Big Oil Deploys Social Media To Shape Agenda on Climate Change and Environmentalists Have Failed to Respond Effectively

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

I’ve long taken a jaundiced view of the influence business has on politics and public policy – a perspective I first developed by studies with Tom Ferguson at MIT in the early ‘80s.

The most obvious way business shapes our politics directly is via campaign contributions (or even more directly, outright bribes).

Business also wields various carrots and sticks,  proffering – or withholding,  promises to site a particular plant or facility somewhere. Politicians engage in unseemly beauty contests to win: Pick me! No,me! These contests purport to bring jobs and other benefits, but often extract tax and other concessions that leave the ‘winning’ bid anything but.

And business also acts indirectly, using public relations tactics to shape public opinion (or foster elite consensus). Increasingly, that means deploying social media.

With this as a bit of background, readers will understand why I found an article, Big oil’s ‘wokewashing’ is the new climate science denialism, in yesterday’s Guardian so interesting.

The thesis: Big Oil has moved on from outright climate denialism to mounting more subtle social media campaigns to get what it wants:

ExxonMobil has been touting its commitment to “reducing carbon emissions with innovative energy solutions”. Chevron would like to remind you it is keeping the lights on during this dark time. BP is going #NetZero, but is also very proud of the “digital innovations” on its new, enormous oil drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile Shell insists it really supports women in traditionally male-dominated jobs.

A casual social media user might get the impression the fossil fuel industry views itself as a social justice warrior, fighting on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, and women – at least based on its marketing material in recent years.

These campaigns fall into what a handful of sociologists and economists call “discourses of delay”. While oil and gas companies have a long track record of denying climate change, even after their own scientists repeatedly warned of the harm caused by burning fossil fuels, now the industry’s messaging is far more subtle and in many ways more effective than outright climate science denial.

Alas, the success Big Oil’s success with these campaigns has effectively delayed meaningful action on climate change, as well as left industry critics a step behind if not exactly wrong-footed as they seek to define offsetting strategies and tactics:

By downplaying the urgency of the climate crisis, the industry has new tools to delay efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions. And worse yet: even industry critics haven’t fully caught up to this new approach.

“If you just focus on climate denial, then all of this other stuff is missed,” explains Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist and visiting professor at Brown University.

Brulle, who published a peer-reviewed study in 2019 that analyzed major oil corporations’ advertising spending over a 30-year period, says the “lion’s share” of ad dollars were directed not toward denial, or even toward the industry’s products, but toward pro-fossil fuel propaganda – campaigns that remind people over and over again about all the great things oil companies do, how dependent we are on fossil fuels, and how integral the industry is to society.

“They’re spending probably five or 10 times more on all this corporate promotion advertising,” he says. “And yet the climate movement seems to only focus on the science denial part.”

To be sure, it would have been difficult if not impossible to maintain a denialist stance with a straight face when virtually every day brings another account of a climate catastrophe unfolding somewhere around the globe : extreme storms, wildfires, too much (or too little) rain. The Guardian recognizes that big Oil’s PR strategy has shifted. But the goal remains the same: to delay taking any meaningful action on climate change for as long as possible. Alas, industry critics have failed to adjust what they’re doing in response.

Oil companies stopped pushing overt climate denial more than a decade ago. And while conspiracy theories claiming climate change is a hoax may surface occasionally, they are no longer an effective strategy.

Instead, the fossil fuel industry, utilities and the various trade groups, politicians and think tanks that carry water for both, have pivoted to messages that acknowledge the problem, but downplay its severity and the urgency for solutions. Instead companies are overstating the industry’s progress toward addressing climate change.

In a paper published in the journal Global Sustainability last July, economist William Lamb and nearly a dozen co-authors catalogued the most common messaging from those who would prefer to see inaction on climate for as long as possible. According to Lamb’s team, the industry’s “discourses of delay” fall into four buckets: redirect responsibility (consumers are also to blame for fossil fuel emissions), push non-transformative solutions (disruptive change is not necessary), emphasize the downside of action (change will be disruptive), and surrender (it’s not possible to mitigate climate change).

“This was a paper that was born on Twitter, funnily enough,” Lamb says. Lamb and collaborators Giulio Mattoli and Julia Steinberger began compiling the fossil fuel messaging they saw repeatedly on social media. Then they asked other academics from various fields to add what they were seeing too, and patterns soon emerged.

Lamb says they explicitly left denial out of the equation. “What we tried to do was really examine delay as something distinct,” he says. “From our view, delay had not received the kind of attention it deserves.”

Social Justice Warriors: Energy Firms Engage in ‘Wokewashing’

Now that the industry has moved along from outright denialism, what arguments does it emphasize instead?

Of all the messaging geared toward delaying action on climate, or assurances that the fossil fuel industry has a grip on possible solutions, Lamb and other authors agreed that one theme was far more prevalent than the rest: “the social justice argument.”

This strategy generally takes one of two forms: either warnings that a transition away from fossil fuels will adversely impact poor and marginalized communities, or claims that oil and gas companies are aligned with those communities. Researchers call this practice “wokewashing”.

Drilling down for some specifics, the Guardian discusses how various Big Oil firms have highlighted how enacting green environmental policies would hurt minority or impoverished communities. And it doesn’t matter that some claims are just not true: many a recent visitor  to India, for example, could tell of how wind turbines have sprung up along the coasts of Gujarat, or throughout Tamil Nadu.

An email Chevron’s PR firm CRC Advisors sent to journalists last year is a perfect example. It urged journalists to look at how green groups were “claiming solidarity” with Black Lives Matter while “backing policies which would hurt minority communities”. Chevron later denied that it had anything to do with this email, although it regularly hires CRC and the bottom of the email in question read: “If you would rather not receive future communications from Chevron, let us know by clicking here.”

Another common industry talking point argues a transition away from fossil fuels will be unavoidably bad for impoverished communities. The argument is based on the assumption that these communities value fossil fuel energy more than concerns about all of its attendant problems (air and water pollution, in addition to climate change), and that there is no way to provide poor communities or countries with affordable renewable energy.

Chevron also claimed solidarity with Black Lives Matter last year, although it is also responsible for polluting the Black-majority city it’s headquartered in: Richmond, California, where Chevron also pays for a larger-than-average police force. Meanwhile the American Petroleum Institute, Big Oil’s largest trade group and lobbyist, funds diversity in stem programs, but it also declines to acknowledge the disproportionate impacts on communities of color.

Discourses of delay don’t just show up in advertising and marketing campaigns, but in policy conversations too.

“We’ve gone through thousands of pieces of testimony on climate and clean energy bills at the state level, and all of the industry arguments against this sort of legislation included these messages,” says J Timmons Roberts, professor of environment and sociology at Brown University, and a co-author on the “discourses of delay” paper.

Needed: Field Guide to Defeat Discourses of Climate Change Delay

Permit me to quote some further details about discourses of delay:

In a recently published study focused on delay tactics in Massachusetts, for example, Roberts and his co-authors catalogued how fossil fuel interest groups and utility companies in particular used discourses of delay to try to defeat clean energy legislation. Another recent study found similar campaigns against clean energy and climate bills in Connecticut. “The social justice argument is the one we’re seeing used the most,” he says.

Lamb sees the same thing happening in Europe. “Often you do see those arguments come from right of center politicians, which suggests hypocrisy in a way because they’re not so interested in the social dimension on parallel issues of social justice like education policy or financial policy.”

While the social justice argument stands out as a favorite at the moment, Lamb says the others are in regular rotation too, from focusing on what individual consumers should be doing to reduce their own carbon footprints to promoting the ideas that technology will save us and that fossil fuels are a necessary part of the solution.

“These things are effective, they work,” Roberts says. “So what we need is inoculation – people need a sort of field guide to these arguments so they’re not just duped.”

Consider yourself inoculated.







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    About fossil fuel pr campaigns: money talks loudest and walks with impunity. The corporate executives responsible for these campaigns are commiting genocidal ecocide and can’t be allowed to practice with impunity. They require not only accountability bur prosecution for the deliberate murder of every casualty of their decisions on climate change. This is far worse than what the tobacco companies did and just as fascist as any Nazi who underwent extermination csmpaigns.

  2. Rod

    Ironically, the new National Geographic Magazine is ‘user friendly’ to this type of propaganda and has been for many years now.
    NG, and it’s distribution, is quite an Institution to have as a partner, and it always seem to canote the hard work of bringing cleaner ways to fruition.
    This is a very timely reminder of the undermining deviousness the monied sponsers rely on to sand off the jaggedness of their poisoning products.

  3. Steven

    Not so long ago ‘leaders’ and ‘influence peddlers’ were tried, convicted, and hanged for crimes against humanity for their roles in killing mere 10s of millions of people . Time for a new Nuremberg Tribunal for Climate Crimes?

  4. jefemt

    It’d be pretty interesting to see the demand side exercise its muscle… hell freezes over?

    By my calculation we are at the dawn of the seventh generation of energy dense transportable oil dependence.

    Here’s the ironic bumper sticker of the day:

    Less Oil = More Freedom

    runner up:

    Save our Winters

    (this often seen on Rocky Mountain-based lifted 3/4 ton 4WD-toppered internal combustion pickups sporting fuel-efficiency-diminishing never-removed-when-not-in-use roof racks, tant-rigs, and rocket boxes)

  5. Henry Moon Pie

    The biggest, most consequential lie is one that is not only promulgated by Big Oil. Nearly all mainstream analysts and commentators, even some on the Left, act as if economic growth, as measured by GDP, is something for which wealthy Global North can still strive.

    To better understand how economic growth is the biggest leverage point in addressing global warming, check out the EN-ROADS global climate simulator. According to this model, even going to “low” economic growth, not zero-growth or degrowth, has a bigger impact on temperature increase by 2100 than any other single factor. Bigger than population growth. Bigger than reversing deforestation.

    On top of that, economic growth in the Global North doesn’t just have the biggest impact on temperature increase. It also has huge impacts on the other elements in our ecological catastrophe: soil;, fresh water; ocean health; extinction.

    We’re all engaging in climate denialism as long as we go along with the idea the GDP growth in the Global North can be maintained without destroying Earth’s livability.

      1. Anon

        Pandemics… corporate consolidation (fascistic communism?)… maybe there is method to the madness? I mean, once you identify the problem as Western excess, then Western austerity makes a bit of sense. It is happening gradually… so the better to learn and adjust. Try not to struggle.

        1. 1 Kings

          Once our billion and soon trillionaires give up their ‘excess’ I’ll be right behind them…… or in front giving the order to ready, aim…

      2. Henry Moon Pie

        A new economic paradigm called Doughnut Economics provides a good starting point. It approaches the production and consumption by establishing two limits represented by concentric circles: a lower limit for human necessities that are to be supplied to everyone; an upper limit set to prevent damage to the Earth.

      3. JE

        Keith, unfortunately IMHO we can’t without completely changing the status quo. We need to value happiness and sustainability and longevity over growth and wealth. Fundamentally as a society, not as marketing and live and “invest” accordingly. The trick will be to do so and maintain the high tech, high complexity industries such as chip fabs that we have today. It’s not going to be easy or even likely possible. Collapse, slow or rapid or a combo of both in spurts seems likely.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      I don’t think very many of us regular mopes are particularly wedded to the notion of perpetual GDP growth, or even “standard of living” growth. It’s our elites who can’t envision a different “objective” for the “progress” their leadership is destined to reward us with – a very clear example of “two parties, one system.”

      I also think that most people, if asked to think about it, would express some degree of belief or understanding that the numbers are fudged to make them look better than the world they are meant to describe, and so would be open to a different set of numbers that could be more accurate (in some socially important sense) and, most importantly, provide better guidance for decision-making. (This was the objective of the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi effort that went nowhere.)

  6. Kenneth L Gallaher

    They also push alternatives that are either impossible or not really any solution.
    Nukes, Hydrogen, CO2 removal, natural gas, conversion of CO2 to methane. All delaying tactics not solutions.

    1. Telee

      CO2 capture is a big part of the Biden plan to counter global warming. This is a solution that allows for the unperturbed growth in production and thus has no impact on the fossil fuel producers. It matters little that the this is not a proven technology. The same strategy was used for health care reform in that the ACA guaranteed the increase of the bottom line for health insurers and pharmaceutical companies. The Line 3 pipeline which Biden supports in spite of protests will be used to transport crude from the Canadian tar sands to Koch industry refineries ( they have the technology to deal with tar sand crude) which will then be sold on the world market. Obama’s administration had oil friendly policies which significantly expanded oil and gas drilling.
      The government’s first priority is to serve the interests of big business often to the detriment of of people’s well being. No reform is allowed if it as a negative impact on the growth of private profits.

  7. Bazarov

    I remember when the airwaves were filled with fossil fuel propaganda–an especially egregious example was the “Plastics Make it Possible!” campaign, which must’ve had millions and millions of dollars behind it because it was ubiquitous. You’d see the ads not only in primetime but also during kids shows, when the airtime was so cheap they’d repeat the same ad again and again in a half hour slot.

    Of course, with broadcast TV on the decline, the fossil fuel sociopaths have moved on to social media, where they’re no doubt doing more damage than ever before.

    One day, there will be a reckoning–all the evidence of fossil fuel company guilt is out in the open. They’re braiding the rope with which they’ll be hanged, but first, they’ll kill a billion people or so and go in down in history as the worst criminals ever, making even the Nazis look like minor villains compared.

  8. Susan the other

    Big Energy woke washing and the death of neoliberalism-denial are sort of the same thing. The social justice argument is a distraction, a subtle form of threat and extortion. “Poor communities and countries will be hurt.” Again? It’s true that neoliberalism, with big oil at the helm, spread the ideals of “liberalism” far and wide by exploiting people and the environment. They have always practiced holier-than-thou exploitation denial. They pushed to free up capital and capital controls, to expand the system beyond the limits of reality into a perpetual state of desperation. World wide. We live in a world where everybody is required to nickel and dime everybody else; hand to mouth. This is most certainly not “economic justice” and it’s definitely not “social justice.”

  9. Keith McClary

    Discourses of Climate Delay by Céline Keller
    “This is a comic adaptation of the ‘Discourses of Climate Delay’ study by the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC). I used the quotes from their supplementary materials and added some extra examples with context information gathered mostly from the fantastic Climate Disinformation Database at Desmog. “

  10. Alice X

    The most obvious way business shapes our politics directly is via campaign contributions (or even more directly, outright bribes).

    Is there really a difference?

  11. ddt

    The argument I’ve seen suddenly become more prevalent is that pipelines are more environmentally friendly than trucking fuel around. Nothing about just leaving it in the ground.

  12. drumlin woodchuckles

    Perhaps local and regionalocal groups of people will have to create and pursue their own local and regionalocal counter-agendas to undermine, attrit and degrade the position of Big Fossil from many different little local places.

    Perhaps revisiting the sites of Big Fossil victories and resuming a new battle in those places to overturn those Big Fossil victories might be a good thing for some grouploads of people to try. I remember reading a few couple years ago about how the City Government of Nashville, Tennessee had a plan for a whole-city system of mass transit and had it put up for a city wide referrendum which “everybody” thought the pro-mass-transit-plan people would win. But the Armies of Koch poured money and volunteers into Nashville to defeat the plan. Has anyone in Nashvilled ever thought of reviving the plan, engineering another referrendum, and waging an all out brain war against the Armies of Koch including detailed descriptions of how the Koch Armies won the last referrendum and how winning a “next” referrendum for that mass-transit project would be effective revenge against the Koch Industrial Complex?

    Perhaps enough regional and local victories like that can slowly build enough power that eventually these regionalocal power centers ( if they become such) can wage a co-ordinated national scale war of extermination against the Petroleum Industrial Complex within the borders of the United States.

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