Rex Tillerson's view of climate change: It's just an 'engineering problem'

Last week, when Trump named Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head his Environmental Protection Agency, critics instantly seized on Pruitt’s views about climate change. He had co-authored an article for the National Review incorrectly stating that the “debate is far from settled. Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.” (Actually, scientists have concluded that it is “extremely likely” that global warming is mostly driven by humans.)

In comparison with this statement, ExxonMobil Chief Executive Rex Tillerson — just tapped to be Trump’s secretary of state, and hence perhaps the future lead player in U.S. international climate negotiations — has tended to articulate a more nuanced position on climate change. It’s one that, at least in the context of how Trump’s administration is shaping up on energy and environmental policy, could almost be called moderate.

Consider some of Tillerson’s remarks in 2012 at an event sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. There, Tillerson discussed what he said were problems with climate change models — “we cannot model clouds,” he said — and suggested humanity has bigger problems. But also bluntly acknowledged, “I’m not disputing that increasing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere is going to have an impact. It’ll have a warming impact.”

That’s a far cry from the kind of things that Tillerson’s predecessor at ExxonMobil, Lee Raymond, used to say.

On the Charlie Rose show in 2005, for instance, Raymond engaged in a lengthy exchange about global warming. Citing how “natural variability” can change the climate, Raymond then stated, “Now, the question is, is part of what’s happening related to something other than natural variability? And if so, how do you determine what that is? And the reality is, the science isn’t there to make that determination.”

It’s statements like that that explain why many scientists and environmentalists continue to intensely assail ExxonMobil’s climate change record. But whatever the company’s past actions, even they tend to acknowledge that Tillerson speaks differently than Raymond did and is hard to label a “denier.”

Where Tillerson gets into more contested territory, though, is his assessment of the scale of the risks and how to respond to them. He suggested at that 2012 event that the impacts of things like sea-level rise would probably be “manageable” — something that very much remains to be seen. He mentioned the possibility of “sea level rising four inches, six inches,” which is nowhere near the worst case scenario.

Most prominent of all, perhaps, was Tillerson’s technological optimism about humans finding a way to solve the problem:

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.

It’s true humans have found some engineering solutions. We protected New Orleans with a huge seawall. Scientists are now contemplating “negative” carbon technologies that will remove emissions from the air — it works in the lab, but it’s not exactly scalable yet. And maybe we’ll have no other choice but to blast the skies full of aerosol particles using fighter jets or cannons, and mimic a volcano’s effects of reflecting away the sun’s radiation, cooling the planet. (Of course, there would be other, er, consequences if we did that.)

“One senses a geo-strategic attitude from Tillerson on energy and climate, in which oil and gas flows for example play a larger role in the broader foreign policy agenda,” said Paul Bledsoe, an energy and climate consultant and a former Clinton White House climate adviser. “On climate change, this might lead the Trump Administration toward different technologies,” he said, including not only nuclear energy but negative emissions approaches or so-called “geoengineering.”

“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,” said Bledsoe.

Controversial indeed. So what can we make of Tillerson’s non-denialist optimism?

First, there are still reasons to worry Tillerson may be downplaying the magnitude of the problem — may be too rosy-eyed, basically.

According to a transcript of ExxonMobil’s annual shareholder meeting in 2015, for instance, Tillerson was asked a question about what it would mean for ExxonMobil if we couldn’t get climate change under control and ended up in a world where atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations were at 600 parts per million (they are just over 400 now). Tillerson responded that we “don’t really know what the climate effects of 600 ppm versus 450 ppm will be, because the models simply are not that good.”

But actually, we do know one thing for sure — warming at 600 ppm will be worse than it will be at 450. Going that far is a huge risk.

In fairness, Tillerson did then go on to say, “I don’t want to suggest that we know at 650, you get x-centimeters rise in sea level versus 450 because the models just aren’t that good. But it is a risk management problem which we have always described it. And in risk management, you have to consider the range of possible consequences and be prepared for those.” So Tillerson acknowledges a worst case. Assuming such a very bad scenario arises, his answer once again was that

Our plan B has always been grounded in our beliefs around the continued evolution of technology and engineered solutions to address and react to whatever the climate system and its outcomes present to us, whether that be in the form of rises in sea level which we think you can address through different engineering accommodations along coastal areas, to changing agricultural production due to changes in weather patterns that may or may not be induced by climate change.

The key question, then, is whether Tillerson is really justified in thinking that we’ll find a way to adapt, especially if things turn out badly. Especially if parts of West Antarctica collapse, leading to a surge in sea levels and a huge pulse of freshwater into the oceans.

The strong counterpoint is that it’s unjustified to assume that adaptation will be possible, or that the costs will be tolerable, and argue instead that we should be moving rapidly to change our energy system in order to stave off possible worst-case scenarios.

“Since the time that Mr. Tillerson became CEO, ExxonMobil has acknowledged climate science on its website,” said Ken Kimmell, the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has been critical of ExxonMobil. But, he continued, “Mr. Tillerson’s own public statements emphasize the alleged uncertainties of climate science models and the unproven possibilities of future engineering solutions, which divert all of us from the task at hand-transitioning now to a clean energy economy.”

Others have blasted the idea of “geoengineering” the climate in particular, which may (or may not) be implied by Tillerson’s constant reference to “engineered solutions.”

“In some ways, for the free-market fundamentalist, geoengineering is a logical way out because it reflects an extension of faith that the free market and technological innovation can solve any problem we create, without the need for regulation,” argue climate scientist Michael Mann and Post cartoonist Tom Toles in their book “The Madhouse Effect.”

Moreover, while humanity has indeed adapted to climatic changes in the past, the changes that are coming in the future could be a lot more rapid, says Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe.

“Today, climate is changing faster than any time in the course of human civilisation on this planet, 10 times faster than between the last ice age and today,” Hayhoe said. ‘Human society has never adapted to this magnitude of change, happening so fast, with 7 1/2 billion people on the planet. And that really is the sticking point. What if sea level rose by 3, 4, or even 5 feet, 1000 years ago? If we lived in Houston, we’d just pick up our tents and move…Today, with every acre of arable land already allocated, and two thirds of the world’s largest cities within a few feet of sealevel, that type of adaptation is no longer possible.”

On the other hand, in some sense, it’s of course true by definition that barring any other solution we’ll adapt — humanity won’t go extinct. We’ll be around even if we retreat from the coasts, at least from where they currently lie. But the human costs could be enormous — not to mention many things we can’t really price, like, say, living in a world that no longer has summer Arctic sea ice.

In the end, maybe it depends on what you mean by “adaptation.” MIT’s Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric and climate scientist, responded to Tillerson’s comments by arguing that clean energy is in a sense the epitome of just that.

“I very much agree that it is an engineering problem, but its solution will also have social and political components,” said Emanuel. “Yes, we will adapt, and part of that adaptation will be to transition away from carbon-based fuels. Corporations and nations that do not take part in this adaptation will surely be left behind.”

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