Big Oils “wokewashing” is the new denial of climate science

A bright orange sunset behind an oil refinery.

photo: Assaad Al-Niyazi / AFP (Getty Images)

ExxonMobil has demonstrated its commitment to „Reduction of CO2 emissions with innovative energy solutions. „ Chevron would like to remind you that it is leave the light on during this dark time. BP goes #NetZero, but is also very proud of the „digital innovations” of his new, huge drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Now Shell really insists on it supports women in traditionally male-dominated professions.

The casual social media user might get the impression that the fossil fuel industry sees itself as a fighter for social justice, fighting for the poor, the marginalized, and women—At least based on his marketing material over the past few years.

These campaigns fall into what a handful of sociologists and economists refer to as „discourses of delay”. While oil and gas companies have a long Track record in climate change denial, even after her own scientists warned again and again of the damage caused by burning fossil fuels, the industry’s message today is much more subtle and in many ways more effective than direct denial of climate science.

By downplaying the urgency of the climate crisis, the industry has new tools to delay efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions. And worse, even industry critics haven’t quite caught up with this new approach.

„If you just focus on climate denial, all that other stuff is overlooked,” said Robert Brulle, environmental sociologist and visiting professor at Brown University.

Brulle, who published a Peer-reviewed study in 2019 who analyzed major oil company ad spend over a 30-year period, says the „lion’s share” of ad dollars went not into denial or even into the industry’s products, but into profossil fuel propaganda – campaigns that remind people and over and over again about all the great things that oil companies do, how dependent we are on fossil fuels and how integral industry is to society.

“They’re probably spending five or ten times more on all of this corporate promotion,” he says. “And yet the climate movement only seems to focus on the science denial part.” More than a decade ago, the oil companies stopped pushing climate denial. And while conspiracy theories claiming climate change is a hoax occasionally crop up, they are no longer an effective strategy.

Instead, the fossil fuel industry, utilities and the various trade groups, politicians and think tanks that carry water for both have turned to messages that acknowledge the problem but downplay its gravity and urgency for solutions. Instead, companies overestimate the industry’s progress in addressing climate change.

In a per Published in Global Sustainability magazine last July, economist William Lamb and nearly a dozen co-authors cataloged the most common messages from those who prefer to remain inactive on climate issues for as long as possible. According to Lamb’s team, the “delay discourses” in the industry can be divided into four categories: redirecting responsibility (consumers are also responsible for fossil fuel emissions), promoting non-transformative solutions (disruptive changes are not necessary), highlighting the downside of action (changes will be disruptive) and surrender (it is not possible to mitigate climate change).

„Funnily enough, that was a Per who was born on Twitter,” says Lamb. Lamb and his coworkers Giulio Mattoli and Julia Steinberger began compiling the fossil fuel news they saw repeatedly on social media. Then they asked other academics from different fields to add what they saw, and patterns soon began to appear.

Lamb says they specifically left denial out of the equation. “We tried to really see delays as something special,” he says. „From our point of view, the delay did not get the attention it deserved.”

Of all the messages aimed at delaying climate action or reassuring that the fossil fuel industry has possible solutions under control, Lamb and other authors agreed that one topic was far more prevalent than the others: “The argument of the social justice ”.

This strategy generally takes one of two forms: either warnings that a fossil fuel transition will have a negative impact on poor and marginalized communities, or claims that oil and gas companies are associated with these communities. Researchers call this practice „wokewashing”.

An email Chevron’s public relations firm CRC Advisors sent to journalists last year is a perfect example of this. It called on journalists to examine how green groups claim “solidarity” with Black Lives Matter while “supporting policies that would harm minority communities”. Chevron later denied it had anything to do with that email, despite it regularly sets CRC and the lower the Email in question read: „If you do not wish to receive any further communications from Chevron, please let us know by clicking here.”

Another common discussion point in the industry argues that moving away from fossil fuels will inevitably be bad for impoverished communities. The argument is based on the assumption that these communities value fossil fuels more than any related problems (air and water pollution, in addition to climate change) and that there is no way to provide poor communities or countries with affordable renewable energy.

Chevron also showed solidarity with Black Lives Matter last year, though it’s responsible for that too environmentally harmful the black majority city where it is headquartered: Richmond, California, where Chevron also pays for an above-average police force. Meanwhile, the American Petroleum Institute, Big Oil’s largest trading group and lobbyist, funds diversity in master programs but also refuses to acknowledge the disproportionate effects on color communities.

Discourses about delays emerge not only in advertising and marketing campaigns, but also in political discussions.

„We looked through thousands of state-level climate and clean energy bills testimonials, and all of the industry arguments against this type of legislation contained these messages,” said J. Timmons Roberts, Brown University professor of environment and sociology and co-author about the “Discourses of Delay” by.

In one recently published study Focusing on delaying tactics in Massachusetts, for example, Roberts and his co-authors cataloged how fossil fuel advocacy groups, and especially utilities, used discourses about delay to try to overcome clean energy legislation. Another recent study found similar campaigns against clean energy and climate bills in Connecticut. “The social justice argument is the most widely used,” he says.

Lamb sees the same thing in Europe. „Often you can see that these arguments come from center-right politicians, which in some ways indicates hypocrisy because they are not so interested in the social dimension of parallel issues of social justice such as education policy or financial policy.”

While the social justice argument stands out as the favorite right now, the others are also in regular rotation, according to Lamb, fossil fuels are a necessary part of the solution.

„These things are effective, they work,” says Roberts. „So what we need is a vaccination – people need some sort of guide to these arguments so they don’t just get fooled.”

This story originally published in The Guardian and is used here as part of. released Cover climate now, a global collaboration of news agencies that strengthen reporting on climate history.