News Reports Uncritically Portray Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson As Climate Change Advocate

››› ››› KEVIN KALHOEFER & ANDREW SEIFTER

Several media outlets reporting on President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state have uncritically described Tillerson as accepting of climate change and supportive of a carbon tax. But these reports ignored scientifically inaccurate claims Tillerson has made about climate change, Exxon’s continued financial support of groups that deny climate science, inconsistencies by both Tillerson and Exxon on whether they truly support a carbon tax, and fierce opposition to Tillerson’s nomination from leading environmental groups -- not to mention the fact that Exxon is under investigation in several states for possibly violating state laws by deceiving shareholders and the public about climate change.

Trump Picked Exxon CEO To Serve As Secretary Of State

Trump Named Rex Tillerson As His Pick For Secretary Of State. On December 13, President-elect Donald Trump announced Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as his nominee for secretary of state. [The Washington Post, 12/13/16]

Tillerson Became Exxon’s President In 2004, Was Appointed Chairman And CEO In 2006. Rex Tillerson worked in various capacities for Exxon dating back to 1975. In 2004, Tillerson was elected president of the corporation and a member of the board of directors. He became chairman and CEO of Exxon on January 1, 2006. [ExxonMobil.com, accessed 12/16/16]

Several Media Reports Portrayed Tillerson As A Climate Change Advocate

Reports Uncritically Described Tillerson As Accepting Of Climate Science And/Or Supportive Of A Carbon Tax. Shortly before and after Trump selected Tillerson as his nominee for secretary of state, several major TV and print outlets uncritically reported that Tillerson accepts climate science and/or supports a carbon tax:

CBS Evening News: In a December 13 report, anchor Scott Pelley said of Tillerson: “The lifelong oil man has no government experience, but he did convince Exxon to acknowledge climate change.” [CBS Evening News, 12/13/16]

NBC Nightly News: In a December 10 segment discussing Tillerson, correspondent Andrea Mitchell reported, “During his time at the world’s largest public energy company, Tillerson acknowledged the science behind climate change, supporting a carbon tax, while also expressing support for the Paris Climate Agreement.” She later added that environmentalists and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are “asking questions” about Tillerson, but she didn’t explain what those questions were. [NBC Nightly News, 12/10/16]

Bloomberg News: Bloomberg News reported that Tillerson “breaks with Trump's climate-change denials," adding: ”The oil executive has characterized global warming as ‘a serious risk’ and supports a carbon tax as the best way to curb industry emissions, something Trump has said he opposes.” [Bloomberg.com, 12/13/16]

Tillerson Has Misinformed About The Science Of Climate Change

Harvard And MIT Researchers Documented That Tillerson Repeatedly Pushed “Climate Science Misinformation.” As Slate’s Josh Voorhes recently noted, researchers at Harvard and MIT provided extensive documentation showing that Tillerson’s remarks about climate change frequently “raise doubt about the science when there isn’t any.” Indeed, in a document calling on the American Geophysical Union to no longer accept sponsorship from Exxon, the Harvard and MIT researchers demonstrated that Tillerson falsely claimed in 2013 that the temperature record “really hadn’t changed” over the previous decade, and that he made at least five inaccurate remarks in recent years wrongly “seeking to sow doubt about the reliability of climate models.” As The Guardian’s Dana Nuccitelli explained in 2015, global climate models have been “even more accurate than previously thought.” [Slate, 12/14/16; “Ending ExxonMobil Sponsorship Of The American Geophysical Union,” March 2016; The Guardian, 7/31/15]

InsideClimate News: Tillerson “Sometimes Backslides” When It Comes To Accepting The Reality Of Climate Change. InsideClimate News reported that, although he does not espouse the overt science denial of his predecessor at Exxon, Tillerson “sometimes backslides when speaking off the cuff.” The article cited a 2015 speech in which Tillerson baselessly suggested that climate models could turn out to be “lousy”:

While Rex Tillerson, the current chairman, doesn't echo [previous Exxon CEO] Lee Raymond's science denial in his formal speeches, he sometimes backslides when speaking off the cuff.

At Exxon's annual meeting in 2015, Tillerson said it would be best to wait for more solid science before acting on climate change. "What if everything we do, it turns out our models are lousy, and we don't get the effects we predict?" he asked. [InsideClimate News, 10/22/15]

Tillerson Downplayed Consequences Of Climate Change, Saying It’s Simply An “Engineering Problem” And Sea Level Rise Will Be “Manageable.” In a 2012 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Tillerson described climate models as “not particularly good” and claimed that the amount of warming caused by increased CO2 emissions is “ very hard for anyone to predict.” He also said that he believed the consequences of climate change would be “manageable” and that it is simply an “engineering problem.” As The Washington Post’s Chris Mooney explained, TIllerson’s contention that sea level rise will be “manageable” is “something that very much remains to be seen,” and there are “reasons to worry Tillerson may be downplaying the magnitude of the problem” of climate change. [Council on Foreign Relations, 6/27/12; The Washington Post, 12/14/16]

Exxon Continued To Fund Climate Science Denial Under Tillerson, Despite Pledge To Stop

Exxon Pledged To Discontinue Funding For Groups Promoting Climate Denial In 2008. In 2007, facing pressure from shareholders, Exxon issued the following statement in its corporate citizenship report: "In 2008 we will discontinue contributions to several public policy research groups whose position on climate change could divert attention from the important discussion on how the world will secure the energy required for economic growth in an environmentally responsible manner." [The Guardian, 5/28/08; Exxon Mobil 2007 Corporate Citizenship Report via SocialFunds.com, accessed 12/16/16]

But Exxon Has Continued To Fund Climate Denial Groups. In July 2016, DeSmog Blog reported that Exxon’s most recent financial disclosures show that the company “continues to support organisations that claim greenhouse gases are not causing climate change, or that cuts to emissions are a waste of time and money”:

Organisations including the American Enterprise Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the National Black Chamber of Commerce — all organisations with a record of misinformation on climate science — all received grants in 2015 from ExxonMobil. The 2015 tally brings the total amount of known Exxon funding to denial groups north of $33 million since 1998. [DeSmog Blog, 7/8/16]

Drexel Professor’s Research Suggests Exxon May Also “Reroute” Funding For Climate Denial Organizations Through Dark Money Groups. In October 2015, InsideClimate News reported that a group of Democratic senators wrote a letter to Exxon “questioning Exxon's contributions to Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund, which provide a conduit between well-heeled contributors and various conservative public policy organizations, including many at the forefront of climate science denial.” InsideClimate News further noted that the senators cited research from Robert Brulle of Drexel University, who provided evidence that Exxon may have engaged in an effort to “simply reroute its support” of climate denial organizations:

Brulle is a leading sociologist who has been published extensively in the peer-reviewed literature on the climate denial movement.

In material supplementing one of his studies, Brulle documented Exxon donations directly to climate denial groups such as the Heartland Institute, up until about 2008. At about the time Exxon scaled back its giving to those groups, Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund stepped up their donations to them. [InsideClimate News, 10/29/15]

The Guardian: “ExxonMobil Gave Millions To Climate-Denying Lawmakers Despite Pledge.” In July 2015, The Guardian reported that Exxon’s financial and tax records show that since it pledged to stop funding climate science denial in 2007, “the oil company has given $1.87m to Republicans in Congress who deny climate change.” [The Guardian, 7/15/15]

Exxon Gave $131,000 To Contrarian Climate Researcher Willie Soon In 2007 And 2008. According to InsideClimate News, Exxon gave Willie Soon, a former Harvard-Smithsonian Center researcher and climate contrarian, “more than $131,000 in 2007 and 2008 for research that resulted in papers questioning whether climate change was dangerous for polar bears and whether the Arctic was warming.” As The New York Times reported, in his correspondence with corporate funders, Soon “described many of his scientific papers as ‘deliverables’ that he completed in exchange for their money.” [InsideClimate News, 4/5/16; The New York Times, 2/21/15]

Study Shows Groups Funded By Exxon More Likely To Include Climate Denial In Messaging. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that "organizations with corporate funding were more likely to have written and disseminated texts meant to polarize the climate change issue." It focused on organizations funded by Exxon and the Koch family foundations, noting that those two funders had been previously "identified as especially influential," and that funding from these groups "signals entry into a powerful network of influence." According to the PNAS study, many of these groups' climate change positions were likely influenced by Exxon's funding; specifically, the study found that not only were these groups "more likely to have written and disseminated contrarian texts," but also that "corporate funding influences the actual language and thematic content of polarizing discourse." The study detailed the "thematic content" touted by these organizations, which include many industry front groups, and found that fossil fuel-funded organizations more often discussed "temperature trends," "energy production," "the positive benefits of CO2," and "climate change being a long-term cycle" than organizations that did not receive industry funding. [Media Matters, 11/24/15]

Exxon And Tillerson Have Been Inconsistent In Their Support For A Carbon Tax

Tillerson First Expressed Exxon’s Support for Carbon Tax In 2009, As Democratic Congress And Obama Administration Were Moving Toward Cap-And-Trade System. In January 2009, The Wall Street Journal reported: “The chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp. for the first time called on Congress to enact a tax on greenhouse-gas emissions in order to fight global warming. In a speech in Washington, Rex Tillerson said that a tax was a ‘more direct, a more transparent and a more effective approach’ to curtailing greenhouse gases than other plans popular in Congress and with the incoming Obama administration.” The article quoted Daniel Weiss, then a fellow at the Center for American Progress, saying of Exxon’s move, "Calling for a carbon tax could be a ploy because few observers believe such a tax is politically feasible in our Congress." [The Wall Street Journal, 1/9/09]

InsideClimate News: Tillerson Has “Waffled” On Whether He Supports A Carbon Tax. As InsideClimate News recently noted, Tillerson has said “a price on carbon, increasingly embraced by other major economies, might make sense for the United States. But at shareholder meetings and in other venues, Tillerson has waffled. ‘As to our advocacy around a carbon tax—I would not support putting a carbon tax in place today,’ he said in 2013.” [InsideClimate News, 12/12/16]

InsideClimate News Detailed Evidence That Exxon Hasn’t Put Its “Political Muscle” Behind Enacting A Carbon Tax. A December 2015 article by InsideClimate News reported that “Exxon never put its political muscle behind a carbon tax,” despite offering the idea vocal support. The article noted that Exxon “has not stepped up campaign contributions to lawmakers” that support a carbon tax, “mounted any advertising campaigns in favor of the idea, or funded organizations that push for such laws at the federal or state level.” InsideClimate News also noted that Exxon “refused to sign on to a letter from other international oil giants, including Royal Dutch Shell and BP, that strongly urged the Paris climate negotiators to push for a global price on carbon.” The article also pointed out that Exxon hadn’t “lobbied for carbon tax bills in Congress,” but The Wall Street Journal reported several months later that top Exxon officials “have been more vocal about their support for a carbon tax and have met with Capitol Hill offices about related legislation, according to the company’s recent lobby disclosure forms.” However, the Journal article further noted that Exxon “arguably faces more pressure than other firms to show concern about climate change” because of state attorneys general investigations into whether Exxon misled shareholders on climate change, and added: “Congress has made it clear it is unlikely to consider a carbon tax soon, especially under Republican control.” [InsideClimate News, 12/21/15; The Wall Street Journal6/30/16]

Huff. Post: Exxon Refused To Comment On Anti-Carbon Tax Resolution In Congress. In an article headlined “Exxon Supports A Carbon Tax Except When There Is A Vote On A Carbon Tax,” The Huffington Post noted that, despite its pro-carbon tax rhetoric, Exxon refused to comment when the House of Representatives was set to vote on a non-binding resolution that railed against a carbon tax earlier this year. The Guardian added that “the American Petroleum Institute, which is a key lobbying group of the oil industry, including ExxonMobil, publicly supported the anti-carbon tax resolution.” [The Huffington Post, 6/9/16; The Guardian, 6/13/16]

Environmental Groups Have Strongly Criticized Selection Of Tillerson

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune: “Tillerson's nomination cements the fact that clean air, clean water, and our climate are public enemy number one in Trump's America. … ExxonMobil not only deliberately concealed its knowledge of climate change for decades but is responsible for one of the costliest environmental disasters in history. … At a time when the climate crisis is deepening, both the United States and the world deserve much better than having one of the planet's top fossil fuel tycoons run U.S. foreign policy. We urge Senators, who are elected to represent and protect the American people, to stand up for families across the country and the world and oppose this nomination." [EcoWatch, 12/13/16]

Union of Concerned Scientists President Ken Kimmel: “The secretary of state must also be a champion for action on climate change, building on last year’s agreement by nearly 200 countries in Paris that offers our last, best hope for averting truly devastating climate impacts. U.S. leadership on climate change has greatly increased our standing in the world. In sharp contrast, Mr. Tillerson has spent 40 years at Exxon, a company whose current business model hinges on the failure of this historic international effort. He has disparaged and downplayed the science on climate change, and his company is even currently under investigation for defrauding the public and shareholders for decades about the dangers of climate change caused by fossil fuels.” [Union of Concerned Scientists, 12/10/16]

League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski: “As CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson has consistently opposed policies to take action on climate, and he can now threaten the global efforts to meet this challenge. Tillerson simply cannot be trusted to look out for people instead of his companies’ profits.” [LCV.org, 12/10/16]

Greenpeace Executive Director Annie Leonard: “[Tillerson’s nomination] is an affront to global progress and will place the US economy, our security, and our standing in the world in the same failing predicament Exxon is in right now. The global community continues to send a strong, collective message that it is ditching fossil fuels for clean energy. Rex Tillerson hid climate science so he could cash in on disaster, instead of transitioning his company to a position of true leadership. This appointment is a desperate grab for power by a failing industry that is perfectly fine bringing the American people down with it.” [EcoWatch, 12/13/16]

Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp: “As Republican and Democratic presidents alike have long understood, climate change is a defining foreign policy challenge of our time. Addressing it effectively in concert with countries around the globe will be a central responsibility of the next Secretary of State. If that job goes to the chief executive of the world’s largest shareholder-owned oil-and-gas company, he will need to demonstrate substantially different priorities than those he followed as CEO.” [EDF.org, 12/13/16]

350.org: “This is unfathomable. We can’t let Trump put the world’s largest oil company in charge of our international climate policy. Tillerson may be a friend of Putin’s, but he’s no friend of the planet. ExxonMobil is still a leading funder of climate denial and is pursuing a business plan that will destroy our future. Tillerson deserves a federal investigation, not federal office. We’ll be pressuring Senators to turn the confirmation process into a hearing on ExxonMobil’s history of climate deception. If Exxon is found guilty of working with other oil companies to deceive the public and their shareholders about the threat of climate change, they could be on the hook for fraud and racketeering charges. It would be the largest corporate scandal in history and could not only stop Tillerson’s appointment, but take down the entire company.” [350.org, 12/10/16]

State Attorneys General Are Investigating Whether Exxon Fraudulently Deceived Shareholders And Public About Climate Change

State Attorneys General Are Investigating Whether Exxon Deceived Shareholders And The Public About Climate Change To Protect Its Profits. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched a probe into whether Exxon committed fraud by deceiving its shareholders and the public about climate change, after news accounts by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times found that Exxon officials knew about the science of climate change decades ago but continued to fund climate denial groups. California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey have since followed suit and also launched investigations of Exxon that are ongoing. [Media Matters, 10/21/16]

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