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Exxon Blames You for Climate Change

Exxon Blames You for Climate Change

Over the past few decades, oil companies have largely shifted away from climate denial. Now, you can see the energy giants openly acknowledge that climate change is happening, but their new messaging tends to leave a bad taste in my mouth. A new, first-of-its-kind study by Harvard researchers Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes explains why: The new language makes it seem like climate change is our fault, not theirs.

“It’s a really pernicious kind of gaslighting,” said Supran.

The authors, who published their work One Earth on Thursday, used machine learning to analyze 212 public and internal Exxon documents from 1972 and 2019, including all publicly available internal company memos, all advertorials the company paid for in the New York Times, and all of the firm’s flagship climate change reports. For the painstaking research, they employed three different forms of computational linguistics to locate the differences in how Exxon talks about climate change in public versus in private. The discrepancies were stark.

For instance, in internal discussions about climate change, Exxon frequently uses terms like “fossil fuel,” “fossil fuels,” and “fossil fuel combustion.” Similarly, when talking about the effects of using its own products, Exxon’s internal discussions are full of terms like “fossil fuel emissions” and “fossil fuel CO2.”

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