President Trump, Paris, and ExxonMobil

June 1, 2017 | 5:57 pm
Peter Frumhoff
Former Director of Science and Policy and Chief Climate Scientist

It is remarkable what you can achieve when you set the bar really low.

By announcing his plan to withdraw the United States from participation in the Paris climate accord, shamefully reneging on our nation’s commitment to join with the world community of nations in fighting climate change, President Trump accomplished the striking feat of making appear virtuous and responsible almost every other major entity whose actions have contributed mightily to the problem.

Even ExxonMobil.

That’s right. The world’s largest investor-owned oil and gas company. The company whose long, well-documented track-record of climate deception and disinformation to avoid regulation of its products has earned it comparisons with the tobacco industry and brought it under investigation by state attorneys general for possible shareholder fraud.

Media coverage in the lead-up to today’s announcement has regularly contrasted Trump’s rejection of the Paris Agreement with the many calls from leading businesses for the US to stay in. ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods has in particular gotten a lot of attention for his advocacy. Last month, Woods sent a letter to President Trump, calling the Paris Agreement “an effective framework for addressing the risks of climate change” within which the US is “well positioned to compete”  thanks to its “abundant low-carbon resources such as natural gas” and “innovative private industries, including the oil, gas and petroleum sectors.”

As former Clinton Administration Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers put it, he “never imagined” an administration that’s “way to the right of Exxon on a fossil fuel issue.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists has been urging ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies to support sensible climate policies. Clearly the company deserves some praise for this.

But the disconnect between Darren Wood’s words and continued ExxonMobil actions to thwart climate progress indicates that any praise should be decidedly faint, and combined with continued pressure to do better.

You might think, for example, that ExxonMobil’s call for the US to stay in the Paris Agreement implies that the company actually supports the climate accord’s core goals.

The Paris Agreement’s long-term objective is to limit the rise in global average temperatures  to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. That is a temperature target above which the risks of severe and potentially irreversible impacts from rising seas and more extreme weather increase dramatically.

But ExxonMobil, like other major fossil fuel companies, maintains a business model that aggressively invests in developing future reserves and assumes a heavy long-term reliance on fossil fuels. By its own projections, this will lead to continued high carbon emissions, driving increases in global average temperatures on a trajectory to increase 3-4 degrees Celsius this century,  posing major risks of catastrophic climate change.

The company also continues to support climate disinformation and oppose sensible climate and energy policies through its leadership in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), other lobbying groups, and trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute. ExxonMobil’s failure to break from these groups’ denial of climate science and its implications for constraining carbon emissions belies CEO Woods’s assertion that “We have a commitment to fundamental science.”

Fortunately, shareholders are also now calling on ExxonMobil to take climate risks seriously. Despite strenuous objections from the ExxonMobil board, shareholders at this week’s annual meeting in Dallas passed by a nearly two-thirds majority vote a resolution calling on Exxon to report on the climate-related business risks the company faces—from changing technologies and policies that could limit fossil emissions consistent with the Paris Agreement goal of keeping temperatures from rising above 2 degrees.

The company may get some credit for appearing more progressive on climate than President Trump. But it is critical that shareholders, civil society, the attorneys general and other policymakers  hold the company accountable for exceeding that low bar by far more than they currently do.

It’s high time for ExxonMobil to walk the talk.