In light of the IPCC’s report warning that climate change is a ‘code red for humanity’, Thomas Perrett reports on how fossil fuel companies have subtly changed their tactics to continue avoiding the reforms required to combat greenhouse gas emissions

A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published this week and described by the UN as a “code red for humanity” has warned of the increasingly extreme heatwaves and floods that the planet could continue to face as a result of climate change.

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, oceans and land,” it states. The past five years have been the hottest on record since 1850.

Despite these conclusive findings, efforts by major fossil fuel companies to promote disinformation about the efficacy of renewable energy and the urgency of making deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions continue to exert an insidious influence.

As US President Joe Biden unveiled a $2 trillion climate plan last year, with the aim of achieving a carbon-neutral power sector by 2035, major oil and gas firms and lobbying groups paid for a number of Facebook advertisements which promoted fossil fuel usage.

In the week after Biden’s announcement, the amount spent on adverts by fossil fuel companies and affiliated lobbying groups and trade associations increased by more than 1000%, with some of the adverts describing natural gas as “clean, affordable and efficient” – despite the fact that the methane involved in its production is approximately 80 times deadlier for the environment than carbon over a 20 year period.

A report by the think tank InfluenceMap discovered that, out of the 25 oil and gas firms responsible for the surge in advertisements, ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Association (API) accounted for 62% of the total ads.

The API – the most powerful trade association representing the oil and gas industry – has a long history of promoting disinformation about climate science, despite having been aware of its implications since 1982. A Columbia University report commissioned by the body that year recognised that the consequences climate breakdown could have for humanity were potentially destructive, stating that “since patterns of aridity and rainfall can change, the height of the sea level can increase considerably and the world food supply can be affected”. It also stated that atmospheric CO2 levels were “expected to double some time in the next century. Just when depends on the particular estimate of the level of increasing energy use per year and the mix of carbon-based fuels”.

Despite its awareness of the connection between fossil fuel usage and climate change, and its recognition that global warming could have “serious consequences for man’s comfort and survival”, the API has since actively worked to undermine confidence in the veracity of climate science.

A 1998 ‘Communications Action Plan’ reported on by Greenpeace, voiced opposition to American involvement in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – a UN climate change convention which encouraged participating nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Disputing that “so-called greenhouse gases” were caused by burning fossil fuels, and instead stating that they had “many sources”, the plan stated that the Kyoto Protocols would place the US at a “competitive disadvantage” as “the climate change theory being advanced by the treaty supporters is based primarily on forecasting models with a very high degree of uncertainty”.

Recently, however, the API’s strategy has changed. The adverts which InfluenceMap analysed were far less overt in their promotion of fossil fuels and the dismissal of the legitimacy of the threat posed by climate change.

Megan Bloomgren, a spokeswoman for the API, told The New York Times that the money spent on advertising was “a fraction of the robust investments our companies are making every day into breakthrough technological research to shape a lower carbon future”. This messaging clearly constitutes an attempt to switch from a ‘denial’ strategy – which disputes the scientific consensus on the severity of climate change – to a ‘delay’ strategy, which attempts to incorporate fossil fuels into a future energy mix, arguing that harmful energy sources are environmentally beneficial, and casting doubt on the ability of renewable energy to effectively replace oil and gas.

InfluenceMap’s study commented on the subtle, yet mendacious tactics used by fossil fuel companies to discredit the merits of decarbonisation. “With increasing scrutiny from investors, regulators and the public, however, outright denial has increasingly become an unviable tactic for these major companies,” it found. “In its place, oil and gas companies have developed an increasingly nuanced and subtle set of messaging techniques, often utilising elements of the science on climate change in misleading ways.”

One of the most prominent examples of the fossil fuel industry employing a rhetorical shift in favour of subtle disinformation is the evolution of petrochemical giant Shell’s position on climate science. Analysis by DeSmog has shown that, despite having been aware of the causes of climate change as early as 1981, Shell downplayed the significance of IPCC reports showing the extent of the impact of fossil fuel emissions. In 1995, for example, internal reports by Shell stated that there existed a “significant minority outside IPCC who take a contrary view, believing the concerns over global warming to be exaggerated and misguided”.

Shell now feigns concern at the implications of climate change, having expanded its carbon capture and storage facilities and issued a number of platitudinous pronouncements on the need for decarbonisation. But the oil giant was recently taken to court and ordered to cut its emissions by 45% from 2019 levels by 2030, after having initially pledged to reduce the intensity of its emissions 20% from 2016 levels by the same date.

The tactic of merely reducing the intensity of its emissions, refusing to account for the fact that continued fossil fuel investments would lead to a greater amount of emissions overall, indicates the persistence of its fossil fuel-based business model and the extent of its opposition to the deployment of clean energy sources. Shell’s actions, as opposed to its rhetoric, suggest a continued commitment to proliferating disinformation about climate science. This is emblematic of the insidious tactics used by the fossil fuel industry in delegitimising efforts to reach net zero.

There is some evidence to suggest that fossil fuel companies’ new strategy of publicly acknowledging the threats posed by climate change is intended as a means of evading harsher legislative measures intended to forcibly reduce emissions.

ExxonMobil, for instance, has supported proposals for a carbon tax despite admitting to having “aggressively fought” against climate science. However, its support for the tax came at a price, with the company adopting a tax proposal drawn up by the Republican-led Climate Leadership Council, which endeavoured to “make possible an end to federal and state tort liability for emitters”.

As the climate crisis deepens and increasingly radical policies are required to stave off the scenarios detailed in the IPCC’s latest report, the fossil fuel industry and its associated lobbying groups can only be expected to intensify their disinformation campaigns. It is imperative, therefore, for governments to recognise the subtle change from climate denial to climate delay, and to enact punitive measures that prevent the spread of propaganda designed to delegitimise climate science.


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