By Neelesh Paravastu, Bachelor of Arts - Psychology with the degree of Bachelor of Human Sciences
Oil and gas companies such as ExxonMobil have known about climate change since at least the 1970s, when their own scientists informed them of the disastrous impacts of burning fossil fuels (investigated by Columbia Journalism School in 2015). Since then, these multinationals have used a predictable toolkit in their efforts to silence and discredit climate science. These strategies (which I’ll go into length about below) have been used to shape the public perception and debate of this issue and have damaged our ability to care about and act on climate change.
Moral disengagement (MD) is a mental strategy people use when we’re doing things that go against our ethical code. For example, when you can’t be bothered to sort your recycling from rubbish. Or when you fake a sickness for an assignment extension. It’s a largely unconscious process through which we can just turn off our morals because… well, because of a lot of reasons. Usually, its whatever fits the situation best and makes us feel OK about our behaviour. You don’t have time to sort the trash right now, and one time isn’t going to cause any harm anyway. You weren’t given enough time for the assignment, and you’ve been busy lately.
When the fossil-fuel industry learned of the coming disaster, they also morally disengaged, claiming that “World economic health will suffer … Jobs and livelihoods are at stake” if we switch to renewables (quoted from a Mobil-funded New York Times article, 1996). Their excuse is that delaying climate action is necessary to preserve economic stability, and they’ve launched massive media campaigns to cement this argument into the public discourse. In the MD literature, this strategy is known as ‘moral justification’; defending your (in)actions by portraying them as morally justified. By emphasizing the economic aspects of the issue, they disguise the immorality of their stance.
There are plenty of other MD strategies used by the fossil-fuel industry. Albert Bandura (the scientist behind MD theory), in his 2007 paper, gives us a variety of examples. In attacking the validity of climate science, they disregard and belittle the negative effects of greenhouse gases. By attacking climate scientists and activists such as Greta Thunberg, they disparage these actors in the public view, reducing the credibility of their movement. By attributing climate change to “natural cycles” they displace responsibility off humanity entirely. Lee Raymond, former CEO of ExxonMobil, has regularly combined these tactics in speeches and press releases to confuse and polarise the public. With the help of the media these arguments take hold in the minds of regular people who expect to be able to trust industry leaders and news outlets.
The worst part of all this is that MD is a largely unconscious process and doesn’t always reflect our conscious views. A 2020 Australian study by Leviston and Parker found that even those who understand climate change is human-induced have morally disengaged by displacing responsibility (another MD strategy) onto groups and organisations. Put simply, by blaming corporations we’re removing ourselves from the issue.
You’re probably really confused at this point. I’ve been blaming corporations this whole time. Why am I now going back on myself?
According to the 2017 CDP Carbon Majors Report, 71% of greenhouse emissions since 1988 are attributed to the activities of just 100 fossil fuel-producing companies. Clearly, the industry’s practices and government inaction are to blame, but by placing the responsibility on them we unconsciously lose our personal connection to the issue. That righteous anger you’ve been feeling as you read this article is justified but it’s not conducive, because it still causes you to disengage morally from the matter to some extent. I personally am guilty of this – despite being a professed environmentalist, I can’t be bothered to recycle sometimes; I eat meat daily and drive everywhere. My sins are negligible compared to the fossil-fuel industry, but my perspective has caused me to slowly lose my standards and ethics.
We should be on the lookout for fake arguments posited by vested interests, of course. I hope that’s become clear as you’ve read this. More importantly though, we need to ensure that we as individuals don’t shirk responsibility just because we don’t have direct control over reducing climate change. Governments and corporations care more about preserving power than preserving the planet, but regular people can counteract this by coming together. Collectively, we can lower our energy use and change our lifestyles so that fossil-fuel companies have no choice but to change as well, to avoid becoming obsolete. We can vote, protest and riot to force the government’s hand on climate laws. All this requires, however, that each of us accepts responsibility for climate change and understands the personal impact it will have on our lives. Only by stressing the moral and ethical nature of this issue can we keep our personal and societal standards high enough to actively care and make a difference.
Want to know more? Sign up to Neelesh's recommended newsletters:
Heated: A newsletter/blog that discusses the failures and current inactions of institutions and world leaders.
Anthropocene Magazine: A magazine that focuses on climate science and research.
Look out for the GLP Sustainability Challenges on Waste and Carbon Emissions (running at various times throughout Session) to discover actionable ways to reduce your impact on the environment.
Bandura, A. (2007). Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement. Int. J. Innovation and Sustainable Development. 2. 10.1504/IJISD.2007.016056.
Griffin, P. (2017). The Carbon Majors Database. CDP Worldwide. Retrieved from https://6fefcbb86e61af1b2fc4c70d8ead6ced550b4d987d7c03fcdd1d.ssl.cf3.rackcdn.com/cms /reports/documents/000/002/327/original/Carbon-Majors-Report-2017.pdf?1501833772
Leviston, Z., & Walker, I. (2020). The influence of moral disengagement on responses to climate change. Asian Journal of Social Psychology.
Mobil 1996 Climate change: we’re all in this together (Advertorial) The New York Times
Supran, G. & Oreskes, N. (2017). Assessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977–2014). Environmental Research Letters. 12. 084019. 10.1088/1748- 9326/aa815f.
Two-Year Long Investigation: What Exxon Knew About Climate Change | Columbia Journalism School. (2021). Retrieved 30 August 2021, from https://journalism.columbia.edu/two-year-long-investigation-what-exxon-knew-aboutclimate-change