With the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (UNFCCC COP28) now underway, a renewed spotlight has been cast on the fossil fuel industry’s meddling with governance. Specifically, host country United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been accused of using the climate conference to seek oil and gas deals after allowing the CEO of its state-owned oil company to serve as conference president. These concerning developments are just the latest example of climate obstruction from the fossil fuel industry.
Through a wide array of tactics, the multinational $4 trillion fossil fuel industry has not only corrupted citizens’ understanding of the climate crisis but also contributed to the erosion of democracy around the world. First, by propagating deception and misinformation, the industry has polluted the information ecosystems essential for democracies to function, pushing open societies closer to the “post-truth” politics that allow authoritarianism to thrive. Second, enabled in part by its misinformation campaigns, the industry has used its considerable financial and lobbying influence to bend policy to serve its own narrow interests instead of the public good. Finally, the fossil fuel industry has directly undermined core democratic rights by filing unfounded lawsuits to silence critics, promoting draconian anti-protest laws, and supporting voter suppression efforts.
This column examines what these tactics look like in practice and how they work against democratic systems to stifle climate action.
Tactic 1: Pollute democratic societies’ information ecosystems with deception and false climate solutions
The fossil fuel industry’s spread of deceptive or misleading information about climate change—often referred to as disinformation and misinformation—hurts democracies by undermining public trust in governments, democratic processes, and even the notion of objective truth itself. Within the climate change discussion, the fossil fuel industry—whose emissions are the dominant cause of global warming—has made a coordinated effort to spread climate disinformation and misinformation that prevents essential action to address climate change. Through a sophisticated lobbying and public influence machine targeting lawmakers and citizens, the fossil fuel industry has undemocratically shaped how the world thinks and talks about the climate crisis.
In particular, “greenwashing”—when an entity depicts itself as doing more on climate than it actually is—has become a frequent industry tactic to distract from and delay meaningful proposals to reduce emissions. Greenwashing not only harms the public’s ability to be well-informed; it also erodes public trust in scientific consensus and genuine solutions to the climate crisis. For instance, oil and gas companies often tout their investments in biofuels and hydrogen as evidence that they are taking action on climate, but these investments are largely superficial and vastly outweighed by the continued reliance on fossil fuels that the industry perpetuates.
Industry’s declared efforts to fight climate change fall woefully short, with oil and gas companies often devoting more attention to creating the appearance of working on climate solutions than actually developing them.
Fossil fuel companies greenwash their harmful practices not only with direct advertising but also through their trade associations. Trade associations effectively serve as public relations vehicles, touting the so-called environmental commitments of the fossil fuel industry while downplaying the environmental harms their core products cause. For instance, the American Petroleum Institute (API) regularly publicizes its member companies’ investments in renewable energy and carbon reduction technologies. On closer inspection, however, industry’s declared efforts to fight climate change fall woefully short, with oil and gas companies often devoting more attention to creating the appearance of working on climate solutions than actually developing them.
Similar to greenwashing, the fossil fuel industry also avoids accountability through “fossil fuel solutionism” and “technological optimism,” creating the appearance of investing in low-carbon solutions while, in reality, the industry expands fossil fuel production and carries on with obstruction of meaningful climate policy. Individuals within the oil and gas industry have bluntly admitted that proposals such as these serve more as ways to “shut up whoever we need to shut up” than to actually solve the climate crisis. Internal communications from major fossil fuel companies show similar contradictions—such as Shell’s guidance to employees urging them “not give the impression that Shell is willing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to levels that do not make business sense.”
Another influence tactic used by the fossil fuel industry and its allies is “astroturfing,” by which they create an artificial appearance of grassroots support for an industry-friendly policy while concealing the support’s true origins. For example, the anti-offshore wind organization American Coalition for Ocean Protection (ACOP) is a project of the Caesar Rodney Institute (CRI), a think tank based in Delaware that has received funding from both fossil fuel interests and the apparent astroturf group Protect Our Coast NJ. Two CRI executives manage ACOP’s Ocean Environment Legal Defense Fund, the goal of which is to create a permanent offshore wind exclusion zone. However, with many of these groups also supporting offshore oil drilling, their opposition to wind farms seems intended simply to slow down progress on this renewable competitor to fossil fuels.
The oil and gas industry’s public influence methods are becoming increasingly sophisticated as they hire major public relations firms to promote their false narratives and generate astroturf groups.
Fossil fuel companies and trade groups promote climate obstruction through additional indirect methods, including by funding think tanks and political candidates who deny the reality of climate change. By casting doubt on climate science and portraying a false picture of scientific debate—even though oil and gas companies have internally known about the climate threat for decades—these companies delay meaningful climate action.
The fossil fuel industry’s influence campaigns do more than simply mislead the public about climate change and oil and gas companies’ ostensible efforts to fight it; they also foment extreme false beliefs on the issue. For example, the industry promotes fabricated narratives such as warnings that proponents of climate action are supposedly threatening to destroy individual liberty with a “climate lockdown.” Such rhetoric serves to hyperpolarize the issue of climate change into another front in the culture wars, undermining societies’ ability to reach productive, democratic consensus both in the United States and abroad. Around the world, far-right parties and candidates have made opposition to climate action a major component of their populist agenda.
Tactic 2: Manipulate democratic systems to defeat climate action and serve industry interests
With its disproportionate financial and lobbying influence, the fossil fuel industry manipulates democratic functions to undermine popular views and hamstring climate action proposals that would serve the public interest. In the United States alone, the fossil fuel industry spends tens of millions of dollars to influence policymakers to keep the system rigged for itself. So far in 2023, oil and gas companies and associations have spent almost $93 million on lobbying; and in 2022, it was more than $125 million. Between lobbying, political contributions, and advertising efforts, these interests spent 27 times as much as climate advocacy groups from 2008 to 2018 to obstruct climate action.
Such efforts hamper robust, often popular, climate proposals. Despite two-thirds of Americans supporting renewable energy growth over oil and gas expansion, fossil fuel money helped defeat strong climate initiatives in both Colorado’s and Washington’s 2018 elections. It also pushed through legislation defining methane gas as “green energy” in Ohio and recently secured $7.2 billion in incentives to build new natural gas power plants in Texas.
Fossil fuel industry lobbying: By the numbers
Amount spent by industry on lobbying in 2022
Amount spent by industry on lobbying so far in 2023
Greater amount spent on lobbying by fossil fuel industry vs. climate advocacy groups from 2008–2018
The fossil fuel industry’s lobbying efforts to weaken climate action and obstruct public will are clear attempts at “regulatory capture,” understood as when government agencies are dominated by the sectors they are supposed to be regulating. One example among many is the industry’s concerted effort to limit the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s climate-related financial disclosure rules.
The fossil fuel industry makes similar efforts in Europe. The European Union has been seeking to make its member states become greener, but the industry is obstructing these efforts through lobbying and funding campaigns. In 2020, for example, investigations revealed that “oil majors” such as Exxon Mobil and Shell worked behind the scenes to water down the European Green Deal before it could even be publicly announced.
The industry’s anti-democratic strategy is clear: manipulate the levers of power to obstruct any climate policies that may reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.
In the United Kingdom, the fossil fuel industry is playing a similarly outsized role in influencing politics and policy. The fossil fuel lobby group Offshore Energies UK (OEUK) and its affiliated oil and gas operators—which include BP, Shell, Exxon Mobil, and TotalEnergies—strategically leveraged privileged access to exert influence on legislation. Replicating Italian oil company Eni’s strategy to capitalize on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, OEUK representatives met with ministers more than 200 times to lobby against the United Kingdom’s windfall tax proposal to put a levy on oil and gas producers.
In some cases, this manipulation even extends into multilateral spaces. World climate leaders and activists—with the United States notably absent—voiced concerns over the UAE hosting the annual UNFCCC COP28 and appointing the CEO of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company as the COP28 president. Days before COP28 commenced in Dubai, however, leaked documents indicated that the UAE was using its presidency to seek lucrative oil and gas deals with a range of government officials. If true, this would show an unprecedented industry capture of the multilateral climate space, directly undermining global climate progress at a time when scientists warn that the window to reach Paris Agreement goals is closing.
In all of these cases, the industry’s anti-democratic strategy is clear: manipulate the levers of power to obstruct any climate policies that may reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels, even—or especially—when the public supports those policies.
Tactic 3: Directly undermine democratic functions and freedoms
While polluting public discourse and manipulating governments represent indirect attacks on democratic systems, the fossil fuel industry and its allies further strengthen their influence by directly undermining the fundamental rights at the heart of free societies. They do this in three main ways: 1) by filing expensive, protracted strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs); 2) by pushing anti-protest legislation; and 3) by promoting voter suppression policies.
In response to the 2016 Standing Rock protests in the United States, Dakota Access Pipeline operator Energy Transfer Partners filed a SLAPP against protesters to prevent similar demonstrations from spreading. Other instances abound, with fossil fuel companies often misusing anti-racketeering Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) laws against protesters simply to “send a message,” even when they know their chances of winning these lawsuits are slim.
Similar examples of such lawsuits exist outside the United States. In Italy, for example, oil company Eni has similarly deployed lawsuits against protesters and fossil fuel dissenters to delay climate action: In July 2023, Eni filed a SLAPP against Greenpeace Italy and ReCommon, and in 2021, the company filed a claim against Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano for defamation.
The fossil fuel industry’s attempts to undermine democratic freedoms also include support for anti-protest laws that seek to silence public criticism by criminalizing protest activity. As a result of these efforts, some U.S. states have enacted anti-protest laws that carry severe sentences for vague, speech-chilling charges such as attempting to “obstruct, impede, or impair the services or transmissions of an energy facility.”
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has implemented both the Public Order Act of 2023 and the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act (PCSA), which undermine fundamental freedoms to assemble and demonstrate. Right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, which is funded by major fossil fuel companies and their allies, helped draft the legislation. Since the passage of the PSCA, numerous U.K. climate activists, particularly those operating under the Just Stop Oil umbrella, have been arrested for their protest activities.
The oil and gas industry’s voter suppression efforts are directly connected to its goal of thwarting the fight against climate change.
The fossil fuel industry has also played a major role in promoting voter suppression, which disproportionately affects voters who most strongly favor climate and environmental justice policies. Between 2015 and 2020, fossil fuel interests donated millions to state lawmakers who backed voter suppression bills. This support includes funding the organizations leading the voter suppression charge. For example, fossil fuel giant Koch Industries is a key funder of organizations such as the Honest Elections Project, a spinoff of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has been instrumental in pushing voter suppression and other anti-democratic proposals.
These voter suppression efforts are directly connected to the fossil fuel industry’s goal of thwarting the fight against climate change. Notably, voter suppression disproportionately disenfranchises communities of color, low-income groups, and Indigenous peoples—communities that favor environmental regulation and climate change legislation significantly more than other demographics. Because such groups are also more likely to vote for candidates who support climate justice, suppressing their votes can help prevent the election of lawmakers that favor real policy proposals on climate change.
Unchecked, the oil and gas industry skews democracy, making governments more responsive to corporations than their own citizens. It does this by spreading misinformation, manipulating policy for self-interest against the public will, and stifling democratic rights through lawsuits, anti-protest laws, and voter suppression. In the case of the UAE’s COP28 presidency, the industry capture of these spaces is complete, with a state-backed fossil fuel company threatening to interfere with multilateral climate progress at the highest and most consequential level. As warning lights of democratic backsliding strobe across the world and endanger critical efforts to address the climate crisis, the twin threat of the fossil fuel industry’s attacks on climate action and the democratic functions necessary to take that action must not be ignored.
Unchecked, the oil and gas industry skews democracy, making governments more responsive to corporations than their own citizens.