“This is a potentially dangerous technique,” Geoffrey Supran, a Harvard research associate and one of the study’s authors, told CNN Business. “It narrows our environmental imagination. It makes us see ourselves as consumers first and citizens later — in a way that protects the status quo, fossil fuels society.”
The study used machine learning and algorithms to uncover trends in more than 200 public and internal Exxon documents between 1972 and 2019.
“These patterns mimic the tobacco industry’s documented strategy of shifting responsibility away from corporations — which knowingly sold a deadly product while denying its harms — and onto consumers,” the study concludes. “ExxonMobil has used language to subtly yet systematically frame public discourse.”
The authors say this is the first quantitative, academically peer-reviewed analysis of how Exxon uses language to shape public opinion.
Exxon told CNN Business in a statement that “ExxonMobil supports the Paris climate agreement, and is working to reduce company emissions and helping customers reduce their emissions while working on new lower-emission technologies and advocating for effective policies.”
The Harvard study, Exxon added, is “clearly part of a litigation strategy against ExxonMobil and other energy companies.” The company clalimed that Naomi Oreskes, one of the main authors of the study, is on retainer with a law firm that is leading lawsuits against Exxon and others in the industry. Exxon called this a “blatant conflict of interest.”
Oreskes said she was paid for three and a half hours of work to review the historical accuracy of material for a legal brief by the law firm at issue and is not on retainer. In the past, she has written briefs on climate cases on a pro bono basis.
Exxon has “gone from denialism to delayism,” said Supran, who is also director of climate accountability communication at the Climate Social Science Network, which researches political conflict over climate change. “The tactics have evolved over time, but the end goal remains the same: inaction and protecting business as usual. This is by nature more subtle and more insidious than the fossil fuel industry’s history of outright climate denial.”
“You don’t want to be sitting there with a lot of stranded assets. You’re gonna wind up on the wrong side of this battle,” Kerry said at an energy conference in March.
Carbon taxes and carbon capture
Under increasing societal pressure, the oil industry has taken steps aimed at showing that it is addressing the climate crisis.
“The is broad recognition that obviously the country has to do something on climate change,” API CEO Mike Sommers told CNN Business at the time.
The moves appeared designed to shape Washington’s climate agenda and help protect the industry from an even tougher response.
“We are uniquely placed to help society meet its net zero ambitions,” Exxon CEO Darren Woods said in an investor presentation last month.
‘Gaslighting the public’
The Harvard study described “propaganda tactics of the fossil fuels industry” aimed at downplaying the climate crisis.
For example, the authors said that after the 1999 merger of Exxon and Mobil, the companies began saying in public documents such as paid “advertorials” that “climate change was a ‘risk,’ rather than a reality.” Prior to the merger, “risk” of climate change was only mentioned once in Exxon’s public communications, the study said. From 2000 and beyond, it appeared 46 times, the study found, adding that no other term was more associated with climate change in the company’s public statements.
The study notes that “this scientific hedging strategy” was repeatedly used by the tobacco industry in the 1990s.
Moreover, the study found that Exxon has framed the debate around consumer energy “demand” to build a “fossil fuel savior” framework that “downplays the reality and seriousness of climate change, normalizes fossil fuel lock-in and individualizes responsibility.”
Supran told CNN Business this strategy is “effectively gaslighting the public into thinking there is no alternative, making the blame pill that Exxon is feeding the public easier to swallow.”
Don’t we still need fossil fuels?
Supran said it’s “certainly true” that modern society continues to rely mostly on fossil fuels, but added that Exxon’s decades-long “disinformation” campaign is a central reason why it still does.
“We are passively guilty, born into a fossil fuel society,” he said. “But companies like Exxon are actively guilty for working to keep society the way it is.”