Sunday Longread: Optimism is necessary in the fight for the environment

The tactics the oil industry uses to fight dirty

Each day, climate change becomes harder and harder to ignore. Many people have tried to make a difference; eating less meat, buying secondhand clothing, and reducing what they buy. Even governments have caught on; in July 2019 the Irish Government put The Climate Action Plan 2019 in place, a long term plan which outlines several goals.  Key features include a five-year carbon budget, the implementation of a Climate Action Delivery Board, and a plan to eliminate non-recyclable plastics. Whilst Ireland and many other countries plan on implementing new action policies, there is one group of people who want the opposite. 

It is no surprise that oil companies and other corporations stand to lose through policies that combat climate change. Michael Mann, a major climatologist, says that the biggest enemies of climate change are the climate change deniers, and the conservative politicians that fund them. 

In July 1977, James F. Black, a senior scientist at Exxon Corporation, warned top executives that doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere would cause global warming and devastate agricultural output. Then for the next 25 years, Exxon funded internal and university collaborations which would delay the widespread acceptance of climate change. 

From the 1990s and 2000s, Exxon helped advance climate change denial internationally; first acting as a significant influence in preventing the United States from joining the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, then by funding organisations critical of this very protocol in order to undermine public opinion about global warming. Even when the company pledged to cut ties with climate change deniers, they continued to fund such organisations and granted nearly $1 million to climate denial groups in 2014. They even went so far as to call emission regulations “aggressive agendas” and did everything in their power to lobby against such regulations.

The likes of this has been occurring for the last fifty years. Now, the voice of companies has changed, knowing now that there is no credible way to deny climate change. So, large corporations have changed their tune. Instead of calling climatologists and activists liars, they are now partaking in greenwashing. This is the process of conveying a false impression about how a company’s products and practices are more environmentally sound than they truly are, in an attempt to capitalise on the growing demand for green products.

In August 2020, Bernard Looney, BP’s CEO said: “what the world wants from energy is changing, and so we need to change, quite frankly, what we offer the world,” and released a 10 aims plan to help reduce carbon emissions. BP has made similar promises in 2008, and before, in 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was agreed. The 2020 plan laid out that BP expects production of oil and gas to be “around 40% lower by the end of the decade but higher quality”, adding that it is not “turning [its] back on oil and gas” and that “hydrocarbons will be integral to BP for decades to come”.

BP makes grand statements about their plans to reduce emissions, but time and time again prove they are dangerous to the planet. In 2010 they were the cause of one of the largest environmental disasters ever: an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which killed 11 people, and resulted in over 4 million tonnes of oil being poured into the coastal waters. This incident affected over 40,000 people, some of which BP are refusing to pay reparations to because they believe “there is no proof” that they were affected. 

Big Oil and those they fund are not only greenwashing their actions but putting the blame on individuals. Rupert Murdoch, a conservative media mogul who owns hundreds of publishing outlets worldwide, accused arsonists of being the cause of Australian wildfires, not the increased temperatures of the planet. Murdoch also published columns in The Australian with statements including: “It has never been shown that human emissions of carbon dioxide drive global warming,” and “Australia’s signed a suicide note [with the Paris Accord].”

This is a common tactic used by corporations to blame individuals. In 1971 beverage and packaging industries put out an ad with the catchline, People Start Pollution. People can stop it.” This ad, which won awards for excellence in advertising, seemed to conveniently exclude the fact that most of the pollution was not due to everyday people, but the fact that industries like the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, and Anheuser-Busch Companies were producing billions of plastic bottles each year- the same companies which funded the PSA.

BP created the first Carbon Footprint Calculator in 2004, so individuals could assess their carbon footprint, even gleefully tweeting about it, saying: “the first step to reducing your emissions is to know where you stand!” Many environmentalists quickly criticised the company, pointing out that BP produces nearly 3.8 million barrels of oil each day. 

This tweet, and many other PR strategies, are designed to make the individual consumer feel guilty about their actions. BP coined and popularised the term “carbon footprint”, its original definition being “the amount of carbon dioxide emissions associated with all activities of a person”. On BP’s website, there are pages for carbon reduction advice, slogans like: “It’s time to go on a low-carbon diet” and “reducing your carbon footprint.” These statements assign responsibility for climate impact on individuals and allow BP to look like they are doing something about their own impact.

In 2003, BP released an ad asking unsuspecting people about their carbon footprint. In the ad, many people used words such as “I,” or “we,” when answering questions about climate change, which conveniently took BP out of the conversation as contributors to the problem. 

“To say that we have no chance to clean up the planet is a misunderstanding of science.” 

By placing responsibility for global warming on individuals over themselves, the oil and natural gas industry are able to convince individuals that they are the problem, not the industry. Along with this, the industry chooses to cause “doomism”: a phrase coined by Michael Mann to explain the phenomenon in which climate inactivists try to convince people that there is nothing they can do to prevent the inevitable doom of climate change. 

Climate deniers and the oil industry know that if people believe there is nothing that can be done, they will no longer try to create meaningful change. The industry weaponises climate science for their own agenda; instead of denying that climate change is having a devastating effect on the planet, they are now claiming that we are doomed to die. For example, there was a theory that once the arctic caps melted, arctic methane gas would cause runaway warming and extinguish life within ten years.  

This in itself is bad science. There is no arctic methane. Yes, the effects of climate change are starting to make their way into our everyday lives, but to say that we have no chance to clean up the planet is a misunderstanding of science. 

The truth is: science is not telling us that we are ultimately doomed; there is still a chance to fight back. The world won’t automatically end in 12 years if emissions don’t decline, but reducing the emissions will help keep our planet habitable for us and the millions of species on it. 

It can be hard to be optimistic in hard times, but there are moments to feel positive about: there is a rapid take up of renewable energy now and large investments being pushed into renewable energy infrastructure. As climate activism becomes more and more mainstream, people are beginning to put pressure on governments to act fast. The United States, one of the largest global emissions contributors, now have climate policy coordinated into every single government agency. 

This alone will not be enough to save the planet. The most important thing climate activists can do is to vote and use their voice to encourage the government to implement policies, and to not believe the doom based narrative being pushed by the media and the oil industry – your voice does make a difference, and change can happen! But you cannot let oil companies tell you otherwise.

This article was updated at 09:48 on March 16 to clarify the details of the BP plan released in August 2020.

Nina Chen

Nina Chen is the Deputy SciTech Editor for Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister student of Chemical Sciences.