Longtime ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald J. Trump’s secretary of state nominee, misled the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he presented his take on climate change during a hearing Wednesday.
During the first morning of his confirmation hearings, Tillerson was pressed for his views on global warming, after bobbing and weaving around questions focused on Exxon’s past research and disinformation campaign around the topic.
The risk of climate change does exist and the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken,” Tillerson told the panel. He noted that the most disagreement concerns what those actions should be.
So far, so good.
When pressed further, however, Tillerson said the following:The increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect, our ability to predict that effect is very limited.
It’s the second part of that sentence where Tillerson runs into a whole heap of trouble.
Don’t trust my word for it, though.
Climate scientists contacted by Mashable strongly disagreed with the assertion that the climate community is unable to foresee the likely consequences of global warming.
“To say that we don’t understand the impacts or effects that a given scenario or amount of continued fossil fuel use will have on our planet was a correct statement to make in the 1800s,” said Texas Tech University climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, in an email to Mashable.
“In 2017? Not so much.”
“Projections of the climate impacts associated with a given scenario, pathway, or amount of emissions… are based on physics and chemistry, the fundamentals of which have been understood since the work of [John] Tyndall and [Eunice] Foote in the 1850s,” she said.
“This physics and chemistry was then used by [Svante] Arrhenius in the 1890s to make the first projections, not predictions, of how much the world would warm, if carbon dioxide levels doubled or tripled.”
Michael Mann, who directs the Earth Systems Science Center at Penn State University, went further, calling Tillerson’s statement “indefensible.”
“It is the overwhelming consensus of the worlds scientists that our the burning of fossil fuels is not just having ‘an effect,’ but (a) is most likely responsible for all of the warming we have seen over the past half century and (b) is already having damaging impacts on all sectors of our economy,” Mann said in an email to Mashable.
“Moreover, our ability to project future warming is not ‘very limited,'” he said.
“If anything, uncertainty is breaking against us, not with us”
“Climate models have proven extremely skillful in predicting the warming that has already been observed and, by many measures (e.g. Arctic sea ice loss, melting of the major ice sheets) it is proceeding faster than climate models predicted,” he added.
“If anything, uncertainty is breaking against us, not with us, which belies Tillersons implications to the contrary.”
Tillerson made his statements shortly before NASA is expected to announce that 2016 was the warmest year on record, beating the previous benchmark set in 2015. The past year was the warmest on record in the Arctic, where sea ice hit new lows (and remain at or near record lows early in 2017).
David Titley, the director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State who previously led the U.S. Navy’s climate change task force, also found Tillerson’s skepticism about climate science’s predictive capabilities to be problematic.
“The ability of climate scientists to predict the future is significantly more skillful than many other professions (economics, intelligence, political science) who try and predict the future,” he said in an email. “When viewed from a risk management perspective, climate science has given plenty of useful, actionable information for decision-makers to use for many years.”
“…While Tillersons statement may be technically correct for small spatial scales and small timescales, it is very misleading in the sense of what climate models and climate scientists can and do [to] inform policy makers about future projections.”
Titley said it’s possible that Tillerson has confused predictions, such as short-term weather forecasts, with projections. Climate science produces the latter, based on scenarios of carbon emissions, human population growth and other factors.
“Either Tillerson doesnt understand the difference between a climate projection and a weather prediction,” Titley said, “Or hes not-by-chance conflating the two when [he] says we ‘cant predict’ the climate effect.”
“Id give him the benefit of the doubt that he hasnt been briefed on the difference between ‘prediction’ and ‘projection.’ But maybe Im being overly generous,” he added.
Tillerson’s comments are in line with Exxon’s public positions under his leadership, during which time the company officially acknowledged the reality of human-caused climate change and publicly supported the Paris Climate Agreement, which seeks to limit global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels
Exxon has lagged far behind other oil companies, such as Total and Shell, in investing in renewables and planning for a future in which oil and gas can’t be burned due to policies aimed at slashing emissions. Instead, the company has conservatively projected that virtually all of its oil and gas reserves will one day be burned.
In other words, Exxon may theoretically back the Paris agreement, but in practice it is planning for a future in which warming will be far greater than that, thereby rendering its support for the agreement largely meaningless. It is doing so in part by citing scientific and policy uncertainty, as Tillerson did on Wednesday.
If the Senate, as expected, confirms Tillerson’s nomination, he will be the diplomat in charge of steering U.S. climate negotiations under the Paris treaty.