The West Live: Harvard University research reveals ExxonMobil’s strategy to escape blame for climate change

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Ben O'SheaThe West Australian
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When you think of global warming, you probably think it’s something we all have a responsibility to fix. But are you right?
Camera IconWhen you think of global warming, you probably think it’s something we all have a responsibility to fix. But are you right? Credit: Supplied

Don’t tell Greta, but new research has exposed a disturbing climate change myth that might make you look at the issue very differently.

When you think of global warming, you probably think it’s something we all have a responsibility to fix.

Plant a few trees. Ride your bike to work instead of driving. We can all do our bit to save the planet, right?

But what if the idea that climate change is our responsibility is actually a myth being perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry, so they can escape the blame?

New research from Harvard University found oil giant ExxonMobil used advertisements to shift responsibility for global warming away from the fossil fuel industry and onto consumers.

The researchers tracked the company’s public statements and behaviour over time and found ExxonMobil gradually changed its rhetoric, from explicitly doubting climate science in the mid-2000s to acknowledging the issue but framing it as a “risk” we could all do something about if we changed our behaviour.

In a world first, the Harvard scientists used algorithms to track the language the company used around climate change, finding the fossil fuel industry has learned to co-opt key narratives around anthropological global warming specifically “fixated on individual responsibility”.

An ExxonMobil refinery in France.
Camera IconAn ExxonMobil refinery in France. Credit: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP

It meant the companies can look like they care about the issue, which is great for marketing, but wriggle out of the blame.

The Harvard researchers found this mimicked the tobacco industry’s well-documented strategy of shifting responsibility away from corporations and onto consumers, even though these were businesses that knowingly sold a deadly product while denying the harm it caused.

Computational analysis of ExxonMobil’s advertorials found the company statistically overused terms that reduce man-made global warming to “a downstream problem caused by consumer energy demand, to be solved primarily by energy efficiency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.

This was in stark contrast to what the researchers found in the company’s private and academic documents, which “disproportionately recognise” that global warming is “an upstream problem caused by fossil fuel supply”.

The Harvard researchers found oil companies mimicked the tobacco industry’s well-documented strategy of shifting responsibilit.
Camera IconThe Harvard researchers found oil companies mimicked the tobacco industry’s well-documented strategy of shifting responsibilit. Credit: Johanna Parkin/Getty Images

This suggests a portion of the billions of dollars the fossil fuel industry spends on marketing each year is devoted to convincing us that we are the ones who can do something about climate change, when it is patently clear our impact, good or bad, is miniscule compared to the big oil companies.

The researchers said this strategy was “less blatant” than the outright denial of climate science, but it warranted further attention.

“Propaganda tactics of the fossil fuel industry such as these have received less scrutiny than those of their tobacco counterparts ... (but) such “discursive grooming” is now pervasive in structuring the agenda of scholars, policymakers, and the public,” the study concluded.

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