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Climate and Environment

Melissa Hutsell
Freelance Writer and Editor
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piqer: Melissa Hutsell
Friday, 25 January 2019

Uncertainly: Scientists' Weakness, Oil Industry's Strength

The new podcast series Drilled focuses on the decades-long campaign to deny climate change. It’s been described as a true crime podcast about climate change.

This short but profound episode explores scientists’ kryptonite: certainty.

The chapter is an extension of the investigation into oil companies' media strategies.

“We know they attempted to influence reporters and editors through accusations of bias, that they paid scientists to promote theories that their own scientists proved false, and that they created the ‘opt ad’, which effectively shifted coverage of climate change […],” said host Amy Westervelt.

Oil companies did so by exploiting vulnerabilities among journalists and scientists. The weakness for scientists is effective communication, explained climate scientist Catherine Hayhoe. “This isn’t what we’re good at.”

“When you look at the characteristics of what makes a good scientist, it’s often diametrically opposed to what makes a good communicator,” she added.

Oil companies — like Exxon Mobil — knew this. They also knew a hallmark of science communication was “awash in uncertainty,” Westervelt explained. That's because of the way science works — never closing the door to another possible explanation.

The word uncertainty made people question the validity of climate science. Oil companies crafted several key narratives; they were victorious. The most successful were those that underscored the supposed uncertainty of science, and that painted those concerned about climate change as liberal tree huggers and hippies who were “out of touch with reality".

“It’s the original gas-lighting,” said Westervelt.

The most insidious narrative is convincing people that solving climate change is up to the individual — not systems. It’s about you driving too much; it’s not about broader systemic change.

Listen to the episode for details about how exactly oil companies banded together to craft narratives, “The Victory Memo”, how media furthers these narratives, and more. 

Uncertainly: Scientists' Weakness, Oil Industry's Strength
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