The woes of fossil fuel companies
It is tough being a major oil company these days… What happens when ordinary people are slowly starting to realise that burning fossil fuels is the main driver of climate change?
In the last few years, the industry has been hard at work with some serious rebranding and greenwashing strategies.
The world’s 5 largest publicly-owned oil and gas companies spend about US$200 million annually lobbying to control, delay or block binding climate policy.
As a Communications major, I am fascinated by how fossil fuel companies are brilliant at using different types of framing to push their agenda to downplay the seriousness of climate change and individualise responsibility by blaming consumers.
A paper published in 2021 in the journal One Earth by Harvard University researchers, Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran, analysed how Exxon Mobil Corp. has used language to systematically shift blame for climate change from fossil fuel companies onto consumers.
It is not really your fault
Before we get started on analysing the industry’s various greenwashing strategies. Let us try to put things in perspective.
Yes, we are all responsible for the warming of our planet, but let us do a simple comparison to painting a more accurate picture.
There is no denying that changing consumer behaviour is really important. We see that in the last couple of years, from banning plastic straws and reducing our individual carbon footprint. However, the focus on changing consumer behaviour misplaces responsibility for the GHG emissions driving the climate crisis on the individual consumer, conveniently ignoring the disproportionate climate impact of corporate interests.
In fact, only 100 investors and state-owned fossil fuel companies are responsible for around 70 percent of the world’s historical GHG emissions. This contradicts the narrative pushed by fossil fuel interests that individuals’ actions alone can combat climate change.
What is framing?
In Communications classes, we are taught that framing promotes an interpretation. It is selecting “some aspects of a perceived reality” and making them “more salient in a communication text to promote a particular interpretation.
The use of rhetoric to construct the “Fossil Fuel Saviour” (FFS) frame
The frame package analysis identifies three dominant frames in ExxonMobil’s advertorials. Each reasoning device is communicated by one or more of the 11 discourses of climate denial and delay listed within each chain of logic.
The majority of fossil fuel companies use framing as a strategy to push their agendas. The most common frames are:
1. Downplaying the seriousness of climate change
Even with numerous scientific evidence that climate change is as serious as it gets, companies like ExxonMobil Corp. do not acknowledge this and continue to promote “scientific uncertainty” in their ads. They navigate through this topic with words being used like ‘risks’. Acknowledging only that climate change “may pose a legitimate long-term risk, and that more needs to be learned about it.”
2. Shifting blame to consumers
The second frame ties the consumption of fossil fuels to meet the consumer demand for energy. This disproportionately employs terms that present consumer demand for energy, rather than the corporate supply of oil, coal, and gas as the cause of fossil fuel production, and greenhouse gas emissions.
An example of this ‘‘(energy) demand’’ rhetoric is a 2008 ExxonMobil Corp advertorial stating:
‘‘By 2030, global energy demand will be about 30% higher than it is today. oil and natural gas will be called upon to meet the world’s energy requirements.’’
Another example in 2007 states that:
“Increasing prosperity in the developing world [will be] the main driver of greater energy demand (and consequently rising CO2 emissions).”
Fossil fuel companies use this rhetoric to either present themselves as passively responding to “meet the demand” of consumers, developing countries, and the world; or they are left out of the equation entirely.
3. “Fossil Fuel Saviour” (FFS) Frame
Oreskes and Supran explained the FFS frame concisely: “First, remind people that they are dependent on your product for all sorts of good things, then convince them that the negative impacts of that dependence are their fault, not the company. And finally, swoop in to magnanimously save the day.”
A direct comparison between the fossil fuel industry and tobacco companies
Such framing strategies used by the fossil fuel industry are not new. We can draw a direct comparison with tobacco companies, which used similar tactics to shape public discourse about smoking cigarettes.
They used the concepts of risks and consumer demand to justify business as usual, where the company is an innocent supplier simply giving consumers what they demand.
In this frame, the companies are the good guys, and they have to be relied upon and trusted to give us the solutions.
A predictable pattern in the fossil fuel industry
As the fossil fuel industry gets smarter with its communications strategies, we must too.
A throwback to climate denialism in the 1980s
Take a trip down the late 1980s, when the public was first learning about climate change. Fossil fuel companies came together to form the Global Climate Coalition, which aggressively lobbied US politicians and media.
In 1991, the trade body that represents electrical companies in the US, the Edison Electric Institute, created a campaign called the Information Council for the Environment (ICE) which aimed to “Reposition global warming as theory (not fact)”.
“They ran advertising campaigns designed to undermine public support, cherry-picking the data to say, ‘Well if the world is warming up, why is Kentucky getting colder?’ They asked rhetorical questions designed to create confusion, to create doubt,” argued Oreskes.
Although the tactics and rhetoric the fossil fuel industry uses gradually evolve over time with public and political pressures building up, the overall goal of these efforts is still the same. Inaction.
This article is inspired by a video by Vice News titled: “The fossil fuel industry wants you to think it’s solving climate change” and a report, “Rhetoric and frame analysis of ExxonMobil’s climate change communications” by Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes.
The author, Sheri Zuleika, is a systems thinker and publishes interesting articles about Web3.0, sustainability and their connections on her blog called The Chubby Honu. Follow Sheri on her Instagram profile too.
Cover photo by Harrison Haines.