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Better poison is the cure? Critically examining fossil fuel companies, climate change framing, and corporate sustainability reports

October 6, 2022

CSSN Scholar Ryan Gunderson identifies and evaluates six frames fossil fuel companies adopt in their annual sustainability reports to address pressure from stakeholders about climate change.


The way fossil fuel companies frame climate change in their annual sustainability reports shines light how the fossil fuel industry is addressing pressure from stockholders, investors, and the public to become less environmentally harmful. Through a qualitative frame analysis and critical discourse analysis of fossil fuel company sustainability reports, four major frames emerged: (1) techno-optimism, or, the belief that innovative technologies and fuels, without social change, can help solve the issue of climate change; (2) necessitarianism, or, the notion that the fossil fuel industry provides a necessary service; (3) compliance, or, adherence to established regulations and standards; and (4) countermeasures, or, strategies that indirectly counteract harms done. Two frames central to discourses surrounding fossil fuels and climate change are notably absent: (5) potential environmental and societal risks of fossil fuels (risk minimization) and (6) potential future scenarios that are significantly different from the growing economy powered by increased energy output (possibility blindness). Together, the frames are a subtle form of climate change denialism that acknowledges climate change as a problem without diagnosing the root cause of the problem (ideological denial), conceals environmentally harmful actions with the rhetoric of environmental friendliness (greenwashing), and justifies the status quo as necessary (reification).

Image Credit: Shutterstock/ Oleksandr Khoma