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By Martha C. White

Rex Tillerson's acknowledgement that fossil fuel consumption contributes to climate change should have been a PR coup for ExxonMobil when the company's CEO gave a major address this week. Instead, environmentalists blasted Tillerson's assertion that the impact of climate change is not as serious as "lazy" journalists and an “illiterate” public believe.

Tillerson won praise for reversing the company's long-standing denial of a correlation between climate change and the burning of fossil fuels. But environmentalists said Tillerson's remarks won’t sit well with many Americans, especially those affected by extreme weather, climate-related natural disasters and pollution.

Tillerson, speaking at the Council for Foreign Relations, said that while carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has a “warming impact,” the science of climate change isn't good enough to say with certainty how severe that impact could be. 

“We've been working with a very good team at MIT now for more than 20 years on this area of modeling the climate. ... The competencies of the models are not particularly good," he said.

MIT's Ronald Prinn disputed that.

“The models are certainly good enough to clearly show the benefits of mitigation policies compared to no policy, in lowering risks,” said Prinn, director of the Center for Global Change Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We cannot wait for perfection in climate forecasts before taking action.”

Tillerson also defended the controversial practice of extracting hydrocarbons from rocks deep underground by injecting them at high pressures with water and other liquids, a process called hydraulic fracturing or "fracking." 

"The consequences of a misstep in a well, while large to the immediate people that live around that well, in the great scheme of things are pretty small," he said.

 

That statement might draw disagreement from those "immediate people," said Melinda Pierce, associate director for national campaigns at the Sierra Club. "Rex Tillerson should get out from behind his desk and actually meet those whose homes are threatened, whose drinking water is flammable and whose kids are getting sick because of companies like his."

Ultimately, Tillerson said humanity would simply adapt to the effects of a warmer earth. “We have spent our entire existence adapting, OK? So we will adapt to this,” he said.

Environmentalists called this contention false.

“Adaptation and mitigation aren't an either/or anymore — we have to do both," said Angela Anderson, climate and energy program director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "There are effects of climate change that are difficult if not impossible to adapt to," she said.

 

“There are two ways to address climate change — mitigation and adaptation,” said Kenneth Gillingham, assistant professor of environmental and energy economics at Yale University. "I find it disingenuous that Tillerson’s remarks only mention spending more policy effort on adaptation."

The CEO’s tone struck many as being tone-deaf at best, callous at worst — a perception that could be damaging to an energy company that is no stranger to public relations issues as well as environmental disasters. "This is an industry that made $137 billion in profits last year. They're asking the rest of the world to adapt on the hardship they're imposing on other people," said Bob Deans, spokesman for the National Resource Defense Council Action Fund. 

"ExxonMobil does have an agenda here," said Marcia Horowitz, senior executive vice president at public relations firm Rubenstein Associates. "Companies are not impartial and often have a self-interest in interpreting information to suit their needs.”

"Is it really OK for us to live slightly better off and have ExxonMobil make more money when it means that the Maldives will likely be under water and many poor in Bangladesh will likely face more common and more life-threatening floods?" said Gillingham.

Deans pointed to the thousands of people fleeing massive wildfires that are consuming homes in Colorado. "Ask them whether they think it's a good idea to adapt to that," Deans said.