A new Harvard study highlights a decades-long trend — how industry creates systemic problems and then blames consumers for it
For decades, various industries have weaponized American individualism, laying the blame for systemic issues at the feet of individual citizens. Tobacco companies wouldn’t exist without smokers, the story goes. Litter wouldn’t exist without us litterbugs. Cars wouldn’t crash if we weren’t such speed freaks. And, of course, climate change wouldn’t exist if we weren’t all such gluttons for fossil fuel energy.
The framing of climate change, in particular, as something that wouldn’t be an issue if “we” had all just made better consumer choices has been persistent and effective. Every Earth Day, we’re bombarded with tips about how to minimize our personal carbon footprints; meanwhile, it’s 2021 and the GOP is still suggesting tree-planting as climate policy.
A new paper from Harvard science historians Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran shows that this sort of framing is no accident, it was by design. Oreskes was the co-author of the landmark 2010 book The Merchants of Doubt, which exposed that some of the same scientists who had spun and downplayed the health risks of smoking for tobacco companies had pushed climate denial for oil companies. The new paper, published this week in One Earth, focuses on the subtle rhetorical techniques of ExxonMobil, which is currently a defendant in more than two dozen lawsuits over its role in concealing and confusing the issue of climate change since the 1980s.
ExxonMobil says this study is “part of a litigation strategy” against it and claims that Oreskes is on retainer for one of the law firms bringing these cases. Oreskes does occasionally review briefs for that firm (Sher Edling), but says they had zero involvement with this study. She says this sort of response is in keeping with Exxon’s strategy. “ExxonMobil is now misleading the public about its history of misleading the public,” she wrote in a statement.
Oreskes and Supran looked at a total of 212 documents spanning the years 1972 to 2019 — a mix of internal documents, scientific reports, and advertorials — which the authors said, to their knowledge, constitute “all publicly available internal and peer-reviewed ExxonMobil documents related to anthropogenic global warming.” They ran those papers through an algorithm, looking for words that showed up within five words before or after the phrases “global warming” or “climate change.” The word that turned up most across all documents was “risk,” while the word “demand” turned up more in public communications than internal documents.
Supran, a member of Oreskes’ research team and the lead author on the paper, says “risk” was used to subtly introduce uncertainty about climate science. And the heavy use of the word “demand” ties into the oil industry’s long-standing efforts to position itself as simply supplying a demand for its product, and consumers as the real drivers of runaway climate change. The authors point out that the tobacco industry used this strategy successfully for years, too.
Of course, consumers aren’t entirely blameless, particularly the world’s wealthiest individuals, but the idea that oil is a purely demand-side industry is ridiculous. In the 1980s, for example, when the oil crisis was finally over (oil prices had risen by 300 percent at one point) oil companies were very worried about the fact that Americans had gotten good at saving energy, so good that demand seemed to have permanently dipped. Did they reduce supply accordingly? No, they looked for ways to drive demand back up, tinkering with production and lobbying for policies that would incentivize increased fossil fuel use. More recently, as companies have grappled with a natural gas glut, they have not stopped fracking, but merely found a new revenue stream — plastic.
It’s not just ExxonMobil telling us that it’s consumers, not companies, who are responsible for climate change, of course. Chevron regularly highlights how it’s keeping the lights on for all of us. Shell leans on consumers to “do their part” by choosing carbon neutral energy. And BP famously invented the ultimate tool for pinning greenhouse gas emissions on individual consumers: the carbon footprint calculator.
This is also not a new tactic. The gun industry has deployed it since the 1920s (yes, they’ve been on the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” thing that long), and back in the 1970s the infamous “crying Indian” ad, funded by a cohort of packaging companies, made wasteful packaging a littering problem, caused by people thoughtlessly refusing to pick up after themselves, not companies unnecessarily wrapping their products in trash.
But the “hey, we just sell stuff” narrative dates back even further than that, to Ivy Ledbetter Lee, the world’s first publicist, who used this strategy on behalf of the fossil fuel industry more than 100 years ago. Working for utilities, coal companies, and Standard Oil, Lee emphasized to the public how fundamental his clients’ products were to their lives as a way to distract from pollution, labor abuses, and safety concerns.
“Lee’s efforts to make visible the public purpose of heavy industry relied on promoting a national consciousness of consumer and political reliance on energy,” says Melissa Aronczyk, a media studies researcher at Rutgers University.
Supran points to this as a sort of necessary precursor to blaming the public for the negative impacts of a product. He and Oreskes call this the “Fossil Fuel Savior” framing: 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’s. And finally, swoop in to magnanimously save the day (this last bit is all over the industry’s ads today, and even in ExxonMobil’s official response to this study, which highlights its support of the Paris Climate Agreement and investment in a carbon capture “concept”).
The strategy of shifting responsibility to the public is far less blatant than climate denial, but that’s part of what makes it so effective. It taps into American ideas about personal responsibility on the one hand, and the purity complex of activists on the other. So instead of pushing collectively for systemic change — accountability for fossil fuel companies, for example, which could be anything from requiring them to contribute to a climate fund to enacting a carbon tax to decommissioning fossil fuel infrastructure to all of the above and more — concerned citizens might feel like they need to focus on going zero waste or zero carbon in their own lives first. This rhetorical framing flourishes not only because it taps into America’s individualistic identity, but also because it presents easy solutions: simply buy different things in your own life, walk or bike a bit more, and everything will be fine!
It also provides a purity test that no climate activist can possibly pass. It’s the perfect setup for oil companies: The problem is consumers, not industry, and no consumer can ever reduce their carbon footprint enough to be a credible critic. This sort of thing is rampant — tweet about climate and you can expect to be criticized for using a phone; attend a climate conference and prepare to defend yourself if you drove or flew there. Rightwing politicians and pundits delight in pointing out “climate hypocrites,” from Scott Walker criticizing Al Gore for having a mansion to Dinesh D’Souza gotcha-ing Pete Buttigieg for “faking” a green lifestyle by biking to work after getting dropped off nearby in a car. Jeremy Jones, the professional snowboarder-turned-climate activist who started Protect Our Winters, says every time he mentions climate publicly, he gets a wave of it. “People love to tell me to shut up until I’ve stopped manufacturing snowboards or taking flights,” he says.
“Those accusations of hypocrisy leveled at climate academics and activists alike who criticize the fossil fuel industry, that’s the ground level manifestation of this, this brainwashing, frankly,” says Supran. “I think that’s the really profound thing, that it manifests itself at all scales and all segments of society.”
Skewing the discourse toward individual action is a way to soft-pedal what futurist Alex Steffen calls “predatory delay,” a strategy to intentionally delay climate action in order to continue profiting from fossil fuels, even though it will result in catastrophic damage. In the same way that agreeing to a net zero target in 2060 when you know it needs to be more like 2030 is a predatory delay tactic, focusing the public’s attention on individual carbon emissions is a way to further delay progress toward a large-scale energy transition that gives everyone better options.
This tactic also lays the groundwork for a defense of the industry’s behavior in court. Tobacco companies, after subtly grooming the public to take personal responsibility for the health impacts of their products for years, used that as an aggressive legal defense. “They used consumer demand as ‘liberty’ when they were talking to the public, but in court flipped the script and talked about demand as blame,” says Supran, who points to the potential for oil companies to do the same as they face dozens of liability and fraud claims.
In fact, that’s already happening. In the climate liability case that San Francisco and Oakland brought against the oil companies, Judge William Alsup requested a “climate science tutorial,” during which he asked both sides to present a brief history of climate science. Chevron’s attorney, Ted Boutrous, speaking on behalf of all the oil company plaintiffs, argued that asking the courts to hold oil companies responsible for their role in climate change was akin to “challenging the way human civilization has developed to this date,” and then he laid the blame at the feet of consumers, arguing that there’s no evidence consumers would have changed their behavior had oil companies been truthful about climate change back in the 1980s. “Would people have changed their behavior? No one has changed their behavior now after five IPCC reports,” he said, referring to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Boutrous made that argument in May 2018. Just a few months later, the most direct and strongly worded IPCC report yet was released, warning of a stark 12-year timeline to avoid a disastrous level of climate change, and helping to galvanize a global climate movement unlike anything we’ve seen before. Had fossil fuel companies not worked so hard to hijack the IPCC process in the decades prior, we might have seen that sort of action much earlier.
Nonetheless, the judge in the San Francisco climate case bought the argument. At one point he said, “We’ve been using fossil fuels for the entire industrial revolution. We won the Second World War with fossil fuels. If we didn’t have fossil fuels, we would have lost that war and every other war. Airplanes couldn’t fly, ocean liners couldn’t fly, the trains wouldn’t run, and we would be back in the Stone Age. And so we have gotten a huge benefit from the use of fossil fuels, right?”
An oil company advertorial couldn’t have said it better.
Nobody is doubting that the world needs energy, but does it have to come from burning fossil fuels? No. Does the fact that we’ve benefited from fossil fuels in the past mean we have to keep using them? No. Does that benefit excuse any and all behavior from fossil fuel companies, even lying to the public? No. And is it really a consumer “choice” when for decades there was no option but to consume fossil fuels? No — especially when that lack of choice was driven largely by fossil fuel lobbying.
“The idea that we’re all responsible for climate change because of our individual decisions is a profoundly unsociological understanding of how behavior is formed through cultural influences, behavioral influences, and economic factors,” says environmental sociologist Robert Brulle. “For example, if you want to ride your bike to work and there are no bike paths and no provisions for you to take your bike on the road, every time you bike to work you take your life in your hands. The idea that we can individually choose to go to a low-carbon transportation system is blaming the victim for the real decisions that are made about how we structure our cities, how we set energy policy, how we set the cost of automobiles. It obscures the power of vested interests to be able to shape our lives.”
Supran says he hopes making people more aware of the fact that there is a clear strategy here to offload responsibility for the climate crisis onto individuals will help get people out of what rhetorician Jen Schneider calls “the hypocrites trap” — the paralysis that can come when people think they can’t say anything at all about climate, or about the bad behavior of fossil fuel companies, unless they’ve rid their own lives of fossil fuels.
“If you’re really focused on your own sense of guilt and responsibility, you become hamstrung from acting to hold the systemic failures to account that are locking us into this fossil fuel status quo society,” Supran says.
Which again, is not to say that no individual actions matter. It’s absolutely worth it for people to reduce their carbon emissions where they can and model low-carbon options for their neighbors. It’s even more worth it to think about individual actions that are not purchases, a thing that gets left out of this debate infuriatingly often. Talk to people, organize, campaign, hound your political representatives, agitate for more bike paths. There are any number of ways to contribute individually to collective change that have nothing at all to do with spending money.
But equally, it’s important to lay the blame for climate change where it belongs. And that’s not some silly game of finger pointing, it turns out. It has enormous influence over who’s held accountable for climate change, and who’s expected to act to address it. The industry knows that; it’s why they’ve been pointing the finger at us for decades.
This article has been updated to clarify Naomi Oreskes’ relationship with the firm Sher Edling, and to correct that the word “demand” was found mostly in ExxonMobil’s public communications documents that the study reviewed, as opposed to all the ExxonMobil documents it reviewed.
© 2021 PMC. All rights reserved.