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Our playbook guide to deceptive fossil fuel practices: part four

When it comes to the insidious techniques that the industry is using to undermine climate negotiations and delay progress, there are many. Here, we discuss the ways fossil fuel companies work to undermine climate science, as well as their tactics to target young people, further normalising the future of continued fossil fuel use.

People often say that the truth is stranger than fiction, and that certainly applies to fossil fuel companies’ historic relationship with climate science.

Although the industry may be actively denying the facts around global warming now, scientists working within a fossil fuel company were among the first to predict that the continuous burning of oil, gas, and coal would result in catastrophic planetary heating – seven decades ago.

That company, ExxonMobil, is still operating today. It raked in an unprecedented $55.7 billion in profits last year, beating its previous annual earnings record of $45.2 billion during the economic recession of 2008.

Exxon representatives are at COP28 right now, lobbying for the continued success of their business, along with other industry playmakers from Shell and Total. Their combined presence at the climate summit outnumbers every country’s delegation apart from Brazil, which has over 4,000 delegates.

So how did we get here? As profits grew, big oil’s care for the natural world and all living things shrank – but that’s stating the painfully obvious.

Let’s get into the jaw-dropping history of how the industry became some climate scientists’ best (and worst) enemies, and how they’re working to convince young people that fossil fuels are a vital and acceptable part of their future.


Denying and covering up the science

Throughout the twentieth century, inside the headquarters of oil, gas, and coal companies, profit margins began to take precedence over environmental protection. A dark chapter unfolded, defined by the relentless denial and covering up of climate science.

The first instance of this took place in 1977 at ExxonMobil (formerly and ironically known as Humble Oil), when internal scientists raised a red flag, stating:

‘Although appreciable amounts of carbon dioxide have undoubtedly been added from soils by tilling of land, apparently a much greater amount has resulted from the combustion of fossil fuels.’

In other words, we’re not just releasing planet-warming carbon into the environment by drilling for oil and gas, we are releasing further unsustainable amounts when they are burned for energy – and that’s a big problem.

Internal documents from Chevron dating to the 1980s showed that its scientists were researching the impacts of fossil fuel emissions on the climate. They, too, had landed upon the same conclusion.

Around the same time, Shell also learned of the risks associated with the burning of fossil fuels. It even predicted potential consequences such as rising sea levels and disruptions to ecosystems.

Still, these companies chose a path of deception over acting responsibly.

ExxonMobil and its fellow fossil-fuel-fiends spent the following decades funding climate change denial groups, intending to cast doubt on the scientific community’s research. The narrative they propagated actively questioned the validity of climate models while undermining the credibility of scientists.

By the late 80s, though, the facts about the environmental danger of fossil fuels were rapidly becoming public knowledge. Oil, gas, and coal companies needed to go harder if they wanted us to drink the Kool-Aid.

To ensure their ability to greenlight new projects and boost profit margins wouldn’t be sabotaged, the industry hired a slew of independent scientists. One of them was Willie Soon.

Willie Soon is a Malaysian astrophysicist who received more than $1.2 million in cash from various industry giants in exchange for publicly and consistently downplaying the facts about fossil fuel emissions.

His catalogue of research – which claims climate change is caused by the sun – was published in prominent scientific journals, presented on popular news channels, and referenced at climate change denial conferences.

Soon even testified before Congress and in state capitals, not once letting the truth about his hefty subsidies from fossil fuel giants slip. He became and continues to be a key pillar of the climate-denying community.


Accessing people in power

Why stop with rebuking established scientists and misleading the public? If you really want to succeed, you must get involved with the big boys.

This is where the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) comes in. ALEC is an organisation that connects corporations with state policymakers to draft model legislation. Establishing a partnership with them would become an immensely important move for the fossil fuel industry.

Climate Investigation reports that Exxon has paid ALEC well over $1.6 million dollars in exchange for policies that allowed business as usual to continue since 1998. The organisation promotes bills that block environmentally protective legislation, all the while bolstering climate scepticism.

In 2015, The Guardian exposed a web of tight-knit relationships between ALEC and fossil fuel giants like Chevron and Peabody Energy, raising serious questions about the democratic process and the influence wielded by big oil corporations over legislation.

Also on the industry’s side is the American Petroleum Institute (API), the largest trade association representing the oil and gas industry in the US.

While API does not deny the reality of climate change, it has been criticised for aligning with the interests of its member companies, actively lobbying against climate regulations and funding studies that cast doubt on the efficacy of climate policies or the need for stringent regulations.

These leaks, reports, and investigations reveal a campaign rooted in spreading misinformation, coercive political lobbying, and manipulation of the public. This brings us to our next section – marketing to future generations.


Luring in the youth

Getting the most socially and environmentally conscious generations of all time to embrace a fossil fuel future won’t be easy, which is why the industry is targeting the youth while they’re at their most impressionable – during kindergarten.

Fossil fuel companies, including BP and Shell, are doing this by painting a rosy picture of the industry’s role in energy production inside classrooms. In a book called ‘Petro Pete’, young children hear a story about a boy learning about oil and natural gas.

Before bed, he wonders what ‘life would be like if we didn’t have petroleum,’ and then wakes up to that reality, finding that he has no toothbrush, no clothing, and no toys.

As the reader, you’re supposed to get the impression that Pete’s life absolutely sucks without petroleum. Of course, the book conveniently omits any mention of the detrimental impact of fossil fuels on the environment.

Social media platforms have also become viable means of manipulation for fossil fuel companies, who employ sophisticated techniques to cloak their products in an eco-friendly facade.

Major oil companies have spent millions on advertising campaigns that position them as champions of environmental causes. Shell’s 2018 #MakeTheFuture campaign, for instance, featured flashy videos and celebrity endorsements, creating an illusion of a company committed to sustainability.


The oil giant also partnered with Fortnite to push its new ‘V-Power Nitro+’ gasoline, encouraging gamers to go on in-game road trips and fill up between missions at virtual Shell gas stations.

Later, as kids grow up and start thinking about careers, fossil fuel companies work to instil fear over job insecurity. They frame progressive climate policies, such as emissions reduction targets or the transition to renewable energy, as detrimental to the economy and job market.

In the face of a looming climate crisis, the exploitation of the youth’s vulnerability to shape perceptions is a disconcerting reality.

The battle for a sustainable future hinges on dismantling these manipulative tactics and empowering young people to see through the smoke and mirrors, call out blatant industry lies, and hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their role in perpetuating environmental degradation.

To learn more from our ongoing series, click here.