After decades of manipulation and deception on the climate, the Oversight Committee of the U.S. Congress, the House’s top investigative committee, has finally opened an investigation into the fossil fuel industry and its decades-long campaign of misinformation.
“As worsening natural disasters linked to global warming devastate communities in the United States and globally, one of Congress’s top legislative priorities is combating the increasingly urgent crisis of a changing climate,” said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, chair of the committee, and Rep. Ro Khanna, chair of the Subcommittee on the Environment. “To do this, Congress must address pollution caused by the fossil fuel industry and curb troubling business practices that lead to disinformation on these issues.”
The investigation comes in the wake of a video in which an ExxonMobil lobbyist was filmed admitting the company’s role in attacking science and obstructing climate legislation.
According to the committee, fossil fuel companies, not just Exxon, “have worked to prevent serious action on global warming by generating doubt about the documented dangers of fossil fuels.” In particular, the committee points out that “strategies of obfuscation and distraction” have not only lasted for decades but “still continue today.”
Maloney and Khanna sent letters to the executives of several fossil fuel companies and trade associations that are at the center of the denialist machine, including ExxonMobil Corporation, BP America Inc., Chevron Corporation, Shell Oil Company, American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, requesting documents to verify the companies’ role in the disinformation campaign. In their letter to the ExxonMobil executive, for example, they pointed out not only that the fossil fuel industry has “spread disinformation about climate science for decades,” but that they “have been aware of the science of climate change” for just as long—the companies’ internal scientists had already observed the link between their activities and rising emissions. The representatives also requested that the executives testify at a hearing on October 28, 2021.
Four companies in particular, BP, Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil, reported nearly $2 billion in profits between 1990 and 2019. During this time, the committee points out, the global climate crisis has become increasingly dire and its deadly impact has increased.
The tactics deployed by the fossil industry echo those used by the tobacco industry. The goal? Always the same: avoid regulation in order to continue selling products that “kill hundreds of thousands of Americans” (and not only).
According to the commission, between 2015 and 2018, the five largest publicly traded oil and gas companies spent $1 billion to promote climate misinformation through “branding and lobbying.” Lobbying has often been indirect, through trade groups, to obscure their role in denialist efforts and support political campaigns, but also to protect their image and avoid being publicly associated with these positions.
Science historians Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran, who study the role of fossil companies in the disinformation campaign, summarized this mechanism perfectly in a The Guardian article: “ExxonMobil is now misleading the public about its history of misleading the public.”
In a recent article published in One Earth magazine, Supran and Oreskes investigated how ExxonMobil uses rhetoric and framing to shape the public debate on climate change. According to the study, which analyzed dozens and dozens of internal and company-related documents, ExxonMobil has publicly emphasized certain terms and topics and intentionally avoided others. The company used the rhetoric of climate “risk” and consumer “demand” for energy to construct the role of “Fossil Fuel Savior,” a framing that “downplays the reality and seriousness of climate change, normalizes fossil fuel lock-in, and individualizes responsibility.” Supran and Oreskes also argue that the term “risk” has been insidiously used to introduce uncertainty about climate science. Fossil fuel companies’ tactics are mimicking the tobacco industry’s strategy, also well-documented, of redirecting responsibility onto consumers. It was BP, for example, that popularized the term “carbon footprint” in the mid-2000s, inventing a calculator to measure individual carbon emissions and shifting responsibility from companies to the individual.
In April, New York sued ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and the American Petroleum Institute for “false advertising” and greenwashing. Supran and Oreskes hope the results of their study will be of interest to lawyers involved in these types of cases.
It is clear that the disinformation campaign of the fossil industry and its lobbyists goes beyond communication strategies and media manipulation. Decades of political funding, targeted lobbying, and propaganda lie behind it. Today, as the committee also points out, these strategies are still present, from hardcore and outright climate denialism to what are called “climate delay discourses” that fall into the pool of softer, and therefore more insidious and harder to recognize, denialist efforts.
Delaying climate action as much as possible has always been the primary goal, and still is. In addition to greenwashing and responsibility shifting, creating confusion is one of the most common strategies used today to delay climate policy action. Anything to avoid tackling the root of the problem, because it would mean the end of the road for fossil fuel companies.
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