To understand why ExxonMobil has been so effective in shaping the US climate change narrative for the past 40 years, the words of one of the company's communications strategists, Mobil Vice President of Public Affairs Herbert Schmertz, are perfect: “Your goal is it is about wrapping oneself in the good sentences and at the same time connecting the opponents with the bad ones, ”he wrote in 1986.
From the 1970s to 1990s, most of the company's public relations efforts were focused on challenging the scientific consensus that fossil fuel burning is warming the planet. However, a more nuanced and nuanced approach was taken in the mid-2000s.
"Energy-efficient consumers can make a real difference," said 2007, listing how consumers can "be smart about electricity," "heat and cool your home efficiently," and "improve your gas use" to address climate change . Another ad from 2008 deals with the auto industry: “It is important that we also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Improving the efficiency of the vehicles that people drive is one way to do this. "
There are many examples in ExxonMobil's promotional materials and other documents through 2019, all of which do the same thing: diverting attention from the oil company's role in promoting climate change by supplying fossil fuels, and paying attention to consumer demand for and dependence on them steer from these. its products.
Thanks to a new peer-reviewed study by Harvard scientist Geoffrey Supran and Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes in One Earth magazine, we now have a comprehensive overview of this strategy. In a careful analysis, they show how hard the oil giant has worked to focus the conversation about climate solutions on the consumer and to effectively individualize responsibility for the problem.
"Never before has it been proven that fossil fuel propaganda is a proven source of where this (consumer and demand-driven) mindset comes from," Supran told Vox.
Blaming the individual user, not the manufacturer, is a worn-out tactic of other industries with dangerous products, including tobacco and firearms. For fossil fuel products, individualization of responsibility for climate change obscures the responsibility of companies like Exxon – one of 20 companies responsible for a third of energy-related global carbon emissions since 1965 – to cut fossil fuels and move to cleaner technologies . And, according to Oreskes and Supran, that messaging strategy has not only enabled Exxon to "downplay its role in the climate crisis," but continues to be used "to undermine climate disputes, regulation and activism."
A unique analysis of Exxon's public news
Supran and Oreskes use a plethora of documents they went through in previous research, namely a 2017 paper in which ExxonMobil internally recognized its products' role in climate change while publicly raising doubts about science.
From the late 1970s, the company ran regular advertisements in the New York Times. Researchers examined these advertisements, as well as recent reports targeted at investors through 2019, for a total of 212 documents that provide a solid chronology of the oil company's communication with the public about climate science.
The early ads were skeptical about climate science, but by the 2000s they emphasized the uncertainty of the risks rather than the consensus of man-made warming. When ExxonMobile recognized the need to reduce pollution, it talked disproportionately about how much it was doing to address the demand side of the equation rather than addressing the obvious other half: increasing supply.
When Supran ran its algorithm to capture the most frequently used terms and topics in the newspapers, it was surprised what they found: the company's news was largely consistent in the ads through 2009 and reports through 2019, using statistically specific languages excessive, such as "risk" and "demand" to hammer these issues home.
In 1997, the company advised “helping customers reduce their carbon emissions,” and the next year encouraged the public to “show a little voluntary“ skill. ”A decade later, in 2008, an ad suggested "The cars and trucks that we drive are not just vehicles, they are also ways of solving the world's energy and environmental problems."
During that time, ExxonMobil discussed the growing demand for fossil fuels as inevitable, saying things like, "Oil and gas will be essential to meeting demand by 2030" and "Fossil fuels must be used to meet immediate and short-term needs to cover society. "
The company only acknowledges its own guilt in obscure trade journals and internal memos. An internal memo from 1982 states what the company never publicly admits: "The link between Exxon's core businesses and the role of fossil fuel burning in increasing atmospheric CO2."
The other trend that Harvard researchers are seeing is the company's transition to a "Fossil Fuel Savior" framework in the mid-2000s. In a 2007 company ad, “increasing prosperity in developing countries (will) be the main driver of higher energy demands (and consequently increasing CO2 emissions),” positioning the company as yet another passive spectator of global warming.
When asked to comment on the study, Exxon spokesman Casey Norton called it a conflict of interest. He alleged that Oreskes was responsible for Sher Edling, one of the law firms that sued Exxon, and that the research was partially funded by the Rockefeller Family Fund, which is also involved in litigation against oil companies.
"This investigation is clearly part of a litigation strategy against ExxonMobil and other energy companies," said Norton. "ExxonMobil supports the Paris Agreement and works to reduce corporate emissions and help customers reduce their emissions as they work on new, lower-carbon technologies and advocate for effective policies." (Supran and Oreskes responded that Sher Edling "was not featured in the article published today or in any other academic work we have done," claiming that ExxonMobile's statement was intentionally misleading.)
The problem with climate shame
Ashamed of individuals has pretty much always been a part of the climate discourse. Political leaders focus on recycling and consuming plastics rather than banning production. Now the "flight shame" has prevailed in order to prevent air travel and cope with the increasing footprint of transport emissions.
But shame has a dark side: it can be a distraction that lets the main culprits of climate change off the hook.
Supran and Oreskes don't have an accurate measure of the impact ExxonMobil's marketing has on public discourse – their methodology doesn't go that far – but there is ample anecdotal evidence that policymakers and the media overemphasize personal responsibility rather than being systemic political and political economic change.
"At the grassroots level, people are being accused of being hypocrites all the time," said Supran, because they fly, drive, or use plastics that are also made from fossil fuels. Georgia State University research shows how shame news can backfire: a 2020 paper showed that, in some cases, encouraging people to drive less or change diet can decrease people's willingness to increase greenhouse gas emissions to reduce.
ExxonMobil wasn't the first oil company to push these tales. "For example, the idea of a personal 'carbon footprint' was first popularized in 2004-2006 by the oil company BP as part of their US media campaign" Beyond Petroleum "over $ 100 million a year," write Supran and Oreskes. But ultimately, "these narratives get in our way, and they blind us to the systemic nature of the climate crisis and the importance of collective action in solving the problem," Supran said.
The real impact of the Exxon documents
It is useful to have statistical observations backing the observations of many scientists, activists, and journalists that by emphasizing demand, oil companies can play the role of innocent bystanders who satisfy a global hunger for their products.
However, the more momentous implications for this research may lie in court. Big oil companies like ExxonMobil are currently facing a onslaught of lawsuits around the world alleging that they have broken the law by promoting misinformation and thwarting climate action. The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School counted 884 climate cases in 2017, which had doubled to 1,550 in 38 countries by 2020 (Exxon isn't the only subject of all of these lawsuits).
Just recently, New York City filed a new lawsuit against ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and the American Petroleum Institute for violating the city's consumer protection laws. Another sign that the wave of litigation is not slowing down.
The Supran and Oreskes study may be relevant to these lawsuits for several reasons.
First, the researchers note that ExxonMobil may be building a clever defense against these lawsuits with its greenwashing. One of his defenses actually cited the same logic recurring in their advertisements that climate risks are common knowledge and the company has no control over how people live. Supran and Oreskes note the example:
In 2018, in defense of five oil companies (including ExxonMobil Corp.), Chevron attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr. argued against a California city climate damage lawsuit and put forward his interpretation of the latest IPCC report, "I think the IPCC says nothing It is the production and extraction of oil that drives these emissions. It's the energy consumption. It is economic activity that creates the demand for energy. ““ It's the way people live their lives. "The judge's dismissal of the case accepted this phrase:" (W) Would it really be fair to ignore our own responsibility now? in using fossil fuels and blaming global warming on those who delivered what we asked for? & # 39; & # 39;
Even if the plaintiffs prove their case, as tobacco companies often do, fossil fuel companies can invoke "positive defenses" such as "common knowledge" and "taking the risk". These each argue (1). "that the plaintiff was engaged in an activity (such as smoking) which involves obvious or well-known risks" and (2) "which the plaintiff knew and voluntarily undertook". As Brandt explains, "If there was a risk, though 'unproven,' it must still be the smoker's risk, since the smoker had been fully informed of the 'controversy'. The industry had secured the best of both worlds."
The second implication is how their research can become a useful tool for climate activists and policymakers looking to hold ExxonMobil accountable. According to Carroll Muffett, President of the Center for International Environmental Law, Supran and Oreskes are proving in their work “to prove quantitatively what has been qualitatively evident for years. … Oil and gas companies have isolated themselves from public controls and regulatory measures despite the accelerating climate crisis. "
And any evidence that oil companies have isolated themselves from climate policy while misleading the public is likely to become useful food in the courtroom. "This evidence will be of use not only in court of public opinion, but also in courts around the world facing issues of industry accountability, fault and potential liability for increasing climate impacts," said Muffett.
The message that Supran hopes people will take away from his job is not that your actions don't matter. However, governments need to take responsibility and hold major polluters accountable – and these guidelines encompass a broader mix of solutions that limit the fuels Exxon can produce, limit pipeline projects for transportation, the possibility for exports around the world and even make companies pay for the damage done to vulnerable communities.
"This is cutting-edge propaganda from an industry that has 100 years of pioneering the art of public relations," he said. "And people should be aware of who they are exposed to, otherwise it will get into our bones without us even knowing where it is coming from."
Update, May 13, 5:54 p.m .: The story has been updated to include a comment from ExxonMobil spokesman Casey Norton and Supran's response to it.