Tracking Exxon’s blame game
Dr. Geoffrey Supran on the company’s evolving deception tactics — and the data that proves it. Plus, the Supreme Court ruling in Baltimore’s climate case, explained.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
ExxonMobil talks a big game about how it’s evolving to match the needs of our time. According to new findings from Harvard researchers Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran, there’s some (albeit sinister) truth to that.
In 2017, the duo published research documenting Exxon’s extensive efforts to spread climate denial through public communications. Their new research, published last week, uses recently developed data tools to analyze and quantify hundreds of internal and external company communications from 1972 to 2019 to show how Exxon is using deceptive language to manipulate the public’s understanding of the climate crisis. Though the polluter’s tactics have evolved — Exxon is no longer outright denying the problem, but is instead shifting the blame to consumers and presenting fossil fuels as the only solution — the goal is the same: preventing collective action.
I talked to Supran about this new research, and what it means for climate discourse and litigation. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
EK: Can you give some examples of the ways Exxon is talking about its own role in the climate crisis differently in public than it is in private?
GS: In private, they frequently recognize climate change as a problem caused by fossil fuel combustion — in other words, by the company’s products. When they speak in private they’re naming the problem, the source.
And that’s a stark contrast to in public, where they instead overwhelmingly present climate change as caused by energy demand of consumers, and to be solved by energy efficiency. They present fossil fuel technologies as essential and their alternatives as unreliable and unviable. These terms work together to facilitate this fossil fuel savior frame that allows the company to shift responsibility away from themselves and onto their consumers. Exxon claims ad nauseum that its critics cherry pick data — but here, we’re looking at the entire cherry tree.
The tobacco industry has previously been shown to have deployed these terms, and we’ve now shown ExxonMobil to be doing the same.
EK: Now that it’s no longer straight up denial, what are some of the consequences of the way Exxon is messaging the issue of climate change to the public?
GS: What we say in our paper is that the fossil fuel industry’s discourse of individualized responsibility narrows what one scholar has called our environmental imagination — basically grooming us to see ourselves as consumers first and citizens second. I think it’s really important for people to appreciate how pervasive these narratives have become, and how easily they sneak in under the radar of our consciousness and tap into what ExxonMobil themselves back in the 80s called America’s subconscious. I think people have a right to know that one source we’re now proving is fossil fuel industry propaganda. Everyone has a right to decide for themselves how they want to factor that knowledge into the way that they think about and approach climate change. I think for one thing, learning that fossil fuel interests have been trying to keep our focus on individual action and away from the power of collective action should tell you something about where the real power and possibilities lie for tackling the climate crisis.
EK: What implications do you think your research could have for consumer protection lawsuits like the one New York City just filed against Exxon and other Big Oil companies last month? Conversely, how might this litigation have spurred some of Exxon’s present messaging?
GS: Over the course of the 2000s, ExxonMobil gradually shifted from explicitly promoting the “debate” about climate science to instead calling it a “risk.” Put simply, a risk is something that may or may not happen. Which is, if you like, sin by omission. It also downplays the climate destabilizing role of fossil fuels. The problem is that they never call it real and human caused. They never corrected the record — they just changed the subject.
In the paper we mention specific legal defense arguments that are couched in concepts of risk. It’s an admission that’s strong enough to ward off accusations of having failed to warn, but at the same time it’s weak enough to exculpate them from charges of having marketed a deadly product. This is exactly the tactic the tobacco industry deployed. So it’s of some interest not just in terms of how it informs the arguments of the plaintiffs, but in terms of the kinds of defenses they might see.
It’s always important for us to emphasize that we’re not lawyers. But it seems clear to us that our insights are relevant to those cases because those cases allege deceptive marketing. As we made clear in the paper, we’re the first to recognize that demand is one valid part of the climate problem and its solutions. The issue here is we have ExxonMobil, a fossil fuel supply company, disproportionately fixating on the demand of its consumers. It’s misrepresenting the issue, and whether that rises to the level of deception and deceiving the public, that’s a question for the lawyers and courts to determine. But our contribution is that there’s a difference between suspecting these things are going on and proving it. And our work demonstrates that these trends are systematic and statistically significant.
All the skeletons that we’ve found to date we’ve discovered by peeping through the keyhole. And when climate litigation inevitably yields the thousands and millions of documents that tobacco company litigation did, it’ll be really useful if we have big data tools at our disposal to efficiently and systematically categorize and identify the source of patterns that may be hiding in plain sight.
Speaking of those lawsuits ….
You might’ve heard about this week’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of Exxon and other oil and gas majors on a procedural issue in Baltimore’s climate cost recovery lawsuit. There’s lots to be unpacked here, and you can read all about it in our blog. But the ultimate takeaway is that while this decision could potentially delay the path of some lawsuits back to state court, the ruling didn’t come close to touching the merits of Baltimore’s case or the question of whether any of these cases should be heard in state or federal court. Has Big Oil succeeded in once again delaying some (but not all) of the lawsuits? Yes. Does that spell doom for efforts to hold them accountable in court? Absolutely not. We will, as always, keep you updated on any further outcomes.
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