For Tillerson, climate change is an ‘engineering problem’

By Benjamin Hulac, Jean Chemnick | 12/12/2016 10:01 AM EST

In his years leading Exxon Mobil Corp., Rex Tillerson has accepted the dangers of climate change, a departure in many ways from his legendary predecessor, Lee "Iron Ass" Raymond, who often shouted at stockholders who broached the topic.

Yet Tillerson hasn’t moved with vigor on the climate subject.

The 64-year-old Texan views climate change as an engineering problem that calls for a nuts-and-bolts solution. Global warming is a risk to manage, like other hazards Exxon faces. And he has often cast doubt on the accuracy of climate models.

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Asked in 2012 at a Council on Foreign Relations talk whether climate change is the greatest challenge of his generation, Tillerson said no.

"It’s an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions," he said. "The fear factor that people want to throw out there to say we just have to stop this, I do not accept."

He said humans will adapt to changing weather patterns, powerful storms and agricultural production. And he said the degree of warming from carbon dioxide emissions is difficult to predict.

"We have spent our entire existence adapting, OK? So we will adapt to this," Tillerson said. "It’s not a problem that we can’t solve."

Tillerson may be one of the few top officials President-elect Trump has interviewed for administration positions to believe climate change is a serious concern, but he has for years injected uncertainty into the debate about human-caused climate change and how to address it.

Tillerson joined Exxon in 1975 after graduating from the University of Texas, Austin, with an engineering degree. He’s never worked anywhere else since.

During an interview with Charlie Rose in 2013, he questioned the factors fueling climate change.

"The facts remain there are uncertainties around the climate, climate change, why it’s changing, what the principal drivers of climate change are," he told Rose. "And I think the issue that I think is unfortunate in the public discourse is that the loudest voices are what I call the absolutist, the people who are absolutely certain that it is entirely man-made."

He said the truth about climate change, based on Exxon’s work, is that there is some connection between global warming and fossil fuels.

And as he had a year before at the Council on Foreign Relations, Tillerson told Rose that despite the technical improvements made to assess global warming, he still found climate models suspect.

"At the end of it, there are still a range of uncertain outcomes around these models," he said. "And every scientist I know agrees there’s a range of uncertainty."

Even as he acknowledges climate change, activists say Tillerson has seemed indifferent to the suffering it causes, particularly overseas.

While addressing shareholders in 2013 in Dallas, he argued that fossil fuels present a key to solving poverty.

"What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?" he asked the audience.

Tillerson has expressed support for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which were finalized last year and include a call to address warming. But he has largely focused on supplying developing nations with energy, especially fossil fuels.

"What concerns me about Tillerson is that rather than looking at the solutions and the costs and benefits of moving through this energy transition that allows us to address climate change," said Shanna Cleveland of Ceres, "he’s clearly comfortable with the fact that inaction on climate change will bring about great suffering and great economic harm."

Dennis Clare of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development said Tillerson’s past focus on adaptation over mitigation was consistent with high-emitting companies but not with high-emitting countries, like China and the United States.

"Those in the fossil fuels industry in general prefer advancing adaptation because it requires less changing from them and more changing from others," said Clare, who advises developing countries on climate issues. "In any negotiation, people want the other side to do the lifting."

If Tillerson supports adaptation over mitigation projects as secretary of State, Clare said it will be interesting to see whether that stance extends to the support for U.S. foreign aid.

"Mankind has this enormous capacity to deal with adversity, and those solutions will present themselves as those challenges become clear," Tillerson told shareholders at a meeting in 2015.

At this year’s company meeting, the board opposed all shareholder proposals for more information about how the company assesses climate change.