Caution, Trolling Ahead: Fossil Fuel Advocates Are Hoping You Fail Their Latest Challenge

CREDIT: Shutterstock/Patrick Smith

The oil and gas advocacy group Western Energy Alliance (WEA) is waging a social media campaign that challenges people to not use fossil fuels for five days. To the group, the point of the Fossil Fuel Free Challenge is to show how impossible it would be to live without fossil fuels right now.

“Eliminate fossil fuels! We hear it all the time,” says the campaign’s website. “Sounds easy, right? Then pledge to live fossil fuel free for a week and see what it’s really like.” The site shows a yes button that agrees to the challenge and a no button that says “no, life’s pretty good with fossil fuels.” Clicking on the yes button brings up a new page.

“For five days don’t use any product made from, delivered using or operating on oil, natural gas or their associated products,” the website then instructs. “That means staying clear of anything that uses gasoline, oil or natural gas. Even electricity, plastics, rubber and synthetic fibers are to be avoided.”

At first glance, the argument may seem compelling. Many products most people rely on were made with petroleum-based materials, most food comes to the table transported by fossil fuel-powered machines, and the majority of most people’s electricity and heating still comes from fossil fuels. Because beating the challenge is extremely difficult, the campaign’s intent is to show how essential and positive fossil fuels are to society.

“We’re trying to get people to think about how fossil [fuels] are used in their daily lives,” Kathleen Sgamma, WEA’s vice president of government and public affairs, told ThinkProgress.

To social scientists and climate communications experts, however, reality is more complicated. They say this is a straw man argument that uses a false dichotomy to attempt to exploit the cognitive dissonance people experience when their attitudes don’t match with their actions.

Straw man

A straw man argument ignores the actual position held by the opposition, substituting an exaggerated version that would be impossible. The Fossil Fuel Free Challenge site tells the user to go fossil fuel free: “live the life environmentalists promote through protests and social media activism.”

The problem with this logic is that no one is saying it is possible to shift completely off fossil fuels at this very moment.

“The WEA campaign is based on a straw man argument,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, told ThinkProgress. “I don’t know anyone who argues we should stop using all fossil fuels this very instant. Most people understand this is about a transition from the 19th and 20th century fossil-fuel-based energy system to the clean energy system of the 21st century. That won’t happen overnight, but it also can’t wait a hundred years.”

A sign from the People's Climate March in 2014.

A sign from the People’s Climate March in 2014.

CREDIT: Flickr user Takver

The WEA did not provide examples of environmental messaging making the case that people could or should completely extricate themselves from the fossil fuel-based economic system immediately. They directed ThinkProgress to search the internet for fossil fuel protests, which would make clear that “numerous groups want to end fossil fuel use.” The discrepancy here is the timing — most rhetoric, no matter how heated, talks about a transition to a clean energy economy, or a carbon-free future.

“Whether that’s today or a few years from now,” Sgamma said, “the point is that ‘fossil fuel free’ means your cell phone, computer, workout clothes, and modern medicine all disappear.”

Industry uses petroleum products as raw materials to manufacture essential goods. It would be concerning and unrealistic to argue for a complete moratorium on that, or the use of fossil fuels to run factories, power plants, and most of the global economy. Yet innovation is allowing people to have the choice of sustainable alternative options in materials, heating, and fuel sources for electricity providers. And energy efficiency advances are often the cheapest option to eliminate waste.

“No one is saying that you can get off fossil fuels tomorrow, but that we need to make the transition as quickly as possible,” Jaime Henn, communications director of, told ThinkProgress. He compared the WEA effort to typewriter salesmen daring people not to use their machines while the age of computers was taking off.

Fortunately, the world only has to slow its fossil fuel use right now, and soon flatline the growth of greenhouse gas emissions before dropping fossil fuels by the end of the century, according to the world’s top climate scientists.

“WEA’s gimmicky and cynical campaign is premised on the logical fallacy of a false dilemma,” Jessica Goad, advocacy director at the Center for Western Priorities, told ThinkProgress. “No one is arguing that Americans should turn off their lights or stop driving their cars today. But our nation is now positioned to facilitate a transition to a clean energy economy, instead of continued reliance on the energy resources of yesteryear.”

For example, last week companies like Nike, Walmart, and Proctor & Gamble pledged to transition to 100 percent renewable energy. This month, Aspen, Colorado became the third 100 percent renewable energy city in America. A recent analysis rated the United States number one in the world in its attractiveness to renewable energy investment and deployment opportunities.

“Bottom line — large majorities want to decrease fossil fuel use and want to increase renewables,” Leiserowitz. “And they’d like to get started immediately, not wait.”

Cognitive dissonance, false dichotomies, and justifying the system

Sgamma compared renewable energy advocates to anti-vaxxers or homeopathic medicine practitioners who refuse modern medicine in a recent blog post.

There is a reason that WEA’s argument could be compelling to some — to flip the script, as Sgamma put it. It takes advantage of the cognitive dissonance between widespread support for renewable energy, and an economy and society that still needs petroleum products to function.

“Highlighting that ‘keep it in the ground’ may make a nice protest sign but [it] has significant negative consequences in daily life,” Sgamma said. “That catches people’s attention.”

“The Fossil Fuel Free Challenge points out the conflict between most Americans’ support of clean energy and their everyday behaviors, which remain highly dependent on fossil fuels,” said Karen Akerlof, research assistant professor at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication. Akerlof continued:

Human beings need to believe that they are consistent in their attitudes and their actions. When they realize that those aren’t in alignment, it makes them uncomfortable, a phenomenon called “cognitive dissonance.” When people experience cognitive dissonance it can lead to them either changing either the way they think, or how they act, to again become consistent in their attitudes and actions. What Western Energy Alliance is betting on is that when Americans are faced with that conflict, they will be more likely to soften their attitudes about fossil fuels than stop using them.

It isn’t a bad bet, but it is also slightly dirty pool, as it relies on presenting a false dichotomy about Americans’ energy choices. Whether or not to use fossil fuels isn’t the real choice that Americans face; the decision is about the ways in which they can become more energy efficient and use more energy from clean sources in order to protect the health of their communities.

It’s hard to feel comfortable about disrupting the status quo. The WEA’s challenge relies on not just fear and anger but also confusion and the basic social science behind the psychological advantage of the status quo. The campaign’s argument suffers from negative effects of what social psychologists call system justification theory. The theory says that people evaluate, say, the current economic system based on “existential needs to feel safety and reassurance,” according to a 2010 study.

“These needs give rise to a motivation to perceive the system as fair, legitimate, beneficial, and stable, as well as the desire to maintain and protect the status quo,” the study said. Climate deniers’ arguments suffer from the same negative effects of system justification theory.

It is much easier to assume that the only economy and energy system most people on the planet have ever known is here to stay, and also that any benefits yielded by that system are caused by fossil fuels.

But just as electricity from a geothermal plant can power a streetlight just as well as electricity from a coal plant, those systemic benefits are not intrinsically tied to the energy sources of the last few centuries. It’s easy for the fossil fuel industry to rely on our brains to justify the current system, though.

“They are driving home the message of how dependent we are on the existing system, and are correct in assuming that this will lead people to support that existing system more vigorously and resist changes to it, insofar as those changes are seen as a threat to everything we care about,” Irina Feygina, a New York University social science researcher who studies system justification theory told ThinkProgress.

Feygina said that the logical response to this should be “yes, this is the amazing world we have created by using energy, and if we want to preserve it and ensure its success we have to be very smart about how we protect it.” Using fossil fuels threatens to undermine the system that society requires to sustain itself in the long run.

“We’re countering misinformation that would have people believe that fossil fuels are dangerous,” Sgamma said. They provide the comfortable lifestyle many people enjoy cheaply and reliably, she said, whereas renewables are unreliable, expensive, and not up to the task.

The problem is that in both the short and long term, fossil fuels are indeed dangerous. They spill, leak, explode, and contaminate air and water. They also release greenhouse gases that cause dangerous climate change.

“The fossil fuel industry wants to know if we can live a week without fossil fuels” Elijah Zarlin, CREDO climate campaigns director, told ThinkProgress. “I’m sure the irony is lost on them that if we keep burning fossil fuels, we can’t live at all.”

“This desperate and depraved campaign treats Americans like idiots, but it’s clear who is really deluding themselves here,” Zarlin said. “With better alternatives available, do these executives and ad-men seriously expect us to sing the praises of fossil fuels as our wells run dry, our farmers can’t feed us, and our homes are burned to the ground or washed away by floods and rising seas?”

The messenger

Apart from the problematic challenge itself, the WEA is not just an industry group advocating for their members’ products. Best known for its advocacy of oil and gas development and fights against fracking regulations, the Colorado-based group also famously hired a PR professional known as “Dr. Evil” to advise members how to use “fear and anger” to win fights with environmentalists.

Its CEO, Tim Wigley, has experience with corporate astroturf campaigns and called people opposed to oil and gas development in their communities “long-haired, maggot-infested hippie freaks.”

This has done little to shrink its influence. Republican presidential candidates have been meeting the group’s members at its Denver offices, answering questions about their commitment to fossil fuel development.

The WEA is using a different tactic to advocate for fossil fuels than past campaigns of this nature. Every March, people around the world participate in “Earth Hour” by turning off their lights and electronic devices for an hour to promote awareness of energy conservation. In response, the Competitive Enterprise Institute encourages people to celebrate “Human Achievement Hour” by wasting energy — to turn on all their lights in order to “enjoy the human achievement of light when we want it.” This avoids the step of pretending to have people wrestle with the decision of using fossil fuels or not — it straightforwardly celebrates the human achievement of wastefulness.

The Fossil Fuel Free Challenge is more of a thought experiment, but it does make clear that decarbonizing the economy will require more than just individual choices — system-wide incentives to switch to sustainable practices and renewable fuels are critical.

“Their challenge demonstrates that finding a solution to our problem is not a question of each individual changing their behavior,” said Feygina. “It’s a question of an integrated transition of the energy generation system that maintains and protects our system — not only in the short term but in the long term as well.”

The WEA’s Fossil Fuel Free Challenge runs through Friday, October 2nd.