Fossils Shift Language, Pay Less Heed to ‘Combatting’ Climate Change
The fossil industry that has poured millions of dollars into climate denial is now working to burnish its image with increasingly skeptical investors, just enough to convince them that the future of oil and gas in a warming world is…bright enough.
“It may seem like a tough sell,” Grist reports. “After all, keeping warming limited to 2.0°C means phasing out the very commodity Big Oil is known for. A survey of European fund managers earlier this year found that 86% want oil companies to adopt policies in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement, and 24% think these companies should wind down their business and return money to shareholders.”
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There’s also the small matter of the 26 U.S. oil and gas producers that have already declared bankruptcy this year, along with the collapse of shale stocks despite the country’s booming oil and gas production.
“In the face of these challenges, oil and gas companies are changing the way they talk to investors and the public,” Grist writes. “Based on an analysis of transcripts from the earnings calls of 40 public shale companies in the U.S., the Wall Street Journal and financial research firm Sentieo Inc. concluded that ‘fracking’s buzzwords have changed significantly’ in the past four years, moving from a vocabulary of growth to one that promises to rein in spending.”
Instead of pledges to “ramp up” production, the focus has shifted to delivering on “free cash flow”, a signal that companies will actually bring in more money than they spend and either buy back stock or pay dividends to their investors. Terms like “buyback” and “dividend” are coming up more frequently on earnings calls, Grist says.
Fossils have also taken to using the term “climate change” less frequently in their corporate social responsibility reports, and it isn’t because they’re aligning with the mounting public focus on “climate crisis”, “climate emergency”, and “existential threat”.
“When they did mention our overheating planet, oil companies used increasingly passive language,” Grist states, citing analysis by University of Reading linguist Sylvia Jaworska. “Back in 2007, when the use of ‘climate change’ peaked in the corporate social responsibility reports, it frequently appeared next to ‘combat’. In more recent years, the few times that ‘climate’ did show up, it often showed up near the word ‘risks’”—and the online publication Quartz noted last year that the risks in question have more to do with threats to business than threats to humanity.
“Perhaps the fossil fuel industry’s greatest linguistic accomplishment?” writes Grist’s self-described “resident word nerd”, Kate Yoder. “That our lexicon has come to normalize the role these polluting fuels play in our lives. For example, we talk about ‘hybrid’ or ‘electric’ cars, while gas-powered cars are just…cars.”
That cultural tic prompted University of Toronto political scientist Matthew Hoffman to argue for more explicit language about the harms caused by fossil fuels, Yoder says. “That means saying things like ‘dirty, gas-powered cars; polluting, coal-fired electricity; unsustainable, oil-dependent agriculture’,” she writes. “As for ‘freedom gas’? That’s definitely a no-go.”