The same Harvard historians who revealed a long campaign by ExxonMobil to suppress the connection between fossil fuels and climate change have released a new study that meticulously documents the colossal fossil’s latest self-preserving strategy: “a discourse of delay.”
In their latest groundbreaking research, Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes describe how “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’,” reports Inside Climate News.
Rather than denying the climate crisis outright, Exxon shifted to ambiguity, the two researchers say. The company began, in the early 2000s, to systematically plant doubt about the best way forward, invoking global poverty when asserting the need to continue to use fossil fuels, insisting that technology will solve the problem, and shifting the burden of responsibility to the consumer.
While it is hardly news that Exxon and other fossils “have framed climate change in these terms,” explains Inside Climate, what is news is the level of planning that Supran and Oreskes have revealed.
“Our approach with all of this work is to look at the whole cherry tree,” Supran told ICN. “And when you do, the trends you observe are profound and systematic.”
Justin Farrell, an associate professor of sociology at the Yale School of the Environment, hailed the new study as “an excellent contribution to a growing body of text-based research on the tactics and frames used by the fossil fuel industry to shirk corporate responsibility, gaslight the public, and undermine regulation.”
Drawing on the same documents they studied in 2017—all created between 1972 and 2014—Supran and Oreskes used algorithms to analyze language choices in both internal and external documents. Particularly striking, reports ICN, was Exxon’s increasing (and increasingly sophisticated) use of the word “risk.”
The more the public turned up the heat about health concerns, the more liberally Exxon began to deploy the word “risk,” recognizing that the word has great power: It provides “just enough acknowledgment of the science to evade accusations of denial, without outright admitting that the industry had marketed deadly products,” writes ICN. A similar tactic, the researchers note, was used by the tobacco industry in the 1990s.
Inside Climate notes that the study hit the airwaves not long after New York City brought a lawsuit against Exxon, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and the American Petroleum Institute, “accusing them of false advertising and deceptive trade practices in their messaging about climate change.” This is the second such lawsuit attempted by the city, and one of dozens now ongoing from various jurisdictions throughout the U.S. seeking to hold Big Oil to account for what Supran calls a “semantic infiltration” that has held back climate action.
Such shifting—even desperate—fossil tactics are also the subject of a new book just reviewed by Climate News Network. Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation, by oil industry expert James Marriott and former Guardian energy editor Terry Macalister, reveals how Big Oil has made and broken political and economic systems all around the world—and still does, even as the industry enters its decline.
“As the book demonstrates, there has always been a revolving door between governments and the oil industry that allows powerful individuals to shape policy and wield undue influence,” Climate New Network writes.