On Tuesday, President-elect Donald Trump selected Rex Tillerson, the chairman and chief executive officer of ExxonMobil, as his secretary of state. Besides dashing the dinnertime dreams of one Willard Mitt Romney, Trump’s choice also thrust the veteran oil titan even further into the spotlight.
We’ve learned much about Tillerson since he was fingered by Trump. We’ve learned, for example, that Tillerson has deeply compromising ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin, and his company stands to earn billions of dollars if certain US sanctions against Russia are lifted. But here’s a fun little fact you might not know: Tillerman, unlike Trump and many of his other cabinet picks, doesn’t believe that climate change is a fairytale concocted by phoney scientists in underground lairs. Unfortunately, however, his solution to the globe’s rising temperature is hardly encouraging — in fact, it’s a “fix” that allows his company to continue raking in hundreds of billions of dollars a year for the foreseeable future.
Tillerson’s positions are critically important because unlike many of Trump’s other picks, he actually has a fair amount of sway in America’s climate change policies going forward. John Kerry, the outgoing secretary of state, signed the Paris Agreement; the President-elect has vowed to dismantle the historic climate accord, and Tillerson, if confirmed, will need to choose a side. ExxonMobil outlined its support for the agreement in November, but it’s unclear to what degree Tillerson would be involved in the company’s activities should he join the cabinet. Given the president-elect’s reticence to separate his business dealings from his political duties, it’s fair to say we’re in unprecedented territory.
In much-discussed remarks at a Council on Foreign Relations meeting in 2012, Tillerson put himself and the company in the same bucket:
So our approach is we do look at the range of the outcomes and try and understand the consequences of that, and clearly there’s going to be an impact. So I’m not disputing that increasing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere is going to have an impact. It will have a warming impact. The — how large it is is what is very hard for anyone to predict. And depending on how large it is, then projects how dire the consequences are.
He’s since continued to acknowledge that climate change is real, and under Tillerson’s (fairly recent) tutelage, ExxonMobil switched tracks on its approach to climate change. It now proclaims that “the risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action”.
However, both the company’s and Tillerson’s attitudes have been murky in the past. According to a Guardian report on his 2012 comments, Tillerson expressed scepticism toward the accuracy of climate models and accused environmental advocacy groups of “manufactur[ing] fear”. He also blamed “lazy” journalists for reproducing these supposed scare tactics.
ExxonMobil’s relationship is even cloudier. Two 2015 investigations — one by InsideClimate News, for which the publication was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize, and one by the Los Angeles Times — shone a bright light on the company’s dodgy history with climate change science. Both reports found that the company knew more about climate change than it let on. For example, in 1977, an Exxon senior scientist said that “the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels”. Yet later on, the company became a staunch denier of climate change. Indeed, Tillerson’s predecessor, Lee Raymond, argued in 2001 that natural sources were partially responsible for the greenhouse effect driving climate change. Under Tillerson, ExxonMobil has staunchly denied the findings of both of the 2015 investigations. The company has also heavily criticised New York Attorney General Eric Scheiderman, who in November 2015 launched a probe into whether the company deliberately deceived the public.
But while he may acknowledge the indisputable conclusion that our appetite for fossil fuel is slowing killing our home planet, Tillerson’s views on how to solve the problem diverge from those of some climate scientists.
From his 2012 CFR comments, which mention the word “adapt” four separate times:
And as human beings as a — as a — as a species, that’s why we’re all still here. We have spent our entire existence adapting, OK? So we will adapt to this. Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around — we’ll adapt to that. It’s an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions. And so I don’t — the fear factor that people want to throw out there to say we just have to stop this, I do not accept.
I do believe we have to — we have to be efficient and we have to manage it, but we also need to look at the other side of the engineering solution, which is how are we going to adapt to it. And there are solutions. It’s not a problem that we can’t solve.
If this notion of an engineering solution sounds incredibly vague, that’s because Tillerson is unclear about what exactly he means here. There are countless proposed climate change countermeasures that might typically be considered engineering, like seawalls, geo-engineering, carbon capture, all of which are controversial and unproven. Conceived more broadly, engineering could refer to everything from new agricultural methods, to shipping technologies for moving food, to water purification strategies, to some unnamed concept we haven’t even thought of yet.
This underscores how Tillerson could usher in a “technology will solve everything” attitude toward rising temperatures. “This could be seen a distinctly Republican brand of climate effort, representing a kind of brave new world in climate policy, but one certain to be highly controversial,” Paul Bledsoe, an energy and climate consultant and a former Clinton White House climate adviser, told The Washington Post.
That controversy isn’t coming out of nowhere, because at this point, a “tech fix” is a largely hypothetical solution. It’s also one the CEO of a large energy company would advocate for, because it allows him and his fellow suits to continue to make oodles and oodles of money without actually sacrificing much. And crucially, while Tillerson might be talking about an engineering answer, ExxonMobil’s record doesn’t suggest it’s actually working toward one. It simply assumes other people — scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, inventors — will come up with a magical solution to the problem.