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Greenhouse Gaslighting: Fossil Fuel Industry Narratives

By Grace Nosek, with original reporting from Amy Westervelt

In this article

Funding climate-denier scientists
Pushing denial narratives
Targeting teachers, K-12 students, and universities
"Woke-washing"
Making the public feel guilty
Lobbying and funding in political battles
Spending billions on ads
Attacking climate scientists
Seeding the story of hopelessness and doomism
Greenwashing propaganda
Targeting climate protesters
Defeating natural gas regulation
How do we combat greenhouse gaslighting?

DuVernay. Joon-ho. Scorsese. ExxonMobil?

Fossil fuel companies are up there with the master storytellers of our time. Through billions of dollars in advertising, lobbying, campaign spending, and educational outreach, they have ghostwritten our climate present, explicitly targeting the narrative power of media.

They’ve cast themselves as heroes and undermined key actors, policies, and government action at every level—all without most of us even realizing how deeply they were and are shaping our climate reality and imagination. Academia, government, nonprofits, the media—everyone’s been duped.

How? Narratives of denial, delay, deflection, and disempowerment. ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, the American Petroleum Institute (API), and others spent millions manufacturing uncertainty around climate science—even though they were at the cutting edge of climate science themselves by the late 1970s.

We lay out some of their tactics here, so that you can learn to spot them, analyze them, and—as writers are wont to do—subvert and confront the hell out of them.

Funding climate-denier scientists

The fossil fuel industry intentionally sows doubt around the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change by funding denier “science.”

One example is a scientist named Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, who has appeared on conservative TV and accepted more than $1.2 million from the fossil fuel industry—without disclosing this conflict of interest. He likes to argue that the climate crisis is good for polar bears because they like thinner ice . . .

Pushing denial narratives

The fossil fuel industry funds a dense network of seemingly independent think tanks and nonprofits.

The API coordinated rallies in key states to mimic grassroots opposition to Obama’s climate regulation. This devious strategy gets the fun name of “astroturfing.” And they’re still funding denier groups, even though that’s growing a bit passé.

Targeting teachers, K-12 students, and universities

The fossil fuel industry targets teachers, hoping to raise a generation of US students to be skeptical of the climate crisis and government regulation of the fossil fuel industry.

In Ohio, industry-influenced curriculum items include how to “frack” Twinkies with straws. In Oklahoma and elsewhere, students are shown a video series called Lab Time With Leo, in which the bow tie–wearing scientist takes kids on a virtual field trip to an oil refinery, about which he says, “Ain’t nothing finer.” Children’s books like The Road to Petroville are another way the fossil fuel–funded curriculum gets into US classrooms.

The API fossil fuel lobbyists sought to sow climate doubt in children, writing in their “Team Action Plan” memo that they planned “to distribute educational materials directly to schools and through grassroots organizations of climate science partners” because “informing teachers/students about uncertainties in climate science will begin to erect a barrier against further efforts to impose Kyoto-like measures in the future.” Yeah. They actually said that.

They are basically (and invisibly) colonizing academia by systematically funding energy-related research at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and myriad other schools.

And they don't just stick to science and technology. One of the more insidious ways the industry has infiltrated schools is via social science curricula, taking charge of how kids learn about the economy, society, and politics. They've been deeply invested in this tactic since the late 1920s.

"Woke-washing"

Another fossil fuel industry narrative tool is “woke-washing” and co-opting the language of racial justice to defeat government action on climate justice, even though racialized groups are disproportionately in favor of climate action.

ExxonMobil claims it is “reducing carbon emissions,” while Shell says it helps women get jobs in a male-dominated industry. Chevron wants you to believe it supports Black Lives Matter while also funding the police in Richmond, California.

United Latinos Vote is a new group with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry that’s aggressively challenging climate regulation in California. It was called out by the California Environmental Justice Alliance as an astroturf group “stealing the racial justice language of the movement.” (Such subterfuge is especially cruel because BIPOC communities disproportionately bear the violence of climate change.) The NAACP highlights all the ways the fossil fuel industry co-opts the language and movements of racial justice in their report “Fossil Fueled Foolery 2.0.”

Making the public feel guilty

The fossil fuel industry puts great effort into making the public feel guilty about their own contributions to the climate crisis, by saying “we’re all the problem” and calling activists hypocrites if they use fossil fuels. Guilt is extremely effective at disempowering the public, causing people to dissociate from the problem.

In the mid 2000s, BP popularized the idea of the carbon footprint and carbon calculator around the world. After all, if people are anxious about their own behaviors, they’re less likely to have the energy to look at where the emissions are really coming from.

They even distributed individual footprint kits for schoolchildren and ran ads like the following: “What on earth is a carbon footprint? Everybody in the world has one. It’s the amount of carbon dioxide emitted each year due to the energy we use. Calculate the size of your household carbon footprint, learn how you can reduce it, and how we’re reducing ours.”

Lobbying and funding in political battles

Lobbying against climate action and funding climate-denying politicians is another big tactic. Recent research extrapolated that the fossil fuel industry spends around $500 million on lobbying annually, outspending those lobbying for climate policy 100 to 1. ExxonMobil successfully lobbied Bush to reject critical international climate action.

Spending billions on ads

Ads like this build social capital and sow doubt around the climate crisis. And now that it's being called out for delaying climate action, the fossil fuel industry is rolling out ads about how awesome it is at cutting emissions.

Attacking climate scientists

Attacking the work and personal lives of climate scientists is another strategy. Michael E. Mann, the scientist behind what has become known as the hockey-stick graph—a famous image showing how quickly the earth is warming—was attacked and harassed for years, often by organizations funded by the fossil fuel industry. He was accused of, among other things, “molesting” the data behind the graph.

Seeding the story of hopelessness and doomism

Spreading hopelessness and doomism among the public leads to disempowering, apocalyptic narratives. Hope is an effective climate narrative, while hopelessness leads to apathy.

Here’s an example from 1996, when Mobil took out an ad in the New York Times which they called “Climate change: we’re all in this together.” Here’s what they said about UN-sponsored climate action: “[It] is likely to cause severe economic dislocations . . . If developed nations act alone to reduce emissions, the staggering cost imposed on energy-intensive industries will drive nations to export much of their industrial base to countries with less stringent controls. World economic health will suffer as nations are forced to switch from fossil fuels, saddled with large carbon taxes and driven to prematurely scrap many factories and machinery. The dislocations will be even more severe if the solutions are not implemented globally . . . Jobs and livelihoods are at stake . . . ”

Greenwashing propaganda

The fossil fuel industry manipulated the public into thinking recycling is the answer—in order to protect their hundreds of billions in annual profit from plastic manufacturing, and to support a pivot toward petrochemicals as a means to continue extracting fossil fuels.

“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment,” said Larry Thomas, the former president of one of the fossil fuel industry’s most powerful trade groups, the Society of the Plastics Industry (now known as the Plastics Industry Association).

In one of many industry ads from the nineties, we see a plastic bottle leap out of and refuse to stay in a garbage truck, while a voice-over tells us: “The bottle may look empty, yet it’s anything but trash, it’s full of potential . . . We’ve pioneered the country’s largest, most comprehensive plastic recycling program to help plastic fill valuable uses and roles.”

Fans of David Attenborough’s soothing descriptions of the natural world might be surprised to learn that it was Mobil that first had the idea to bring Sir Attenborough’s nature documentaries stateside. In 1982, Mobil brought the 13-part series Life on Earth, coproduced by Warner Brothers and the BBC, to PBS viewers, followed two years later by Attenborough’s second big nature series, the 12-part The Living Planet: A Portrait of Life on Earth. In 1975, Gulf Oil brought National Geographic’s specials to PBS, and Chevron later kept the specials going. In 2008, ExxonMobil teamed up with David Koch to bring a new nature and science series to PBS: NOVA.

Why would oil companies want to throw money at nature shows? Because it keeps nature "over there," separate from us, something to be managed, enjoyed, maybe admired, but always disconnected from us.

Targeting climate protesters

The fossil fuel industry has been pushing state and federal governments to label protestors and water protectors as extremists and terrorists, and to treat them accordingly. And they intentionally target climate and Indigenous activists.

Spurred by Indigenous-led resistance to pipelines, like at Standing Rock, fossil fuel interests (backed by the Koch brothers) collaborated with conservative legislators to create a template bill that dramatically increased monetary and criminal penalties for climate protesters. (We’re talking serious jail time.)

More than a dozen states have now passed similar provisions into law. The United Nations raised the alarm about the trend, pointing out that some proposed state bills would protect motorists who strike protesters.

The API and other fossil fuel trade groups pushed Congress to assess whether it could and should prosecute pipeline protesters as domestic terrorists under the Patriot Act.

Defeating natural gas regulation

In cities and states across the US, the fossil fuel industry has hired influencers to tout the benefits of cooking with gas, despite the profound and documented health risks of domestic gas use.

Utility companies hired paid actors to impersonate members of the public in order to give public comment against gas bans in Louisiana and California. SoCalGas got busted using ratepayer money to create the front group it uses to fight gas bans. Yeah. It’s literally using the money it receives from people’s gas bills to fight anti-gas legislation.

Nearly a century ago, the fossil fuel industry popularized the phrase “cooking with gas” by working it into Bob Hope routines, Disney cartoons, and targeted commercials.

This rap and dance explains (lies) to us that gas is cleaner and cheaper than electric stoves. “We all cook better when we’re cooking with gas.”

How do we combat greenhouse gaslighting?

By telling new stories. Looking into the future, the fossil fuel industry is doing all it can to promote continued fossil fuel extraction by uplifting geoengineering and carbon capture as viable paths to a livable climate, despite heavy critique from scientists about their feasibility. And at the policy level, the industry is publicly embracing carbon taxes while privately spending millions to defeat them.

For transformative change for the billions of people and animals threatened by the climate crisis, we must expose and challenge the fossil fuel industry’s potent and deeply rooted climate stories by getting informed and telling new stories.

Grace Nosek

✍️ Grace Nosek is a legal scholar, youth climate justice organizer, and storyteller identifying and pushing back against the toxic narratives the fossil fuel industry has seeded deep in our public imagination and political reality by centering justice, joyful community, hope, agency, and systems change in her work and scholarship. She is a PhD candidate in law and the founder of the Climate Hub at the University of British Columbia (UBC), and she holds a BA from Rice University, a law degree from Harvard Law School, and a Master of Laws from UBC.

Amy Westervelt headshot

✍️ Amy Westervelt is a climate journalist bringing the fossil fuel industry to its knees. Amy has contributed to the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, NPR, and other outlets. She has won a Rachel Carson Award for Women Greening Journalism and an Edward R. Murrow Award for her series on the impacts of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. As the founder of podcast network Critical Frequency, she has executive produced more than a dozen podcasts, including her own show, Drilled, a true crime–style podcast about climate change that was awarded the Online Journalism Award for Excellence in Audio Storytelling.

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