How to spot five of the fossil fuel industry’s biggest disinformation tactics

Much like the fictional Joker's desire for chaos and ruthless dominance, the fossil fuel industry's decades-long disinformation campaigns strive to generate confusion and maintain their profit-driven grip on global energy generation desipte the growing realities of the climate emergency.Much like the fictional Joker's desire for chaos and ruthless dominance, the fossil fuel industry's decades-long disinformation campaigns strive to generate confusion and maintain their profit-driven grip on global energy generation desipte the growing realities of the climate emergency. (Image: TM & DC Comics. 2008 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

By Amy Westervelt and Kyle Pope
Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd.

When politicians talk about how much it will cost to act on climate change they almost always refer to economic models commissioned by the fossil fuel industry, which leave out the cost of inaction, which rises with every passing year.

From fueling wars to preserving national security, the fossil fuel industry loves to trumpet its role in keeping the world safe, even when it is engaging in geopolitical brinksmanship that makes everyone decidedly less so. In the context of national security, it’s worth noting that the US military started funding net-zero programs back in 2012 and listing climate change as a threat multiplier in its Quadrennial Defense Review a decade ago. But oil companies and their trade groups ignore that reality and instead insist the threat is in reducing fossil fuel dependence.

It is true that energy self-sufficiency contributes to any nation’s stability, but there’s no rule that says energy has to come from hydrocarbons. In fact, it’s well-documented that depending on an energy source vulnerable to the whims of world commodity markets and global conflicts is a recipe for volatility.

Weaponizing science to drive disinformation

In 2021, a peer-reviewed paper entitled “Weaponizing Economics” tracked the activity of a group of economic consultants who were hired by the petroleum industry for decades. “They produced analyses that were then used by both companies and politicians … to tell the public that it would just be way too expensive to act on climate, and that in any case, climate change was not going to be a big deal, so the best thing to do would be to do nothing,” the paper’s co-author Ben Franta, head of the Climate Litigation Lab at Oxford University, said.

Related: Only a few degrees of global warming? So what.

Advertisements like Energy Transfer Partners’ “Our Lives Are Petroleum” campaign, which has been running since 2021, also serve the purpose of shaming people into keeping quiet on climate unless they have successfully rid their own lives of hydrocarbons. The logic goes: if you use a phone or drive a car, or really, if you live in the modern world at all, you’re the problem. Not the companies that have worked for decades to make their products seem indispensable and block any alternatives to them.

Empty promises to undermine regulation

Nothing keeps away regulation like promises of voluntary solutions that make it seem like the fossil fuel industry is really trying. In a 2020 exposé, Greenpeace’s investigative newsroom, Unearthed, caught an Exxon lobbyist on camera explaining this tactic had worked with a carbon tax to head off emissions regulations and how the company was pursuing the same strategy with plastic.