Sandy: Send the Bill to ExxonMobil

The heroic efforts of people coming together to assist each other in the face of Hurricane Sandy give me great hope for how we work together to overcome adversity.  If we look at this storm and all the increasing toll of “unusual” weather disasters as random, however, we will miss an opportuity to secure a better future for our families and for wildlife.  Those who have stood in harm’s way deserve better accountability for the actions that have made Sandy such a destructive storm, just as the farmers out West deserve better for the droughts they have suffered through, and others for the wildfires that have swept through parts of our nation.

We have entered a new era where climate disruption is reality and the scientific predictions have struck home.  We shouldn’t be surprised any longer as the improbable becomes the norm. As NWF Senior Scientist Dr. Amanda Staudt explains, “Global warming is putting hurricanes on steroids and we’re beginning to see the effects.”  The near-record warmth of the Atlantic waters that spawned the storm is the new normal, thanks to the warming caused by one trillion tons of carbon pollution that has been dumped in our atmosphere from burning oil, coal and gas.  More water in the atmosphere is the new normal, because warm air holds more water.  Higher sea levels from warmer waters and melting ice shelves are the new normal, amplifying the impacts of storm surges.

NASA GOES image of Sandy’s approach to the Eastern U.S. seaboard.
Given ExxonMobil’s long history as the funder-in-chief for two decades of organized public deception around climate science, I can’t help but revisit the recent comments of CEO Rex Tillerson as we look at the destruction from Sandy.  After a speech, a member of the audience laid out the basics of climate science and asked what ExxonMobil will do to help solve the mounting threat of climate change.  Here is an excerpt from Tillerson’s response (full interview here):

“What do you want to do if we think the future has sea level rising four inches, six inches? Where are the impacted areas, and what do you want to do to adapt to that? And as human beings as a — as a — as a species, that’s why we’re all still here. We have spent our entire existence adapting, OK? So we will adapt to this. Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around — we’ll adapt to that. It’s an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions. And so I don’t — the fear factor that people want to throw out there to say we just have to stop this, I do not accept.”

At the same event, Tillerson criticized the American public as being too ignorant to embrace ExxonMobil’s vision of a fossil-fuel dependent future:

“Ours is an industry that is built on technology, it’s built on science, it’s built on engineering, and because we have a society that by and large is illiterate in these areas, science, math and engineering, what we do is a mystery to them and they find it scary. And because of that, it creates easy opportunities for opponents of development, activist organizations, to manufacture fear.”

Tillerson’s attack on the public as the problem, rather than offering responsible solutions to reduce pollution, was both insulting and frightening.  When do we stop letting oil companies write America’s energy plan because they think the drought that devastated farmers this summer and the storms ravaging our coasts are simply an engineering challenge?  What do you suppose Mr. Tillerson is doing today? I imagine it is just another day at work in Texas (earning $100,000 per day).

Where is the accountability for the decades of junk science Exxon funded to create confusion about the impact of burning fossil fuels on our climate, just as tobacco companies for so long funded efforts to deny the link between cigarettes and cancer?  Instead, Exxon and other oil companies are even now pursuing plans to make our fuel supply even dirtier and more dangerous than conventional oil, especially in Canada, where tar sands oil production creates three times as much carbon pollution as conventional oil extraction.

We can no longer afford to let Tillerson and his pals write the rules that put the rest of us in harm’s way. Right now, ExxonMobil and other companies don’t pay a penny for the carbon pollution that is pumped into the atmosphere from their products.  The rest of us, however, are paying an increasing cost.  Farmers are losing their crops.  Food prices have shot up.  Families are devastated by storms.  Governments spend billions of taxpayer money in emergency relief.  Insurance customers face higher premiums, if they can get insurance at all.  Until we have a fair system where companies pay a reasonable price for carbon pollution, cleaner energy alternatives will be bullied out of the way by big oil, and the bill we all pay from climate impacts will go up and up.

Tillerson is right about one thing: we need to better prepare for climate change.  The forecasters and emergency responders have done exceptional work to prepare for and respond to Sandy.  But long-term preparation should start with restoring natural systems such as wetlands that are the best coastal defense against storms.  We should have started 20 years ago, when Exxon was instead investing in its deception machine.  But we can make progress if communities and government agencies come together around common sense preparedness.  Where Tillerson is fundamentally wrong, however, is that adaptation alone can protect us.  Bailing only works if you aren’t making the hole in the bottom of the boat bigger. ExxonMobil’s energy vision would superheat the planet and sink the ship.  Instead, we should be working now to accelerate deployment of alternatives to oil and coal to safeguard our children’s future.

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