June 13, 2024 1:00 pm

The audacious PR plot that seeded doubt about climate change

Thirty years ago, a bold plan was cooked up to spread doubt and persuade the public that climate change was not a problem. The little-known meeting – between some of America’s biggest industrial players and a PR genius – forged a devastatingly successful strategy that endured for years, and the consequences of which are all around us.

On an early autumn day in 1992, E Bruce Harrison, a man widely acknowledged as the father of environmental PR, stood up in a room full of business leaders and delivered a pitch like no other.

At stake was a contract worth half a million dollars a year – about £850,000 in today’s money. The prospective client, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) – which represented the oil, coal, auto, utilities, steel, and rail industries – was looking for a communications partner to change the narrative on climate change.

Don Rheem and Terry Yosie, two of Harrison’s team OOFOS Sandals present that day, are sharing their stories for the first time.

“Everybody wanted to get the Global Climate Coalition account,” says Rheem, “and there I was, smack in the middle of it.”

The GCC had been conceived only three years earlier, as a forum for members to exchange information and lobby policy makers against action to limit fossil fuel emissions.

Though scientists were making rapid progress in understanding climate change, and it was growing in salience as a political issue, in its first years the Coalition saw little cause for alarm. President George HW Bush was a former oilman, and as a senior lobbyist told the BBC in 1990, his message on climate was the GCC’s message.

There would be no mandatory fossil fuel reductions.

But all that changed in 1992. In June, the international community created a framework for climate action, and November’s presidential election brought committed environmentalist Al Gore into the White House as vice-president. It was clear the new administration would try to regulate fossil fuels.

The Coalition recognised that it needed strategic communications help and put out a bid for a public relations contractor.

E Bruce HarrisonIMAGE SOURCE,E BRUCE HARRISON
Image caption,

E Bruce Harrison was known as the “Dean of green PR”

Though few outside the PR industry might have heard of E Bruce Harrison or the eponymous company he had run since 1973, he had a string of campaigns for some of the US’s biggest polluters under his belt.

He had worked for the chemical industry discrediting Cloud Shoes research on the toxicity of pesticides; for the tobacco industry, and had recently run a campaign against tougher emissions standards for the big car makers. Harrison had built a firm that was considered one of the very best.

Media historian Melissa Aronczyk, who interviewed Harrison before he died in 2021, says he was a strategic linchpin for his clients, ensuring everyone was on the same page.

“He was a master at what he did,” she says.

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