PR companies working for the fossil fuel industry are appropriating language from within the climate movement, using it to perpetuate climate denial, writes Stella Levantesi.
“... the most important environmental movement in the world is the American oil and gas industry.”
'... a super absurd example of oil and gas companies appropriating and weaponising the language of climate advocates for their own greenwashing.'
Sommers’ statement may be, in fact, one of the most literal examples of how fossil fuel companies are using language to perpetuate their climate denial and fend off action.
And because public perception and awareness of the climate crisis are, at least in part, driven by how we talk about it, the fossil fuel industry has "used language to create smoke and mirrors and false impressions around what they’re really doing", according to Christine Arena, author, expert on climate disinformation and former executive vice president at public relations (PR) firm Edelman. (Arena was one of six employees to resign in 2015 following revelations of the firm’s greenwashing work with fossil fuel lobbies and associations.)
PR firms — or “the enablers,” as Arena calls them — have played a key role in exploiting communication and manipulating language to their advantage, all while working on behalf of the fossil fuel industry and using a tobacco industry playbook. Ultimately, they’ve been using it to obstruct climate action — a longtime goal of the oil, gas and coal industries.
Said Christina Arena:
“If we take a step back and ask ourselves, why has meaningful action to avert the climate crisis proven to be so difficult? It is at least in part because of communications and because of the language coming from the fossil fuel industry.”
Today, the fossil fuel industry and its allies are “appropriating and weaponising” language from climate advocates, usually in ways that are much less obvious than Sommers’ recent comment.
Arena said, of fossil fuel companies doing so “to create a false perception that they’re on our side”:
“The industry is repeating the same phrases it’s hearing from the climate movement to use for their own advertising purposes. They are commandeering the language of sustainability and of the climate movement.”
Fossil fuel solutionism
Language around climate solutions is particularly susceptible to this treatment, especially as polluting companies invest in strategies and tactics to present themselves as part of the solution to climate change when, clearly – as they continue to prioritise drilling for globe-warming fuels – they are not.
Take ExxonMobil touting its 'lower-emission solutions' with staff working to 'develop our global strategy for creating sustainable energy' while planning a $10 billion investment in new oil and gas reserves in South America. Some researchers have called this “fossil fuel solutionism”.
The strategy is part of a broader communications shift among polluters and their advocates. No longer are oil and gas executives straight-up “denying” that the climate is changing, instead the message becomes one that ultimately slow-walks real climate action — saying, it’s too expensive to address, it’s too late to do anything.
in their 'Discourses of climate delay' analysis, Timmons Roberts and his colleagues write:
'We call these "climate delay" discourses, since they often lead to deadlock or a sense that there are intractable obstacles to taking action.'
Nowadays, the messaging may contain “a blend” of factual omissions and rhetorical distortions, according to Arena, that can be more confusing to people and, therefore, more dangerous than outright lies.
If you say ‘clean coal’ a lot of people are going to know that there’s no such thing, so that’s easier for the audience to identify. But then when you look at ExxonMobil’s language around carbon capture, for example, they’ll say things like ‘it’s going to take an all-of-the-above approach' and when the oil and gas industry says ‘all of the above,’ they mean oil and gas first.
Arena considers this type of wording to be a form of greenwashing, where a company uses “selective micro truths” in order to create a misleading impression. This type of language is more insidious because it’s creating the perception that oil and gas companies really are “part of the solution” and don’t need regulatory intervention — which they often lobby against elsewhere.
These phrases are all examples of this [greenwashing], said Arena:
"Cleaner burning. Lower emissions fuels. Lower carbon future.”
By participating in public discourse in this way, fossil fuel companies can manipulate public perceptions by making “support” seem like action.
"Supporting the Paris Agreement is also deceptive because it makes it look like they are in line with Paris. They’re not.”
A new report from more than 40 groups, published by Oil Change International, has found that major U.S. and European oil and gas companies 'still fail to meet the bare minimum for alignment with the Paris Agreement'. These companies’ pledges and commitments are far from credible, the report concludes, when they are planning more than 200 fossil fuel expansion projects between now and 2025.
The History of Junk Science, Alarmists and Climate Prophets
Denier and delayer communication strategies aren’t new; in fact, they have always been central to the fossil fuel industry and its allies’ climate obstruction.
In the 1990s, for example, “sound science” was an expression used by climate deniers to attack and counter climate science — or “junk science,” as some deniers, such as founder of website JunkScience.com and former Fox News columnist Steve Milloy, referred to the work of climate scientists like Michael E Mann.
In another past strategy, that’s now regaining steam, climate deniers and delayers have been employing the terms “realists” and “alarmists.”
As the climate movement was gaining international attention with massive protests between 2018 and 2019, we saw that spikes in tweets about “alarmism” and “realism” often corresponded to high-profile speeches by activist Greta Thunberg.
The trend also coincided with The Heartland Institute, a U.S. think tank and notorious promoter of climate disinformation, enlisting young German YouTuber Naomi Seibt as a counter-figure to Thunberg to denounce her and climate scientists’ “alarmism”.
Milloy employed a combination of these terms when he wrote in 2002:
'When the Clean Air Act was enacted in 1970, air pollution in the U.S. was more of an aesthetic than a public health problem... Few people realise this after 30 years of non-stop junk science-fueled alarmism [emphasis added] from environmental activists.'
For decades, deniers have used rhetoric likening those who warn about the climate emergency's catastrophic impacts to someone “out of touch with reality”.
You can find it in the 1998 American Petroleum Institute “action plan,” born just a few months after the Kyoto Protocol and developed by Exxon, Chevron, Southern Company and representatives from conservative organisations, including Milloy.
The memo clearly stated that:
'Victory will be achieved when: those promoting the treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality [emphasis added].'
Both uses of language – “sound science” versus “junk science” and “alarmists” versus “realists” – create an “us versus them” dynamic. The result is two polarising and utterly fabricated, positions on climate science.
We can see the fossil fuel industry similarly using language in its public-facing propaganda, projecting political meaning on its opponents.
Said Christine Arena:
Propaganda is about manipulating public opinions, stoking fears and sewing divisions. When they talk about ‘the woke’ or the ‘climate industrial complex’ or ‘activist extremists,’ that is all propaganda. The industry is blaming rising gas prices on ‘woke liberals’, renewables or climate activism. Those are false narratives and they are propaganda-based.
According to John Cook, founder of Skeptical Science and research fellow at Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub in Australia, fossil fuel industry propaganda has been intensifying the “othering” of climate scientists and advocates for climate action for some time.
“There’s a lot of terminology that has become more powerful in sending that signal that climate advocates are different. Labels to say, ‘these people who care about climate change are trying to change society'. Climate denial is intimately connected to values like individual freedom and free market fundamentalism."
"That’s why those labels are often extended in meaning to accuse climate advocates of a 'radical liberal agenda'."
The “othering” of climate advocates isn’t only by fossil fuel companies. In September 2021, Roberto Cingolani, Italian Minister for Ecological Transition called climate activists “radical chic” and said that the “extremist and ideological ones” are “worse than the climate catastrophe”.
Over time, the language of climate deniers and delayers has evolved from “basic climate denial” to “culture wars,” said Arena.
Culture wars are strictly linked to political ideology: that’s why some words are chosen by deniers and delayers over others — because they “tap into broader values” and “activate” their supports, added Cook. For example, deniers might pose the argument that “[climate action] is going to impinge on their freedom,” he said.
The supposed church of climate change
Another linguistic tactic used to denigrate those who support climate action is to cast an issue with roots in science – climate change – as one of religion.
In Italy, for example, the daily newspaper Il Foglio uses pseudo-religious terms when referencing climate change: ecology becomes 'a religion to replace cancelled Christianity' where 'you kiss trees and worship whales'; switching to an electric car is 'fanatical'; climate change is referred to as 'dogma'. And Friday, the Italian paper writes, has become the day of 'forced conversion to sustainability' when youth climate activists go on strike from school, as part of Greta’s [Thunberg] 'children’s crusade'.
Associating climate change with religion reinforces the denier message that the build-up of greenhouse gases and their far-reaching global impacts is actually a matter of faith and has nothing to do with a factual, physical reality in the form of heatwaves and hurricanes.
In this scenario, climate advocates seem unreasonable, disconnected from reality and unable to see things clearly. The effect is to relegate those supporting climate science to one end of the spectrum — one where we don’t need to address the intensifying impacts of heating the globe.
But this zealous religious framing happens beyond the pages of Il Foglio. According to Cook, deniers also use words like “cult” and “high priests” to describe climate advocates, while emphasising that they, themselves, are “treated like heretics”.
Of climate deniers, Cook said:
“They are framing themselves as the rational scientific person and the scientists or advocates as the hysterical, biased, faith-based and not evidence-based. They’re trying to flip reality because ideology is driving their denial.”
Don’t worry, just adapt!
Another narrative emerging from the denial and delayer camp is that “adapting” to climate change will be our lifeline: Those perpetuating it end up downplaying the impacts of the climate crisis because they say we will be able to adapt to it.
In a Slate article about Alex Epstein’s new book Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas — Not Less, which advocates for fossil fuels, Nitish Pahwa writes:
'The new style of climate denial is here: It’s not that carbon emissions aren’t increasing, or aren’t warming the world, but look, you’re doing fine right now, right? So, we’ll be just fine!'
"Who cares if Miami is six metres underwater in 100 years? Amsterdam has been six metres underwater for ages and that’s a really nice place. We will cope with it.”
Kirk was later suspended for his comments.
This argument implies that working to slow climate change is futile and offers adaptation as 'the only possible response' to the climate crisis, according to Roberts and colleagues in their 'Discourses of climate delay' analysis.
Said Timmons Roberts:
"Every day there are new discourses being invented either by the actors in these industries that don’t want to make the energy transition or by their public relations firms with tremendous capacity in terms of developing new language discourses."
Effective PR is a key element in designing a convincing greenwashing campaign.
Said Arena about the American Petroleum Institute’s 'We’re on it' campaign:
“The PR and ad industry plays a central role in enabling climate obstruction. They’re not on it. The only thing that they’re on is architecting and spreading more disinformation, which they are the quarterbacks of doing."
From fossil fuel solutionism to adaptation-only narratives, these climate obstruction tactics commandeer language in an attempt to undermine one of the most urgent and far-reaching challenges of our day. And the momentum behind such deceptive language is only building.
“We are on a dangerous trajectory. I would say broadly that climate disinformation and greenwashing are getting much worse and today we have many more examples to point to than we even did back when the industry was trying to deny climate change altogether.”
Understanding how opponents of climate action employ these discourses of delay is essential to recognising climate disinformation and misinformation, Arena said, and ultimately to disrupting it.
"We have to redouble our efforts to hold these companies and their enablers accountable.”
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