Sustainable Living & Sustainable Lifestyle

Can the CEO of a major oil and energy company really make judgements on climate change?

Rex Tillerson: Climate Change is an Engineering Problem

Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson delivered a rant last week while giving a speech at the Foreign Relations Committee in New York, complaining about “lazy journalists” and an “ignorant public” in regard to climate change and energy policy. All the ignorance and “manufactured fear” makes running the world’s largest oil company difficult.

Tillerson has enjoyed a reputation as a moderate and even-keeled CEO in regard to his public statements on climate science and policy, especially in the light of his predecessor, Lee Raymond, who took up the charge accusing climate science as a hoax. But that has apparently changed.

Whether it was the record-breaking June heat making Tillerson just a little cranky or the declaration of a fundamental shift in the CEO’s outlook and demeanor, Tillerson made clear how obstructed and misunderstood he feels. Gosh Rex, we’re sorry to be so lazy and stupid.

Go ahead, sir, tell it like it is

Climate change: just an engineering problem

While it is true that Tillerson acknowledges the reality of climate change, he apparently sees it as an issue on par with managing a flood plain.

Rex Tillerson: Climate Change is an Engineering Problem“We have spent our entire existence adapting, okay? So we will adapt to this,” chides Tillerson. “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.”

How wonderfully understated, almost belittling. Just rotate the crops and employ some good civil engineering and – viola! – problem solved.

Just shut up and adapt already.

Tillerson doesn’t outright deny global warming; he just makes it sound like the scope and therefore the solution to the challenge are much smaller than they are. For Tillerson, imagining the implications of global climate change on a scale beyond human experience is just so much Malthusian foolishness. 

Climate change: whatever will be, will be (or why not to believe climate models)

Tillerson contends that climate modeling can’t accurately predict future climate, astutely observing that nobody can know what the “future will be.”

That climate models can’t “know the future” is not in dispute. Certainly a man in Tillerson’s position understands that climate models are predictive, not prescriptive; intended to forecast a range of possible scenarios given a range of possible inputs.

Tillerson assumes that since climate models can’t possibly foretell the future, they are in all cases overstating the risk of severe consequences from climate change. But in too many instances the opposite is fast becoming the case, as projected impacts from many models underestimate what is already happening – sea level rise, habitat loss, and arctic sea ice melt to name but a few.

Beating people over the head with a constant barrage of doom-and-gloom scenarios isn’t effective. If it were we’d all gladly give up our carbon-spewing ways and get down to work building a new, sustainable clean energy economy. To the extent that Tillerson implies that the current environmental narrative is inadequate, there is little doubt. Creating a positive environmental narrative, addressing the reality of the challenge before us while motivating positive action to meet that challenge is needed now more than ever.

But where Tillerson goes terribly wrong is his implication that since the narrative is “wrong”, or at least not to his liking, then the science and reality underpinning it must therefore be just as wrong.

Sure, there’s going to be climate change, but we’ll just engineer and adapt our way out of it.

A climate change scenario based on wishful thinking

On the one hand he acknowledges that climate science is right, that climate change will happen, but that it will be in all cases, in all places, in every circumstance, manageable and with minimal impact.

Despite his complaining of lazy journalism and rampant ignorance, he bases these assertions not on the available science, but merely on wishful thinking.

Maybe it’s not so much that we don’t understand you, Mr. Tillerson, but more that you don’t understand the world in which you live.

Tom Schueneman is a freelance environmental writer and founder of

Image: William Munoz

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