Op-Ed: Are we finally willing to limit the supply of fossil fuels?

An oil rig pumps crude oil near the town of Maricopa
A new international road map calls for an immediate halt to new oil and gas fields.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The International Energy Agency’s new landmark road map for holding back catastrophic global warming doesn’t sugarcoat its recommendations. Among the actions it deems necessary are an immediate halt to new oil and gas fields and an end to selling new cars that run on fossil fuel by 2035.

The document, issued Tuesday, is a breakthrough. Finally, world leaders have begun to acknowledge that swiftly clamping down on the supply of fossil fuels is essential to pulling us back from the brink of climate disaster.

Why has something so obvious taken so long to embrace? Why have we focused so much on consumer demand and greenhouse gas emissions without taking direct aim at fossil fuels?


A peer-reviewed study we published last week provides a partial answer to that question: propaganda from the fossil fuel industry.

We conducted a quantitative assessment of how oil giant ExxonMobil has used language to subtly, yet systematically, shape public discourse in misleading ways. We found that in its public statements and promotional materials, the company consistently uses rhetoric aimed at shifting responsibility for climate change away from itself and onto consumers. We also discovered that it uses similar techniques to downplay the reality and seriousness of climate change, and to present fossil fuel dominance as reasonable and inevitable.

In drawing our conclusions, we analyzed 212 documents issued between 1972 and 2019. Some were intended for the public, such as ExxonMobil’s flagship climate change reports from 2002 to 2019 and its paid “advertorials” — advertisements formatted like editorials — concerning climate change that Mobil and then ExxonMobil published in the New York Times between 1972 and 2009. But we also analyzed documents not intended for the public, including ExxonMobil internal company memos that investigative journalists, including ones at this paper, have brought to light. And we analyzed all peer-reviewed publications offered by the company.

We processed the text of all these documents using algorithms that statistically compare how often terms and topics appeared in one set of documents versus another. By using these sorts of statistical techniques from the field of computational linguistics, we minimized subjective judgments and uncovered trends hiding in plain sight. And we found that the company’s advertorials and flagship reports have emphasized some terms and topics while avoiding others, creating misleading public narratives about climate change.

One example is the term “risk,” which Exxon and Mobil systematically introduced as a modifier to “climate change” after their merger in 1999. A risk is something that may or may not happen, so in talking about the risk of climate change, ExxonMobil implied that it was not a reality — even after scientists had clearly demonstrated that it was underway and doing damage.

This appears to have been part of what one ExxonMobil manager saw as “an effort” by then-Chief Executive Rex Tillerson “to carefully reset the corporation’s profile on climate positions so that it would be … less exposed.” To this day, ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips continue to refer to human-caused climate change as a “risk” rather than a reality.

This kind of tactic has a long history. It worked well for the tobacco industry, for example, which worked hard to label smoking “a risk factor” for lung disease but “not a proven cause.”

We found that ExxonMobil’s public-facing documents also statistically overused terms that shifted responsibility for climate change from the producer to the consumer. In material not intended for the public, they often recognized climate change as a problem caused by “fossil fuel combustion” — in other words, they acknowledged the direct role played by their products. In public, however, they overwhelmingly presented climate change as caused by the “energy demand” of “consumers,” and as something best solved through “energy efficiency.” ExxonMobil’s advertorials spoke only of “greenhouse gas emissions,” even as their own scientists often called them what they were: “fossil fuel emissions.”


We also inspected the advertorials using an empirical method called “frame analysis.” We found that ExxonMobil often conflated demand for energy with the necessity of fossil fuel reliance, casting itself as an innocent supplier of something the world needed.

Consumer demand is certainly one aspect of the climate problem, and it will need to play a role in solutions. Yet the disproportionate fixation of ExxonMobil, a supplier company, on demand-side responsibility is reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s well-documented effort “to diminish its own responsibility … by casting itself as a kind of neutral innocent, buffeted by the forces of consumer demand.”

ExxonMobil hasn’t been alone in this effort. The very notion of a personal “carbon footprint,” for example, was first popularized in 2004 to 2006 by oil firm BP in an over-$100-million-per-year U.S. media campaign.

Today, narratives focused on personal responsibility are pervasive in shaping the agenda of many scholars and policymakers. Yale University, for instance, refuses to divest from fossil fuel companies because “consumption of fossil fuels, not production, is the root of the climate change problem.” The Republican Party’s 2020 climate agenda was premised on the idea that “fossil fuels aren’t the enemy. It’s emissions.” Even the Paris climate agreement doesn’t mention fossil fuels.

But this week’s report from the International Energy Agency does mention them — a lot. It may be a turning point, because this is an organization that has repeatedly underestimated the potential of renewables. In the past, fossil fuel companies have loved to cite the agency’s reports to justify business as usual.

The American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry’s largest trade association, responded to the new road map with the same tired talking points we saw over and over in our study, insisting that “any pathway to net zero must include the continued use of natural gas and oil.” The difference now is that such rhetoric isn’t just scientifically misleading; it’s politically obsolete.

Geoffrey Supran is a research associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University and director of climate accountability communication for the Climate Social Science Network. Naomi Oreskes is a professor of the history of science at Harvard University, the author of “Why Trust Science?,” and coauthor, with Erik M. Conway, of “Merchants of Doubt.”