Earlier this week in Dubai, negotiators from around the world were hammering out the text of a final agreement to mark the end of the UN climate change meeting, or COP28. On Monday, the United Arab Emirates, the petrostate hosting the conference this year, released a severely watered-down version of a text that included no references to a global “phase out” of fossil fuels—something that more than 100 countries had demanded be in the final text, but that powerful petrostates opposed. Reactions were swift and harsh. On X/Twitter, Al Gore ripped into the UAE’s draft text, calling it “deeply offensive,” while John Silk, a minister of the Marshall Islands, called the draft “a death warrant.”
Amidst the hubbub, federal filings show that an employee of the public relations firm Edelman sent an email to reporters with a quote attributable to the UAE presidency, calling the text “a huge step forward.” The statement was included in news articles about the negotiations from major outlets including Reuters, The Guardian, and The New York Times, with no mention of Edelman’s role.
This interaction is, on the surface, nothing unusual—spokespeople hired by PR firms send out quotes to reporters all the time, and these firms are rarely mentioned in the resulting news articles. But Edelman has a long history of promoting oil and gas clients, including the UAE, and has played an instrumental role in creating a campaign to sell COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber as a clean energy champion, despite his leadership at one of the world’s most powerful oil companies. Sending this seemingly-innocuous email was also part of an enormous private contract that is almost unheard of in UN climate proceedings. For its work on COP, Edelman earned almost $3 million from the UAE over the course of just 7 months.
This year’s UN meeting was the most oil-and-gas interest-packed meeting in COP history, boasting at least 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists among the thousands of attendees. But pro-fossil fuel messages aren’t just peddled by representatives from companies like Exxon. PR firms sending out press releases, reputation management companies shaping messaging, and advisory agencies weighing in on communications strategies all helped to shape the narrative that petrostates like the UAE are working diligently towards climate action. These firms do crucial work behind-the-scenes to craft the messages we see pushed out by powerful politicians, but are rarely identified in mainstream media as part of the climate problem—despite the huge amounts of money they are paid to promote fossil fuel funded-states who continuously delay climate action and make plans to pump even more oil.
The UAE began to make its first public overtures to host COP28 in 2021, ahead of that year’s UN meeting in Glasgow, as part of a longer-running global PR push to portray itself—and its national oil company—as part of the climate solution. Between that first foray and this month’s COP, federal filings show that the country employed at least seven U.S.-based agencies to create strategy and promote the UAE’s messages on climate to reporters and policymakers.
A bonanza of cash—just two firms, Edelman and Teneo, have taken in more than $4.5 million from the UAE for less than a years’ worth of work around COP28—and a wealth of additional contracts and new relationships in the wake of COP show that promoting the UAE’s climate narrative is big business and could extend well beyond this year’s meeting in Dubai.
The UAE’s Rocky Comms Road to COP
The agencies Drilled identified as working on the COP28 account since 2021 were APCO, Burson Cohn & Wolfe (BCW), Edelman, FGS Global, First International Resources, FleishmanHillard, and Teneo. These agencies signed contracts with various different arms of the UAE government for COP28-related work, from the Office of the UAE Climate Change Special Envoy to the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company to Masdar, the country’s renewable energy arm. The campaign group Clean Creatives was able to identify three additional non-U.S.-based agencies—Viola, a Dubai-based marketing agency; Omina, a Dubai-based digital branding agency; and CT Group, an Australian lobbying firm— who have also done work for COP28 via an analysis of press releases, news coverage, campaign materials, and social media.
There’s some unusual choices on this list —and some curious timelines and details, too. While most of the firms are giants in the international agency space, First International Resources, a Fort Lee, New Jersey-based company that contracted with Masdar in late July of this year, boasts just a handful of employees. Per federal filings first reported by the Washington Post in August, First International Resources was hired “to strengthen the overall reputation and standing of the UAE, His Excellency Dr. Sultan Al Jaber and COP28 among Western audiences” and “solidify the position of the UAE as an innovative leader in global decarbonization efforts and the transition away from fossil fuels.”
“The appointment of Dr. Al Jaber as President of this year’s UN climate summit has generated predictable pushback from Greens in the West,” the First International Resources contract reads. “Our previous research on climate-related issues often finds that the loudest voices are not the most representative.” The contract then proposes that First International Resources use polling to reach “opinion elites” in the West to create a communications strategy, and suggests that it might “activate or mobilize [its] connections inside the ‘US Jewish Establishment’” to further the UAE’s objectives.
First International Resources was set to receive a retainer of $100,00 each month for its services for a six-month duration—but according to federal findings, the relationship with Masdar was terminated by the beginning of September, about a month after the original contract was signed.
It’s not just the small firms that got juggled around. PR giant BCW, for instance, signed a contract with Masdar last year that would have lasted through 2024, but it was abruptly terminated in late 2022, according to filings first reported by Politico in June. Edelman, a longstanding favorite of UAE leadership, had a last-minute increase to its contract signed on November 24, less than a week before COP28 began. Teneo, a global consulting and communications firm, tackled three months of strategy work around COP28 for Masdar following “an oral agreement” with the company in July, filings show.
All this agency activity is part of a larger effort to promote the UAE as a technological and climate innovator on various media platforms. Over the past year, Masdar has increased its overall ad spending by more than 1,000%, according to data obtained by MediaRadar, pouring $1.4 million into various print, TV, and digital campaigns; its ads in the leadup to this month have included references to climate action and COP28 in outlets like Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and Barrons’. The Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), one of Masdar’s main shareholders, has also increased its ad spending by more than 350%, mostly in digital ads, which included running a spread of paid content in MIT Technology Review that touted the UAE’s “transition to a net-zero future” Experts have also observed a spike in X/Twitter bots before and during COP28 that have been seemingly designed to promote the UAE’s positioning as a clean energy leader at the summit.
Edelman Front and Center
The dozens of Edelman employees and executives attending this year’s COP (65, by Drilled’s count of affiliations on the list of registered participants) have been busy. In late November, the firm inked a deal with Masdar to extend its original contract to “provide…press office support, editorial support and social/media monitoring” for COP28. The extra manhours brought the seven-month agreement fees up from AED 8,814,000.00—more than $2.4 million—to AED 10,671,276.01, or more than $2.9 million.
Throughout COP, Edelman staffers kept journalists apprised of interview opportunities, speeches, and gatherings on the ground in Dubai, federal filings show, sending releases to dozens of journalists at a time offering experts, providing embargoed materials, and sending statements on behalf of the COP28 presidency. Many of these releases were branded with the COP28 logo. Edelman also promoted Alterra, the UAE’s new climate investment fund that was rolled out with great fanfare at COP28.
Edelman also may have helped burnish Al Jaber’s image after some high-profile blunders in Dubai. The Guardian and the Centre for Climate Reporting broke a bombshell report on Sunday, December 3 revealing that Al Jaber had claimed in a tense exchange with Ireland’s Mary Robinson that there was “no science” behind demands to phase out fossil fuels. On Monday, Edelman sent a heads-up to reporters about a press conference Al Jaber would be holding that day—which one reporter called a “surprise press conference.” In the presser, Al Jaber stated that the UAE “very much believe[s] and respect[s] the science” and affirmed his respect for Robinson.
Alongside their work for the UAE’s climate envoy, Edelman staffers were also promoting Masdar’s operations, sending out releases on new renewable acquisitions and partnerships with various companies and countries, including wind and green hydrogen projects and a plan to develop “the world’s largest floating solar plant’ in Indonesia. As Drilled reported previously, Masdar’s renewable energy claims have not always resulted in actual increases in global renewable energy capacity. When the UAE was lobbying to get COP28 hosting rights, the company (and Al Jaber, as chairman of the board for Masdar) claimed it had doubled renewable energy capacity, almost overnight—but it had actually merged with the national utility and ADNOC, and claimed those entities’ renewable projects as its own. Just before COP began, Bloomberg looked into the data on how many gigawatts of renewable energy Masdar is actually producing, finding that the company—which often claims to be one of the world’s largest renewable energy companies—ranks about 62nd in the world.
“Edelman provided communications support to COP28 in its efforts to deliver the highest ambition response to the Global Stocktake,” a spokesman from the firm said in response to multiple questions from Drilled on its various contracts to work on COP28, the number of staffers on the ground in Dubai, its work with Al Jaber responding to his comments to Robinson, and how its work on COP28 for a petrostate squares with its public climate commitments. “Separately, Edelman supported clients attending the event to drive lasting climate action.”
A Network Of Connections In Dubai
The proliferation of corporate interests at this COP is not an accident. The UAE’s yearslong push to present itself as a climate and technological leader has created an enormous flow of cash to the consulting, PR, advertising and media industries—and may have created or enhanced other state-owned contracts for many of the firms it has drawn into its orbit.
APCO, for instance, was originally contracted by ADNOC in June of 2021 to “provide strategic communications and media relations services within the United States to represent the UAE's climate envoy,” filings show. The agreement between ADNOC and APCO ended that year, but in October of 2021, APCO began working with the Technology Innovation Institute, a research organization that is part of Abu Dhabi’s government Advanced Technology Research Council. Al Jaber and another ADNOC executive, Ahmed Tamim Al-Kuttab, sit on that organization’s board. Fifteen APCO representatives were on the ground at COP28, the UNFCC invite list shows, the majority of which were using badges provided by the UAE.
BCW, meanwhile, was hired by the Office of UAE Climate Change Special Envoy—with the address for the office given on federal filings as ADNOC’s headquarters—in October of 2021, with the specific instruction to provide “strategic communications counsel and outreach to international news media” around COP26 in Glasgow. BCW was later hired by Masdar in 2022 to conduct “outreach to US news media regarding the UAEs role as host of the C0P28 global climate summit,” filings show.
While the agreement between BCW and Masdar ended abruptly in 2022, the agency was able to land a new contract with Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism just after COP26, after it had provided services for the Special Envoy. BCW also signed an agreement with the city’s environmental agency to “provide public relations, communications and thought leadership advice” in the summer of this year. Drilled counted 25 BCW employees in Dubai for COP28, all registered with UAE/host country badges.
And Teneo’s last-minute vocal agreement with Masdar to work on COP may have been thanks to the work that firm was already doing with the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, the foundation run by the wife of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi. Teneo has had a contract with the Foundation to provide media relations and communications since 2020, with an original retainer fee of $250,000 each month; it earned almost $1.6 million for its work with Masdar this year. Thirteen Teneo staffers were registered to attend COP28.
Neither APCO, BCW, or Teneo responded to questions from Drilled on their contracts with the UAE and its staffers on the ground in Dubai.
These are just the numbers for firms that have direct ties to work with the UAE—but COP28 also represented a real business opportunity for dozens of other communications, strategy, and consulting agencies around the world. Scrolling through the UNFCCC list, there’s plenty of representatives from some of the world’s most powerful consulting firms and PR agencies, including Deloitte, Boston Consulting Group, Ernst & Young, FTI Consulting, McKinsey, and PwC.
Will the Future of COPS Be Run By PR?
Melissa Aronczyk, media studies professor at Rutgers University and author of the book A Strategic Nature, said this COP is the culmination of 30 years’ worth of PR efforts. “The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) gave us a taste of just how influential industrial PR can be when it comes to environmental problems and climate change,” she said. “Fossil fuel companies knew all too well that the international spotlight would throw a harsh glare on their relentless commitment to expansion and growth in the face of the obvious need for environmental conservation and protection.”
That prompted them to work with PR firms to come up with “sustainability”-focused campaigns and initiatives, Aronczyk said. “These ‘green’ campaigns were designed specifically to tell the world that the fossil fuel industry was helping to ‘solve’ the problem of environmental degradation and climate change. They told their governments they didn’t need rules and regulation, because they were making their own rules. But it’s very clear by now that when companies set their own targets and create their own rules, the outcome spells disaster for genuine commitments to greenhouse gas reductions, let alone any sense of responsibility or accountability.”
The final adopted COP 28 agreement was heralded as an “unprecedented deal” by The Washington Post, while The New York Times headline declared, “In a First, Nations at Climate Summit Agree to Move Away from Fossil Fuels.” In this sea of corporate and oil money, it’s unsurprising that the final text of this COP—although it did include stronger language than the draft released earlier this week—failed to truly commit the world to phasing out fossil fuels. The meeting did make UN history by mentioning the need to reduce fossil fuels, the first time in 30 years that a COP text has done so, which, some advocates argue, is a substantial win for a meeting that was held in the heart of a petrostate. But that’s a comparatively tiny bar to clear, and one that allows countries like the UAE to proceed with PR campaigns that make themselves look like clean energy champions while continuing to increase output of oil and gas.
There’s another first in the text: It’s the first time an official COP agreement has explicitly opened the door for fossil fuels to, somehow, be part of the energy transition. The text notes that "…transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security.” That’s a big win for not only the fossil fuel industry, but the PR industry, which has helped to push this sort of language into the climate conversation for decades, particularly in support of the idea that fossil gas should be considered a “bridge fuel,” because it generates fewer CO2 emissions than coal. Data from both industry-backed and independent researchers, meanwhile, has found that fossil gas can produce as much or in some cases even more greenhouse gas emissions than coal. As early as 1981, Exxon subsidiary Esso reported that the company’s planned LNG plant in Indonesia would emit at least as much, and possibly twice as much, greenhouse gas emissions as burning the equivalent amount of coal. More recently, peer-reviewed research in Environmental Research Letters found that methane leakage as low as 0.2 percent puts gas’s climate impact on par with coal (and most gas projects have a leakage rate that’s far higher).
It remains to be seen if there will be another COP anytime soon with such a heavy PR hand involved. “The PR industry’s role in future COP meetings depends on the shape that future talks take with regards to fossil fuels,” said Duncan Meisel, Executive Director of the Clean Creatives campaign. “Hopefully global leaders recognize the damage that has been done this year and establish different standards for leadership in the future, but if future talks continue to function like a fossil fuel summit, we may see a repeat of this year’s PR strategy.”
The UAE is already thinking about its next global PR move beyond COP—and is taking U.S. firms along with it. In August, while Edelman was still contracted with Masdar to work on COP, the firm signed a new contract with Outlook Energy Investments, LLC, a shadowy entity wholly owned by the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, to “advise and promote the initiatives of the UAE government.” Outlook Energy Investments has been used before to lavishly pay U.S.-based lobbying and communications firms to create positive narratives around various strategic goals of the UAE. (Edelman did not answer questions on whether or not this work would include climate initiatives.)
And in November, FleishmanHillard’s US arm filed a federal notice about some upcoming work with its UK office: providing communications support for the UAE for the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in February 2024. FleishmanHillard has longstanding contracts with several UAE agencies, including its media office, for which it did some work around COP28.
“The Emirates is a country that has risen fast and is competing with the largest economies in the world and has quickly become a leading global trade and finance hub,” reads a pitch draft composed by FleishmanHillard included in federal filings ahead of Davos last year. “This year at Davos, the Emirates has a pavilion at the event, a number of speakers across the main program and side events and will be announcing agreements with WEF that address key issues and challenges the world faces today, including COP28, which will be held in the Emirates later this year.”