Columbia Journalism Report Criticizes Exxon CEO's Position On Climate Change NPR's Robert Siegel speaks with Susanne Rust, director of the Energy and Environment Reporting Project at Columbia University, about Exxon Mobil's climate change policies under CEO Rex Tillerson.

Columbia Journalism Report Criticizes Exxon CEO's Position On Climate Change

Columbia Journalism Report Criticizes Exxon CEO's Position On Climate Change

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NPR's Robert Siegel speaks with Susanne Rust, senior reporter and director of the Energy and Environment Reporting Project at Columbia University, about Exxon Mobil's climate change policies under the leadership of CEO Rex Tillerson, who is President-elect Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

On November 4, a few days before the presidential election, Exxon Mobil issued a statement on the environmental milestone that was achieved that day. The statement began, (reading) today marks the entering into force of the Paris climate agreement. The agreement is an important step forward by world governments in addressing the serious risks of climate change. Exxon Mobil supports the work of the Paris signatories.

The agreement is the one Donald Trump now says he is studying to see whether the U.S. should withdraw from it. Trump has called climate change a hoax. What is Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson's record of statements and actions on climate change? We're going to ask Susanne Rust, who directs the Energy and Environment Reporting Project at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Welcome to the program.

SUSANNE RUST: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: I want to first play something that Rex Tillerson said in 2012 when he appeared before the Council on Foreign Relations. He said this about burning fossil fuels.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REX TILLERSON: Clearly, there's going to be an impact, so I'm not disputing that increasing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere is going to have an impact. It'll have a warming impact. How large it is is what - is very hard for anyone to predict.

SIEGEL: Well, is it fair to say that Rex Tillerson is not a climate change denier?

RUST: He is not a climate change denier. Publicly, he has called climate change a real and serious problem.

SIEGEL: What about his actions as head of Exxon Mobil? Did he act on those beliefs?

RUST: When he stepped up as CEO in the late 2000s, the company did change its public policy, or at least its public communication, on climate change. They accepted that climate change was real, called it something that was concerning and risky not just to the planet, but to the company. However, they are still in the business of supporting the oil and gas business around the world, and actively explore for new oil and gas reserves everywhere.

SIEGEL: As CEO, Tillerson was under pressure from, among others, the Rockefeller Family Fund to do more to combat climate change. We should note that Exxon was previously called SO, which stood for SO, Standard Oil, the source of the Rockefeller fortune. What does the Rockefeller family want Exxon Mobil to do?

RUST: The Rockefeller family, as well as several other shareholders of Exxon Mobil stock, are concerned that domestic and international policies that would curb greenhouse gas emissions will have an effect on Exxon Mobil's core business. And they are looking for Exxon Mobil to discuss what those reductions might look like in terms of its bottom line. I think they're concerned about things called stranded assets, which would be oil and gas reserves that Exxon Mobil has invested in but will not be able to tap into if these policies are enacted.

SIEGEL: So the question is are they really valuable assets or not? How does Exxon Mobil compare to Shell and BP when it comes to environmental practices?

RUST: Shell and BP have been much more directed into looking into new forms of energy. They have put more money and resources into green energy. Exxon Mobil has not put as much in. It really is counting on the fact that over the next 30 to 40 years, oil, gas and coal will be fueling the global population.

SIEGEL: Mr. Tillerson, when he has spoken about global warming, has said, while there is indeed global warming, it can be coped with through various engineering and other measures, and that the computer models that people use to try to describe how much the Earth will warm by are not competent. And he claims there is great consensus about the weakness of the models. Is he correct in saying that?

RUST: Technically, he is correct in saying that nobody knows what is going to happen - where there will be droughts, where there will be hurricanes, where there will be floods. However, it would not be true to say that the models don't predict that climate change is going to have a serious impact on this planet. I think where the models are imprecise is exactly when and where.

SIEGEL: Susanne Rust, thanks for talking with us.

RUST: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Susanne Rust, director of Columbia University's Energy and Environment Reporting Project.

POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: During this interview, Susanne Rust is asked about the Rockefeller family's views of Exxon Mobil's efforts to combat climate change. It should have been noted that the Energy and Environment Reporting Project at Columbia University, which Rust directs, receives financial support from the Rockefeller Family Fund and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

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Clarification Dec. 15, 2016

During this interview, Susanne Rust is asked about the Rockefeller family's views of Exxon Mobil's efforts to combat climate change. It should have been noted that the Energy and Environment Reporting Project at Columbia University, which Rust directs, receives financial support from the Rockefeller Family Fund and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.