Our next Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is fond of letting people know that he is an Eagle Scout, and that he is strongly committed to bettering our youth through his involvement with the Boy Scouts. While a host of dangerous climate change impacts have already begun to cause death and destruction and to exact a toll on human populations across the globe – a fact that Mr. Tillerson has been unwilling to acknowledge – there is no doubt that it is our children, their children, and future generations that will bear the brunt of suffering as a result of our increasingly climate-disrupted world. Some experts are now going so far as to say that a failure to address the climate change problem commensurate with the threat amounts to a form of child abuse. The fossil fuel extraction industries, faced with the knowledge that the very product they sell is the main culprit behind the destabilization of our global climate system, have a moral obligation to find ways to drastically reduce carbon emissions to Earth’s atmosphere so as not to leave behind a climate system inhospitable to human life. The oil, gas, and coal industries have shirked this moral imperative and managed to shake off any major legal imperatives formulated by elected officials over the years. In 2012, a few activist groups launched a campaign and put together a TV ad called “Exxon Hates Your Children.” The idea was to let the American people know that Rex Tillerson, as a lifetime employee and CEO of the ExxonMobil Corporation from 2006 to 2016, has taken little to no action to reduce Exxon’s carbon burden, instead working actively to defeat climate legislation in Congress and to maximize Exxon’s oil and gas extraction activities and profit at the expense of Earth’s climate system.
In short, Exxon has put profit over people. Mr. Tillerson should, at the very least, own up to his role in actively compromising, perhaps even destroying, the futures of the very youth – including the Boy Scouts – he claims to champion so strongly.
Tillerson, our newly designated Secretary of State was just 23 years old – a new college graduate barely past adolescence – when he accepted a job at the ExxonMobil Corporation, the company that would be his sole employer throughout his entire career. In 2006, at age 55, he was named CEO, taking over from Lee Raymond, who has been credited with masterminding some of the most blatant climate change denial the nation has ever seen. While Tillerson’s rhetoric around climate change took on a softer, more acquiescent tone than did Raymond’s, his actions as chief executive have continued to ignore the climate threat, per se, and to view any regulatory or legislative effort to curtail carbon emissions as a threat to the corporate profit margin and to be fought against. Pushback has come from many corners: shareholders have put forth resolutions asking for reports and a commitment to at least study the problem; an active divestment campaign to remove ExxonMobil stock from investment portfolios at major universities and elsewhere has been effective; various elements of the Rockefeller families have spoken out harshly against ExxonMobil and many have divested; and, of course, environmental organizations have been outspoken about ExxonMobil’s poor track record on climate change.
More About the “Exxon Hates Your Children” Campaign
One of the more creative expressions of objection to the way ExxonMobil has handled itself is a television ad that began airing in the summer of 2012 boldly proclaiming: “Exxon Hates Your Children.” Released on the heels of a July 2012 article in Rolling Stone by Dr. Bill McKibben warning that we had already discovered five times as much oil, gas, and coal than scientists concluded we could safely burn for energy, the ad reflected growing public concern regarding the climate change threat and a reaction to the continued presence of outright climate denialists bred by Exxon decades before. Sponsored by three activist groups – Oil Change International, Environmental Action, and The Other 98% – the 30-second ad was part of a crowd-funded campaign to point out the fatal flaw in ExxonMobil’s business model to maximize oil and gas extraction across the globe regardless of the growing threat to the stability of Earth’s climate system and thus the livability of the planet for our children, their children, and future generations.
The campaign website is still up and the TV ad is still available for watching on YouTube for anyone with access to the Internet; it has been seen by nearly 400 thousand people. In the ad, a man dressed in a business suit says:
“Here at Exxon, we hate your children. We all know the climate crisis will rip their world apart. We don’t care. That’s right. Every year Congress gives the fossil fuel industry over ten billion dollars in subsidies. That’s your tax dollars lining our pockets, making a fortune destroying your future. At Exxon, that’s what we call good business. Exxon hates your children – dot com.”
The 30-second spot raised the ire of Tillerson and other ExxonMobil executives, and resulted in a batch of “cease and desist” letters fired off by corporate attorneys and sent to networks planning to air the ad. As part of a targeted campaign based on geography and timing, Comcast was slated to air the ad on the Fox channel in Houston, Texas – right during the 2013 presidential State of the Union Address. At the last minute, the 30-second ad was pulled after Comcast received one of the “cease and desist” letters from attorneys representing ExxonMobil. The claim that “ExxonMobil hates your children,” the lawyers wrote, is “false and unsubstantiated,” though the attorneys did not offer any hard evidence to support their counterclaim. In general, “we don’t hate your children” is an argument made from a position of weakness.
Rex Tillerson is an Eagle Scout, But What Kind of a Boy Scout is He?
During his confirmation hearing to be the next U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson was careful to let us all know that he is an Eagle Scout. It’s something he is proud of and fond of mentioning; anyone familiar with Tillerson knows that he heaps praise on the Boy Scouts of America every chance he gets. Scouting is “the best thing going for young men today,” he claims, and Scouting has always been a part of his life; his father was actively involved with the Boy Scouts, as is Tillerson’s adult son. He holds up his Scouting achievements as the highlight of his youth. Three years after he took the helm of ExxonMobil as its CEO, in the fall of 2009, Tillerson was inducted into the Eagle Scout Hall of Fame. In this he joins the ranks of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Marriott International Chairman and CEO J. W. Marriott Jr., and John C. Whitehead, chairman of the Goldman Sachs Foundation, who served as the honorary chairman of the 2009 ceremony. Other famous Eagle Scouts include Neil Armstrong, President Gerald Ford, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, and journalist Walter Cronkite.
Despite Tillerson’s inclusion of his lifetime involvement with the Boy Scouts of America on his curriculum vitae, not one Senator at the confirmation hearing asked Tillerson how he would reconcile the familiar list of traits – good behaviors that all Boy Scouts are called upon to exhibit at all times – with his record at ExxonMobil. To our knowledge, no one has ever asked Mr. Tillerson to do so. Boy Scout Law requires that Scouts be: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. Having no idea how Mr. Tillerson would answer this question, we decided to take a crack at it ourselves by taking just a few of these and exploring just how Mr. Tillerson stacks up.
Trustworthy. Notably, “honest” is not on the list of sought-after Boy Scout traits, but if we can wrap truth-telling in with trustworthiness, our main question would be: how often has Rex Tillerson, as chief executive of ExxonMobil, told the whole truth and nothing but the truth regarding his understanding of the climate change threat, and the oil and gas corporation’s role in exacerbating that threat? Many of his shareholders have made it clear they wish to know this, and the question strikes at the heart of open investigations being conducted by both the New York and the Massachusetts Attorneys General, and by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The #ExxonKnew campaign has gained enormous traction in the public mind and many want to know why the corporation started out as such an honest broker in the 1970s, conducting its own climate science research, and then doing an about-face in the 1980s, blatantly denying the reality of global warming and working with other groups to manipulate public opinion so as to thwart a rational public response. Tillerson seems to be willing to go so far as to say the obvious warming trend is due to human activity and to increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, but he will not discuss climate change impacts; after all this time, he still refuses to acknowledge the enormous body of scientific evidence relating greenhouse gas emissions to floods, droughts, severe forest fires, extreme weather, sea level rise, and so on. More importantly, he dismisses the scientifically-proven argument that moving to a low-carbon economy – necessarily meaning a transition away from fossil fuel extraction – will be necessary to avoid climate catastrophe. One of the “big lies” ExxonMobil told under Tillerson’s leadership was its promise to stop funding nine groups known to be campaigning against climate change science and policy, and then reneging on that promise by continuing to fund more than two dozen organizations known to actively dispute climate science, but in a slightly more stealthy way.
Loyal. Is Rex Tillerson loyal? He has certainly been loyal to ExxonMobil, and the company has been loyal to him in return. The question is, to what extent will this loyalty extend into the future as Tillerson becomes our nation’s top diplomat?
Helpful and Friendly. Rex Tillerson has been especially friendly over the years with Russian President Vladimir Putin to the point that one business journalist in 2014 half-jokingly called their relationship a “bromance.” Several Senators questioned Mr. Tillerson on his relationship with Putin and his attitudes toward Russia during the confirmation hearing.
Given the fragile role that the U.S. has played in international climate negotiations and treaties, and President Obama’s decision to comply with the terms of the Paris Agreement forged in December 2015, we took notice of the Boy Scout Outdoor Code as well, which stipulates that “as an American I will do my best to:
- Be clean in my outdoor manners: I will treat the outdoors as a heritage. I will take care of it for myself and others. I will keep my trash and garbage out of lakes, streams, fields, woods, and roadways.
- Be careful with fire, I will prevent wildfire: I will build my fires only where they are appropriate. When I have finished using a fire, I will make sure it is cold-out. I will leave a clean fire ring, or remove all evidence of my fire.
- Be considerate in the outdoors: I will treat public and private property with respect. I will use low-impact methods of hiking and camping.
- Be conservation-minded: I will learn how to practice good conservation of soil, waters, forests, minerals, grasslands, wildlife, and energy. I will urge others to do the same.”
Given the extreme wildfires the Western U.S. has suffered over the past several years as a result of extended droughts and higher temperatures, results of changes in our global climate system, it is easy to crack a smile when reviewing these credos. Has ExxonMobil, with Rex Tillerson at its helm, been “clean in their outdoor manners” overall? The Exxon Valdez oil spill was a tragic occurrence resulting in enormous ecological damage, and, under Tillerson’s rein, ExxonMobil was still refusing to fully compensate the victims for these damages. There are all-too frequently occurring spills on land caused by ExxonMobil, usually resulting in litigation to force cleanup and compensation. ExxonMobil seems to always be fighting off one environmental regulation or another in court. And now, the oil giant is interested in drilling for oil in the Arctic: the melting ice makes that possible now.
And so, given Tillerson’s abysmal track record at ExxonMobil in dealing with the climate change threat squarely and honestly and with an allegiance to people, not just profit, perhaps he should think twice before bragging that he is an Eagle Scout. Is it too much of a leap to say that through his leadership role at Exxon in maximizing oil and gas extraction across the globe — regardless of the growing threat to the stability of Earth’s climate system and thus the livability of the planet for our children, their children, and future generations — Tillerson has been endangering the lives of children the world over to the point of abuse? This is a real question.
Failing to Solve the Climate Change Problem Ultimately Amounts to Child Abuse
Of late, professionals in psychiatry, medicine, and the social sciences are beginning to publicly assert in no uncertain terms that a chronic failure by the adults in our society to remove or substantially reduce the existential threat of climate change amounts to nothing short of child abuse.
“I see climate change as the ultimate form of child abuse for my grandchildren.”
While this statement could easily have been made by former GAP client and climate scientist-turned-activist Dr. James Hansen, who has written a book about his concerns for his own grandchildren in a climate-changed world, it was not. Rather, it was made as part of a speech delivered this week at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society, by Dr. Richard Jackson, a pediatrician and a professor at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles (of note, Jackson has also held prominent posts at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which has just abruptly canceled a conference addressing the public health implications of climate change out of fear that the event would be problematic for the new administration).
Others have put forward this notion as well. For example, Lise Van Susteren (sister of well-known TV journalist Greta Van Susteren), a psychiatrist with a private practice in the Washington, D.C. area who has a special interest in the psychological effects of climate change on children, also subscribes to the notion that a failure to leave our children and theirs with a livable world amounts to child abuse. She then takes this notion one important step further in asking:
“Mental health professionals are required in all 50 states to report child abuse. It is a legal obligation, but it is also a moral one. Is it any the less a moral obligation in the names of our children now and in the future to report that we are on track to hand over a destroyed planet, for generations to come?”
By extension, are we to report executives of fossil fuel companies to some authority for crimes against humanity, against our children? Some are beginning to think this way, as evidenced by the reactions within the climate community, for example:
“Putting Rex Tillerson in charge of climate policy is like asking Bernie Madoff to handle your life savings. Tillerson’s denial of climate change and his horrible record on human rights around the world indicate that he is precisely the wrong person to lead the United States’ foreign diplomacy…. Trump’s decision to nominate Tillerson is yet another painfully clear signal that he’s placing the profits of the wealthy ahead of the interests of the American people and has essentially declared war on our planet’s air, land, waters and wildlife.”
– Kierán Suckling, Executive Director of the Center for Biological Diversity
“We won’t allow our climate diplomacy to be in the hands of a dinosaur like Rex Tillerson. By tapping Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, Donald Trump is essentially declaring war on our planet and betting against a livable future. Tillerson would undoubtedly prioritize Exxon and its ilk above the well-being of the American people.”
– May Boeve, Executive Director of 350.org
What Kind of Secretary of State will Rex Tillerson Be?
Will Rex Tillerson, the Texas Oilman, be able to transform himself into Rex Tillerson, the nation’s top diplomat and representative of all the American people to other nations? As Steve Coll, author of Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, has said:
“Yet it is hard to imagine, after four decades at ExxonMobil and a decade leading the corporation, how Tillerson will suddenly develop respect and affection for the American diplomatic service he will now lead, or embrace a vision of America’s place in the world that promotes ideals for their own sake, emphatically privileging national interests over private ones.”
We could not agree more.
Is the Boy Scout code really the code Tillerson follows, or is it this one in the accompanying image:
If indeed #ExxonKnew the essential basics of the fossil fuel-climate change nexus going back to the 1970s, proceeded to become a ringleader in the “global warming denial machine” in the 1980s and 1990s, funded climate denial groups in the 2000s to the present day, and chronically lied to its shareholders for decades (as several state Attorneys General and the Securities and Exchange Commission are alleging and investigating), then how is it that Tillerson can purport to be a champion of the very youth whose futures he has been heavily responsible for helping to damage and destroy? And how can he represent the American people, including our youth, as Secretary of State given this sharp hypocrisy?
It’s a serious question.
CSPW Senior Climate Policy Analyst Anne Polansky has 30 years of experience in public policies relating to energy and the environment, with a strong focus on climate change and renewable energy. She is a former Professional Staff Member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.