Spring 2024

Brennan Rhodes, "The Narrative of Climate Change Culpability"


This research aims to analyze the politicized narratives surrounding the culpability of climate change, and the subsequent confrontation of these narratives through grassroots movements. Through a discursive analysis framework, this research provides contextual evidence from the recent past with programs such as the “Three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” campaign and the effort to ban plastic straws pushed by the fossil-fuel industries to produce a personal-responsibility narrative of culpability. The personal-responsibility narrative blames the average person through their individual consumption habits shifting culpability away from the fossil-fuel industry and diverting attention from their exploitative efforts in the Global South. In recent years however, a collective shift has been awakened through the rise of social media and grassroots movements galvanizing social consciousness. Through the framework of author Naomi Klein’s concept of Blockadia, one can understand how grassroots movements across the world are pointing the finger at the true culprits of climate change thus shifting the entire narrative of climate change culpability on its head. The constructed media campaigns produced by the fossil-fuel industry are no longer effective. Now, the fossil-fuel industry must confront the consequences of environmental degradation in the Global South and around the world propelled by their reckless actions.
Keywords: climate change, environmental degradation, fossil fuels, hypercapitalism, media campaigns, Blockadia

The Narrative of Climate Change Culpability

            It’s often the case when people think about the solution to climate change, the immediate thought is to reduce individual consumption or purchase more sustainable products. This mentality is defined as the narrative of “personal-responsibility” which encourages the individual to live in an environmentally conscious manner which is incredibly admirable. However, the solution of individual consumption reduction is not entirely well-placed. For example, only about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in the United States are produced by the energy use of individual households (Goldstein, et al. 2020). While this is a significant amount and should be reduced, what is not immediately recognized is that individual households are not the main culprit. 70% of historical global GHGs are produced by just 100 fossil-fuel corporations (Hyman 2020). Despite this, the public continues to operate in the personal-responsibility framework. This is evident with the social media movement against the use of plastic straws in 2020 which lead to several countries and regional entities banning them, along with increased calls against single-use plastics. The public was focused in the wrong direction, but that’s not their fault. The fossil-fuel industry has spent millions in marketing campaigns perpetuating the personal-responsibility framework to protect their profits and globalized expansion efforts. However, consistent failures of top-down environmentalism (environmental policies from the federal level) have culminated in strong public frustration against climate inaction leading to what Naomi Klein defines as “Blockadia” or a transnational movement of localized protests against extraction projects. The rise of hegemonic neoliberalism, global market reforms and extreme privatization, since the 1970s has fostered an economy necessary for the fossil-fuel industry to produce misinformation campaigns to escape culpability; however, the emergence of Blockadia threatens to shift previously accepted personal-responsibility narratives and point the finger at those truly responsible for climate change: the fossil-fuel industry.
            In the Business Insider article, “The Companies Polluting the Planet Have Spent Millions to Make You Think Carpooling and Recycling Will Save Us”, Morgan McFall-Johnsen delves into the marketing tactics implemented by the fossil-fuel industry to promote consumer habits and personal-responsibility as the sole solution to climate change. The personal-responsibility narrative is not unique to the fossil-fuel industry and has been mechanized throughout history. One of the most infamous examples is the tobacco industry’s marketing efforts in the 1950s. Tobacco companies hired public relations firms to create smear campaigns blaming smoking-related illnesses on the smoker themselves, rather than accept any responsibility. In their perspective, “individual habits” were the reason for smoking-related illnesses rather than the influential advertisement campaigns of the tobacco industry to sell their product without any health warnings (McFall-Johnsen 2021). In more recent years, personal-responsibility was utilized by the plastic industry. Throughout the 2000s, initiatives to reduce the use of single-use plastics began to take hold. When faced with this effort, plastic-producing companies spent millions of dollars to promote recycling programs across the United States. One of these programs included, the “Three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” which became popular in elementary schools across the country. According to Ron Liesemer, a former DuPont marketing manager, plastic-producing companies such as Chevron, Exxon, Dow, and DuPont marketed recycling to save their product and improve plastic’s image (McFall-Johnsen 2021). The efforts proved successful and plastic production “increased 10-fold” from 1971 to 2015 (McFall-Johnsen 2021). However, we now recognize that less than 10% of that material was recycled and the majority ended up in the ocean. The efforts of the plastic industry proved fruitful, and the fossil-fuels industry took notice, effectively “recycling the plastics tactic” (McFall-Johnsen 2021).
            McFall-Johnsen interprets the findings of Stanford researcher, Ben Franta, who specializes in the propaganda tactics of the fossil-fuel industry. According to Franta, it is evident that fossil-fuel companies have known since the 1960s that oil extraction and production negatively alter the climate. However, to hide this fact and maintain steady profit growth, fossil-fuel companies resorted to the fruitful marketing tactics tested by both the plastic and tobacco industries. McFall-Johnsen backs this up by explaining that ExxonMobil was on the council leading the charge for recycling programs across the United States in response to proposed single-use plastic bans. However, the issue now is the rising consciousness about global warming to which fossil-fuel companies responded with marketing campaigns promoting personal-responsibility (McFall-Johnsen 2021). A journalist for the Daily Utah Chronicle by the name of Mackenzie McGrath in her article titled, “Plastic Straws Aren’t Killing Us, Corporations Are”, utilizes a term that is appropriate for this situation: “climate gaslighting” (McGrath 2020). Climate gaslighting is the end goal for the fossil-fuel industry, to push more and more misinformation until the public accepts culpability. These misinformation campaigns centered on urging “consumers” to reduce their gas mileage and vehicle dependency or smarter electricity and HVAC usage, meanwhile only referring to the public as “consumers” reenforcing the “consumer habits” narrative of personal-responsibility (McFall-Johnsen 2021). There is no doubt that the aforementioned actions benefit the environment, however, it becomes capitalized by the fossil-fuel industry to shift culpability onto the public and disguise their environmentally degrading oil extraction practices.
            Furthermore, another huge public relations initiative that garnered international social media attention was the “carbon footprint calculator” in which one could estimate their individual carbon emissions “footprint” by inputting their approximate water and energy use along with their diet and lifestyle. The footprint was a huge marketing success and people began to live in accordance to reducing their personalized carbon footprint. However, the carbon footprint calculator was first funded and published by the British oil and gas company, BP, to divert focus away from the industry onto the individual (McFall-Johnsen 2021). Simultaneously, the fossil-fuel industry pushes misinformation campaigns about the legitimacy of climate change itself. The misinformation pushed by the fossil-fuel companies “have driven widespread false perceptions amongst the American public” leading to a large portion of American society believing that the science behind climate change is debatable (Hyman 2020). Climate denialism and misinformation is prominent within the United States leading to “10% fewer Americans seeing climate change as a major threat to their country relative to the international median” (Hyman 2020). The fossil-fuel industry utilizes their marketing tactics to cater to both sides of the climate change debate to escape culpability from either side.
            The central question becomes, do our individual actions matter if the fossil-fuel industry refuses to take accountability for their actions? There are currently no strong incentives for the fossil-fuel industry to regulate their behavior, thanks in part to the global economic dominance of neoliberalism. To clarify, neoliberalism is the reliance on “privatized economic activity to replace organized state systems for human provision and welfare” (Ahuja 2021, 20). Neoliberalism arose in prominence in the 1970s and 1980s, driven significantly by the oil economy, and characterized by strong competitive free markets, deregulation, austerity, and corporate privatization. The deregulation of privatized economic sectors increases the probability that corporations will cut corners to increase profit, including the ability for corporations to press for the removal of environmental regulations (Monbiot 2016). Despite recent pledges by fossil-fuel companies to reduce their pollution contributing to climate change, many maintain deceptive practices to protect their profits. According to the National Whistleblower Center, fossil-fuel companies continue to understate environmental liabilities and “the immediate risks that climate change poses to companies’ financial condition” to their investors (2020). Climate gaslighting is not only externally focused, but internally as well. Neoliberalism’s emphasis on privatization fosters the environment necessary for these corporations to expand and industrialize further, without regard for the environmental impact, and utilize marketing campaigns to protect their exploitative efforts. A solid foundation of neoliberalism is critical to fully understand the reason behind these deceptive marketing tactics.
            However, not only are these marketing campaigns necessary to protect their ability to grow and expand their profit margins but serve as a mechanism to hide historical exploitative practices and violent fallout from neoliberalism and the greed of the oil economy. The neoliberalization of the global oil markets increased the power, profit, and control of the fossil-fuel industry, establishing a world order reliant upon the success of the oil economy. Developing nation-states of the Global South have become reliant upon the import of fuel and food, thus becoming vulnerable to the instabilities of the oil economy which dictate the Global North’s budget flexibility (Ahuja 2020, 20). The marketing campaigns protect the fossil-fuel industry to maintain hegemony over the world economy. The dominance of the fossil-fuel industry over global economic markets has had violent consequences in the past which is another motivator to protect their public relations image. For example, in the Niger River Delta of Nigeria in the 1990s, gas flaring was responsible for 40% of Nigeria’s carbon emissions. In response, the Ogoni people – who are indigenous to the land – asserted their land rights and proclaimed they have final say over the resources of their land. They established the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) and organized a march of 300,000 people to protest the extraction processes by Shell. This march, coupled with the commandeering of offshore gas installations, barges, and platforms, were deemed “ecological wars” and resulted in the closure of Shell enterprises in Nigeria in 1993. However, oil comprises 95% of Nigeria’s export revenues thus the Nigerian government perceived the Ogoni as a threat. The Nigerian government tortured and killed “thousands of Delta residents” and “dozens of Ogoni villages were razed” (Klein 2014, 265). Despite the intense repression by the Nigerian government, today all oil production has ceased in Ogoniland marking one of the biggest achievements of grassroots environmental activism “anywhere in the world” (Klein 2014, 264). While the violence is not directly correlated to Shell, the reason for the uprising is. The violent fallout from the Nigerian government is caused by the demands of neoliberalism and its emphasis of product over people. The success of MOSOP is another aspect that the fossil-fuel industry wants to hide. However, MOSOP is a part of something greater, it is part of a transnational movement called Blockadia which flips the dominant personal-responsibility narrative on its head.
            In her book, The Changes Everything, Naomi Klein explains the concept of Blockadia is the series of transnational localized movements fighting back against extraction projects united in a recognition of the extreme threat of climate change (Klein 2014, 262). Blockadia is driven by the consistent failures of top-down environmentalism and historical context of exploitation, exemplified by the previous discussion of the Ogoni people. Climate inaction has plagued governing bodies and international organizations. An article published by the Harvard Political Review details that COP26 in 2021 resulted in the same “regurgitation” of talking points from the past forty years meanwhile 503 fossil-fuel industry representatives attended (Hyman 2020). Blockadia actively points the finger at the fossil-fuel industries and rectifies the lack of accountability for the industry by the international community. Instead of top-down environmentalism, Blockadia represents a bottom-up approach that reclaims the oppressive narrative. Klein explains that it is the protests of Blockadia that expose the misinformative media campaigns of “blond children running through fields and multiracial actors in lab coats expressing concern about the environment” orchestrated by the fossil-fuel companies. Klein claims that it doesn’t matter how much money fossil-fuel companies spend on advertising campaigns “touting the modernity of the tar sands or the cleanliness of natural gas” because people are no longer persuaded (Klein 2014, 288). Heightened public consciousness about the deceptive goals of the fossil-fuel industry is thanks to the efforts of indigenous people fighting back for their land, such as the Ogoni people (Klein 2014, 288).
            Blockadia not only reclaims the public’s narrative against the true culprits of climate change and holds them accountable but holds wider implications against the domination of neoliberal capitalism. Blockadia symbolizes righting the wrongs of the past, environmental and social. The continuous ambitions of the fossil-fuel industry to expand their operations while maintaining exploitative practices that are causing irreversible damage to the planet will not be acceptable anymore. It is the audacity to maintain these practices, while pushing personal-responsibility narratives, that have galvanized movements across the planet. Scholars have responded to these demands looking for solutions to regulate the fossil-fuel industry, even the idea of a global carbon tax has been floated by the African Climate Summit (Kotchen 2023). Amid uncertainty regarding the future of Earth’s response to climate change, one thing is apparent: society’s current course is not sustainable. Hypercapitalist mentalities are not sustainable. Perhaps with the growth of Blockadia movements across the planet, global society will arrive at a sustainable solution and correct the narrative to hold the fossil-fuel industry accountable.


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Goldstein, Benjamin, Dimitrios Gounaridis, and Joshua P. Newell. “The Carbon Footprint of Household Energy Use in the United States.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117, no. 32 (2020): 19122–30. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1922205117. 
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Kotchen, Matthew. “Are We Ready for a Global Carbon Tax?” Yale School of the Environment, November 1, 2023. https://environment.yale.edu/news/article/are-we-ready-global-carbon tax#:~:text=If%20there%20is%20a%20global,extra%20for%20for%20the%20environmental%20damages. 
McFall-Johnsen, Morgan. “The Companies Polluting the Planet Have Spent Millions to Make You Think Carpooling and Recycling Will Save Us.” Business Insider, 2021. https://www.businessinsider.com/fossil-fuel-companies-spend-millions-to-promote-individual-responsibility-2021-3. 
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Monbiot, George. “Neoliberalism – the Ideology at the Root of All Our Problems.” The Guardian, April 15, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot. 
National Whistleblower Center. “Combat Corruption in the Fossil Fuel Industry.” National Whistleblower Center, May 19, 2023. https://www.whistleblowers.org/stop-corruption-in-fossil-fuels/. 
Schendler, Auden. “Worrying about Your Carbon Footprint Is Exactly What Big Oil Wants You to Do.” The New York Times, August 31, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/31/opinion/climate-change-carbon-neutral.html. 

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