ExxonMobil is one of the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas companies—and it wants you to take responsibility for climate change.
A new analysis from researchers at Harvard University released Thursday found that the company’s public-facing messaging on climate change since the mid-2000s consistently emphasizes “consumers,” “energy demand” and individual “needs” as the cause of climate change, as well as the avenue for potentially addressing it. Outwardly focusing on consumers’ personal responsibility is one part of the company’s nuanced messaging to deflect the blame for climate change without denying the science behind it, the researchers say.
At the same time, in internal documents, the company pays personal responsibility little credence, focusing instead on the roots of the issue: “fossil fuel use,” “fossil fuel combustion” and the “source” of emissions.
“Fossil fuel industry discourse has encouraged this dangerous acceleration in individualization of responsibility,” says Geoffrey Supran, a researcher at the department of the history of science at Harvard University. “It grooms us to see ourselves as consumers first and citizens second.”
For decades, Exxon devised strategies to question the science of climate change and in turn slow progress on policy initiatives that sought to reduce carbon emissions and threatened to reduce demand for their core products. A series of in-depth journalistic investigations have documented how in the 1980s and 1990s Exxon, which had not yet merged with Mobil, conducted groundbreaking research on climate change but continued in public to question the scientific basis of the phenomenon. In the mid-2000s, the researchers’ new analysis shows, the company shifted tactics, moving away “from explicit doubt to implicit acknowledgment.”
At the same time, Supran and his co-author Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes found that the company has used several rhetorical strategies to deflect blame from the industry in recent years. The results, published in the journal One Earth, come from an evaluation of more than 200 internal and external ExxonMobil documents that researchers used in a statistical analysis to determine which words and phrases were overrepresented externally and which were overrepresented internally.
In a statement, ExxonMobil said it “is working to reduce company emissions and helping customers reduce their emissions while working on new lower-emission technologies and advocating for effective policies.”
In addition to shifting the responsibility individuals, one of the firm’s recent key strategies has been to emphasize what researchers call “climate risk” framing. Instead of using the term “climate change” in public communications, the company often refers to “climate risk,” along with related phrases like “potential risks” and “long-term risk.” The risk phrasing suggests there is uncertainty about if and how climate change will play out, without explicitly questioning the science. Researchers found this framing prevalent externally but not internally.
“By shifting the conversation from the semantics of reality to the semantics of risk,” the researchers say in the study, the company injects “uncertainty into the climate narrative, even while superficially appearing not to.”
All of these language choices may seem small, but they can have significant implications for how the public understands the causes of climate change and the potential solutions. Scientists say that tackling emissions and limiting temperature rise will require systemic changes from government and big economic players—including oil companies and other major corporations. Yet the notion that the burden of tackling climate change rests with individuals has become a pervasive belief in the U.S., as some corporations have worked to deflect responsibility for climate change and other social ills. “The word that I would probably use—in addition to subtle—is insidious,” says Supran. “That’s how I would characterize this shifting form of propaganda.”
The new research comes as ExxonMobil and other oil giants are under increased scrutiny for both their emissions and their climate messaging. Activists have taken to the street in protest while cities and states have sued the industry’s largest players with a range of allegations. Just a few weeks ago, New York City sued ExxonMobil, BP and Shell, alleging that the companies “systematically and intentionally misled consumers” into thinking their product is cleaner than it is.
ExxonMobil is far from the only major energy company rethinking the way it talks about climate change. As the science of climate change has become impossible to deny—both in courtrooms and in the court of public opinion—oil giants have cautiously indicated that they accept the science. From there, practices have diverged. Many of the European oil majors, such as Shell and BP, have promised to be part of the solution by spending billions to shift their portfolios toward clean energy. And while analysts agree that the European firms are leagues ahead of their American counterparts in grappling with the realities of climate change, much rides on if and how they follow through on those commitments.
In the U.S., many oil giants, including ExxonMobil and Chevron, have told investors they plan to stay the course with oil and gas even as they nuance their messaging around it. Critics see these U.S. firms’ public embrace of climate science and flexible measures like the Paris Agreement as a strategic shift to avoid stringent regulation, rather than anything that will lead to a significant reduction in emissions. “We have the same story,” says Dylan Tanner, the executive director of InfluenceMap, a think tank that tracks how businesses are engaging on climate. “Just replace substantive climate denial with climate delay.”