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Climate Change

Harvard Researchers Use AI To Document Exxon “Climate Shaming” Strategy

A new study by researchers at Harvard reveals how ExxonMobil uses language to shift blame for destroying the Earth onto the shoulders of its customers.

In 2017, Harvard researchers Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes published a study in IOP Science that found about 80% of ExxonMobil documents prepared solely for internal use acknowledged climate change was “real and human caused,” but only 12% of its public statements, including advertising, suggested that climate change was a cause for concern.

Since then, Supran and Oreskes have created an AI tool that has examined those source documents in depth and found the precise words and phrases ExxonMobil uses in its public statements to suggest that is it merely an innocent victim. The company’s carefully crafted pubic messaging suggests the real causes of carbon emissions are the people who demand its products and are unwilling to adjust their behavior to help save the Earth from catastrophe. Here is the introduction to the latest study by Supran and Oreskes:

“A dominant public narrative about climate change is that “we are all to blame.” Another is that society must inevitably rely on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. How did these become conventional wisdom? We show that one source of these arguments is fossil fuel industry propaganda. ExxonMobil advertisements worked to shift responsibility for global warming away from the fossil fuel industry and onto consumers.

“They also said that climate change was a “risk,” rather than a reality, that renewable energy is unreliable, and that the fossil fuel industry offered meaningful leadership on climate change. We show that much of this rhetoric is similar to that used by the tobacco industry. Our research suggests warning signs that the fossil fuel industry is using the subtle micro-politics of language to downplay its role in the climate crisis and to continue to undermine climate litigation, regulation, and activism.”

“Our analysis is the first computational study illustrating how the fossil fuel industry has encouraged and embodied AGW [anthropogenic global warming] narratives fixated on individual responsibility,” the authors write. According to DeSmog Blog, the study used automated methods to analyze 180 ExxonMobil documents, 32 previously published internal company documents, and 76 New York Times “advertorials” where the company took positions on climate change. The authors believe the methods they developed to efficiently review a large number of company records could prove useful later in litigation, where larger batches of documents may need to be analyzed.

As it has become less credible to contest the legitimacy of climate science, the company has shifted its rhetoric on climate to focus on “risk,” the study notes. That subtle shift lets ExxonMobil “inject uncertainty” into conversations about climate change “even while superficially appearing not to.” Here’s more:

“We have also observed that, starting in the mid-2000s, ExxonMobil’s statements of explicit doubt about climate science and its implications (for example, that ‘there does not appear to be a consensus among scientists about the effect of fossil fuel use on climate’) gave way to implicit acknowledgments couched in ambiguous statements about climate ‘risk’ (such as discussion of lower-carbon fuels for ‘addressing the risks posed by rising greenhouse gas emissions,’ without mention of [anthropogenic global warming],” the paper reports.

Fossil Fuel Savior Framing

Anyone who has watched the TV series Mad Men knows that how something is said is often more important that what is said. Supran tells DeSmog Blog, ExxonMobil lately has been framing itself as a “fossil fuel savior.” That strategy goes something like this: “Hey, don’t blame us for giving people what they want.”

Some readers may recognize this kind of coded language from automakers who insist they only build gigantic SUVs and pickup trucks because that’s what buyers demand. They conveniently leave out the millions of dollars they spend on ads depicting such vehicles perched atop high mountains or taking wholesome looking families camping on the shores of deserted lakes when in fact they are just commuter vehicles 90% of the time. They also fail to mention the “footprint rule” that allows them to foist these behemoths off on the public and the enormous profits they make on those vehicles.

“Within this frame, the company is an innocent supplier, simply giving consumers what they demand. That is, ExxonMobil are the good guys who we should trust to address the climate risks that we, the public, brought upon ourselves,” he says. “It’s also worth noting that these modern forms of propaganda are increasingly subtle and insidious, and so being exposed to them ad nauseam, as shareholders are, could make them more vulnerable to this ‘discursive grooming’.”

The study predicts companies like ExxonMobil will continue to rely on the strategies developed by the tobacco industry. “In their public relations messaging, industry asserts smokers’ rights as individuals who are at liberty to smoke. In the context of litigation, industry asserts that those who choose to smoke are solely to blame for their injuries.”

“ExxonMobil’s framing is reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s effort ‘to diminish its own responsibility (and culpability) by casting itself as a kind of neutral innocent, buffeted by the forces of consumer demand,’” it continues. “It is widely recognized that the tobacco industry used, and continues to use, narrative frames of personal responsibility — often marketed as ‘freedom of choice’ — to combat public criticism, influence policy debates, and defend against litigation and regulation.”

The Words Not Said

Richard Besel, a professor of communications at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, tells Grist, what Exxon doesn’t say in its documents might be just as important as what it does. “The way they’re selecting and framing things, it’s also simultaneously deflecting from things and taking our attention away from other sorts of ways of thinking about climate change,” says Besel, who was not involved in the Supran/Orestes study. He adds that framing the climate crisis as a personal responsibility can make people less likely to support climate-friendly political candidates or reduce their own emissions.

“What they’ve done is skew the conversation and make it much more about you and me than about them,” says Supran, “and that’s very problematic and misleading. The most pernicious effect of all this,” he adds, is that the fossil fuel industry may have left its fingerprints on how people think and talk about climate change. “We’re groomed to see ourselves as consumers first and citizens second.”

The strategy was first laid out with brutal honesty in 1986 by Herbert Schmertz, Mobil’s vice president of public affairs. ”Your objective is to wrap yourself in the good phrases while sticking your opponents with the bad ones,” he wrote at that time. In 2018, Chevron lawyer Theodore Boutrous Jr. told a court considering a suit brought by the state of California against 5 major oil companies including ExxonMobil, ‘‘I think the IPCC does not say it’s the production and extraction of oil that is driving these emissions. It’s the energy use. It’s economic activity that creates demand for energy. It’s the way people are living their lives.’’

The judge agreed. In his decision dismissing the lawsuit, he asked, ‘‘[W]ould it really be fair to now ignore our own responsibility in the use of fossil fuels and place the blame for global warming on those who supplied what we demanded?’’ That ruling was a huge victory for the companies’ “our customers made us do it” strategy.

Legal Liability

Image credit: CIEL

There are hundreds of lawsuits seeking to hold oil companies responsible for the environment and human toll of their actions. Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, tells Vox the Supran/Orestes 2021 study “proves quantitatively what has been qualitatively evident for years. … Oil and gas companies insulated themselves from public scrutiny and regulatory action even as the climate crisis accelerated. This evidence will matter not only in the court of public opinion, but in courts of justice around the world faced with questions of industry accountability, culpability, and potential liability for mounting climate impacts.”

The message Supran and Orestes hope people take from their work isn’t that your actions don’t matter. It is that governments need to take responsibility and hold the major polluters accountable. Those policies include a broader mix of solutions that limit the fuels Exxon can extract, stopping pipeline projects that transport oil and gas, limiting its opportunity to export fossil fuels around the world, and make companies pay for the damages caused to vulnerable communities.

“This is cutting edge propaganda coming from an industry with 100 years of experience in pioneering the art of public relations,” Supran says, “and people should be aware of what they’re subject to, because otherwise it gets into our bones without us even knowing where it came from.”

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.


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