In recent decades, oil companies have moved far away from climate denial. Now you can see the energy giants openly recognize that climate change is happening, but their new message tends to leave a bad taste in my mouth. A new one, one of a kind study by Harvard researchers Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes explains why: The new language makes it look like climate change is our fault, not theirs.
“It’s a really pernicious kind of gas lighting,” Supran said.
The authors, who published their work One Earth on Thursday, used machine learning to analyze 212 public and internal Exxon documents from 1972 and 2019, including all of the company’s publicly available internal memos, all of the infomercials that the The company has paid for in The New York Times, and all of the company’s flagship reports on climate change. For careful research, they used three different forms of computational linguistics to locate the differences in the way Exxon talks about climate change in the public versus private. The differences were glaring.
For example, in internal discussions about climate change, Exxon frequently uses terms such as “fossil fuel”, “fossil fuels” and “burning fossil fuels”. Likewise, when talking about the effects of using one’s own products, Exxon’s internal discussions are full of terms such as “fossil fuel emissions” and “CO2 from fossil fuels”.
But you’ll hardly ever see him use those terms in public. Instead, he says that ‘demand’, ‘energy demand’ and ‘consumers’ carry climate ‘risk’, suggesting that individual choices are the problem and that the fuels we use are. a potential threat to security rather than the basis of a crisis that is already well underway. And instead of saying these actions cause “fossil fuel emissions,” he chooses to use the term “greenhouse gas emissions,” conveniently omitting information about the products that create that pollution. The company is also publicly focusing on the need to increase “energy efficiency” as a solution rather than, you know, ending the fossil fuel production it has to happen.
“In private, they name the heart of the matter, their products, but in public their public communications were biased in favor of individualistic framing,” Supran said.
The same goes for Exxon’s discussions on solving the climate crisis. Not only does he not publicly mention his own role in causing the climate crisis, he often comes across as part of the solution. His outward-looking rhetoric is full of references to the “promise” of its technological “solutions”, drawing attention to how it “develops” and “innovates” new technologies. The authors call this a narrative of “fossil fuel saviorism” combined with “technological optimism,” which eschews any discussion of phasing out fossil fuel extraction.
“There is such an asymmetry in the way the problem and its solutions are represented,” Supran said. “The function of this is to promote the company as a trusted innovator whose fossil fuel based solutions we should trust to get us out of this problem that we the consumers have ostensibly caused.
Although the study looks only at Exxon, these models reflect the rhetorical choices of the fossil fuel industry as a whole. It was BP oil company who popularized the use of the term “carbon footprint” to emphasize corporate responsibility to consumers. In one interview this week The CEO of Shell has explained how his company’s technological prowess is “absolutely necessary” to tackle the climate crisis. Last year, Shell was also destroyed on Twitter when he asked consumers what we would be “willing to change to help reduce emissions”.
The fingerprints of these PR strategies can even be found in international climate policy. As the study notes, the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement – which fossil fuel lobbyists involved in negotiation– does not mention the term “fossil fuels” at all.
If all of this is driving you crazy, you’re definitely not alone – and there are ways to fight back. Supran noted the growing popularity of Greentrolling and climate-focused comedy videos as signs people are ready to call the fossil fuel industry on its bullshit.
On a bigger level, right now, energy giants, including Exxon, are focused towards hundreds of global lawsuits who claim to have curbed climate action by pushing misinformation onto the public. Activists and lawyers about the world are also fighting to ban advertising on fossil fuels, or at least have it come with warnings about the dangers of their products. And the Clean Creatives Campaign is also trying to induce public affairs companies to sever their ties with the oil industry. (Even law students are put pressure on big companies to stop doing Big Oil’s dirty work.)
All of these actions can serve as an important counterweight to the fossil fuel industry’s insidious attempt to “prepare us to see ourselves as consumers first and citizens second,” Supran said. He hopes the study can provide a useful resource for those trying to dismantle the sector.
“It’s very difficult to point to a single headline where the company can say something like ‘technology is promising’ and say it’s problematic,” he said. “But when you step back, you see how it builds all of these global narratives.”
In response to the study, Exxon has dropped the “bomb” that Supran co-author, esteemed Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes, has a relationship with a law firm that has filed climate lawsuits, which I guess he wants us to find overwhelming or something from the kind. But it’s not. “Sher Edling played no role in the article we published today, nor in any other academic work that we have done, ”the authors written in an email.
Exxon too put one declaration claiming that it “strives to reduce company emissions and helps customers reduce their emissions while working on new low-emission technologies and advocating for effective policies.” But then, of course, he did.
“ExxonMobil is now misleading the public about its history of misleading the public ”, the authors said.
Update 05/14/2020, 1:24 p.m. ET: This story has been updated to include information about Exxon’s response to the study.