Tillerson’s position on climate change is basically: Denialism is profitable.

On Climate Change, Rex Tillerson Says One Thing With His Mouth and Another With His Money

On Climate Change, Rex Tillerson Says One Thing With His Mouth and Another With His Money

The state of the universe.
Dec. 14 2016 7:05 PM

Tillerson Says One Thing With His Mouth and Another With His Money

The Exxon CEO’s actions suggest he knows climate change denialism is good for business.

Exxon Mobil chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks at a discussion organized by the  Economic Club of Washington on the energy innovations that have led to a new era of energy abundance for North America in Washington, DC on March 12, 2015.
Rex Tillerson speaks at a discussion organized by the Economic Club of Washington on March 12, 2015.

Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

On Tuesday morning, Donald Trump named Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his nominee for secretary of state. Five days before that, the president-elect tapped a climate change–denying Oklahoma attorney general to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Trump has also reportedly settled on a climate change–denying Montana congressman to run his Interior Department and a climate change–denying former Texas governor to head up his Energy Department.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

It is a dark time for the future of our planet. It’s tempting to see the selection of Tillerson—a man who says publicly that manmade global warming is indeed a real concern for the world—as a bright spot in that darkness. “Can a career oil man help save the planet?” wondered CNN. Compared to his fellow Cabinet appointees, “it’s possible that Tillerson would be a moderating voice,” suggested Mashable. “Tillerson’s position on climate change may be to the left of Trump's,” offered the Washington Post. All three of those reports couched their maybe-this-guy’s-a-moderate assessments in relative terms, which is necessary considering that the president-elect is soon to become the only world leader to deny the reality of climate change.

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In the bleak lineup of full-on denialists who are about to take hold of our government, Tillerson has been painted as a possible, if unlikely, savior. He is not. There is no reason to be optimistic that Tillerson, a career employee of the world’s largest private oil company, will make the incoming Trump administration any more likely to address greenhouse gas emissions. None. Zero. Zilch.

The climate case for Tillerson is built on the perception that the engineer-turned-executive has softened the oil giant’s once-open hostility toward the accepted science that shows humans’ role in global warming. Notably, Tillerson has also voiced support for a federal carbon tax in the United States and for the Paris climate agreement that was negotiated last year. “At Exxon Mobil,” he said in a speech earlier this year, “we share the view that the risks of climate change are serious and warrant thoughtful action.”

Sure, it sounds good—it’s practically a relief amidst the horror. But it’s a mistake to judge Tillerson only by his words. For one, as researchers at Harvard and MIT have documented in great detail, his more specific comments on the topic tend to raise doubt about the science when there isn’t any. More telling, though, have been his actions.

In the decade-plus that Tillerson has been chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil, the company has funneled roughly $7.25 million to federal candidates via its political action committee, according to a database kept by the Center for Responsive Politics. The vast majority of that cash—more than $6.5 million—went to Republicans, and not just any old Republicans. Recipients of Exxon checks include such anti-science all-stars as: Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the chairman of the powerful Environment and Public Works Committee who authored a climate change–denying book titled The Greatest Hoax and once brought a snowball onto the Senate floor to try to make his case that the world had not warmed; Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, who against the odds actually once out-Inhofed James Inhofe during a climate vote two years ago; and Texas Rep. Joe Barton, the former chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, who has cited a biblical flood as evidence against manmade climate change (and once infamously apologized to the chairman of BP during congressional hearings on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill).

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Tillerson may be striking a more climate-friendly tone in public than his predecessor did, but the company’s PAC expenditures suggest it’s little more than the political posturing of a man eager to present his company as a good corporate citizen to investors. During each of the six campaign cycles during which Tillerson has been CEO, Republican candidates have received roughly $9 out of every $10 spent by the company-sponsored PAC, roughly the same share they had been under the man Tillerson replaced, Lee Raymond (who memorably spoke out against the Kyoto Protocol that was a predecessor to the U.N. climate deal struck in Paris). Total political spending by Exxon’s PAC, meanwhile, has soared under Tillerson’s watch from less than $900,000 in 2004, the last full cycle under Raymond’s reign, to more than twice that in each of the past three election cycles. If Tillerson actually feels at odds with the Republicans he will soon join in the Cabinet, there is no evidence of this in his financial decisions.

Hillary Clinton, you may remember, was herself no stranger to donations from the oil-and-gas industry. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, industry employees gave her campaign nearly $800,000 during the last cycle, roughly $100,000 more than they sent to Trump (but still about a half-million less than they gave to Sen. Ted Cruz). The Democratic nominee was a particular favorite of Exxon Mobil employees, too: They gave Clinton more (about $80,000 total) than they did to any other presidential candidate. That money, however, came from individuals, not the oil giant’s wealthy PAC, which has avoided donating directly to presidential candidates in recent years. Tillerson, however, displayed no such restraint. He sent his own check to Jeb Bush, a man who managed to offer up a multipronged energy proposal on the stump without once mentioning manmade climate change.

Exxon’s GOP leanings are, of course, not an accident. As Steve Coll detailed in the New Yorker back in 2012, the company decides which lawmakers receive donations—and which do not—based specifically on how they vote on legislation that Exxon believes will most affect its bottom line. “We are a business-oriented [PAC],” an executive involved in political strategy told Coll at the time. “Now, when you apply that litmus, our [PAC] is rightly criticized—that we tend to give more money to Republicans than to Democrats—but it is a result of the approach we take, and not a desired result.” Put another way, Exxon Mobil doesn’t donate to Republicans because they are Republicans; it donates to Republicans because Republican priorities match their business priorities. There is no ambiguity in the Republican Party line when it comes to climate: The official party platform adopted at the 2016 GOP convention, for instance, states unequivocally that “environmental extremists” are working to “sustain the illusion of an environmental crisis.”

Denying climate change directly benefits Exxon’s business model. Investigative reporting from the Los Angeles Times has shown that even while Exxon was publicly denying the reality of climate change in the 1990s, they were factoring the melting rates of Arctic ice into their oil exploration plans. An open Arctic is profitable for them.

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It is certainly possible, even likely, that Tillerson understands the threat climate change poses. His company was one of the first to do extensive research on climate change, as another series of investigative reporting from Inside Climate News found. Of course, rather than share this research with the public, Exxon continued to deny climate change publicly for decades, because it was more profitable for them to do so. Again, it seems that Tillerson and Exxon continuously favor pragmatism and profitability over morality. That is perhaps acceptable, if despicable, when you are running a private business. But it is an abhorrent quality for a public servant.

And what of the carbon tax that Tillerson claims to want so badly? As the Union of Concerned Scientists has documented, time and time again, Exxon-funded lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have actively worked to derail any progress on such a greenhouse gas-reducing mechanism, which is seen by many environmentalists and economists as the best way to put a price on carbon given its relative simplicity. Tillerson’s support for such a tax appears even more empty when you remember back to when he first proposed it: in 2009, when Democrats controlled both chambers and the President Obama–backed cap-and-trade bill had not yet died a slow death in the Senate. Tillerson’s backing would have been a potential world-changing event if it had come back in the 1990s when Al Gore was advocating for it and when Republicans had not yet closed their eyes and ears to the science. Instead, Tillerson could comfort himself knowing that his suggestion had no chance of overcoming a GOP filibuster in the Senate anytime in the foreseeable future, no small thanks to those lawmakers his company helped put there.

Even more troubling than the money Exxon Mobil continues to funnel to political candidates openly promising to stop the action Tillerson claims to want, is all the cash the company continues to send to those groups that traffic in the disinformation those very same politicians wrongly cite as evidence for their denial. Under Tillerson, for instance, Exxon Mobil continues to donate to several groups with a documented history of sowing unfounded doubt about climate science by spreading misinformation and publishing misleading policy analyses, including the likes of the American Legislative Exchange Council and the American Enterprise Institute. The company suggested to shareholders back in 2007 that such practices would stop. Clearly, they have not followed suit.

Maybe it’s preferable that our prospective secretary of state seems at least able to provide lip service to the idea that climate change is real. But the actions he has taken as CEO suggest that, if confirmed next year, he’s far more likely to say the right thing about climate as secretary, while doing the wrong one.