Scientific American’s truly lame Shell-sponsored pop-up “Energy Poll”

I have great respect for Scientific American and have even published a couple of articles in it in my career.  So it was quite disappointing to see this pop-up when I visited yesterday from two different computers:

SciAm 10-10

This is what they call a “push poll,” a “technique in which an individual or organization attempts to influence or alter the view of respondents under the guise of conducting a poll.”

First off, the specified choices don’t include most of the strategies needed to actually reduce emissions from fossil fuels — as opposed to, say, just slowing their growth.   R&D into technologies “that increase efficiency and reduce emissions in hydrocarbon production” — what, more efficient drills and refineries?  Yes, that’s going to reduce fossil fuel emissions.  And establishing a “capability” in CCS?  Seriously.  How about putting in place a standard that requires CCS?

Of course, this “poll” omits all regulations, renewable standards, efficiency standards, all significant efforts to accelerate deployment, or any mechanism to create a price on CO2.  So what precisely is the point of this “energy poll” if not to mislead the public into thinking that those measures are actually “priority” ones and that the problem isn’t terribly urgent.

And if we’re quoting what IEA “predicts,” how about explaining what the IEA warns will happen if we don’t dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions (see Must read IEA report, Part 1: Act now with clean energy or face 6°C warming):

Unsustainable pressure on natural resources and on the environment is inevitable if energy demand is not de-coupled from economic growth and fossil fuel demand reduced.

The situation is getting worse”¦. Baseline scenario foreshadow a 70% increase in oil demand by 2050 and a 130% rise in CO2 emissions”¦. a rise in CO2 emissions of such magnitude could raise global average temperatures by 6°C (eventual stabilisation level), perhaps more. The consequences would be significant change in all aspects of life and irreversible change in the natural environment.

Yeah, no point in sticking that into this energy poll, otherwise readers might actually figure out how lame are the prioritized steps they’re voting on.

Jeers to Scientific American for running this pop up push poll in “association with” a once-green, now-greenwashing oil company (see Shell shocker: Once ‘green’ oil company guts renewables effort and Investors warn Shell and BP over tar sands greenwashing).

And yes, it only compounds the irony that the banner ad is for “easy & affordable carbon offsets” to “fight global warming.”  One thing we can safely say, if offsets are cheap, then you’re getting what you’re paying for.  Absent a national climate bill and global climate deal, offsets, particularly cheap ones, are a placebo.

Sadly, Scientific American has joined the growing list of newspapers and magazines who go astray while struggling to find sources of revenue to supplement their dwindling print readership base:

17 Responses to Scientific American’s truly lame Shell-sponsored pop-up “Energy Poll”

  1. Jeff Huggins says:

    This is why new approaches to communication, activism, and societal change are gonna be necessary.

    There are so many forms of confusion-ism, slow incrementalism, pretending-ism, say-one-thing-and-do-another-ism, denialism, and ineffective-ism that we’ll never make sufficient changes unless we wake up and get creative. Shell running push-polls on Scientific American! And the cost is next to nothing when compared to Shell’s resources. The companies are all just playing patty-cake right now (is that how you spell it?), and although it seems like we don’t realize it, we are only playing patty-cake with them.

  2. Michael Tucker says:

    I too have tremendous respect for SA but they have made some missteps and the Shell ads are an excellent example. I agree with Joe’s assessment of the ads but I’m sure the pressure to accept Shell’s ad dollars was tremendous. Shell has been very active with their new ad campaign and when a wealthy company wants to spend money for advertising in a print magazine these days it is hard to say no.

    I am more disappointed in SA’s decision to run an article in the November issue called “Climate Heretic – Why can’t we have a civil conversation about climate?” featuring the views of Judith Curry. It looks like an attempt to rehabilitate her credibility and will focus on her concern that climate scientists do a poor job of communicating the uncertainty in climate predictions while deemphasizing her more irrational comments.

    SA has been going through chances too: new editor and new magazine format. I sure hope it gains its new footing soon.

  3. Christopher S. Johnson says:

    And don’t forget PBS running the video version of that very same NY Times ad, mentioned above, for almost all of 2009 on an almost daily basis, and during NOVA broadcasts. I had a run in with WGBH about this.

    And at the same time in 2009,when they ran that ad. NOVA Science Now did a profile on glaciologist Lonnie Thompson, and melting glaciers, and NEVER mentioned AGW. Not once.

  4. Peter M says:

    I have seen this several times at SA- I just hit the close icon.

  5. David B. Benson says:

    I chose not to renew my subscription after about 42 years, maybe more.

  6. Christopher S. Johnson says:

    In the Fall of 2009 WGBH/PBS stopped running the “95%” ad. They wrote me to say that it had “run its course”, after several months of my complaining. They switched to other spots from the same campaign, that while purposely murky in their understanding, were not as offensive.

    The current ExxonMobil ad on NOVA is for algae bio fuel presented as a “cool R&D thing we do”. While mostly harmless, it does give the false impression that, well to wheels, the biofuel is carbon NEGATIVE, rather than neutral. Of course that isn’t true. It’s been re-cut lately but here it is as it ran for most of 2010 and the sentiment is the same.

    As a side note: recent experimental batches of algae biofuel I’ve seen demonstrated on the news used CO2 from nearby gas wells to stimulate growth. That’s OLD carbon, NOT current atmospheric CO2. That means it is a carbon POSITIVE process, “well to wheels”. Just sayin’. That ain’t even neutral.

  7. john atcheson says:

    Reminds me of an Old Harvard Lampoon cover: Pornography: Threat or Menace. It applies to less controversial iissues as well. Oil: Threat or Menace? OPEC: Threat or Menace. Global Warming: Threat or Menace.

    Of course, when SCiAm starts accepting things like this, it’s — as a friend of mine puts it tongue in cheek — Further Signs of the Apocalypse.

    Elizabeth Kolbert was right.

  8. jcwinnie says:

    Since I was unable to comment on the SciAm article about wind energy and very much like the first comment…

    I’ve never seen a purple cowl
    I hope to never paint one
    (Scared of heights, donchakno)
    But I can tell you anyhow
    I rather paint than be manipulated by a push poll from an oil sands company

  9. David B. Benson says:

    Actually, BP and Shell are the two best of all the major oil compnaies.

    Says something about the resst, does it not?

  10. Byron Smith says:

    Here are some options they inexplicably seem to have missed:
    • Banning the exploitation of the stupidly polluting sources of fossil fuels (most “non-conventional” fossil fuels).
    • Radically restructuring the global economy away from fossil fuels as fast as possible and questioning the wisdom of the IEA in the process.
    • Restraining the corporate power of big oil to prevent their advertising tentacles reaching into every corner of our lives.
    • Nationalising the oil companies and investing the profits into renewable sources of energy.
    • Politely asking the oil companies to comply with at least the weak and toothless body of existing laws.

  11. PurpleOzone says:

    I had a lengthy telephone poll so slanted pro-oil I was sure it was a “push poll’. This was when they oil companies were beating the drums for more drilling a year or two ago.

    Two weeks later Republican congressmen/senators were justifying more drilling using the 2 or 3 least obnoxious statements. The poll was about identifying the most acceptable ‘talking points’.

  12. Mike Roddy says:

    Here’s a good comment on it:

    During World War II, the timber companies used the national emergency to log in Yosemite National Park. Oil companies are now entwined with most of the Big Green organizations, in the form of contributions and “dialogue”. These kinds of people would stick on ad on the framed copy of the Constitution if they could.

    I’m disgusted with Scientific American. We may have to get our information from Sweden or Germany, in translation.

  13. Chris Winter says:

    @Byron Smith (#10):

    Right, and one more — one that would seem to be a no-brainer:

    In the meantime, keep your equipment in good working order!

  14. Chris Winter says:

    @Mike Roddy (#12):

    Thanks for the link. I’m developing considerable respect for Randi Rhodes. She’s great at digging out obscure facts like funding connections and speeches or documents made decades ago.

  15. fj2 says:

    May be reason Jeff Sachs editorials left Scientific American for New Scientist

  16. AnnaHaynes says:

    Ouch; I’d been recommending Scientific American gift subscriptions.

    So, is New Scientist a better choice these days?

    [JR: I still like SciAm. NS is good too.]

  17. Shaun@Shell says:

    I am a Shell employee…

    The idea of the poll is to get people into a dialogue on what needs to be done to address various elements of the energy challenge. This particular question was aimed explicitly at the role of fossil fuels and how to reduce emissions from their (inevitable continued short term) use. How to make today’s fuels cleaner is an important debate and one of many that Shell is committed to engaging with. In the past (and in the future) we have asked questions about the broader energy mix and how we move forward, together, to a better energy future – we share the author’s concerns about this and are committed engaging with our stakeholders to move forward together.

    Is there more that can be added to the poll? Of course. This is precisely why Sci Am offers the comment functionality there.

    One venue you might find interesting to delve into a deeper dialogue about climate change mitigation is via my colleague, David Hone’s blog at I encourage you to have a look, and share your views. I think you will find that there is some very common ground we share.