Climate Deniers and the Language of Climate Obstruction

From narratives about fossil fuels as a solution to climate advocates as out of touch with reality, here’s how the fossil fuel industry and its allies are weaponizing words to delay climate action.
Stella Levantesi
Stella Levantesi
Series: Gaslit
Red spray paint on a white building that says 'I don't believe in global warming' and is reflected in rising water below
Banksy art reflecting on climate denial. Credit: Magnus D, CC BY 2.0

On a recent episode of the Fox Business show “Mornings with Maria,” American Petroleum Institute CEO and President, Mike Sommers, said that “the most important environmental movement in the world is the American oil and gas industry.”

“A super absurd example of oil and gas companies appropriating and weaponizing the language of climate advocates for their own greenwashing,” commented author and climate activist Genevieve Guenther on Twitter.

Sommers’ statement may be, in fact, one of the most literal examples of how fossil fuel companies are using language to perpetuate their climate denial and fend off action. And because public perception and awareness of the climate crisis are, at least in part, driven by how we talk about it, the fossil fuel industry has used language “to create smoke and mirrors and false impressions around what they’re really doing,” said Christine Arena, author, expert on climate disinformation, and former Executive Vice President at the PR firm Edelman. Arena was one of six employees to resign in 2015 following revelations of the firm’s greenwashing work with fossil fuel lobbies and associations.

PR firms — or “the enablers,” as Arena calls them — have played a key role in exploiting communication and manipulating language to their advantage, all while working on behalf of the fossil fuel industry and using a tobacco industry playbook. Ultimately, they’ve been using it to obstruct climate action, a longtime goal of the oil, gas, and coal industries. “If we take a step back and ask ourselves, why has meaningful action to avert the climate crisis proven to be so difficult? It is at least in part because of communications and because of the language coming from the fossil fuel industry,” said Arena.  

Today, the fossil fuel industry and its allies are “appropriating and weaponizing” language from climate advocates, usually in ways that are much less obvious than Sommers’ recent comment.

“The industry is repeating the same phrases it’s hearing from the climate movement to use for their own advertising purposes. They are commandeering the language of sustainability and of the climate movement,” Arena said of fossil fuel companies, adding that they are doing so “to create a false perception that they’re on our side.”

Fossil Fuel Solutionism

Language around climate solutions is particularly susceptible to this treatment, especially as polluting companies invest in strategies and tactics to present themselves as part of the solution to climate change when, clearly —as they continue to prioritize drilling for globe-warming fuels — they are not. That’s ExxonMobil touting its “lower-emission solutions” and staff working to “develop our global strategy for creating sustainable energy” while planning a $10 billion investment in new oil and gas reserves in South America. Some researchers have called this “fossil fuel solutionism.” 

“This sort of inevitability of fossil fuels — I think that’s a place where language is really important,” said Timmons Roberts, social scientist and executive director of the Climate Social Science Network at Brown University. He says the fossil fuel industry encourages this perception that everyone is complicit in climate change by using its products and is therefore too reliant on them to ever transition away  

The strategy is part of a broader communications shift among polluters and their advocates. No longer are oil and gas executives straight-up “denying” that the climate is changing; instead the message becomes one that ultimately slow-walks real climate action — saying, it’s too expensive to address, it’s too late to do anything. “We call these ‘climate delay’ discourses, since they often lead to deadlock or a sense that there are intractable obstacles to taking action,” write Roberts and his colleagues in their  “Discourses of climate delay” analysis.

Fossil fuel companies and their allies may use delay arguments and tactics across a range of platforms: in promotional campaigns, public declarations, online ads, social media, or political lobbying. Nowadays, the messaging may contain “a blend” of factual omissions and rhetorical distortions, according to Arena, that can be more confusing to people and, therefore, more dangerous than outright lies.

“If you say ‘clean coal’ a lot of people are going to know that there’s no such thing, so that’s easier for the audience to identify,” said Arena. “But then when you look at ExxonMobil’s language around carbon capture, for example, they’ll say things like ‘it’s going to take an all-of-the-above approach,’ and when the oil and gas industry says ‘all of the above,’ they mean oil and gas first.”

Arena considers this type of wording to be a form of greenwashing, where a company uses “selective micro truths,” she explained, in order to create a misleading impression. This type of language is more insidious because it’s creating the perception that oil and gas companies really are “part of the solution” and don’t need regulatory intervention — which they are often lobbying against elsewhere.

“Cleaner burning.” “Lower emissions fuels.” “Lower carbon future.” These phrases are all examples of this, Arena said. 

Many of these terms appear on fossil fuel companies’ social media accounts or websites. ExxonMobil uses the phrase “advancing climate solutions” and “lower emission energy future.” Shell is “working…to accelerate the transition to net-zero emissions.” Chevron is “advancing a lower carbon future.”

By participating in the public discourse in this way, fossil fuel companies can manipulate public perceptions by making “support” seem like action. “‘Supporting the Paris agreement’ is also deceptive because it makes it look like they are in line with Paris,” said Arena. “They’re not.”

A new report from more than 40 groups, published by Oil Change International, has found that major U.S. and European oil and gas companies “still fail to meet the bare minimum for alignment with the Paris Agreement.” These companies’ pledges and commitments are far from credible, the report concludes, when they are planning more than 200 fossil fuel expansion projects between now and 2025.

The History of Junk Science, Alarmists, and Climate Prophets

Denier and delayer communication strategies aren’t new; in fact they have always been central to the fossil fuel industry and its allies’ climate obstruction.

In the 1990s, for example, “sound science” was an expression used by climate deniers to attack and counter climate science — or “junk science,” as some deniers, such as former Fox News columnist and founder of the website Steve Milloy, referred to the work of climate scientists like Michael E.Mann.  

In another past strategy, that’s now regaining steam, climate deniers and delayers have been employing the terms “realists” and “alarmists.” In 2020, Cambridge University researcher Giulio Corsi and I analyzed the use of these terms on Twitter, finding a 900 percent increase in their use over the previous four years. As the climate movement was gaining international attention with massive protests between 2018 and 2019, we saw that spikes in tweets about “alarmism” and “realism” often corresponded to high-profile speeches by activist Greta Thunberg. The trend also coincided with the Heartland Institute, a U.S. think tank and notorious promoter of climate disinformation, enlisting young German YouTuber Naomi Seibt as a counter-figure to Thunberg to denounce her and climate scientists’ “alarmism.” 

A young woman holds a microphone with three people standing behind her on a building steps
Youth activist Greta Thunberg speaking at the Vancouver, Canada, climate strike march in November 2019. Credit: Kris Krüg for DeSmog

This framing exploits the negative connotation of the term “alarmist” in order to discredit a legitimate scientific warning, while trying to associate backers of fringe theories about, say, sunspots causing global warming, with rationality and realism.

Milloy employed a combination of these terms when he wrote in 2002: “When the Clean Air Act was enacted in 1970, air pollution in the U.S. was more of an aesthetic than a public health problem. […] Few people realize this after 30 years of non-stop junk science-fueled alarmism from environmental activists.” [Emphasis added.]

For decades, deniers have used rhetoric likening those who warn about the catastrophic impacts of the climate emergency to someone who is “out of touch with reality.” You can find it in the 1998 American Petroleum Institute “action plan,” born just a few months after the Kyoto Protocol and developed by Exxon, Chevron, Southern Company, and representatives from conservative organizations, including Milloy. The memo clearly stated that: “Victory will be achieved when those promoting the treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.” [Emphasis added.]

Both uses of language – “sound science” versus “junk science” and “alarmists” versus “realists” – create an “us versus them” dynamic. The result is two polarizing, and utterly fabricated, positions on climate science. 

We can see the fossil fuel industry using language in a similar way in its public-facing propaganda, projecting political meaning on its opponents.

“Propaganda is about manipulating public opinions, stoking fears, and sewing divisions,” said Arena. “When they talk about ‘the woke’ or the ‘climate industrial complex’ or ‘activist extremists,’ that is all propaganda. The industry is blaming rising gas prices on ‘woke liberals’ or on renewables or on climate activism.  Those are false narratives and they are propaganda-based.”

Illustration of a man in suit with hardhat lighting a gas street lamp, which casts a green glow on stream, plants, solar panels, and wind turbines, but outside the light's circle, the background is dark purple and filled with industrial fossil fuel infrastructure and burning trees
This story is part of Gaslit, a column that seeks to navigate society’s dysfunctional relationship with fossil fuel disinformation.

According to John Cook, founder of Skeptical Science and research fellow at Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub in Australia, fossil fuel industry propaganda has been intensifying the “othering” of climate scientists and advocates for climate action for some time.

“There’s a lot of terminology that has become more powerful in sending that signal that climate advocates are different,” said Cook. “Labels to say, ‘these people who care about climate change are trying to change society.’” Climate denial is intimately connected to values like individual freedom and free market fundamentalism, he explained. That’s why those labels are often extended in meaning to accuse climate advocates of a “radical liberal agenda,” said Arena. 

The “othering” of climate advocates isn’t only by fossil fuel companies. In September 2021, the Italian Minister of the Ecological Transition called climate activists “radical chic” and said that the “extremist and ideological ones” are “worse than the climate catastrophe.” 

Over time, the language of climate deniers and delayers has evolved from “basic climate denial” to “culture wars,” said Arena Culture wars are strictly linked to political ideology: that’s why some words are chosen by deniers and delayers over others, because they “tap into broader values” and “activate” their supports, added Cook. For example, deniers might pose the argument that “[climate action] is going to impinge on their freedom,” he said.

The Supposed Church of Climate Change 

Another linguistic tactic used to denigrate those who support climate action is to cast an issue with roots in science — climate change — as one of religion. In Italy, for example, the daily newspaper Il Foglio uses pseudo-religious terms when referencing climate change: ecology becomes “a religion to replace canceled Christianity” where “you kiss trees and worship whales;” switching to an electric car is “fanatical;” climate change is referred to as “dogma.” And Friday, the Italian paper writes, has become the day of “forced conversion to sustainability” when youth climate activists go on strike from school, as part of Greta’s “children’s crusade.”

Associating climate change with religion reinforces the denier message that the build-up of greenhouse gases and its far-reaching global impacts is actually a matter of faith and has nothing to do with a factual, physical reality in the form of heatwaves and hurricanes. In this scenario, climate advocates seem unreasonable, disconnected from reality and unable to see things clearly. The effect is to relegate those supporting climate science to one end of the spectrum, one where we don’t need to address the intensifying impacts of heating the globe. 

But this zealous religious framing happens  beyond the pages of Il Foglio. According to Cook, deniers also use words like “cult” and “high priests” to describe climate advocates, while emphasizing that they themselves are “treated like heretics.”

“They are framing themselves as the rational scientific person and the scientists or advocates as the hysterical, biased, faith-based and not evidence-based,” said Cook of climate deniers. “They’re trying to flip reality because ideology is driving their denial.”

Don’t Worry, Just Adapt!

Another narrative emerging from the denial and delayer camp is that “adapting” to climate change will be our lifeline: Those perpetuating it end up downplaying the impacts of the climate crisis because they say we will be able to adapt to it.

In a May 31 Slate article about Alex Epstein’s new book Fossil Future, which advocates for fossil fuels, Nitish Pahwa writes: “The new style of climate denial is here: It’s not that carbon emissions aren’t increasing, or aren’t warming the world, but look, you’re doing fine right now, right? So, we’ll be just fine!”

On May 20, Stuart Kirk, the head of responsible investing for HSBC’s asset management division, said at a Financial Times conference, “Who cares if Miami is six meters underwater in 100 years? Amsterdam has been six meters underwater for ages, and that’s a really nice place. We will cope with it.” Kirk was later suspended for his comments.

Stuart Kirk, head of responsible investing for HSBC’s asset management division, was suspended for his comments to investors in which he downplayed the risks of climate change.

This argument implies that working to slow climate change is futile and offers adaptation as “the only possible response” to the climate crisis, according to Roberts and his colleagues in their “Discourses of delay” analysis.

“Every day there’s new discourses being invented either by the actors in these industries that don’t want to make the energy transition or by their public relations firms with tremendous capacity in terms of developing new language discourses,” said Roberts. 

Effective PR is a key element to designing a convincing greenwashing campaign. “The PR and ad industry plays a central role in enabling climate obstruction,” said Arena. And the American Petroleum Institute’s “We’re on it” campaign is the perfect example of this. “They’re not on it. The only thing that they’re on is architecting and spreading more disinformation, which they are the quarterbacks of doing,” she added.

From fossil fuel solutionism to adaptation-only narratives, these climate obstruction tactics commandeer language in an attempt to undermine one of the most urgent and far-reaching challenges of our day. And the momentum behind such deceptive language is only building.

“We are on a dangerous trajectory,” Arena said. “I would say broadly that climate disinformation and greenwashing are getting much worse, and today we have many more examples to point to than we even did back when the industry was trying to deny climate change altogether.”

Understanding how opponents of climate action employ these discourses of delay is essential to recognizing climate disinformation and misinformation, Arena said, and ultimately to disrupting it. “We have to redouble our efforts to hold these companies and their enablers accountable.”

Stella Levantesi
Stella Levantesi is an Italian climate journalist, photographer, and author. She is the author of the Gaslit series on DeSmog. Her main areas of expertise are climate disinformation, climate litigation, and corporate responsibility on the climate crisis. Her book “I bugiardi del clima” (Climate Liars) was published in Italy with Laterza, and her work has featured in The New Republic and Nature Italy. You can follow her on Twitter @StellaLevantesi.

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