A new study reveals how the oil company used “cutting-edge propaganda” to focus on fossil fuel consumption.
To understand why ExxonMobil has been so effective at shaping the US narrative about climate change in the US for some 40 years, look no further than the words of one of the company’s communications strategists, Mobil Vice President of Public Affairs Herbert Schmertz: ”Your objective is to wrap yourself in the good phrases while sticking your opponents with the bad ones,” he wrote in 1986.
From the 1970s through the 1990s, most of the company’s PR efforts focused on casting doubt on the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels was warming the planet. But by the mid-2000s, it was taking a more sophisticated, nuanced approach.
“Energy-saving consumers can make a real difference,” it said in 2007, listing ways consumers can “Be smart about electricity use,” “Heat and cool your home efficiently,” and “Improve your gas mileage” to address climate change. Another ad in 2008 looks to the auto industry: “It is important we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, too. Improving the efficiency of the vehicles people drive is one way to do so.”
There are many examples in ExxonMobil’s advertising materials and other documents right up to 2019, all doing the same thing: Deflecting attention away from the oil company’s role in fueling climate change by supplying fossil fuels and turning attention toward consumer demand for, and dependency on, its products.
We now have a comprehensive view of this strategy, thanks to a new peer-reviewed study by Harvard research associate Geoffrey Supran and Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes in the journal One Earth. In a painstaking analysis, they show how hard the oil giant has worked to keep the conversation about climate solutions focused on the consumer, effectively individualizing responsibility for the problem.