How Big Oil Influenced the Public Perception of Climate Change

Investigating the fossil fuel industry’s creation of barriers to information on the reality of the climate crisis, and how to identify their influence

For decades, the discourse surrounding climate change has been a heavily debated one: questions of “is it real?”, “is it urgent?”, or simply “is it worth the hassle?” arise. While it can and should be recognised as an extremely real, extremely pressing issue, there are still many voices on both mainstream and social media who question not only its urgency but its validity as a theory. Unfortunately, many of those who disregard or discount climate change hold major platforms and influence; who can forget Donald Trump’s ‘so much for global warming’ twitter ramblings. Climate change has been proven time and time again, both by scientists and physical evidence such as extreme weather conditions, rampant, worldwide forest fires including those in California and Australia, and the extinction of species. So how has it become a topic of contention? The answer is: for some industries, climate change is simply bad for business.

The greenhouse effect is one of the primary causes of global warming, and occurs when greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are released into the air, trapping heat in the atmosphere. In 2018, 89% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions came from fossil fuels and industry. Fossil fuels, consisting of coal, oil, and gas, are formed from the decomposition of organisms that died millions of years ago.  When they are burned to create energy, they emit carbon dioxide. Fossil fuels are a non-renewable energy source, and currently supply the majority of the world’s energy. In the Climate Change 2022 produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), fossil fuels are named as the dominant cause of global warming. Therefore, any strive towards slowing climate change and taking action against global warming would force fossil fuel companies to reduce their emissions, which they do not plan to do. In fact, before the pandemic Exxon Mobil planned to increase its emissions by 17% from 2017 to 2025, which it predicted would double its earnings. 

While fossil fuel companies seem like the natural antagonists to combating climate change, this wasn’t always the case. Exxon, now ExxonMobil and the largest investor-owned oil company in the world, once saw climate change as an opportunity to diversify. Between 1977 and 1986, Exxon had researchers investigating climate change and carbon dioxide’s role in it, and this research, with an annual budget of $300 million, was seen to be leading the way in the prevention of climate change.  

However, in the late 1980s fuel prices started dropping due to reduced demand and increased production. In 1986, the price of oil halved, meaning companies like Exxon had to restrategise. With current profits being prioritised over the planet’s future, Exxon turned its resources towards the promotion of fossil fuels and the disavowal of climate change.  

In order to ensure security from oil profits, Exxon needed to contradict the climate change research that it had spearheaded, most of which saw the burning of fossil fuels as the main culprit. In order to divert the blame that they had inadvertently pinned on themselves, they set out to influence the public and policymakers, investing money into large-scale media campaigns designed to negate the veracity, relevance, and severity of climate change. The company funded lobbying groups such as the American Petroleum Institute. A memo from this group leaked to the New York Times in 1998 exposed their intentions to combat the progress against climate change by influencing public perception. It stated that their victory will occur when “a majority of the American public, including industry leadership, recognizes that significant uncertainties exist in climate science.”

A primary weapon used by fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil to achieve this goal was false equivalence: a practice that equates two things based on flawed reasoning. False equivalence was used in the media to give the impression that climate change discourse requires two balanced sides one that recognises it as serious and anthropogenic, and another that questions it completely. The notion that climate change is a subject for debate was extremely damaging to the progress of climate science, but beneficial for fossil fuel companies, whose customers were now presented with the option that climate change was not totally true.

While it’s estimated that 97% of publishing climate scientists believe in anthropogenic climate change, oil companies and their PR firms have been positioning contrarian climate scientists to continue the debate since the 1990s. Notable contrarian scientists include astronomer Willie Soon, physicist William Happer, and climatologist and Director of the Center for Climatic Research at the University of Delaware David Legates. As well as this, plants such as the Heartland Institute (a conservative think tank largely funded by Big Oil) routinely call out media outlets for showing bias in their coverage of climate change issues, while many US cable news shows present climate scientists and climate deniers as equal oppositions in the supposed debate. From the late 1980s onwards, false equivalence was pervasive in climate change discourse, largely due to the influence of the fossil fuel industry.

Another weapon in Big Oil’s arsenal of media manipulation was the invention and distribution of the Op-Ad, an advertorial published in the op-ed section of newspapers, misleading the public into thinking they are reading a regular opinion piece.  These Op-Ads weren’t always obvious denials of climate science, but often simply presented positive stories about companies such as ExxonMobil. Others argued for more relaxed policies on offshore drilling, or a common sense approach to climate change regulation, subtly appealing to and influencing the respective newspaper’s readership. A survey of ExxonMobil’s advertorials from 1977 to 2014 found that only 12% of the advertorials published acknowledge that climate change is real and human-caused, while 81% of those published express doubt.

Due to Big Oil’s efforts to make climate change debatable, it became seen somewhat as a belief rather than a known fact, and therefore could be aligned with certain religious and political belief systems. Big Oil used this to their advantage, using their media manipulation strategies to paint climate change as part of a leftwing agenda, causing right-leaning people to resist climate-conscious restrictions on fossil fuel usage. 

The politicisation of climate change was further fuelled by Big Oil through their funding of political campaigns and their framing of climate change activism as economic scaremongering. Being framed as bad for the economy, and therefore bad for America, climate denial drew in a large number of republican supporters. In a study carried out by Pew Research Center in 2020, it found that 72% of Democrat-leaning Americans believe that climate change is anthropogenic, while only 22% of Republican-leaning Americans agree with the same statement. This indicates that climate change is viewed to be more aligned with left-leaning Americans, which inherently relegates it to a political issue, and a factor in a larger belief system. This deems climate change as something that can be engaged with if it matches other facets of identity, and therefore something you can or cannot identify with.  In this way, climate change can be seen as a threat to a person’s identity if they do not feel aligned with it, which works to discourage a common understanding of the threat it poses.

According to ClientEarth, ExxonMobil is estimated to have spent over $33 million on various methods of spreading doubt and misinformation about climate change since 1998. While they were once the leaders in climate change research, it is now reported that between 2010 and 2018, only 0.2% of ExxonMobil’s capital expenditure was spent on low-carbon energy alternatives. Each year, it is estimated that the fossil fuel industry spends nearly $200 million annually lobbying against policy that would help in the fight against climate change.

The fossil fuel industry has created a barrier to public understanding on climate change that goes back decades. While its influence on media is insidious and pervasive, on an individual level there are certain steps that can be taken to overcome this forced perception of climate change. Firstly, watch out: maintain an awareness that much of the media we consume on a day-to-day basis may not be objective, and can have some bias or ulterior motive. Remain vigilant for inaccurate narratives when reading articles or social media posts surrounding climate change.  Secondly, seek out: pursue reliable sources surrounding climate change, including scientific studies or peer-reviewed papers that present factual and accurate information on the current state of the climate. Lastly, speak out: identify false narratives when you hear them, and warn others against believing any pieces of media that seem sympathetic to industry or suspicious about the reality of climate change.

Of course, there is only so much that individuals can do when up against the trillion-dollar fossil fuel industry and their manipulation tactics. While there is no clear solution to decades of purposeful damage, there is still time to reinstate a worldwide public belief that climate change is a truly pressing issue, and not a topic up for debate. Profits have been prioritised over the planet by those who have the power to prevent climate change, but public awareness of this influence may be key to combating it, opening up the possibility of a more sustainable future, if we are to have any future at all.

Lara Mellett

Second Year English Studies student at Trinity