ExxonMobil wants you to feel responsible for climate change so it doesn’t have to shoulder the blame
Andrii ZoriiA new study reveals how the oil company used “cutting-edge propaganda” to focus on fossil fuel consumption.
To understand why ExxonMobil has been so effective at shaping the US narrative about climate change in the US for some 40 years, look no further than the words of one of the company’s communications strategists, Mobil Vice President of Public Affairs Herbert Schmertz: ”Your objective is to wrap yourself in the good phrases while sticking your opponents with the bad ones,” he wrote in 1986.
From the 1970s through the 1990s, most of the company’s PR efforts focused on casting doubt on the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels was warming the planet. But by the mid-2000s, it was taking a more sophisticated, nuanced approach.
“Energy-saving consumers can make a real difference,” it said in 2007, listing ways consumers can “Be smart about electricity use,” “Heat and cool your home efficiently,” and “Improve your gas mileage” to address climate change. Another ad in 2008 looks to the auto industry: “It is important we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, too. Improving the efficiency of the vehicles people drive is one way to do so.”
There are many examples in ExxonMobil’s advertising materials and other documents right up to 2019, all doing the same thing: Deflecting attention away from the oil company’s role in fueling climate change by supplying fossil fuels and turning attention toward consumer demand for, and dependency on, its products.
We now have a comprehensive view of this strategy, thanks to a new peer-reviewed study by Harvard research associate Geoffrey Supran and Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes in the journal One Earth. In a painstaking analysis, they show how hard the oil giant has worked to keep the conversation about climate solutions focused on the consumer, effectively individualizing responsibility for the problem.
“Never before has it been proven that fossil fuel propaganda is demonstrably one source of where this [consumer- and demand-focused] mindset has originated from,” Supran told Vox.
Blaming the individual user, rather than the producers, is a well-worn tactic of other industries with dangerous products, including tobacco and firearms. In the case of fossil fuel products, individualizing the responsibility for climate change obfuscates the responsibility of companies like Exxon — one of 20 companies responsible for one-third of energy-related global carbon emissions since 1965 — to extract fewer fossil fuels and shift to cleaner technologies. And according to Oreskes and Supran, not only has this messaging strategy allowed Exxon to “downplay its role in the climate crisis,” it also continues to be used “to undermine climate litigation, regulation, and activism.”
A first-of-its-kind analysis of Exxon’s public messaging
Supran and Oreskes use a trove of documents that they have combed through in past research, namely a 2017 paper that found ExxonMobil internally acknowledging its products’ role in climate change, while publicly casting doubt on the science.
Starting in the late 1970s, the company ran regular advertisements in the New York Times. The researchers looked at those ads as well as more recent reports aimed at investors through 2019 for a total of 212 documents that provide a solid chronology of how the oil company has communicated with the public on climate science.
The early ads took a skeptical stance on climate science, but in the 2000s they started to emphasize the uncertainty of risks, rather than the consensus of manmade warming. When ExxonMobile did acknowledge the need to reduce pollution, it disproportionately talked about how much it was doing to address the demand-side of the equation, rather than addressing the obvious other half: the increasing supply.
When Supran ran his algorithm to pick up the most frequently used terms and topics in the papers, he was surprised at what they found: The company’s messaging was largely consistent in the advertisements up to 2009 and in reports up to 2019, statistically overusing certain language, like “risk” and “demand,” to hammer home these themes.
In 1997, the company touted helping “customers scale back their emissions of carbon dioxide,” while the next year it encouraged the public to “show a little voluntary ‘can do.’” A decade later, in 2008, an ad suggested the ‘‘cars and trucks we drive aren’t just vehicles, they’re opportunities to solve the world’s energy and environmental challenges.’’
Throughout this time, ExxonMobil discussed growing fossil fuel demand as an inevitability, saying things like, “Oil and gas will be essential to meeting demand through 2030” and “fossil fuels must be relied upon to meet society’s immediate and near-term needs.”
The company only acknowledges its own culpability in obscure academic journals and internal memos. One 1982 internal memo writes what the company never admits publicly, that “the connection between Exxon’s major businesses and the role of
May 13, 2021 - VOX
Andrii ZoriiA new study reveals how the oil company used “cutting-edge propaganda” to focus on fossil fuel consumption. To understand why ExxonMobil has been so effective at shaping the US narrative about climate change in the US for some 40 years, look no further than the words of one of the company’s communications strategists, Mobil Vice President of Public Affairs Herbert Schmertz: ”Your objective is to wrap yourself in the good phrases while sticking your opponents with the bad ones,” he wrote..