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How the fossil fuel industry seeds doomism to protect continued extraction
Oil and gas propagandists mess with our emotions and co-opt the language of racial justice
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Last week, a US congressional investigation into climate disinformation exposed some dirty emails between employees of ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell, and their lobbyists. The exchanges are abhorrent, even if not surprising, and add to the pile of evidence that demonstrates the bad faith and deliberate lies continuously being served by a psychopathic industry.
Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash
To honour that important investigation, I’m excited to share a Q and A I recently did with a legal scholar who studies the fossil fuel industry’s morally bankrupt shenanigans, and who knows a thing or two about how the industry’s storytelling collides with the public’s climate emotions.
Grace Nosek is the founder of the University of British Columbia Climate Hub and a PhD Candidate in Law at the Peter A. Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia, where she studies how law can be used to protect climate science from manufactured doubt. Her research on climate litigation and storytelling was cited in the most recent United Nations IPCC report.
Below is Grace’s list of what she considers to be the most damaging effects of the fossil fuel industry’s storytelling practices. Specifically, the fossil fuel industry spends billions to:
fund climate deniers
target teachers and students with propaganda
push the public to feel guilty
seed hopelessness and doomism
attack climate scientists
target climate protesters with surveillance, violence, and serious jail time
co-opt the language of racial justice
pretend to support carbon taxes while spending millions to defeat them
While I’d read and even written about several of those facets of fossil fuel industry wrongdoing before, there were a bunch on Grace’s list that I did not know how to wrap my head around. I asked her to explain, and learned a lot from her responses.
Q and A with Grace Nosek
How does the fossil fuel industry seed hopelessness and doom?
GN: The fossil fuel industry and its allies use both traditional and social media to seed narratives of cynicism, hopelessness, and doomism. In addition to manufacturing uncertainty about whether climate change was real, human-caused, and serious, ExxonMobil spent decades on an expensive advertising editorial campaign to raise doubt about whether climate change was solvable, warning of drastic economic and societal pain if governments took action on climate. An empirical analysis of prominent daily newspapers across the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia found that fossil fuel industry advocates promoted a “cynical fatalism” about government action on climate change designed to protect the status quo of fossil fuel extraction. One of the most telling examples of how fossil fuel interests leverage hopelessness to prevent climate action comes from a leaked 2018 PR firm document. The PR strategy document recommends that a comprehensive coalition of industry, civil society, and political leaders challenge Canada’s proposed federal clean fuel standards by arguing that “fighting climate change is a losing battle.” Strikingly, polling evidence suggests that for people who do not think the government should act on climate, a key factor driving their attitude is they feel there is nothing the government can actually do to stop it. Climate apathy and doomism protect continued fossil fuel extraction.
How does the fossil fuel industry co-opt the language of racial justice?
GN: The NAACP has released a scathing and comprehensive report on how the fossil fuel industry deceives communities and the public about its racial justice bonafides, including by “prais[ing] false solutions while claiming that real solutions are impractical, impossible, or harmful for BIPOC and poor communities” and nine other common tactics. Investigative reporters have echoed the NAACP’s findings. The Los Angeles Times chronicles the example of an environmental justice group director in California who wrote a letter supporting the reopening of a gas company’s storage facility (after it sprung a massive methane leak) only to later reveal she was “reluctantly doing the company’s bidding.” Now the group has stopped taking fossil fuel industry funding and is challenging similar projects. In another example, Gladys Limón the executive director of California Environmental Justice Alliance, has called out United Latinos Vote, a non-profit that is aggressively using the language of racial justice to challenge climate action in California. Limón said United Latinos Vote is an “industry interest group that describes itself as equity-based and cloaks itself by stealing the racial justice language of the movement.”
Such co-opting of racial justice by the fossil fuel industry is particularly egregious because, as the NAACP highlights, climate change exacerbates decades of environmental injustice. Moreover, frontline and racialized communities are often leading the fight for climate justice.
In addition to co-opting the language of racial justice, the fossil fuel industry has helped drive and amplify the government targeting of climate protesters and water protectors in the US, oftentimes in direct response to Indigenous-led resistance to fossil fuel projects. This targeting has taken many shapes, including federal and state legislation that heightens penalties for climate protesters and water protectors, violence, harassment, and surveillance by state and nonstate actors, and retaliatory lawsuits.
How does the fossil fuel industry push the public to feel guilty?
GN: One of the most infamous examples of the fossil fuel industry pushing the public to feel guilty is BP’s popularization of the individual carbon footprint and carbon calculator in the early 2000s. ExxonMobil advertising editorials from the last few decades have also promoted individual responsibility on climate change, including messaging like “Show a little voluntary ‘can do;’” “Be smart about electricity;” and “Improve your gas mileage.” Shell and Chevron also subtly promote messaging suggesting that consumers are primarily to blame for climate change. Another powerful way the fossil fuel industry and its allies make the public feel guilty is through pushing narratives of individual hypocrisy. An analysis of misinformation around the most recent United Nations Conference of the Parties, an annual meeting of global climate decision makers, found that narratives of hypocrisy were shared more than 100,000 times on Twitter and Facebook in the five weeks around the conference by users trying to delegitimize its outcomes.
In addition to having tons of compelling examples at her fingertips for how gddmn frustrating these companies are, Grace is a creative maverick who uses her own storytelling and art to combat fossil fuel industry disinformation. Drawing from her PhD research on how the fossil fuel industry undermines democracy and what can be done to galvanize the public for bold, just climate action, Grace wrote a hopepunk young adult novel called Rootbound. She described it to me as “Greta Thunberg meets The Magicians, with heaps of queer joy and swoony romance”. Using the novel as a jumping off point, Grace is working with youth artists to co-create a virtual, immersive story experience where young people around the world can learn about the root causes of climate change, build empowering community, design their own piece of the fandom, and take collective action. They are incredibly close to meeting their crowdfunding goal to bring it all to life. If you want to learn more about this project and potentially help get it over the line, read this.
Now that you may be fired up about how the fossil fuel industry pollutes our public square with disinformation, co-opts the language of frontline struggles and messes with our emotions, do you want to channel any of that anger towards some kind of action? If so, you’re in good company. Even some oil heirs want to as well. Here’s something to consider if your action taking:
The Climate Emergency Fund
At a time when so many crises are competing for our attention, bringing climate to the forefront — not an easy task under the best of circumstances — might sound daunting. However, an ambitious network of activists based primarily in Europe, are implementing a disruptive yet nonviolent direct action strategy that is garnering major international media attention. The lead group in this effort is Just Stop Oil — a UK based organization that recently earned headlines in The New York Times and beyond, when activists glued their hands to the frames of famous paintings in public museums. These actions followed a series of disruptive events at sporting events including soccer matches and a Formula 1 race. An affiliated activist disrupted the French Open. The visibility of these events is a powerful recruitment tool to raise awareness about the gravity of the climate emergency, to inspire people to take action, and ultimately, to compel legislative change.
The Climate Emergency Fund is the lead funder of Just Stop Oil's recruitment, training, and capacity building efforts, as well as the lead funder of the groups that use Just Stop Oil's disruptive model. This is strategic philanthropy that fills a critical funding niche — support for the bold direct action that history has proven is the best way to create meaningful change on a short timeline.
Climate Emergency Fund's Executive Director Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD is a clinical psychologist turned climate activist. Her theory of change is that people can channel their terror, despair, rage, and other climate feelings into high impact activism. Read more in Margaret's Book- Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth. Or join a Climate Emotions Conversation - and share your climate feelings with others who understand.
There is no question that the timeline to pressure governments to act on climate is now critically short. But direct action on a massive scale offers hope. To learn more, or to support Climate Emergency Fund's efforts, visit www.climateemegencyfund.org.
New climate wellness resource: The Rest of Activism
Maybe you’re already active though, and what you actually need is deep restoration and alleviation of the all-too-common climate activist burnout. A new offering called The Rest of Activism was designed for these souls:
The Rest of Activism is for anyone who is feeling anxious, burned out or in despair due to the climate crisis, and who wants to 'restore joy amid climate sorrow.' The program helps climate concerned folks to fuel themselves, their activism and their life with joy. Joy-fuelled activism reduces the risk of burnout by placing all that we are fighting so hard to protect at the very heart of our lives. The Rest of Activism is an international, grant subsidized program designed to help you restore joy, find support in community and orientate toward planetary and personal healing. Find out more here.
Ask a climate-aware therapist
Do you wish you could talk to a therapist who really understood the depth of challenging thoughts and feelings that can occur when facing up to the climate crisis? Send in your questions for our resident climate-aware therapist Caroline Hickman — a true pioneer of clinical climate psychology and lead author of landmark climate anxiety research — and she will respond to one reader submission in the next newsletter.
That’s all for this edition
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‘Till next time!
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