Rex Tillerson and “We’ll Adapt” to Climate Change: Millionaire Oilmen Say the Darndest Things

January 10, 2017 | 2:50 pm
Rex TillersonPhoto: Center for Strategic and International Studies
Erika Spanger-Siegfried
Director of Strategic Climate Analytics

People tell me that Rex Tillerson stands a good chance of being confirmed as Secretary of State this month. In the spirit of not going quietly, Senators should press him on many fronts, not least his statements about climate change adaptation. When Rex Tillerson says we’ll just have to adapt to climate change—whether it’s hubris, ignorance, or deception talking—it’s a dangerous view. It’s playing with other people’s lives.

When I first heard it—Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State—I thought, good one!  Wait, wait: Slender Man for Health and Human Services. Kanye for Dalai Lama. Willy Wonka to draft USDA Dietary Guidelines.

Rex Tillerson? The man who for 40 years served and eventually led Exxon Mobil? Who was there when the corporation came to understand the science and risks of climate change and worked, not to sound the alarm and contribute to solutions, but to ensure that doubt about the science became pervasive and that society wasted that time doing nothing? Who oversaw such activity?

And now that we can never get that time back, and Exxon Mobil has used that time to grow to be one of the world’s most profitable corporations, he talks about how our species thrives on adversity and should just adapt to climate change?  And he continues to undercut climate models, downplay climate impacts, and mock renewable energyThat guy?

I feel like I have irony poisoning.

It’s so late in the climate fight. The Paris Climate Agreement—on which hangs our last best hope for avoiding deep climate disruption—is taking its tottering first steps. In this moment, Americans have a deep obligation to ensure the solutions take root and succeed, at home and globally. The nomination of Rex Tillerson reflects us, as a nation, retreating to our self-interested corner, the future be damned.

But before we accept this man as our nation’s leading diplomat—as the person who will implement the Trump Administration’s foreign policy and help determine, among other things, the success or failure of the Paris Agreement—he should be made to clarify a few climate positions that are both dangerous and absurd.

Hubris, ignorance, or deception?

Tillerson has spoken a number of times about climate change, sometimes indicating support for the science and for solutions broadly, but also obscuring the urgency of climate mitigation, and downplaying the severity of climate risks. Indeed, he speaks in almost dreamily can-do terms about our ability to adapt to the changes. It’s all very sci-fi to watch.

Below are a few statements in the “we’ll adapt” family, with some commentary and questions. There are three basic themes worth calling out:

(1) his hands-in-the-air capitulation to the problem, and quick pivot to adaptation instead of  carbon emissions reduction,

(2) his I’m-just-a-passive-bystander stance, belying his company’s role in driving the climate crisis, and

(3) his absurdly optimistic notions of the kind of change that we can cope with.

Where do these positions come from? Is it a place of hubris? Ignorance? Or deception, to cover for callous self-interest? The Senate should want to know and should push him for answers.

“We’ll adapt to that” Part 1: Oh, really?

The notion that serious emission reductions through curtailment of fossil fuels is a step that can be skipped and we can just adapt is… well, crazy. We can’t adapt to unmitigated climate change—at least not while retaining a world we recognize today; the changes and the losses would to be too great. Does Rex Tillerson not get that, or is he choosing to ignore it? And which is worse in a Secretary of State?

For example, I quote: “Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around—we’ll adapt to that.”  Will we? Across large swaths of Southern and East Africa at this moment, severe, extended drought is leading to crop failure, hunger, malnutrition, and the growing threat of famine. The severity of this drought, according to a growing body of scientific evidence, has been driven by climate change.

The growing season has now begun, but many drought-stressed households are assumed to have no access to seeds. Emergency food shortages—i.e., worsening widespread hunger—are expected in several countries the coming months.

Now, imagine for a moment standing before an audience of these subsistence farmers—people whose hungry children now eat cactus at many meals—and telling them that your own personal actions have contributed to the climate conditions now preventing them from growing crops and feeding their families, and it’s going to get worse. Arguably, this is an exercise every person of privilege on earth should try. We have all made climate change. The impacts on the world’s most vulnerable people are on all the rest of us. What’s special about Rex Tillerson is that, in his position of power and influence, he goes on to say essentially, no big deal, everything will be fine, those crops can be grown elsewhere. We all need to adapt.

Areas of crop production will shift as climate conditions change and historically fertile areas become less so (and others potentially more so) or can no longer support the same crops. Our urgent duty is to cut emissions globally, so that such changes are more limited and gradual on the ground for those who must cope.

Ask him: What does the nominee for Secretary of State think will happen in countries where the economy is largely agricultural and many people are subsistence farmers? Doesn’t “we’ll adapt” in this case mean overturning ag-based economies and casting populations to the wind? Doesn’t it assume shocks to the global food system and the risks that ensue? Doesn’t it require risking famine? And other people’s lives?

The war in Syria is seen by some experts to have certain roots in the extended drought that country faced in recent  years, and the upheaval and displacement this caused in the countryside. The trauma wrought by Syria should haunt us for decades. Unless, of course, we’re creating a world where it’s quickly eclipsed by the next one.

Tillerson continued: “It’s an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions.”

Climate change is clearly an emissions problem. And the engineering solutions are clean energy technologies, not the ones Tillerson has in mind. But since we know that Tillerson’s world view largely bypasses climate mitigation and jumps to adaptation, we can assume he means things like coastal engineering to adapt to sea level rise. Six feet of sea level rise in the United States, plausible by end of century, can be expected to flood nearly 2 million homes (or 2 percent of all US homes) force people in the US and around the world to relocate, destroy the coastal housing market, and rob many people of their single greatest asset.

I hope someone asks him: what is the engineering solution that gets us out of that?

Let’s stay by the coast with a related quote: “But when you predict things like sea level rise, you get numbers all over the map. If you take a—what I would call a reasonable scientific approach to that, we believe those consequences are manageable. They do require us to begin to exert—or spend more policy effort on adaptation. What do you want to do if we think the future has sea level rising four inches, six inches?”

What’s interesting here is not only Tillerson’s quixotic view of adaptation solutions, but what sounds like a willingness to sign the taxpayer up for a hefty (and without mitigation, unaffordable) adaptation bill. Those of us in rich nations who reaped nearly all the benefit of fossil fuel use do need to pay for the costs of that use—i.e., to manage and minimize impacts in poorer countries and here at home. But the industry itself, which has profited wildly for years, also needs to pay. Exxon-Mobil wants us to bear all the costs while the industry continues selling their polluting product and reaping the profits. See also: gall.

Across such statements there is also a consistent downplaying of the threat. Yes, we do expect four or six inches of sea level rise in the future—but just in the next 20 or so years. We’ve already seen 6 inches just since 1970 in places like Boston and Charleston and more elsewhere.  And in the last few days, we’ve learned of the accelerating break-up of the Larsen C ice shelf, a single event that is expected to trigger four inches of sea level rise all by itself. By end of century, current projections are in the 4 to 6 foot range.

So, Mr. Tillerson should tell us: with more than 120 million Americans living in coastal counties; with large areas of Louisiana and Bangladesh, for example, at elevations less than 3 feet. And with hundreds of millions of people living in coastal mega cities…. What’s manageable about this situation?


Exxon-Mobil’s former chief, Rex Tillerson, could become a key person in determining the success or failure of international greenhouse gas reduction efforts. Henhouse, meet fox. Photo: William Munoz

“We’ll adapt to that” Part 2: Who’s “we”?

When Rex Tillerson says “we’ll adapt,” who exactly does he mean? The more than 700 million people who subsist on <$2 per day, whose lives generally hang in the balance, and who can in no way cope with the stress, disruption, and chaos that climate change will drive, and increasingly is driving? He cannot realistically mean those people. But given the price tag and complexity of dealing with unmitigated climate change, I don’t think he means you, me, and most everyone else, either. Perhaps “we” is the global .0001%, the ones who can simply pay to insulate themselves from harm.

“There are more people’s health being dramatically affected because they could—they don’t even have access to fossil fuels to burn. They’d love to burn fossil fuels because their quality of life would rise immeasurably, and their quality of health and the health of their children and their future would rise immeasurably.”

Human development, health, and quality of life benefit enormously from access to energy, and people without access want and need it. The wealthy countries of the world should be doing more to ensure they get it. But developing countries, as captured in this Climate Vulnerable Forum Declaration, want clean, affordable energy.

So, someone ask him: At this moment in history, when renewable energy sources like wind and solar show the potential to eclipse fossil fuel sources, why should poor countries sign up for a future of dirty, costly fuels and corporate dependency? Who does that benefit? And given the changes in store with accelerating climate change, how is greater fossil fuel-dependency NOT the cure that will kill you?

“Mankind has this enormous capacity to deal with adversity,” said Rex Tillerson, having played his outsized role creating a future of climate change the world will be dealing with for hundreds if not thousands of years. A future that a lot of things we hold dear—places, ways of life, species, whole ecosystems—won’t survive. “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 wonder what he doesn’t accept. The fear people feel? Or the need to stop climate change? Or the need to stop using his product?

In Tillerson’s world view, the rest of us can move heaven and earth in an effort to cope with climate change, but the oil industry can keep doing exactly what it’s doing to drive climate change. Because anything else would be too disruptive.

The wrong man for the moment

Rex Tillerson has spoken, sometimes passionately, about global poverty and American youth. As Secretary of State, he could arguably have no greater, more positive impact on each than by becoming a climate champion and lending his support to the world’s emissions reduction efforts. But that’s not what’s set to play out here. Rex Tillerson’s appointment looks more than anything like a power play by an industry that knows that, in a world of climate action, it is on the ropes; and in a world of climate inaction, it gets a second wind. The industry may eventually fail (or reinvent itself to become part of the solution─one can dream!), but for now its plan appears to be to extend its business model another five, maybe ten years, make all the money it can, and if it takes us all down with it, so be it.

We have our work cut out, folks.

In the best of futures, climate adaptation will be difficult and in some cases impossible, forcing hard choices and perhaps terrible impacts and losses. When millionaire oilman Rex Tillerson talks about “we’ll adapt” as an approach to climate change in coming years, it’s a modern, global equivalent of “let them eat cake.” It was absurd when the French aristocracy said it. It’s absurd today, coming from the recently retired head of a mammoth fossil fuel company, and only more so if that same person becomes U.S. Secretary of State.