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Global warming is a “manageable” problem, but will require policy changes to adapt to its effects, the chief executive of ExxonMobil, the largest US oil and gas producer, has said.
Rex Tillerson said at a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York that climate change was a “great challenge”, but it could be solved by adapting to risks such as higher sea levels and changing conditions for agriculture.
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“As a species that’s why we’re all still here: we have spent our entire existence adapting. So we will adapt to this,” he said. “It’s an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions.”
Exxon, the world’s largest oil company by market capitalisation, has long been attacked by environmental campaigners for its stance on climate change.
Lee Raymond, Mr Tillerson’s predecessor as chief executive, questioned whether the earth was really warming, and said the attempt to limit greenhouse gas emissions “defies common sense”.
Mr Tillerson, who took over at the start of 2006, has modified that position, but continued to be sceptical about the benefits of plans to cut emissions.
Speaking on Wednesday, Mr Tillerson said: “Clearly there’s going to be an impact. I’m not disputing that increasing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere … will have a warming impact.”
However, he added: “How large it is what is very hard for anyone to predict. And to tell you how large it is then projects how dire the consequences are.”
He said Exxon had for many years been involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN-backed scientific body that reviews and assesses information about the climate, and funding research, but said climate modelling still contained large uncertainties.
“The competences of the models are not particularly good,” he said. “Our ability to predict with any accuracy what the future’s going to be is really pretty limited.”
He added: “In the IPCC reports … when you predict things like sea-level rise, you get numbers all over the map. If you take what I would call a reasonable scientific approach to that, we believe those consequences are manageable. They do require us to begin to spend more policy effort on adaptation.”
He said there were other issues that were “much more pressing priorities”, including poverty, which could be relieved by access to electricity and fossil fuels for cooking, to replace traditional sources such as animal dung.
“There are more people being dramatically affected because they don’t have access to fossil fuels to burn. They’d love to burn fossil fuels, because their quality of life would rise immeasurably,” he said.
Under Mr Raymond, Exxon provided grants to several think-tanks and other groups that challenged the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions to avert the threat of global warming.
While Mr Tillerson has been CEO, most of that funding has been cut.
One remaining grant was the $50,000 that Exxon gave last year to the Heritage Foundation, which promotes a range of conservative and free-market policies, including the argument that “the costs of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, most notably carbon dioxide, far outweigh any benefits for individuals”.
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