How Big Oil is manipulating the way you think about climate change

A logic professor explains how a persistent, subtle fallacy has infected public discussion of climate change

Published May 13, 2023 10:00AM (EDT)

Greenwashing, concept (Getty Images/Tanaonte)
Greenwashing, concept (Getty Images/Tanaonte)

In medieval times, gamekeepers trained dogs to the hunt by setting them on the trail of a dead rabbit they had dragged through the forest. Once the dogs were baying along the rabbit's scent, the gamekeeper ran across the trail ahead of them, dragging a gunny sack of red herrings. Red herrings are smoked fish that have been aged to a ruddy, stinking ripeness. If any dog veered off to follow the stench of the red herrings, the gamekeeper beat him with a stick. Thus did dogs learn not to be lured into barking up the wrong tree.

This practice became the namesake of one of the best-known types of fallacies, the red herring fallacy. As a philosophy professor, this is how I explain the fallacy to my students: If the argument is not going your opponent's way, a common strategy — though a fallacious and dishonorable one — is to divert attention from the real issue by raising an issue that is only tangentially related to the first.

If our collective philosophical literacy were better, we might notice that this fallacy seems to be working spectacularly well for the fossil-fuel industry, the petrochemical industry, and a bunch of other bad actors who would like to throw us off the trail that would lead us fully to grasp their transgressions. We shouldn't keep falling for it.

But we do. Time after time, the real issue stands before us, and we find ourselves baying after some side issue of far less importance. I quiz my students: Explain, give examples.

Here's one. Thirty-eight rail cars filled with vinyl chloride derailed and caught fire in East Palestine, Ohio. Vinyl chloride, a flammable petroleum product, is a potent carcinogen. When it is burned, it creates dioxin, another nasty carcinogen that now permeates the town. A familiar pattern followed: lamentations over the derailing; a cascade of reporters; a debate in Congress. Finally, politicians, commentators and outraged citizens all posed these questions: how will we punish the railroads? And how can we make railroads safer?

Those are the wrong questions. What I want to know is why would any sensible people allow the US petrochemical industry annually to produce 7.2 million metric tons of a poison that causes liver, lung, and brain cancer, and to distribute it as polyvinyl chloride in water pipes, gutters, rubber duckies, and My Little Pony dolls?

Another surprising example: In an effort to reduce the town's use of fossil fuels, the city of Eugene, Oregon prohibited natural gas infrastructure in new residential construction. These types of prohibitions prompted a similar brand of handwringing — the question being posed in op-eds and comments sections running along the lines of, "How can anyone ask us to sacrifice our gas stoves, just to cut carbon emissions?"

The best way to reduce carbon dioxide is to stop burning fossil fuels — not to spend billions of dollars developing an entire new industry devoted to sequestering carbon in all kinds of complicated ways. 

That's the wrong question. What I want to know is what sacrifices we are already making to support a fossil-fuel industry that earned $4 trillion in global profits last year, an industry whose control over us extends even to how we cook bacon-and-eggs. As ecologist Carl Safina said: "We are sacrificing our money, sacrificing what is big and permanent, to prolong what is small, temporary, and harmful. We're sacrificing animals, peace, and children to retain wastefulness – while enriching those who disdain us." The real question isn't one of sacrificing gas stoves. It is this: how can we free ourselves from the fossil-fuel industry's iron grip, even in our homes?

Another example of this subterfuge, also from the fossil fuel world, is the idea of carbon sequestration. How can we capture the carbon dioxide that is spewing into the atmosphere? Embed it in concrete blocks, engineers propose. Pipe it to underground caverns, store it in algae blooms or marshes or timber-frame skyscrapers.

Obviously, we need to remove excess carbon dioxide from the air if we want Earth to remain habitable. But the best, fastest way to reduce the carbon dioxide load of the atmosphere is to stop burning fossil fuels — not to spend billions of dollars developing an entire new industry devoted to sequestering carbon in all kinds of complicated ways. Close down the coal plants. Phase out oil and gas drilling. Get those brilliant engineers back on track, addressing the real question of how we are going to stop oil and gas drilling, and soon.

Asking how you, individually, can calculate and reduce your carbon footprint is very much asking the wrong question. 

And here's a big one: For years, climate-concerned people have assiduously used some sort of climate footprint "calculator" to figure out how many tons of carbon dioxide they emit annually because of their lifestyle; and, accordingly, how much blame they shoulder personally for climate change. What they probably don't know is that the idea of a carbon footprint calculator was first invented by the geniuses at British Petroleum — not to encourage conservation, but to focus consumers' attention on their own emissions and distract their attention from the incomparably greater emissions of the industry itself.

Yet asking how you, individually, can calculate and reduce your carbon footprint is very much asking the wrong question. I don't want to know what I can do to reduce my estimated 0.00000005 percent of the world's annual greenhouse gas emissions. I want to know what Big Oil is going to do to phase out the 73 percent of greenhouse gas emissions that they empower — which was 37,190,000,000 metric tons of CO2 in 2021. Of course, the fossil fuel industry would rather send me nosing into the compost in my backyard, than sniffing under the closed doors of political dealmaking that props up the hegemony of the fossil fuel economy.

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Which leads us to my last example. The next United Nations Climate Change Conference – the world's global gathering to solve the climate crisis, known this year by its shorthand COP28 – will, like all previous COP conferences, involve endless debates over how to compensate countries for the harm climate change is doing; how to fund dikes and levees to prevent seawater inundation into croplands; and how to feed and house a projected billion climate refugees. Bless the dikes and foodstuffs, but note: those questions are important now only because we have for decades allowed ourselves to be distracted from the one big bloody question, which is how quickly and completely can the world transition from the burn-it-all-down fossil-fuel economy and replace it with an economy of restraint and renewal?

The best way to defend against a red herring fallacy, I tell my students, is to call it out by name — "Oops. That's a red herring, a question that is intended to distract us from the central issue" – and then to restate the central issue – "Let us focus full attention on the real issue here, which is, how can we stop the fossil-fuel industry from destroying the life-sustaining systems of the planet in their seemingly endless, and certainly shameless, quest for profit"?

You have to be alert and you have to be smart, I tell my students, because the people who would deceive you are sophisticated professionals. But the pros are making a serious mistake, and that is to assume that the average American is not much smarter than a Cocker Spaniel, and so can easily be misled. The work ahead is to prove them wrong.

By Kathleen Dean Moore

Kathleen Dean Moore, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emerita at Oregon State University and the author or co-editor of a dozen books about our cultural and moral relation to the natural world. Among these are "Moral Ground, Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril," co-edited with Michael Paul Nelson; and her most recent book, "Earth’s Wild Music: Celebrating and Defending the Songs of the Natural World."

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