clients

US firm Hill+Knowlton is helping Egypt organise this week’s UN climate conference – while representing oil giants

Ben Webster
4 November 2022, 9.29am

The 2022 United Nations climate change conference COP27 begins on Sunday in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.


SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

More than 400 scientists are calling on the US public relations agency working on COP27 to drop its fossil fuel clients.

openDemocracy revealed last month that Hill+Knowlton Strategies is managing communications for Egypt’s presidency of the upcoming UN climate conference despite being accused of greenwashing on behalf of big oil companies.

COP27 opens on Sunday in Sharm el-Sheikh and follows a stark warning by the UN last month that the average temperature will rise by a catastrophic 2.8C above pre-industrial levels by the year 2100 unless countries act more quickly to cut emissions.

In an open letter published today and addressed to the chief executives of Hill+Knowlton and its parent company WPP, some 420 scientists say the agency’s work for the fossil fuel industry is “incompatible” with its COP27 role.

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Hill+Knowlton has worked for ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron and Saudi Aramco and also helps run the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, which involves the CEOs of those companies and eight other fossil fuel giants.

The campaign group Oil Change International described an OGCI report in 2019 on net zero emissions as “bad science, full of holes” and the OGCI itself as “nothing but a greenwashing effort”.

The scientists’ letter accuses Hill+Knowlton of playing “an enabling role” in fossil fuel industry-backed disinformation campaigns. It says oil companies have used the agency “to spin, delay and mislead, in order to continue expanding fossil fuel production and thereby increasing heat-trapping emissions”.

The letter concludes: “Representing the fossil fuel industry undermines Hill+Knowlton’s legitimacy and credibility in working on behalf of COP27.

“We call on Hill+Knowlton to end its relationship with fossil fuel clients that are worsening the climate crisis, and commit fully to the climate action the world desperately needs.”

Leading scientists who signed the letter include Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University; Peter Frumhoff, professor of environmental science and public policy at Harvard University; and Greg Grether, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a non-profit advocacy group that helped organise the letter, said Hill+Knowlton was part of the “public relations machine” recently condemned by UN secretary general Antonio Guterres for “raking in billions to shield the fossil fuel industry from scrutiny”.

Astrid Caldas, senior climate scientist for community resilience at UCS, said: “Hill+Knowlton’s work with fossil fuel clients is an egregious conflict of interest with the mission of COP27 and what is needed to address the worsening impacts of climate change.”

Duncan Meisel, executive director of Clean Creatives – a campaign group that encourages PR and advertising agencies to boycott fossil fuel companies – said: “Hill+Knowlton’s fossil fuel clients have told investors and regulators that they plan to dig up and burn enough coal, oil, and gas to make achieving the Paris Climate Agreement impossible.

“Working with these clients is incompatible with H+K’s ability to be an effective advocate for action to stop the climate emergency at COP27.”

Jamie Henn, the group’s co-founder, added: “Letting Hill+Knowlton run communications for the climate talks is like putting the fox’s PR hack in charge of branding the chicken coop. There’s nothing to stop H+K from spinning the outcomes of the talks to benefit their fossil fuel clients or sharing key intelligence with industry partners. If H+K is unwilling to address these conflicts of interest, they should have no role at COP27 or future negotiations.”

Hill+Knowlton did not respond to requests for comment.

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