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Our playbook guide to deceptive fossil fuel practices: part one

When it comes to the insidious techniques that the industry is using to greenwash its image, undermine climate negotiations, and delay progress, there are many. Here, we break down astroturfing and corporate personhood, highlighting how they relate to this year’s COP28 summit.

‘What’s the point of our climate summits if they’re being undermined by a shadow network of fossil fuel lobbying?’

This question, asked by a campaigner to Global Citizen, is one that’s resounded among activists since it was announced earlier this year that oil tycoon Sultan Al Jaber would be leading COP28 in the UAE.

Why? Because despite how urgently we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to avoid a total catastrophe – a matter that will, yet again, be assessed at the UN’s annual conference – fossil fuels still account for 82% of the world’s energy supply, even though it’s common knowledge that coal, oil, and gas are by far the largest contributors to the environmental emergency.

But we aren’t to blame. For decades, fossil fuel giants have been infiltrating policymaking discussions and holding back progress towards achieving a carbon-free future.

Time and time again they’ve prioritised income over change, using a series of insidious techniques to undermine our efforts to save the planet.

Throughout COP28, we’ll be breaking down fourteen of them to raise awareness about how the industry’s playbook continues to play us all.

What is astroturfing and why should you be clued up?

A lot like its namesake, astroturfing is the process of creating fake ‘grassroots’ organisations.

The idea behind these faux ground-up groups – which are funded by vastly wealthy Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Gas companies – is to present opinions as being uninvolved with the big-business agenda they often originate from, attempting to discreetly persuade the public that these views are credible.

With the main goal to simulate public disdain, the fossil fuel industry uses this tactic to give the illusion that far more people oppose forward-looking solutions, such as clean technologies, than actually do.

Their carefully-crafted propaganda is designed to control the individual that engages with it by blurring the lines between truth and lies, all the while preserving fossil fuel infrastructure and sales.

Research has shown that people sourcing their information from websites employing this technique are more uncertain about what causes global warming and how responsible humans are for the crisis.

And not only does it confuse us (particularly as social media has dangerously given rise to deception and dissemination) but it dampens our trust in real lobbying groups. The campaign Big Green Radicals, which paints large environmental organisations as corrupt and hypocritical, is an example of this.

What is corporate personhood and how is it misleading us?

While a slew of major corporations have proclaimed their commitment to slashing emissions, their enduring ties to the fossil fuel industry means that these promises keep falling short.

Much of this inadequacy is due to the lack of implementing regulations for companies to reveal their real data to the public, which is all thanks to corporate personhood, a law defining corporations as able to enjoy and exercise some of the rights and privileges granted to individual people.

Companies can therefore avoid many of the economic and societal ramifications of silently engaging in mass pollution to work solely in favour of their profitability.

This loophole opens the door to corruption and special interests, which, as we know, the fossil fuel industry is a huge fan of.

The most recent example of this came on the back of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which enabled businesses to donate as much as they want to political parties without disclosing it.

Big Oil went to court in April to expand corporate free speech rights even further, arguing in some 30-odd liability and fraud cases that anything their clients had ever said about climate change was ‘in service of shaping policy and thus is protected political speech, even if it was knowingly and intentionally misleading.’


How do these tactics relate to COP28?

In the run up to the summit, an army of at least 100 fake social media accounts took to X to promote and defend the controversial hosting choice.

‘The UAE’s commitment to being the perfect host for COP28 is a testament to its leadership in tackling climate change,’ reads one of the 30,000 posts.

‘Al Jaber is the ally the climate movement needs,’ says another.

The illusion of popular grassroots support was uncovered by disinformation expert, Dr Marc Owen Jones, who described it as a ‘large multilingual astroturfing effort.’

Though it isn’t known who was running the network, a spokesperson told the Guardian it had been generated by outside actors unconnected to COP28 with the intention of discrediting the event.

On the topic of corporate personhood, the UN will conduct a ‘global stocktake’ during the next fortnight.

This is an accounting by each of the 196 signatory countries to the 2015 Paris Agreement on how well they’re doing to keep the worst of the crisis in check and will apply to respective businesses as well.

Spoiler alert: ‘much as with countries, companies are significantly off-track.’