What On Earth

ExxonMobil blames climate change on the public by using 'misleading' language, researchers say

A new study suggests that ExxonMobil has used language to shift the blame for fossil fuel use from producers to consumers over the past four decades.

Company 'subtly but very systematically' shifted how people talk about climate change: Geoffrey Supran

Blanca Gonzales of Fort Worth, Texas, (left), and Susan Cooper of Richardson, Texas (right), protest Exxon's climate change policies at the ExxonMobil's 2019 annual shareholders meeting in Dallas on May 29, 2019. A new study using computational analysis found that the company used tactics similar to the tobacco industry when talking about the oil production and use. (Jennifer Hiller/File Photo/Reuters)
New analysis from Harvard measures how ExxonMobil used language to make individuals feel responsible for climate change, similar to the strategy used by tobacco companies in the past. 32:41

A new study suggests that ExxonMobil has used language to shift the blame for fossil fuel use from producers to consumers over the past four decades.

The authors of the study said the findings could be used in an effort to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for downplaying or deceptive practices concerning climate change, similar to what happened with the tobacco industry.

"ExxonMobil … has used language to subtly but very systematically shape the way the public talks about climate change, and as it turns out, often in misleading ways," Geoffrey Supran, one of the authors of the paper and a research fellow at Harvard University told What on Earth host Laura Lynch.

"We found, for example, that the company deploys PR techniques, mimicking the tobacco industry to shift responsibility for climate change away from itself and onto its consumers."

The study, published in the journal One Earth, used a computational analysis of 212 communications both internal and external from 1972 to 2019. The analysis was done by a program that identified and compared words used both publicly and internally and looked for accompanying words or phrases.

In that analysis, they found the giant fossil fuel company, which holds a 69.6 per cent share in Imperial Oil in Canada, would use words and phrases such as "risk" when speaking about climate change rather than "reality."

Protestors gather outside the ExxonMobil annual shareholders meeting in 2019. There have been several lawsuits against fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, and the authors of a recent study believe studies like theirs could be used to support ongoing or future lawsuits. (Jennifer Hiller/File Photo/Reuters)

For example before the Exxon and Mobil merger in 1999, Exxon used the word "risks" once in their advertorials which appeared in The New York Times when referring to climate change. After the merger, they used it 46 times, which was 10 times higher than the average rate of an article appearing in the newspaper.

"In other words, over the 2000s, the company gradually shifted from explicitly promoting debate about climate science to instead calling it a risk," Supran said. "The problem is they never called it a reality. And they've never corrected that record. Rather, what they seem to have done is change the subject."

Internally, communication seemed to be a little different. One example: "[T]here is the potential for our [climate] research to attract the attention of the popular news media because of the connection between Exxon's major business and the role of fossil fuel combustion in contributing to the increase of atmospheric CO2."

It's gaslighting to insist that consumers are responsible, and then present the company as a trustworthy innovator who we should rely on to make things better.- Geoffrey Supran

However, externally, words like "energy demand," "global demand," "living standards" and "consumers" were frequently used, which illustrates how the message and the onus was put on consumers.

For example, chairman and CEO Darren Woods is quoted as saying: "There are few challenges as important than meeting the world's growing demand for energy while reducing environmental impacts and the risks of climate change," in a 2019 public report.

"So there's a set of words — demand, need, use, consumption — that [suggest] the reason we have this problem is not because ExxonMobil produces a defective product but because we need these things, we use them, we demand them," said Naomi Oreskes, co-author of the study and a professor at Harvard.

"In a sense, when we hear these words … what ExxonMobil is saying is, it's our fault. I mean, our fault — consumers — right? They're denying responsibility for their own actions and saying, well it's the fault of the consumer."

In a statement provided to What on Earth, ExxonMobil took issue with Supran and Oreskes' work, and said it supports the Paris Climate Agreement. It also noted that it has started a new business around the concept of a low-carbon solution.

There have already been several lawsuits filed against fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil in the U.S. including from the state of Massachusetts.

Framing the message

Another finding was that ExxonMobil used "framing," a term in communications science that ascribes "how an issue is portrayed and understood."

One type of framing is "scientific uncertainty," which helps to downplay the real issue of the role fossil fuels play in CO2 emissions and climate change.

An example cited in the paper was from 2000, in the first advertorial of the merged company where they said that anthropogenic [human-caused] global warming "'may pose a legitimate long-term risk, and that more needs to be learned about it."

But another is the "fossil fuel saviour," where the company is presented as the good guy that the public should trust to address the risks that we have brought upon ourselves because we need energy. 

The authors of the study found that the climate messaging from ExxonMobil focused on consumers rather than fossil fuel-producing companies. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

"It's incredibly subtle, and frankly, a bit patronizing because it's gaslighting to insist that consumers are responsible, and then present the company as a trustworthy innovator who we should rely on to make things better," Supran said. 

The authors note that the message from ExxonMobil has changed from climate denialism to climate delayism.

"One of the things that we've learned in our work is that much of this works not by outright lies, but by misrepresentation by misleading claims, and misdirection of attention," Oreskes said. 

"And so this study, I think, really helps us to get out how that happens, and how it could be the case that a company might say something, which is not an outright lie, but because of the way they use language, or the choice of terms gives a very misleading impression of the state of scientific knowledge or the character of the problem."

The authors said studies like theirs may be used in the future to support lawsuits or even ban advertisements by fossil fuel companies. 

"Climate change is happening," said Oreskes. "And it's happening to a great extent because of the actions of companies like Exxon Mobil."


Written by Nicole Mortillaro. Produced by Laura Lynch and Molly Segal.

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