Fossil fuel companies’ messaging on climate change has revolved around some common refrains: Energy demand must grow to alleviate global poverty, so fossil fuels are critical to economic growth. Technological innovation is key to limiting emissions, and consumers can do their part by using energy efficiently.
New research shows that these arguments were carefully cultivated over the course of decades by ExxonMobil, which beginning in the early 2000s shifted away from outright obfuscation of climate science and turned instead to more nuanced language that nevertheless, the research argues, still served to muddy public debate.
In an article published Thursday in the journal One Earth, Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes, who are, respectively, a research fellow and professor of the history of science at Harvard University, wrote that Exxon’s change in rhetoric drew on tactics deployed by the tobacco industry to use “the subtle micro-politics of language to downplay its role in the climate crisis and to continue to undermine climate litigation, regulation, and activism.”
By using key words and terms, they found, Exxon’s public messaging tried to shift responsibility for climate change away from the company and onto consumers, minimize the seriousness of climate change and try to establish as inevitable fossil fuels’ dominance in the energy mix.
While it may come as no surprise that Exxon and other fossil fuel companies have framed climate change in these terms—the words are all over their advertisements and public presentations—Supran said the research provided the first quantitative assessment of how systematic the oil giant’s framing of the issues has been.
“Actually demonstrating a quantifiable discrepancy is powerful,” he said. “Because the company often accuses its critics of cherry-picking arguments, cherry-picking data. And our approach with all of this work is to look at the whole cherry tree. And when you do, the trends you observe are profound and systematic.” [Continue reading…]