In this current era of increasing climate activism, a key question that emerges is how the fossil fuel sector continues to avoid social and political sanction given the threat its activities pose to the future of human civilization? In a recently published paper in the journal Energy Research & Social Science, we investigated how the Australian fossil fuel sector has sought to maintain its political dominance in the face of growing social critique. Drawing on an analysis of media coverage and industry press releases during the period 2008-2019, we identified the core discourses underlying the Australian fossil fuel sector’s response to growing public concern over climate change and how these discourses stabilize the hegemonic project and defuse central themes of critique.
The following is a summary of the full article which can be viewed here.
Four key industry discourses were evident from our analysis:
(i) Acknowledging climate change
While early efforts from the fossil fuel industry in Australia and overseas aimed to undermine climate science, we found public commentary from the industry during this period was more likely to acknowledge climate change as a real and urgent problem. For instance, industry commentators commonly expressed the need for global and national solutions to climate change, committed to international targets such as those in the Paris Agreement, and even recognised the need for an energy transition. This discursive strategy allowed industry representatives to actively participate in the specific framing of climate change as a political issue and contribute to the shaping of policy interventions. By emphasising the breadth of responsibility for acting on climate change, industry leaders deflected criticism by claiming they were working in line with the science, and with different levels of government, to come up with solutions. This discourse presented the industry as exercising moral and practical leadership in facing a global problem and hence synchronized its interests with those of humanity more generally.
(ii) Fossil fuels and the national interest
However, this acknowledgement of climate change was often qualified by other issues framed as central to the national interest, such as energy security, electricity costs and the maintenance of export earnings. In leveraging its historical role as a cornerstone of economic development in Australia, industry discourse linked its ongoing survival to the continuation of established habits of consumption and production. As a former head of the Australian Coal Association declared: “Fossil fuels underpin Australia’s economic growth and will do so for the foreseeable future” (The Australian, 29 March 2008: 5).
In particular, the industry have stressed the importance of coal-fired electricity in Australia, while at the same time downplaying domestic carbon emissions by arguing these are comparatively small on a global scale and that reducing domestic emissions would have little effect on the rest of the world.
Added to this, Australia’s role as a leading fossil fuel exporter provided a further theme of economic contribution, with the industry stressing the mining royalties and tax revenue that accrue to government and how its activities contribute to regional development and employment. Thus, fossil fuel extraction and use was presented by both the industry and politicians as central to the Australian way of life and a continued source of economic well-being.
(iii) A “measured response”
Thirdly, the contradiction between acknowledging climate crisis and advocating for new coal mines, gas fields and offshore oil drilling, was papered over by the presentation of the industry as a rational and mature actor stressing the need for emissions mitigation to be “balanced”, “sensible”, “responsible” and “measured”. This was promoted as a moral stance of defending jobs and the economy against the dangerous proposals of environmentalists and was furthered by politicians, who participated enthusiastically in the othering of environmental actors and their concerns.
Building on the argument of Australia’s small comparative contribution to a global problem, the industry discourse of a “measured response” presented carbon pricing and other moves towards decarbonization as a threat to national competitiveness. Thus, the fossil fuel sector’s discursive response to environmental and international criticism sought to frame climate change as an important concern requiring the future reduction of carbon emissions but that “economic reality” required this to be limited in the present and that Australia should certainly not lead such an initiative; an example of what has been termed more generally as “predatory delay”.
The industry’s “measured” approach was also contrasted against what the industry characterised as the “radical” agendas of environmentalists. As a CEO of the industry body the Minerals Council proclaimed: “war against coal and fossil fuels risks walking a more radical path with its warriors feeling no longer bound by the normal rules of a civilised, democratic society.” (Australian Financial Review, 23 May 2013: 36)
This “othering” of environmental criticism was further amplified by politicians who criticised environmental concerns as marginal to the interests of “quiet Australians” and “the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies”.
(iv) Innovation and “solutions”
The fourth discourse underlying the reassertion of fossil fuel hegemony has been to claim that the industry itself has the innovative capacity to provide “solutions” to climate change. In this discourse, fossil fuel companies and their associations argued paradoxically that continued growth of the industry was the best way to reduce global carbon emissions. This discourse rested on three principle themes: “clean coal”, innovation, and alleviating global energy poverty.
The rhetoric of “clean coal” has been evident in Australian politics from at least the early 1990s through industry and political characterisations of Australian coal as “cleaner” and more energy efficient than its export rivals in other countries. While this claim was rarely tested, the rhetoric of “clean coal” persisted in the political discourse and came to be incorporated with further claims that emerging markets were embracing new, more efficient coal-fired energy production which would help to reduce global carbon emissions.
Indeed, the industry had been down this path before, having earlier promoted carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a silver bullet in mitigating carbon emissions while maintaining coal-fired power generation. However, despite a billion dollars of government and levy funding over the ensuing decade, no commercial-scale project using the technology eventuated and the largest experimental plant was later axed at a cost of $200 million. Despite this, the rhetoric of “clean coal” continued as a staple discourse of the industry and allied politicians in defending the continued expansion of coal extraction and export.
This rhetoric of innovation also constituted a moral argument that linked the fossil fuel sector to the alleviation of global “energy poverty”. By providing electricity to populations in developing countries, the industry claimed that it was improving health, education and living standards. This “energy poverty” discourse had in fact been developed as part of a sophisticated public relations campaign by US advertising giant Burson-Marsteller for the coal company Peabody Energy. Australia was a key location for the launch of the public relations campaign in 2014 which was soon promoted not only by coal companies and their associations but also by politicians keen to endorse the coal industry, with then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, symbolically opening a new coal mine and declaring to the assembled media that “coal is good for humanity”.
Building on these claims, fossil fuel companies argued that increasing exports of Australian coal and gas were offsetting the use of more polluting energy sources in developing countries with growing populations. In particular, the rapid expansion of gas extraction and export (with Australia now the largest global exporter of liquified natural gas), was promoted by the industry as a major solution to global emissions mitigation. Despite dramatically increasing Australia’s domestic carbon emissions, industry leaders promoted further expansion in gas extraction as “the best thing we can do to reduce global emissions by displacing coal and dirty fuels in Asia”.
Pushing back against environmental activists, the “energy poverty” discourse sought to reframe the industry as a concerned corporate citizen and moral leader engaged in a humanitarian project of poverty alleviation and economic development. This rhetoric built upon earlier economic and technological framings, to again promote the industry as socially worthy and exercising moral and intellectual leadership in a context of heightened political critique.
However, despite the significant resources that the Australian fossil fuel sector has devoted to public relations and political campaigning over the last decade, recent public opinion polling suggests significant decline in public goodwill towards the industry. Particularly revealing in this respect has been private opinion polling conducted by the mining industry which found that traditional messaging regarding the industry’s economic importance was increasingly discounted against rising concerns over environmental destruction and climate change and “strong negative perceptions of open-cut coal mining.”
While only a single study, when viewed in combination with growing public concern over climate change, the rise of mass climate protest movements around the world, and the recent election of a new US President with an explicit focus on climate action, we may well be witnessing the beginnings of a serious threat or even “dislocation” to the established fossil fuel hegemony that dominates global political economy.
As the physical realities of a world unravelling under climate disruption become more obvious, the fossil fuel industry will need to develop new public relations discourses if it is to continue delaying the dramatic decarbonization needed to avoid a catastrophic climate future.