• The fervent messaging of climate activist Greta Thunberg has given an unprecedented vehemence to the climate change media debate, engaging politicians and corporate representatives from various sectors.
  • As the Swede’s passionate rhetoric was met with both praise and criticism by global media outlets and social media users, several industries, including tech, fashion, aviation and Big Oil, took centre stage in the discussion.
  • The intensity of the debate was used as an opportunity by many companies to convey corporate social responsibility and to engage in thought leadership.

In the last few weeks, one name has overwhelmingly dominated headlines and social media feeds all around the world: Greta Thunberg. The 16-year-old Swedish climate activist managed to spark off a heated discussion around climate change by conveying uncompromisingly forthright messages which caught the attention of journalists, politicians and business leaders.

Thunberg first got under the media spotlight in 2018 when she started protesting in front of the Swedish parliament. Her social media presence attracted Swedish journalists whose reports quickly got the attention of large international publications. Within less than a year, she started participating in demonstrations throughout Europe, making high-profile public speeches and gathering a large number of like-minded followers on social media channels.

Having inspired a large number of school-aged adherents to launch their own school climate strike movements, her influence was dubbed by several media outlets as the “Greta Thunberg effect”, while Time magazine described her a “next-generation leader“. And after a speech at the United Nation Climate Action Summit 2019 which went viral, she is now commonly referred to as the de facto face for a movement of millions of young people protesting against insufficient action on climate change.

“People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing,” Thunberg told the UN summit. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.” The widely watched speech served as a coverage driver for a large number of global news outlets, which also noted her stone-cold gaze at Trump as he passed her outside of the main assembly room.

But the activist has also faced waves of backlash, especially from right-wing media commentators, politicians and climate change deniers. Some of the critics engaged neither with her arguments nor with the available scientific evidence, but rather with ad hominem attacks which often exploited her Asperger’s diagnosis as a way to compromise her.

DeSmog UK, an environmental organisation dedicated to “clearing the PR pollution, suggested that many critics driving the attacks against Greta were part of an established network of radical free-marketeer lobby groups which has connections with the fossil fuel industry and funders of climate science denial.

However, there were also some fairly mild criticisms which tried to be reasonable, arguing that the activist’s “histrionics” were counterproductive to developing good climate change policy or that she is shifting the focus from personal responsibility to governments and big corporations only, which threatened to turn environmentalism into another “wedge issue that politicians often use to motivate their base of voters.”

Greta’s popularity was amplified by the growing interest in climate change expressed by both liberal- and conservative-minded media outlets. Climate change and global warming have become powerful coverage drivers not only in ecological and scientific discussions but also in political, economic and cultural analyses.

This is in large part due to a public debate over whether global warming is actually occurring, which has been fuelled primarily by right-wing US publications and conservative think tanks which deny the need for strong environmental regulations. Although there is a strong scientific consensus that global surface temperatures have increased due to human activity, climate change has been a controversial political subject since at least the Ronald Reagan presidency in the 1980s.

Much like vaccination hesitancy, many US outlets have initially framed the conversation around climate change as a binary debate with pro- and contra-perspectives in a bid to be “balanced” and “objective”. Such journalistic practices are widespread in reports on morally-charged political and social issues such as gun control or abortion. When writing on such polarised subjects, most top-tier publications usually try to provide equal exposure to arguments from both sides of the respective debate.

But while this might be a good press practice for political and social matters, it certainly doesn’t work well with reporting on hard scientific evidence. Adopting a “balanced” journalistic approach towards such inherently one-sided and uncontroversial cases creates the impression that there is a real debate among scientists while actually, the scientific community is in a consensus.

For more on this topic, read our analysis “Vaccination in the Media: An Ongoing Immunisation Against Misinformation”.

Organisations in the climate mix

We analysed the media conversation around Greta Thunberg from May to October 2019 in the top-tier English-language publications to find the most often mentioned organisations:

Environmental organisation Greenpeace and global human rights campaigner Amnesty International dominated the discussion by providing expert commentary and urging politicians and industry leaders to take Greta’s words seriously.

For example, following Greta’s UN speech, Greenpeace urged New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to start an immediate cancellation of OMV’s oil exploration permits. Greenpeace International chief Jennifer Morgan said that “for the most part, world leaders did not deliver what was needed” and told AFP that “Greta’s impassioned cry for sanity and for actually listening and acting based on the science was ignored”. Meanwhile, Amnesty International secretary-general Kumi Naidoo wrote to 30,000 schools across the world to let students hold protests for climate change.

Greenpeace also issued a warning against land being burned to clear the way for the palm oil trade by farmers and corporations. The growing palm oil industry and the accompanying expansion in plantation areas have recently come under close scrutiny from green activists and consumers, who criticised it for being a driver of deforestation as well as displacement and disruption of human and animal populations, most notably of already endangered species like the orangutan, pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhino.

Additional criticisms include exploitation of workers and emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, a major contributor to climate change. As a result, the palm oil trade has been vilified by environmentalists and often presented as part of the big conversation around climate change and global warming.

Mainstream consumer backlash for palm oil appeared to grow late last year, when UK retailer Iceland released an advertising campaign​ centred around the orangutan extinction caused by palm oil production practices. The “Rang-Tan” advert was originally made for Greenpeace, of which Iceland’s managing director is a member.

For more on this topic, read our analysis “Palm Oil in the Media: The Growth of the Sustainability Narrative”.

The response to Greta’s messaging from the private industry came predominantly from the ranks of technology companies. Hundreds of workers from Google, Amazon and other tech firms criticised their own industry for being slow to tackle climate change and joined protests in several cities. More than 1,500 Amazon employees joined the marches, and 900 Google workers also walked out, alongside hundreds from Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter. As Google business analyst Marie Collins put it, “tech is having an awakening”.

While Google said it had increased its wind and solar energy deals by more than 40%, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos promised to make the online retail giant, which delivers 10 billion items a year, carbon neutral by 2040. Greenpeace welcomed the pledge, but a spokesman said the company lagged peers Google, Apple and Facebook in transparency around its renewable projects.

Facebook was also mentioned for its fact-checking program and its decision to remove a false designation from a Washington Examiner opinion piece, which argued that global-warming climate models have been inaccurate and that the climate risks are exaggerated.

In addition, more than 7,000 companies, including Tumblr, WordPress, Kickstarter, Imgur and BitTorrent, have joined a “digital climate strike”, pledging to donate ad space promoting the strikes.

Tech’s public engagement with climate issues comes at a time when the industry is facing some tough reputational challenges, particularly around data privacy. Consumer concerns about privacy have been around since the dawn of the Internet, and data breaches regularly make headlines around the world, but Facebook’s troubles were what really made data privacy a central concern for consumers – it became clear that improper handling of sensitive information can lead not only to financial abuse but can also influence global politics and people’s health and well-being.

This has put corporate governance at the wheel of corporate reputation management: companies’ performance in this area relates to their ability to earn a license-to-operate by stakeholders.

For more on this topic, read our analysis “From Media Data to Reputation Analytics: A Case Study of Facebook”.

Aviation companies such as Boeing, Airbus, EasyJet and Lufthansa were mentioned mainly in relation to the #flightshaming movement which was promoted by Greta and which is beginning to make investors in the aviation industry nervous. The most powerful coverage driver in this regard was Greta’s decision to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in a yacht equipped with solar panels and underwater turbines, which was presented as a carbon-neutral transatlantic crossing.

Swiss bank UBS predicted that the flight-shaming campaign could halve growth in air traffic in the decades to come, which could mean the world’s biggest aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus may well have to build fewer planes.

UBS‘ predictions were based on a survey of more than 6,000 people in the US, Germany, France and the UK, which found that 21% had reduced the number of flights they took over the last year. Industry forecasts by Airbus and Boeing predicted that growth will continue to be between 4% and 5% a year until 2035, but the UBS figures suggest that high-profile campaigns like Greta’s could trigger a change in flying habits in wealthier parts of the world, which could mean Airbus and Boeing may need to build 110 fewer smaller planes every year.

For more aviation insights, read our analysis: “Boeing’s Ethiopian Crash: A Study in Bad Crisis Management”.

French multinational luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, owner of brands such as Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Moët and Hennessy, featured in the discussion due to the comments made by its CEO Bernard Arnault. At an LVMH sustainability event, Arnault said Greta is “indulging in an absolute catastrophism about the evolution of the world”, which he finds “demoralising”.

He highlighted his company’s sustainability efforts and claimed it has made good progress on its targets to use more renewable energy and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 25% across its operations: “We believe that environmental performance is a source of innovation, creativity, excellence and must be considered in all design and manufacture activities. We are committed to accelerating our work in that field and going even further.”

But LVMH arguably trails its largest rival, French luxury group Kering, which owns brands such as Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga. Kering has pledged to transform its own business and the wider luxury industry at every level. Unveiled in 2018, Kering’s 2025 ethical strategy asserts that the company sees sustainability as a necessity, because “sustainability and luxury are one and the same”.

Fashion houses like LVMH and Kering are increasingly in the spotlight of climate change activists amid growing public awareness of fashion’s environmental impact – journalists, scientists, academics and industry representatives regularly raise concerns. There are also a growing number of charities, not-for-profit organisations and global movements such as Fashion Revolution which campaign for systemic reform of the sector. The Fashion Revolution’s call for transparency under the hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes became a global trend on Twitter for trying to raise the standards in the back end process of manufacturing.

As a result, a large number of fashion brands are now considering environmental sustainability a management agenda, and words such as “green”, “eco”, “organic”, “slow” and “ethical” are increasingly becoming a part of the fashion conversation. Many companies have started building their business models on sustainable production and operation, making sustainability a major focus for long-term growth.

In order to gain attention and credibility, as well as to strengthen the emotional connection with their customers, brands have started communicating specific initiatives like supporting charitable organisations and collaborating with influencers focusing on sustainability. They are also employing giving-back-to-the-society strategies by donating a part of each purchase to a cause or community. In this way, the customer not only purchases a sustainable product but also supports a cause beyond the fashion industry.

Kering’s brand Gucci had the greatest prominence in the sustainability discussion mainly because of its latest initiative, Gucci Equilibrium, which aims to solidify the brand’s position as a sustainable and responsible luxury fashion house. One of Kering’s initiatives which grabbed the media’s attention was launching a WeChat programme named ‘My EP&L’ (Environmental Profit & Loss), an environmental impact measurement tool that informs consumers of the environmental cost of what they buy.

For more on this topic, read our analysis “Sustainable Fashion: Bringing Green into Vogue”.

Saudi Aramco, Shell, ExxonMobil and BP were mentioned for taking part in the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), an effort to repair the reputation of the oil industry on the sidelines of the United Nations Climate Action Summit.

The initiative held meetings with students and young professionals aimed at laying the groundwork for a long-term plan to engage with young people. Eldar Sætre, CEO of Norwegian oil company Equinor ASA, acknowledged the difficulties in handling youth anger towards his industry: “It’s about dialogue and to have dialogue you have to have transparency.”

The meeting was criticised by some environmental activists. For example, environmental group Extinction Rebellion told the Guardian: “This is how lobbying and greenwash works: private meetings, on the sidelines, back door stuff, handpicked attendees. But it’s a fool’s errand to find industry-led, voluntary initiatives resulting in the changes needed because it is manifestly against the financial interests of oil companies to stop extracting the Earth’s resources.”

Meanwhile, Oil and Gas UK chief executive Deirdre Michie told a conference that the industry is listening to Greta and that climate change “is a real and present danger that we must deal with together”. In a recent speech to MPs, the activist criticised the UK for supporting new exploitation of fossil fuels.

Alongside fashion and aviation, the oil industry is increasingly vilified by young activists. Amin Nasser, the CEO of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil producer, recently said that the industry faces a “crisis of perception” and there’s a growing risk the financial community will turn against fossil fuels: “There is a worrying and growing belief among policy makers and regulators, investment houses, NGOs, and many others that we are an industry with little or no future.”

But more conservative-minded publications seem to be more reserved, saying that the low carbon economy will not come so soon and that it will take time for renewables to deliver the profits oil investors are used to.  Investment in oil and gas will remain vital even if renewables take up a larger portion of world energy consumption.

However, green energy seems to be winning in the court of public opinion. Even in the US, the hotbed of climate change denial, the majority of citizens across the political spectrum are in favour of expanding renewable energy sources, as the Pew Research Center has found. In the UK, the government’s Public Attitudes Tracker has indicated that support for renewable energy has climbed to 85%.

While the growing number of green investments have been covered with a positive sentiment, the media often cites lobbyists and campaigners who criticise the sector for not doing enough. For instance, campaign group ShareAction said that the green investments pale in comparison “with the amount of money Big Oil spends blocking climate initiatives and regulations”.

Some old allegations also tend to resurface: oil majors have also been historically criticised for setting up climate change denial campaigns to promote climate change scepticism. Such strategies have been compared to the tobacco industry’s denial of the dangers of smoking. There are even suggestions that Big Oil and Big Tobacco used the same scientists and publicists to downplay the public health dangers of their products and operations.

For instance, it was revealed that ExxonMobil, the world’s biggest oil company, knew about climate change since at least 1981, seven years before it became a public issue, but nevertheless spent millions over the next 27 years to promote climate denial. Shell was also accused of spreading disinformation despite being aware of the risks of global warming.

A new report by non-profit organisation InfluenceMap claimed that since the Paris Agreement was signed, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP and Total have invested over $1 billion of shareholder funds in misleading climate-related branding and lobbying. And according to a joint analysis by the Guardian and InfluenceMap, oil companies are spending millions of dollars on specific local campaigns, even though their global PR campaigns on social media promote a commitment to a low-carbon future.

Such revelations, alongside industry accidents such as the infamous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, have contributed to the deteriorating reputation of the oil industry. According to an EY survey, just 37% of adults and 33% of teens trust the industry to do the right thing, and even though most consumers think the sector is important for the economy, they see it as a problem causer, not a problem solver. In addition, 76% of industry executives expect the public to not trust the sector and give themselves lower marks for communicating with the public, particularly around regulatory issues.

For more on this topic, read our analysis “Big Oil and Sustainable Energy: Sowing the Seeds of Green Reputation”.

Support and backlash

Some of the most powerful coverage drivers in the discussion were the comments made by political leaders and pundits – for example US President Donald Trump‘s tweet that Greta “seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future” or Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s remark that he did not share the excitement surrounding the teen climate activist.

In our research sample, in which we didn’t include prominent political figures to cut through the media noise, the most often quoted spokesperson was the Daily Wire’s commentator Michael Knowles:

Knowles made global headlines after referring to Greta as a “mentally ill Swedish child”, which was being manipulated and exploited by the left. His opinion was echoed by other conservative commentators such as Dinesh D’Souza and Sebastian Gorka, which have compared her appearance to a Nazi child.

Andrew Bolt, a high-profile columnist for News Corp and a Sky News commentator, referred to the campaigner as “deeply disturbed”, “freakishly influential” and “strange”. Fox News host Laura Ingraham, one of the network’s most prominent presenters, played a clip of Greta’s speech and compared her to characters in the 1984 horror film “Children of the Corn,” based on a Stephen King novel.

Those critics were mentioned that often because their remarks prompted severe backlash and many media publications reported on the reactions. Fox News even apologised for Knowles’ “disgraceful” description of Thunberg as mentally ill but it didn’t comment on Ingraham.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Greta said she takes personal criticism as a sign that activists are succeeding: “You just have to ignore them because they are just so desperately trying to remove the focus from the climate crisis to make it become something about me as an individual,” she said. “When they do that, I mean, they don’t have any arguments left.”

Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos was the most often quoted corporate spokesperson because of his pledge to make the online retail giant carbon neutral by 2040. “We know we can do it and we know we have to do it,” he said. Meanwhile, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that eliminating his company’s carbon emissions by 2030 didn’t seem “unreasonable.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, who previously partnered with electric mobility company Kreisel, arranged for Greta to get a Tesla Model 3 and met her in May 2019 at a climate conference in Austria. Tesla CEO Elon Musk himself retweeted a tweet from Scientific American about Thunberg’s role in the global climate change movement.

The presence of figures from the aviation industry, such as Fang Liu of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, Angela Gittens of Airports Council International and Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury, underlined the importance of the debate for jet makers. Fang Liu even said she would meet Thunberg if the activist has the time, while the Airbus CEO expressed his confidence that “if we can solve the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, aviation will continue to grow in an important way”.

As our analysis shows, the new wave of activism spearheaded by Thunberg made many companies take a more active part in the climate change debate by communicating corporate social responsibility. This has started translating into a gradual shift in corporate behaviour against a backdrop of a significant rise in sustainable finance or Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) investing – a way of investing which takes into account not only the potential financial returns of an investment but its social impact as well.

This investment strategy has grown 107.4% annually since 2012, and new exchange-traded funds (ETFs) tracking sustainable and responsible investments have thrived since last year. Around a quarter of all professionally managed assets around the world, and about $12 trillion of the $46.6 trillion dollars professionally managed in the US right now, incorporate ESG criteria.

Apart from passionate protestors, climate activists are also well-organised and motivated investment managers, while environmental groups like Climate Action 100+ and Follow This have hundreds of institutional investors on their side. BlackRock estimated that ESG investment funds had grown 50% in the past five years to more than $750 billion in assets in the US and Europe.

For investors, ESG credentials communicate corporate values and strong reputation relating to issues which are more and more often in the public eye, which in turn can improve the performance of both active and passive risk-factor portfolios. The growing awareness of academic research has been a decisive factor for the encouragement of more and more investors to practice ESG integration into the analysis of listed equity investments, making it the most widespread responsible investment practice in the market today.

Another important factor for the rapid growth of ESG investments are millennials, whose investment preferences always circle around their personal values: a survey by First State Investments found that more than 80% of millennials are interested or very interested in sustainable investing. And since millennials are meant to receive more than $30 trillion of inheritable wealth, more and more companies are taking note.

For more on this topic, read our analysis “Sustainable Finance: The Rise of the Value-Driven Investor”.