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Greenwashing is the threat to climate action, says Al Gore

July 14, 2021, 2:03 PM UTC

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Hello from London.

Last week, I spoke to Al Gore (yes, that Al Gore) about the state of action on climate change—and the tsunami-like rise of ESG investing. Mostly, I was pleasantly surprised by his optimism. He seemed genuinely energized by the momentum we’re seeing this year, including in finance and politics (he had, as you might expect, supportive words for the Biden administration).

The tone seemed to be: hey, better late than never. (You can read that full interview here.)

But there was a nagging footnote to all this hopefulness: where momentum has grown on transitioning the economy, so too have “green” claims that are vague, unhelpful, ludicrous, and outright malicious.

“We have to be very diligent and vigilant because of the threat of greenwashing is rising,” he said. “And if if we were to fail and let greenwash get out of hand, then that would bring a risk of derailing the progress.”

But what is greenwashing?

It seems basic enough to nail down. Answering the question of what is a dubious marketing or lobbying exercise, rather than real movement, is often as clear as looking at whether a company is actually spending any money, or enforcing existing goals, regardless of the mind-numbing length of their sustainability reports.

And in response, Gore quickly offered a clear example.

“If you wanted a primer, you could do no better than to watch the videos of Exxon Mobil’s chief lobbyist describing the deception and the intentional effort to mislead the world into thinking that Exxon Mobil was committed and was making progress when actually it was just engaged in falsehoods and deception,” he said. “That’s greenwashing.”

But there are other, more green-grey areas, too: what if a “net zero by 2050” goal is made in good faith, but the people who made it won’t be around to see it happen? What if a company’s whole green strategy seems to be based around carbon offsets? (Here, Gore stated that the lack of “guardrails” is a concern.) What if a strategy relies on carbon capture and storage and hydrogen—qualifying that such technology is currently not economical?

So I asked him a highly controversial question that comes up all the time, and that people tend to answer very differently: is any net-zero goal by an oil and gas company inherently a case of greenwashing?

It’s all in the details, he qualified. Some, like Shell, seem to be genuine, he said. Others, not so much.

“I hear people in the industry saying, well, we’ve tripled the amount of capital we’re putting into low carbon, zero carbon alternatives. Well, when you hear that they’ve tripled their commitment, that sounds quite impressive—until you look at the overall percentage of what they’re doing. You can triple a tiny amount, and it’s still a tiny amount,” Gore added.

But he also pointed towards an even bigger question when it comes to the oil and gas giants of the world: are even good intentions enough? And to illustrate, he brought up the “burden of implausibility”—as illustrated by a dancing hippo: Hyacinth, from Disney’s Fantasia.

“That’s kind of the problem with some of the large multinational oil companies transforming themselves into renewable energy powerhouses,” Gore said.

“I hope they can do it,” he added. “But Hyacinth the hippopotamus had a great difficulty dancing ballet.”

Write in and tell me what you think.

In other news, Fortune has two exciting new projects. This week, we launched a list of the best U.S.-based MBA programs, along with a whole drop of articles on everything from salaries to admissions advice, which you can see here. We’re also accepting nominations for our Top 40 Under 40 list, MBA not required. You can submit your picks here.

More news below,

Katherine Dunn


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