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Fossil fuels are choking cities with smog, turning the water toxic, and heating the atmosphere to a point of no return. So how do you make them sound like a good thing? Ask the public relations firms that have spent decades finding the right words.

A report published this week in the journal Climatic Change summarizes how these marketing whizzes have helped polluting industries improve their image and block climate policy over the last 30 years. Researchers from Brown University analyzed more than 600 PR firms, including major players like Edelman and Ogilvy, to see how they’d shaped the public discourse around climate change while working for coal, oil and gas, steel, and utility companies. Some of the PR firms also worked for environmental groups, at times contradicting their own messages, the analysis found. 

The study documents how PR agencies popularized terms like “carbon footprint” and “clean coal,” emphasizing personal responsibility for climate change and diverting blame from fossil fuels. These ideas have become taken for granted, the study says, and have shaped the public debate about what to do about climate change.

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