For decades, ExxonMobil has deployed Big Tobacco-like propaganda to downplay the gravity of the climate crisis, shift blame onto consumers and protect its own interests, according to a Harvard University study published Thursday.
The peer-reviewed study found that Exxon (XOM) publicly equates demand for energy to an indefinite need for fossil fuels, casting the company as merely a passive supplier working to meet that demand.
“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.
There’s an irony in the funding of the study, which comes from Harvard University Faculty Development Funds and the Rockefeller Family Fund. The latter was created by the scions of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller. The company was the precursor of what is now Exxon. In 2016, the Rockefeller Family Fund pledged to divest from fossil fuels, including its stake in Exxon.
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 complaint by the law firm at issue. In the past, she has commented on briefs and complaints on climate cases on a pro bono basis.
The new research builds on a 2017 study by the same authors that alleged Exxon “misled the public” on climate change for nearly 40 years. At the time, Exxon dismissed those claims as “inaccurate and preposterous” and argued the research was “paid for, written and published by activists.”
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.”
The research comes as President Joe Biden begins to execute an ambitious climate agenda aimed at slashing carbon emissions and weaning America off its addiction to fossil fuels. John Kerry, the former US senator and secretary of state, who is now the president’s special envoy for climate, has warned the leaders of Big Oil to embrace clean energy or get left behind.
“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.
In March, the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s most powerful lobbying group, for the first time supported setting a price on carbon — at least under certain circumstances. The API also called for direct regulation of methane and expanded emissions transparency.
“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.
Exxon, the world’s most valuable public company as recently as 2013, has lost nearly $200 billion in market value from its peak. The company was the longest-ever component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average — its precursor, Standard Oil, was added to the index in 1928 — until being kicked out of the Dow last summer.
Facing pressure from angry shareholders, Exxon recently outlined investments in lower-carbon technologies such as carbon capture, hydrogen and advanced biofuels. The company argues that demand for lower-emission technologies could create multi-trillion dollar markets by 2040.
“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?
Of course, the recent shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline, one of America’s most important pieces of energy infrastructure, underscores just how much the modern economy still relies on fossil fuels.
The six-day shutdown, which ended Wednesday, was sparked by a ransomware attack that caused panic-buying of gasoline and drove widespread fuel outages in the Southeast. The entire federal government was mobilized to get the 5,500-mile pipeline back in service.
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.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the nature of Oreskes' legal work for a complaint. She commented on briefs and complaints on climate cases for a law firm that is leading lawsuits against Exxon and others in the industry.