Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to lead the State Department, has spent 41 years at the oil and gas company Exxon Mobil. He rose through its ranks to CEO, but he was so cloistered in its corporate culture that he could not appreciate the decline of an outdated business model. As a case study for MBA students, that’s perhaps instructive; as a biography of the nominee to be secretary of State, that’s frightening.
Tillerson’s essential failure as chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil has been that he viewed climate change as a threat to the company’s bottom line rather than a signal to change course. When business environments and markets shift, companies must adapt or die. Tillerson must have understood the scientific consensus about climate change for decades; after all, Exxon Mobil is one of the most science-based corporations in the world. As revealed in the Los Angeles Times and InsideClimate News in 2015, internal Exxon documents dating back to the late 1970s confirmed that the burning of fossil fuels was destabilizing Earth’s climate and would likely cause catastrophic damage to the world’s ecosystems as well as immense human suffering.
That would have been a good time for Exxon’s management, including Tillerson, to reassess the long-term viability and ethical rationality of their business. Fatefully, however, the company took the Big Tobacco approach and deceived the public. Exxon spent tens of millions of dollars funding scientists and organizations that would misrepresent the growing scientific consensus on climate change. It also funded right-wing think tanks that would amplify and lend credence to such misrepresentations. Tillerson’s predecessor as CEO, Lee Raymond, got into the act personally, regularly disparaging climate science, infamously claiming in 1997 that the planet might be facing global “cooling.”
Out of the public eye, however, as the Times’ 2015 report also noted, Exxon was simultaneously making other business decisions based on climate science, such as fortifying its infrastructure in the Arctic and using projections of dwindling sea ice to plan future oil drilling opportunities. In other words, while Exxon was trying to confuse the public about the dangers of continuing to burn fossil fuels, it was also figuring out how to profit from its products’ damage to the planet.
When Tillerson ascended to CEO in 2006, he changed the company’s rhetoric, but not its actions. Exxon Mobil finally acknowledged that climate change is real. Still, Tillerson frequently equivocated and sometimes misstated the facts about climate change. In 2015 he said global temperatures had been “flat” for a decade (but they weren’t). He said climate models were too inconsistent to justify policy prescriptions (although climate models have been remarkably consistent for decades). Exxon under his leadership claimed it would stop funding groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council that deny and obfuscate climate science (but it still hasn’t).
Most profoundly, Tillerson has never backed down from Exxon Mobil’s position that it can pump and burn all its known fossil fuel reserves. The scientific consensus, affirmed by the Paris agreement on climate change, is that only one-third of the world’s known reserves can be used at all if we hope to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
Exxon Mobil’s disregard for the health of the planet isn’t the only thing that is disturbing about the prospect of a State Department led by Tillerson. The company and its CEO have shown shaky regard for the traditions of free speech and transparency and have attacked the credibility of professional journalists. After nongovernmental organizations, including the one I work for, criticized Exxon's decades of climate deception, the company used legal processes to bully us and repeatedly accused us of “conspiracy,” a criminal act. When investigated for possible fraudulent statements to its shareholders on its understanding of climate science and how it accounts for its oil reserves, Exxon Mobil sued the Massachusetts and New York attorneys general rather than root out any internal corporate wrongdoing.
Given this record, is there reason to believe that Tillerson understands the U.S. tradition of defending human rights and a free press abroad? Will he demand transparency of his own State Department? Exxon Mobil’s lobbying and political muscle helped stymie climate legislation that would have hurt the company’s antiquated business model. Will Tillerson’s first instinct be to protect those same interests from international threats? If so, it seems certain that the $500-billion joint Russia-Exxon Mobil project to develop oil and gas in Siberia and the Russian Arctic — which was halted by U.S. sanctions after Russia invaded Ukraine — will resume.
For the next four years a fossil-fuel-friendly Trump administration and Vladimir Putin’s Russia could be aligned around one goal: sell as much oil and gas as possible, climate change be damned. If Tillerson is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Exxon Mobil’s abhorrent decision to prioritize short-term oil profits over humankind’s shared future will become the shared policy of two of the world’s great powers.
Lee Wasserman is director of the Rockefeller Family Fund. The Fund has made grants to the Columbia Journalism School's Energy and Environment Reporting Project and InsideClimate News, but has no involvement in articles they produce.
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