If you were on social media on Valentine’s Day in 2015, there was a good chance the video below made its way on to your screen.

The video was produced by a fossil fuel front group calling itself the “Environmental Policy Alliance” in response to the rapidly growing fossil fuel divestment movement. It was disseminated on YouTube, but also on a sponsored website called BigGreenRadicals.com. Big Green Radicals is one of a cluster of front groups supported by another front group, the Environmental Policy Alliance. Yes — that group’s acronym is, notably, “EPA,” and it describes itself as a non-profit group “devoted to uncovering the funding and hidden agendas behind environmental activist groups.”

Environmental communication scholars call this kind of thing “aggressive mimicry,” wherein an industry group establishes itself in the image of a public interest group and mimics the tactics, aesthetics or arguments of environmental organizations to create public confusion about contested issues. In this case, the EPA group mimics in name what is arguably the most important and powerful environmental organization in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency, in order to take aim at its proposed regulations of carbon dioxide.

Fossil Fuel Divestment Brown Bag

Jen Schneider will give a talk entitled, “The Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement and the ‘Hypocrite’s Trap'” at noon, Friday, March 20 in the Environmental Research Building,1295 University Dr., Room 1127, at Boise State. The free talk is part of the Politics and Policy Brown Bag Series. See TBR Events for future Brown Bag talks.

The EPA group is the brainchild of Berman & Company, a public relations firm whose mission includes “setting up front groups to denigrate public interest organizations that threaten his clients’ bottom lines,” according to the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Berman & Company head, Rick Berman, was in the news in late 2014 when his incendiary remarks on marketing to fossil fuel industry executives were recorded and circulated via news media and in the blogosphere. In those comments, he detailed his favored public relations strategies, including “demolishing the moral authority” of opponents and entering policy debates in order to “brand” social or environmental movements as “not credible.” He has also been recorded as saying that his company’s efforts are pitched primarily toward creating ambiguity in the public’s mind about the right course of policy action: “If you put enough information out there… you get in people’s mind a tie. They don’t know who is right… people are not prepared to get aggressive in moving one way or another. I’ll take a tie any day if I’m trying to preserve the status quo.”

Rick Berman of Berman & Company.


Rick Berman of Berman & Company.

In other words, manufactured confusion (such as Berman blurring the line between the EPA group and EPA the agency) is intended to create decision-making paralysis. We see these strategies at play in the “Breaking up with Fossil Fuels is Hard to Do” video above, which is intended to cast the rapidly growing fossil fuel divestment movement as “not credible,” to challenge our ability to critique fossil fuels when we rely on them heavily — thus rendering critics helpless, caught in a trap of hypocrisy.

The “hypocrite’s trap” is a common move in the fossil fuel industry’s rhetorical playbook, and it has been recently mobilized in an effort to discredit the rapidly growing, largely student-led fossil fuel divestment movement. A number of universities in the U.S. and beyond have committed to wholly or partially divesting their endowments of fossil fuel investments; others are receiving increasing pressure from activists to do so. Churches, municipalities, state governments and foundations are following suit.

As the divestment movement has grown, however, so has the industry response, primarily in the form of the “hypocrite’s trap.” In the case of anti-divestment rhetoric, the “hypocrite’s trap” unfolds as three related talking points:

  1. The divestment movement is unrealistic and naive, ignorant about economics and how the world “really works.”
  2. Divestment activists themselves rely heavily on fossil fuels and are therefore hypocrites.
  3. Fossil fuels are actually the “moral” or humanitarian choice because they enable “development.” Divestment activists are therefore anti-poor and even racist elites, and fossil fuels are moral heroes.

To see these kinds of arguments in action, read a sampling of industry editorials on divestment from the National Journal. The industry uses the hypocrite’s trap to both claim the voice of the “realistic center” and the moral high ground for itself, which allows industry spokespeople to undercut both the moral and financial arguments of divestment activists. In essence, this rhetoric attempts to create paralysis in response to divestment appeals and to construct the industry self as a common-sense, moral actor.

Fossil fuel industries have also grown increasingly adept at disseminating a shared message across corporate and popular platforms, particularly in response to increasing pressures to regulate carbon emissions. In the case of anti-divestment rhetoric, coal, oil and gas often work in tandem through front groups and consultants, such as Berman and Company, to disseminate talking points. These many-layered and strategically-named groups make it exceedingly difficult to trace who pays such consultants to create and disseminate such media and talking points.

My colleagues and I have argued elsewhere that diffuse talking points dissemination is in fact a hallmark of neoliberal strategic communications: diffuse dissemination makes it difficult to pinpoint “the” corporate voice, to connect it to particular plays for power or influence. Because the industrial worldview seems to originate from so many front groups, think tanks and consultancies, it becomes both ubiquitous (normalized) and hegemonic (the “real”). Other voices — representing environmental or social justice values, for example — are marginalized and seen as radical or ridiculous in comparison. In this context, “breaking up with fossil fuels” comes to seem both absurd and impossible indeed.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.