How fossil fuel companies use propaganda and disinformation to derail efforts to tackle climate change

·3-min read
How fossil fuel companies use propaganda and disinformation to derail efforts to tackle climate change

Researchers at Harvard University have drawn back the veil on how oil companies manipulate language and use skilful PR to stall climate change efforts.

Geoffrey Supran, a research fellow in the history of science, and Naomi Oreskes, a professor in history of science, have published a series of studies about the language and media tactics fossil fuel companies use.

Mr Supran, speaking to the Harvard Gazette, said companies like ExxonMobil have gone to tremendous effort to promote doubt about climate change, such as a “systematic fixation” on consumer energy demand rather than on the fossil fuels that the company supplies and representing climate change as a “risk” rather than a reality.

He said: “These are subtle patterns that, we’ve now realised, have been systematically embedded into climate discourse by ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel interests.

“ExxonMobil misled the public about basic climate science and its implications. They did so by contributing quietly to climate science, and loudly promoting doubt about that science.

“Our latest work shows that while their tactics have evolved from outright, blatant climate denial to more subtle forms of lobbying and propaganda, their end goal remains the same. And that’s to stop action on climate change.”

Mr Supran cited a particularly effective example – the concept of a personal carbon footprint.

“A concept that’s completely ubiquitous in discussions about personal responsibility was first popularized by BP as part of a $100 million per year marketing campaign between 2004 and 2006,” he said.

“The most uncomfortable realisation is how subtle and systematic and increasingly sophisticated [oil companies’] propaganda has become.

“When you start to pull back the curtain you see just how sophisticated the oil industry’s propaganda machine has been, how easily their rhetoric has snuck into people’s consciousness and biased the way the public thinks about this.”

Mr Supran cited how Mobil’s vice president and pioneer of PR in the 1970s and 1980s talked about what he called “semantic infiltration” and “the process whereby language does the dirty work of politics.”

He also spoke about another ExxonMobil manager, who described the effort by former company chairman and chief executive Rex Tillerson in the mid-2000s as an effort to “carefully reset” the company’s profile on climate change so that it would be “more sustainable and less exposed.” Tillerson later served as former President Trump’s secretary of state.

“They did so by drawing straight from the tobacco industry’s playbook of threading a very fine rhetorical needle, using language about climate change just strong enough to be able to deny that they haven’t warned the public, but weak enough to exculpate them from charges of having marketed a deadly product,” Mr Supran added.

ExxonMobil denied misleading the public. A spokesperson said: “ExxonMobil continues to take action through research into technological innovation and by participating in constructive dialogue on policy options.

“We have pioneered research in advanced carbon capture and storage, cogeneration, methane emissions reduction and algae-based biofuels, all with a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“ExxonMobil supports a revenue-neutral tax on carbon and we urged the United States to remain in the Paris Climate Agreement. These actions demonstrate our commitment to reducing the risks of climate change.”

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