BITE Focus

How advertising is funding climate science denial

Jake Dubbins, Co-Founder of the Conscious Advertising Network highlights the very real situation taking place online, where advertising is inadvertently funding climate change misinformation.


Even in the midst of a global pandemic, protecting the environment and understanding the impact humanity is having on our climate has continued to rise up the business agenda. The events of 2020 offered the world a global pause, a chance to reset, to break old habits and build them back better.

Whether it was buying locally, reducing waste or simply the reduction in travel, consumer attitudes towards the planet have shifted. But alongside this step-change in consumer behaviours and attitudes  offline has come a wave of misinformation online; from conspiracy theories to dangerous factual inaccuracies.

It’s something that Jake Dubbins is working to combat with the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN), a voluntary coalition of over 100 organisations that he both co-founded and is Co-Chair of. An organisation which was formed to hold the industry to account and “to ensure that industry ethics catches up with the technology of modern advertising.” Members of the network range from O2, Havas Media and the World Wildlife Fund and it is simultaneously supported by civil society members too.

In an insightful and wide-reaching presentation at BITE LIVE 2020, Dubbins, who is also Co-Founder and MD of Media Bounty, drew attention to the fact that, while brands might not realise it, by not asking questions of where their advertising ends up, then are inadvertently funding climate science denial. Dubbins wants us to explore what we as a community, of brands, agencies and the industry, can do to confront this.

Whilst our environment, our planet is being polluted, so too is our online environment as well.

Jake Dubbins

The pollution of our online environment

CAN work across six manifesto areas: fake news disinformation, hate speech, anti-fraud, diversity, inclusion and equality, children’s wellbeing and informed consent. It is disinformation that Dubbins focused on in the presentation. It is CAN’s belief that, “education, verification and improved institutional trust are key to resolving the problem of fake news and misinformation.”

For advertisers, says Dubbins, “who are essentially responsible for the funding of the web and the narratives that we see,” they need to try to avoid advertising with sites that proliferate and commercialise this misinformation. Whether that’s distorting facts, harassing individuals or peddling rumours and conspiracies, people are making a lot of money on the internet from circulating inaccuracies.

Dubbins highlights that, “whilst our environment, our planet is being polluted, so too is our online environment as well.” He points out that we are a year away from the climate summit in Glasgow COP26, the update of the Paris Climate Agreement, acknowledging that all eyes will be on the US as, in the aftermath of the recent election, all arrows point towards the country re-joining the agreement.

“Our online environment has been polluted and our trust is being eroded in advance of really important multilateral events like COP,” he explains.

Brands are funding misinformation

Dubbins draws attention to the amount of conspiracy theories that emerged this year to do with the coronavirus crisis, pointing out the very real-world impacts that these have had, particularly when it comes to 5G.

Indeed, as he says, O2 joined CAN earlier this year, “partly to help confront the misinformation that they were finding when their masts were being burnt down and their engineers were being threatened in the middle of a pandemic.” These situations are examples of very real problems arising offline because of misinformation that is shared online.

“Unfortunately brands are funding this stuff. We don’t deliberately do it but we do,” Dubbins explains. He demonstrates just how widespread the problem is through showing screen grabs of brand content positioned next to articles that spread conspiracies or misinformation. “The people behind these channels, they are earning money from this sort of content through advertising,” he adds.

Dubbins explains that Lord Puttnam’s select Democracies and Digital Technologies committee at the House of Lords produced a report whose headline was, “we face a pandemic of misinformation that threatens our democracy and our way of life.” Dubbins points out that the recent US election demonstrated just how much, “this stuff is coming to pass.”

of British people think that climate change is definitely/probably happening
believe that climate change is entirely or mainly caused by human activity

Fighting climate change denial

Dubbins turned his attention specifically to the misinformation around climate change, reinforcing that this is a phenomenon that is having severe impacts around the world. He highlights the severity of what we’re all facing, from Karachi experiencing the worst flooding in almost a century to California’s horrific wildfires and the devastating fires that swept the length and breadth of Australia at the start of 2020.

He introduces statistics that point out a gap in belief that is creating a damaging problem when it comes to action being taken to combat climate change. 94% of British people think that climate change is definitely/probably happening according to NatCn Social Research. But only 36% believe that climate change is entirely or mainly caused by human activity.

“Effectively we have a massive gap between those that believe that climate change is happening and those that believe that we are not mainly or entirely the cause of it,” explains Dubbins. Action around climate change, he adds, is made much more difficult to enact if information abounds about it being a natural occurrence rather than one caused by humanity’s behaviour.

He uses a few examples to back up his point from videos on YouTube where he’s found, “the biggest green energy company is sponsoring and paying for content that says that CO2 is harmless.” He also points out the irony that Amazon’s ad pledging zero emissions and highlighting how the brand signed up to the Paris Climate Pledge 10 years early, appeared on a video denying the existence of global warming.

Delay tactics stifle action

Dubbins is quick to say that it is obvious brands are not funding these platforms deliberately. But brand content is ending up in the wrong place, he says, because, “we’re not asking the right questions as advertisers, we’re not asking the right questions of our agencies and the entire ecosystem to make sure that we are not inadvertently funding this stuff.”

CAN believes that the narrative over the last year particularly has been moving from climate denial to climate delay messaging. Dubbins points out that it looks like a lot of this is similar to The Big Tobacco Playbook, which was originally conceived during the fight for the big tobacco companies. The thought at the heart of the playbook was that ‘doubt is our product’.

When there started to be more information around public health and big tobacco companies recognised how this could affect them commercially, there was a lot of delay, harassing scientists and “effectively a plan to make sure the bottom line of companies wasn’t affected.” These are tactics that Dubbins says CAN is seeing played out today when it comes to the conversation around climate change.

Culturally the misinformation suggests that we shouldn’t be panicking about climate change because we shouldn’t even be talking about it. We are, says Dubbins, “moving from outright denial to actually delaying dealing with the truth.”

These delay tactics essentially divert attention away from the truth, percolating throughout culture into every corner of society. For Dubbins, it comes down to industry awareness or lack thereof. Brands and agencies who are on the one hand pledging their commitment to going net zero in the next few years should also, believes Dubbins, be ensuring that the content they are creating isn’t funding narratives online that deny the science.

CAN’s work across the industry serves as a vital point of education, one that every business could do well to pay attention to. Because, if your brand is spotted advertising and ultimately funding misinformation, it is a sure step to consumers turning away from the company perhaps for good. Educate and interrogate to ensure that advertising of the future is not funding climate science denial but rather supporting the efforts of those working to combat the increasing climate emergency.


Jake Dubbins was speaking at BITE LIVE 2020. To watch the full conversation, visit the dedicated event page, How advertising is funding climate science denial