Exxon boss: intellectually obtuse position on climate impacts

I sometimes wonder what the CEOs of fossil fuel companies think about the effect of their products on the atmosphere and whether they harbour any anxieties about climate change. One of them, Rex Tillerson of ExxonMobil, has told us how he views the matter in his reply to a question following a speech he gave to the Council of Foreign Relations last week, a speech in which he had explained how unexpectedly vast the sources of extractable natural gas and oil in North American rocks are proving to be.

To get a full sense of his reply to the question you’ll need to look at it on the website – it’s about two thirds the way down the page. It’s copyrighted but I’ll try to give a fair paraphrase of his main points albeit accompanied by my criticisms. Tillerson is answering a question, not delivering a prepared statement, but his answer no doubt broadly reveals his basic stance on the question.

The questioner briefly outlined some of the devastating consequences for humanity of the burning of all the reserves Tillerson had talked about in his speech and asked what he was going to do about it. “We need your help to do something about this.”

Tillerson’s reply is a not unfamiliar mix. To begin with he did not deny the science, and indeed claimed close familiarity with the work of the IPCC, even engagement with it. But because ExxonMobil understands the science it knows that the modelling of the future impacts of warming is “not particularly good”. We can’t model aerosols and we can’t model clouds which play a big part in how the carbon dioxide concentrations affect temperatures. We need better models, and Tillerson claimed ExxonMobil is putting a lot of money into supporting people working on the models. But in any case our ability to predict with any accuracy what the future will be like is pretty limited, he asserts.

So he’s not disputing there will be an impact, just saying that we can’t be sure how large or how dire the consequences. However he considers that a reasonable scientific approach finds they will be manageable, albeit requiring an increased effort in preparing for adaptation.  He focuses on the need, for example, to plan to adapt to a possible four to six inches rise in sea level. If you wonder where he found such a relatively comfortable prediction, it follows his observation that predictions for sea level rise are “all over the map”, which presumably justifies his going for the lowest available.

So far his reply to the question is evasion of the science he claims to understand and accept. His dismissal of the reliability of modelling is overstated and clearly slanted to downplay the dangers of warming. He makes no mention of impacts already being observed, or of the lessons of paleoclimate studies. His conclusion that the impacts will be manageable is far from what the science points to.

Remember how James Hansen sums up the picture of what lies ahead if we exploit and burn fossil fuels from the new unconventional sources, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies:

…concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

That is the long-term outlook. But near-term, things will be bad enough. Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.

If this sounds apocalyptic, it is.

If Tillerson’s “reasonable scientific approach” suggests the impacts of climate change are readily manageable he’s obviously denying scientific reality at the same time as invoking it.  Hansen is not an outlier among climate scientists.

Tillerson gets worse as he proceeds to praise the adaptive ability of the human species. Adapt is what we’ve always done and it’s how we will manage climate change. We can cope with changing weather patterns that mean growing crops in different places. “It’s an engineering problem and it has engineering solutions.” We can’t stop burning fossil fuels out of fear of what it might mean for the future.

Where does his confidence come from? It strikes me as conjured up from nowhere to justify pursuing a course heavy with danger for the human future. It’s really recklessness dressed up as confidence.

The meeting’s chair wasn’t prepared to let Tillerson’s reply to the question rest there. He referred to the speaker at his daughter’s recent graduation saying that global warming was the great challenge of the generation.  He asked whether Tillerson agreed that it was at least one of the top five challenges of the generation or whether he thinks it’s been way overblown.

Well, it is a great challenge, replied Tillerson, but he reiterated that it’s a solvable one through the engineering solutions to any adaptation needs. There are much more pressing priorities for humanity. Billions of people in poverty need affordable electricity. Burning fossil fuels would greatly improve the quality of their life, their health, their children’s health, and their future prospects. And we can do it in more efficient ways, with lower energy intensity.

This is sheer diversion and an implied misrepresentation of the motivation of those urging drastic emissions reduction. In my reading it is very common to find advocates of action to mitigate climate change coupling that concern with the need to reduce global poverty. Economists Nicholas Stern and Jeffrey Sachs come immediately to mind. When I reviewed Stern’s book The Global Deal three years ago I noted:

He makes it clear from the start that combating climate change is inextricably linked with poverty reduction as the two greatest challenges of the century and that we shall succeed or fail on them together – to tackle only one is to undermine the other. This theme is frequently sounded in the book, and is an indication of the humanity which he brings to his task, as well as the realism.

No doubt Tillerson is only articulating a view of climate change shared by a great number of people in business and in government. One can easily imagine them reassuring one another that there’s no need to go overboard on this climate change business. Perhaps there’s something to it, but it will be nowhere near as bad as alarmist scientists like to paint it. There’s certainly no question of our being required to stop making good money from fossil fuels while we can still find them.

But no matter how mutually reinforcing are the communities which deny or downplay the impacts of climate change, no matter how urbane the expression of their complacency, their position is intellectually obtuse and morally indefensible. And it stands squarely in the way of the urgently needed changes we need to make in sourcing our energy supplies.

31 thoughts on “Exxon boss: intellectually obtuse position on climate impacts”

  1. “… he reiterated that it’s a solvable one through the engineering solutions to any adaptation needs” — and so the industry ushers in Phase II of its rearguard action on global warming — a shift from outright denial to the prediction that “it’s a solvable engineering problem”.

      1. Interesting that you’re acknowledging that climate change is inevitable (particularly if your beloved Free Market™ has anything to do with it) and a problem that if we can’t subsequently solve by means more appealing to your beloved Free Market™ we may as well ‘give up and die’.

        andyS, climate catastrophist.

        1. I am trying to understand George’s comment rather than make any explicit comment on my interpretation of the sensitivity of the climate to CO2

          Naturally, I think catastrophic AGW is a load of tosh

          1. “Naturally, I think catastrophic AGW is a load of tosh”
            Here’s my point AndyS — in the past Tillerson and his colleagues would have said the same, and left it at that. But now they are talking about a “solvable engineering problem”. Solvable tosh, as it were.

            1. I think a lot of other people believe what these guys say. I can’t see there’s a lot to be gained from speculation as to these guys’ own mental states.

            2. It’s funny how you suddenly start believing the guy at Exxon when he sings your song, yet you are (collectively) all happy to use the word “Exxon” as a four (sic) letter word to describe everything you hate about industrialised society.

              It’s very easy for business leaders to be PC and tick all the green boxes. It gets the activists off their backs and opens a few doors in government. There isn’t a lot of business sense in trying to swim against the tide of public opinion, although they, I am sure, will be happy to follow a different tack should that opinion dramatically change.

            3. “It’s funny how you suddenly start believing the guy at Exxon”. I don’t believe AGW is a “solvable engineering problem” under current technologies. The phrase carries a dangerous hubris. I do believe that the next phase of the industry’s rearguard action to defend its profits will be to sideline the “AGW is tosh” brigade and replace it with the “Can we fix it? Yes we can!” brigade.

            4. I don’t believe AGW is a “solvable engineering problem” under current technologies.


              “assuming” (for sake of argument) that AGW is the biggest crisis facing humanity, we have the following engineering options:

              (leaving aside geo-engineering)

              (1) A rapid move away from fossil fuels towards a mix of nuclear and other energy sources
              (2) A rapid reduction of the world’s population, by whatever means.
              (3) A global recession that would drive millions into poverty and reduce emissions dramatically

              These are all “engineering” solutions, some not very palatable of course.
              (Engineering could mean both social and technological engineering)

            5. Touché AndyS. But I don’t think any of those 3 are what Tillerson has in mind. I think he is talking about geoengineering.

            6. Oh I didn’t read engineering as “geo-engineering”.
              If that’s what your interpretation is, then I agree George. I’d rather live with some warming than have a bunch of Dr Strangelove types tinkering with the atmosphere, especially as we don’t really know that much about it.

              Incidentally, Bill Gates is interested in geo-engineering. That should be enough to put the fear of God into anyone

              “The Blue Sky of Death” perhaps?

            7. Despite our seeming agreement that geoenineering is not the way forward (at least not as part of the Plan-A) it would seem that unless our Plan-A contains a rapid de-carbonization of the energy industry we will be possibly forced to administer such things in a hurry once the wheat no longer grows in the West and Toronto has become to hot to bear in summer…
              The call for Dr. Strangelove to fix it quickly will rise rapidly once the summers of 2012 become normative I would think. Better stick to a Plan-A with some teeth…. but quite likely that option has been squandered a decade ago or more as far as things seem to develop….

            8. So pragmatically, AndyS, we have here a powerful person who seems to be seriously suggesting we shoot sulphur dioxide crystals into the stratosphere, or iron filings into the ocean, or paint the desert white, or hold out for some other genius idea. Regardless of your own views as to the tosh or otherwise of catastrophic AGW, would it not seem more prudent at this time to embark on a “rapid move away from fossil fuels towards a mix of nuclear and other energy sources”?

            9. Regarding your comment on nuclear, George, I agree and have been looking into and advocating for Thorium power for sometime.

              However, it always gets pushed back by the environmentalists.

              I have supported Gordon McDowell’s Kickstarter project to make a new documentary LFTR 2012 which is currently in production.

  2. As always he is protecting Exxon’s share price. This is based on the assumption that the fossil carbon they have “rights” to is turned into CO2. If (when) this changes, (ie they are not allowed to burn the carbon) then 3(?) of the top 5 US companies implode.

    He doesn’t want that on his watch!

    1. Indeed. As long as a vast slice of the cake of humanities actions are predicated by whatever props up the share price of the corporations administering the assets linked to that slice of the cake nothing will change if it involves voluntary restrictions of activities that are profitable.

      Therefore we (the people) need to invoke and enforce a legal landscape that shifts the profit motive of the holders of the capital towards what would insure the survival and the sustenance of our civilization. Otherwise nothing will change.
      ….And, just as I type this watching JK pour the ETS down the dunny on the late news, I think the next election the electorate MUST push the eject button on the current government if NZ should have any chance of advancing on the struggle for a sustainable future….

      1. Just come out a state what you want Thomas instead of all the waffly eco-babble about the ‘…need to invoke and enforce a legal landscape that shifts the profit motive of the holders of the capital towards what would insure the survival and the sustenance of our civilization’.

        1. Gosman, it is you who waffles incoherently against the ideas put forward towards forcing the players in our economies to account for the damage we do to our future.

          There are many good ideas as to how we could move towards a more accountable economy that enforces a long term strategy towards de-carbonizing of our economy. ETS systems are one avenue, a source tax on fossil fules another and global annual tradable fossil fuel allotments yet another. Perhaps a mix of such measures might arrise. But unless we engage seriously and constructively on invoking such systems with the clear aim to curtail emissions we will achieve nothing. And your right wing waffle equating any such ideas with “Stalinist agendas” is simply nonsens.

  3. The 4 to 6 inches SLR indicates very clearly he has not been paying attention and certainly chooses to not understand the nature of uncertainties I’m inclined to make a list:
    4 to 6 inches by 2100
    1. Less than the rise so far with less than 1 degree of warming
    2. less than the contribution of the PIG in west Antarctica, the sea having long since invaded it’s underside. 240 mm -520 mm if Thwaites glacier goes the same way which appears to be the case.
    3. 120 mm is the estimated contribution of the world’s small glaciers and Icecaps comprising less than 1% of the total Ice about the place. this based on a study of more than 120,000 small glaciers and ice caps.
    4. And then there is Greenland experiencing at present what looks like a record melt.
    5. And after that the paeleontology record, will it rise 25 metres even if we stop using fossil fuels speedily?

    I have long observed that to deceive others we humans must first deceive ourselves.


  4. Perhaps one way of making the current biggest contributors to CO2 emissions more aware and responsive to the challenges of future negative impacts of climate change is by making them aware of potential future legal liabilities that they might suffer along similar lines to the Tobacco companies.

  5. I’ve got an old University friend who works for Exxon in the UK. He has a fairly senior job in IT and tells me he often cycles 20 miles each way to his office, that is when he is not working at home.

    He owns a fairly beat-up car and likes to wind up the Texans by telling them this. They probably think he is a communist.

  6. Watching the whole reply of Rex Tillerson on video, a strange but grabbing thought came to mind. It does not refer to him personally, but rather of the corporate personae behind the facade:

    “Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”


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