How Big Oil distorts climate change reality with tweaks in language
Almost every climate scientist agrees human-caused climate change is a major global threat. Yet, despite efforts over the past 30 years to do something about it, emissions keep increasing.
Any successful coordinated international response will require action from businesses. However, some organisations, especially those in sectors that significantly contribute to environmental degradation such as the oil industry, seem rather reluctant to embrace the challenge.
Those climate initiatives they have embraced were more often than not prompted by litigation risks or enforced by governmental policies rather than a result of an intrinsic “green” commitment.
This isn’t the impression the industry likes to give off, of course, and it’s no wonder oil companies’ statements on corporate social responsibility and environmental reporting tend to highlight their greenest side. Yet the fact these documents give the oil firms the opportunity to construct their own narrative means they are a useful source for my research in applied linguistics. When a huge volume of language is analysed, features and patterns can emerge that would be invisible to the casual human reader.
My latest study looked at the “climate change reality” constructed by oil industry in its corporate reporting, what language was used to create this reality, and how this changed over time. This sort of analysis of language is important. Language not only mirrors the social world but acts as a lens through which objects, situations and people are given meaning. Features and associations that are foregrounded can point to some level of significance, while what is kept in the background or not mentioned at all can highlight a lack of interest.
This is why I used corpus-linguistic tools – essentially, using a computer to analyse vast amounts of text for certain patterns – to investigate nearly 500 corporate documents produced between 2000 and 2013 by major oil companies (including all the big names). This comprised some 14.8m words published in corporate social responsibility and environmental reports and relevant chapters in annual reports. That’s a lot of words – roughly equivalent to 25 copies of War and Peace.
Using software program Sketch Engine, I looked at how frequently the key corporate terms “climate change”, “greenhouse effect”, and “global warming” were used in each year to reveal how patterns of attention changed over time.
My analysis shows that the most frequently adopted term in the studied sample is “climate change”, while other terms such as “global warming” and “greenhouse effect” are rarely used. The preference for “climate change” and near absence of “global warming” reflects patterns observed in public and media discourse, too.
The use of the term “climate change” experienced peaks and troughs over time, with most mentions between 2004 and 2008, and fewer and fewer mentions since 2010. Less attention to climate change in public debates and overt anti-climate change attitudes on the parts of some governments in recent years might have contributed to the decline in attention given to climate change in corporate reporting.
I then looked at words used alongside “climate change” to gather clues as to the company’s attitude towards it. This showed a significant change in the way it has been portrayed. In the mid-2000s, the most frequent associated terms were “tackle”, “combat” and “fight”, showing climate change was seen as a phenomenon that something could be done about.
However, in recent years, the corporate discourse has increasingly emphasised the notion of “risks”. Climate change is portrayed as an unpredictable agent “causing harm” to the oil industry. The industry tends to present itself as a technological leader, but the measures it proposes to tackle climate change are mainly technological or market-based and thus firmly embedded within the corporate world’s drive for profits. Meanwhile, social, ethical, or alternative solutions are largely absent.
It seems that climate change has become an elusive concept that is losing its relevance even as an impression management strategy. The proactive stance of a decade earlier is now offset by a distancing strategy, often indicated through the use of qualifying words like “potential” or “eventual”, which push the problem into the future or pass responsibility to others.
In doing so, the discourse obscures the oil sector’s large contribution to environmental degradation and “grooms” the public to believe that the industry is serious about tackling climate change.