Rhetoric and frame analysis of ExxonMobil’s climate change communications

Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes (2021). “Rhetoric and frame analysis of ExxonMobil’s climate change communications.” One Earth, published online. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2021.04.014 [open access]

Graphical abstract

Highlights

  • ExxonMobil’s public climate change messaging mimics tobacco industry propaganda
  • Rhetoric of climate “risk” downplays the reality and seriousness of climate change
  • Rhetoric of consumer “demand” (versus fossil fuel supply) individualizes responsibility
  • Fossil Fuel Savior frame uses “risk” and “demand” to justify fossil fuels, blame customers

Science for society

A dominant public narrative about climate change is that “we are all to blame.” Another is that society must inevitably rely on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. How did these become conventional wisdom? We show that one source of these arguments is fossil fuel industry propaganda. ExxonMobil advertisements worked to shift responsibility for global warming away from the fossil fuel industry and onto consumers. They also said that climate change was a “risk,” rather than a reality, that renewable energy is unreliable, and that the fossil fuel industry offered meaningful leadership on climate change. We show that much of this rhetoric is similar to that used by the tobacco industry. Our research suggests warning signs that the fossil fuel industry is using the subtle micro-politics of language to downplay its role in the climate crisis and to continue to undermine climate litigation, regulation, and activism.

Summary

This paper investigates how ExxonMobil uses rhetoric and framing to shape public discourse on climate change. We present an algorithmic corpus comparison and machine-learning topic model of 180 ExxonMobil climate change communications, including peer-reviewed publications, internal company documents, and advertorials in The New York Times. We also investigate advertorials using inductive frame analysis. We find that the company has publicly overemphasized some terms and topics while avoiding others. Most notably, they have used rhetoric of climate “risk” and consumer energy “demand” to construct a “Fossil Fuel Savior” (FFS) frame that downplays the reality and seriousness of climate change, normalizes fossil fuel lock-in, and individualizes responsibility. These patterns mimic the tobacco industry’s documented strategy of shifting responsibility away from corporations—which knowingly sold a deadly product while denying its harms—and onto consumers. This historical parallel foreshadows the fossil fuel industry’s use of demand-as-blame arguments to oppose litigation, regulation, and activism.

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