Climate Guilt, Brought to you by Big Oil

by | May 17, 2021

A new study from Harvard science historians Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran points to the use of language targeted specifically to downplay the reality of climate change and shift responsibility for the problem entirely onto consumers. Geoffrey Supran, the lead author on the study, joined the Drilled podcast to discuss.


Geoffrey Supran: So basically if you, if you run a code, do some code to say what words appear within plus or minus five words of the words “climate change” and “global warming,” there is literally no word or phrase that is more common than risk or risks. So it basically became the watchword throughout, throughout the two thousands. And likewise, in terms of the, the words, the individualized responsibility, all the same keywords pop up regarding meeting the energy demand of consumers, you know, meeting the needs, all these kinds of words. 

Amy Westervelt: Did you find that, you know, the word risk was used to, in a way, to introduce doubt? Like, it’s a risk, but it’s not a certainty. Was it that kind of framing or how, how was it being used?

Geoffrey: Yeah, right. So, so essentially they describe, they talk about climate risk risks, you know, long-term risk, potential risks, potential long-term risks, all permutations on the word risk. And our interpretation is that ExxonMobil used risk just as they have used other, uh, rhetorical cousins like uncertainty and more research and sound science, essentially the same intention of, of, of what is sometimes called strategic ambiguity.

Um, It’s exactly what the tobacco industry did, which is to shift the conversation from, um, semantics, from concepts of reality, to concepts of, of risk. and it’s a very clever trick because you inject uncertainty into the narrative, into the discourse about climate change, um, while superficially not appearing to do so.

So essentially, rather than correcting the record and acknowledging how they previously promoted doubt, they just changed the subject a little bit.

You know, a risk is something that may or may not happen. And by characterizing climate change as a risk, they. Implicitly implied that it was not a reality even after clearly climate sciences that demonstrated that it was, it was happening, that it is happening. 

And yeah, the thing that I think really gives us confidence in the use of this, this rhetorical tool is that it exactly mirrors, the tobacco industry strategy. They did exactly the same thing. both as a public relations tactics and also as a. As a legal defense one. 

Amy: That’s interesting. So, can you talk a little bit about that part, how you, mapped this to what the tobacco industry was doing as well?

Geoffrey: Sure. Yeah. Well, the, the way it first came up was, um, running these so-called Corpus comparison algorithms. So looking at, you know, what terms appear over  or underused in one set of documents compared to another, and this term risk and risks started jumping out very early to us. And just happened to know that Robert Proctor who’s, a tobacco historian had written quite extensively about the use of risk as what he calls, a legal having it both ways.

so essentially. You know, an admission strong enough to ward off accusations of failing to warn the public, [00:03:00] but at the same time, weak enough to, kind of exculpate them from challenges of, of having, having just marketed this deadly product. and it was that parallel that I noticed with the word risk that really started to encourage me to latch on to, you know, what other parallels, what might we be saying? And so it was in the process of, looking at other terms and other discourses that are constructed, that we started to realize they were also promoting this shift of responsibility away from the company and onto consumers, by publicly fixating on consumer energy demand.

Rather than the fossil fuels that the company supplies. And in that regard too, I then came across another study from just a few years ago that really in detail laid out exactly how the tobacco industry had done this too.  In the case of the tobacco industry, they played a two-pronged approach where in public, they used so-called demand as Liberty and in litigation and defense against lawsuits, they flipped it, flipped the script and basically talked about demand as blame. And what we’ve essentially found is ExxonMobil have done exactly the same thing, in a slightly different way. The nuances are slightly different, but, but the overall pattern is the same, which is that demand is used in public to very subtly put the responsibility on the shoulders of the public, right. And then when it comes to defending itself in court, the gloves will come off a little bit and they’ll really double down on that demand-as-blame rhetoric. So, this is interesting to us because not only are the existing patents evident, but also, these insights allow us to begin to foresee how their defense against litigation and activism is going to expand in the coming years. So we’re just starting to see the first early warning signs of that strategy, that, that blame game that they’re playing. 

Amy:  That was actually a big part of the decision in San Francisco, Judge Allsup’s ruling, he kind of talked about that—and that was very much the argument that was being made too—that, you know, Hey, we’re just fulfilling that demand, without us, the industrial revolution wouldn’t have happened, all of this kind of thing. 

Geoffrey: Right, right, right. Yeah. Yeah. No. So that’s actually, I mean, I, we, we pointed this out in the paper that the reason judge Alsup made that decision was very much, you know, in response to the argument being made by Chevron’s lawyer in defense of Exxon and other companies where he very explicitly said, it’s not production that is causing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s consumers, it’s the demand it’s “the way that people are living their lives.” And you know, of course we’re the first to acknowledge that demand is a legitimate part of the climate problem and its solution, but it’s not the only part.

And it’s not actually, the business focus of ExxonMobil, which is a supplier company. Right. So there’s this very intriguing. This is very intriguing and convenient.I came across a few years ago the fact that BP had first promoted the concept of carbon footprint in 2004 to 2006, and so that, you know, I think has really helped too. Kind of anecdotally demonstrates the role of the fossil fuel industry in promoting these individualized, responsibility narratives. But what we think we’re doing for the first time with this work is to actually systematically and empirically prove in this case, ExxonMobil’s a role in encouraging and embodying those, those discourses. It’s not to say, you know, of course the ExxonMobil has done this alone and it’s, it’s being part of a ma a massive individualization effort by, um, the fossil fuel industry seemingly writ large and also just industries in general.

And it’s so subtle, like, you know, Naomi and I analyze these advertorials previously from, you know, through the lens of, of, analyzing explicit dowels and climate denial.

And it basically escaped on notice that. There was this systematic use of usage of, of, of terms and topics to, to, yeah. To, to, to, um, shift responsibility away from the company. But for me, that’s what makes it all the more important, because we’re starting to be able to flag genuinely insidious and subtle propaganda that is shifting the way everyone thinks about this, whether they realize it or not. 

Amy: It  sort of weaponizes American identity in a way too. 

Geoffrey: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. We briefly touch on near the end of the paper, how, you know, it’s too massive of a separate thing to go into the details of how sociologically, that sort of “rugged individualism” has entrenched itself in American culture and ideology, but it really has.

And so, we briefly note that what it really seems like ExxonMobil did was to tap into that individualizing, of society and risks that has been happening over the last few decades and really bring it to bear on, climate change. So yeah, it’s one piece of the puzzle and we think it’s an important one because it’s the first definitive proof of these kinds of, subtle, Strategies, which by the way, I think you would enjoy, we include a quote in here from Hersh Mertz, where I don’t know if you saw it, but yeah.

Where he specifically, in his book says he calls the first guiding principle of, um, He says the first guiding principle of public affairs is to quote on quote, grabbed the good words and stick your opponents with the bad ones he talks. And he specifically talks about the power of, I think he calls it semantic infiltration, whereby he says, it’s the process whereby language does the dirty work of politics.

And that is exactly what we’re seeing here. 

Amy: That’s really interesting. Well, cause you know, I mean, I, I, do you see it all the time that the industry really tries to position itself as  the only demand-side-only industry in the world. 

Geoffrey: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s right. It’s the, it’s the only, it’s the only problem and the only industry where the only solutions are demand side, there is nothing to be done on the supplier side.

Yeah. Framed in the context of anything else. It would sound ridiculous, right? 

Amy: Yeah, it’s totally ridiculous. And you see just how much bullshit it is when you look at what they did. You know, in the eighties, when there was no longer a sort of restricted supply problem, but Americans had gotten really good at energy efficiency. I found all these old, Chevron shareholder magazines, where you were really freaking out about the fact [00:10:00] that, okay, we have more supply now, but demand is remaining flat because people have gotten so good at conserving energy, they were like, what are we going to do to get demand back up? And they, they artificially dropped prices. Whenever there’s a glut of some kind, they fiddle with the pricing to drive demand. Or, I mean, even if you look at what’s happening with. The natural gas, glut and the plastic stuff, you know, they’ve just found another market for it.

Geoffrey: And also just more at the, at the human scale that I think people can relate to, you know, um, I mean, I’ve been. I’ve I’ve given many talks where some guy at the back has stood up and said, I’m a hypocrite because my shoes contain, you know, rubber or something. And, those accusations of hypocrisy level, that climate academics and activists alike who criticized the fossil fuel industry.

That’s, that’s the grow the ground level manifestation of this, this brainwashing, frankly. Um, yeah. And, and so I think it kind of, it that’s, that’s the really profound thing about this, that it manifests itself at all scales and all segments of society, whether it be the way scholars and scientists think about the kinds of problems they’re asking to the kind of stories, journalists write, you know, and it’s only really like you and Emily and a few others who are kind of countering that now.

And,whether it be, you know, the average Joe, who, when you bring up climate change, the number one thing they think about is changing their light bulbs and stuff. 

Amy: Right. That came up even with the crab fishermen that wound up suing the oil companies, even the ones, actually, that was an interesting case.

Cause a lot of them didn’t, and still don’t believe that humans contribute to climate change. But their whole thing was that the companies had information that they were using to make their companies more resilient too.

Climate change, um, and that they were keeping that information and that it really doesn’t matter what causes climate change that they were, you were covering it up. But the ones who, who were more, you know, like actually yes, I think that climate change is real and that we need to do something about it and all of that kind of stuff, they were actually slower to join that suit because they were like, “but I’m a hypocrite because I drive a big boat that burns diesel.” 

Geoffrey: Wow. 

Amy: Yes, it was crazy to me. I was like, wow. The people who are actual climate deniers are joining this suit. And the people who actually believe that we need to act on climate are the ones dragging their feet because this hypocrisy thing is so strong.

Geoffrey: That’s the thing that if you’re really focused on your own sense of guilt and responsibility, you’ve become hamstrung from acting in order to hold the systemic failures to account that are locking us into this fossil fuel status quo society. 

Amy: That’s how powerful it is. So yes, it’s subtle, but you’re totally right that I think that’s what makes it so much more powerful. And especially because it plays into all of these sort of societal structures too, it’s that much more effective.

Geoffrey: Right? Right. Well, exactly. That was and is the really clever thing about, well now we found the strategies that both tobacco and fossil fuels are using, which is that they cannot be. Pointed to so clearly, so blatantly as, you know, lying or false hoods or anything like that because, they basically draw on common and often correct parlance, you know, of journalists and academics and the public is just, they’re kind of spinning these words in a, in a confusing way. But one other thing just to flag out of interest is that we actually also likewise find sets of, of distinctive terms that, um, together communicate various other discourses of delay as we call them. So, you know, we find these systematic usages of terms that together, for example, constitute greenwashing, that constitute what we call fossil fuels solutionism, or that promote concepts of energy, poverty, and, you know, things like that.

And, and these all, weave together, you know, to construct this fossil fuel savior frame that we, that we identify. But, but yeah, I thought I already felt like the risk and responsibility, parts of the ones that haven’t been. Kind of hammered, like people that hasn’t quite been kind of encapsulated properly yet.

So that’s why we kind of focus on that. 

Amy: I think that’s super interesting. Well, I have this  long running obsession with the idea that the sort of very entrenched personal responsibility narrative is sort of at the root of every problem in the U S. Basically we’re constantly asking individuals to solve systemic problems just with their own—usually consumer—choices. I mean, that’s the thing that kills me too, is that individual action doesn’t even get painted as political action or activism or whatever.

It’s a hundred percent stuff you buy.

Geoffrey: Right. Yeah. We that’s, that’s our concluding point in the paper, actually that we quote another scholar who kind of wrote about this in a more anecdotal way, way back, like in 2001. He calls it the narrowing of our environmental imagination, you know, to consumers first and citizens second.

And, and that’s our bottom line really? That what’s happened here. And you’re absolutely right. The other thing just to flag with the hypocrite thing is that, someone called Jen Schneider, she wrote a book called Under Pressure. And we found that useful in doing this work because that book t’s a group of rhetoricians, you know, academics looking at specifically coal industry rhetoric and we draw on some of their terminology for naming these discourses that we identify. One of the terms that we don’t actually use because we classify this under individualized responsibility, but I think is really great is they talk about the “hypocrites trap.” That’s their name for that rhetoric of, of hypocrisy. I’m just mentioning that because that, I think that’s quite a cool book.

And one of the only ones I’ve seen that also takes the time to identify and name these things. Because that’s important, you know, just developing this typology, just putting it out there. 

Amy: Yeah. Well just making it clear that it’s not…I think there’s this thing that happens where people think that it is some kind of natural evolution or like organically created, you know, identity or whatever. And it’s like, no, this was, this was really intentionally strategized and engineered. And I think once people know that, then they can evaluate it in that context and form opinions that way as opposed to just sort of buying the framing that they’re handed 

Geoffrey: Yeah, that’s kind of what we want, what we hope people will take from this study. 

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Amy Westervelt is the editor-in-chief of Drilled News, creator and host of the Drilled podcast, and founder of the Critical Frequency podcast network, named AdWeek's Podcast Network of the Year in 2019. An award-winning print and audio journalist, Amy has contributed to The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, as well as KQED, The California Report, Capital Public Radio, and many other outlets. She is the 2015 winner of the Rachel Carson award for "women greening journalism," and a 2016 winner of an Edward R. Murrow award for her series on the impacts of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. In 2019, the Drilled podcast won the Online News Association's "Excellence in Audio Storytelling" award.