Climate discourse polluted : a cumulative effects analysis of the fossil fuel industry’s tactics to influence public discourse


University of British Columbia

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Doctor of Philosophy - PhD




This dissertation undertakes a cumulative effects analysis of the fossil fuel industry’s numerous tactics to influence public discourse in the U.S., including its use of lobbying, campaign spending, advertising, organizational funding, educational funding, and manipulative rhetoric. In particular, this thesis focuses on the industry’s leveraging of three trends—manufacturing uncertainty, targeting protesters, and expanding constitutional protections for commercial speech. While the fossil fuel industry’s influence over public discourse is often analyzed in parts, this dissertation argues that the true consequences of its actions on discourse and democracy only become visible when seen as a whole. Drawing on dozens of empirical examples, this dissertation documents and analyzes the political infrastructure and financial might the fossil fuel industry can regularly leverage to shape public discourse. It details the fossil fuel industry’s campaign to manufacture uncertainty around climate science, including a timeline, key actors, and key strategies. It demonstrates that the fossil fuel industry is playing a critical role in initiating, amplifying, and supporting government actions to target and stifle climate protesters in the U.S. Drawing on First Amendment theory and doctrine, it shows how protections for commercial speech are expanding, narrowing the distinction between core and commercial speech, and making government regulation and enforcement actions targeting manufactured uncertainty campaigns vulnerable to First Amendment challenges from corporations. Ultimately, this dissertation shows how the multi-pronged approach of the fossil fuel industry allows it to inject its own ideas and policy preferences into the marketplace of ideas, often without the public knowing those ideas are directly linked to industry funding. Simultaneously, the fossil fuel industry targets two of the most powerful checks on industry influence over the marketplace of ideas—public protest and government enforcement actions against false and misleading corporate speech. The impact of the fossil fuel industry’s strategies to influence public discourse is to undermine the constitutional values enshrined in the First Amendment. Yet, the multi-pronged nature of the strategies poses serious challenges for decisionmakers seeking to protect public discourse.

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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International




Law, Peter A. Allard School of