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Exxon's CEO and Me

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Dear Rex Tillerson, CEO, Exxon/Mobil:

I'm the one who asked you about global warming at the Council on Foreign Relations last week. Your answer was light years ahead of Mitt Romney and half our Congress in admitting that "increasing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere is going to have... a warming impact." At least you accept the basic physics that CO2 traps heat. That's progress. (Watch video and a transcript of our exchange.)

You acknowledged human emissions are raising sea levels and will force us to "move crop production areas around." Moving them around is the least of it -- the Midwest is likely to become a dust bowl in our lifetime, and the price of food will rise a great deal.

But where you lost me and the rest of the audience -- and where you risk our economy and our kids -- is in saying "we'll adapt" to climate change which is "an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions." That answer, and the attitude behind it, threatens us all and is a giant business mistake, probably the worst in history.

Everyone knows the weather is changing. As I write, the worst wildfires in western history are burning and 1.5 million people are without power in Washington, D.C. Record high temperatures are being smashed weekly. Obviously, this is only the beginning of this. As emissions keep rising, the earth will continue to warm, the ice will melt, the coasts will be swamped, storms will become ever more ferocious. Given the long lifetime of carbon in the atmosphere, this will go on for generations to come.

You must know that we don't understand enough about ecosystems to "engineer" them. The path we are on will lead to the extinction of almost half the species on earth. We may be one of them. It's a totally imprudent risk.

Here is how the public will view your statement that "we will adapt to this": Exxon will make record profits destroying our economy and a livable climate and the public will then pay to clean up your mess. If you think oil companies get a bad rap now, think about what this will mean for your reputation as the weather inevitably worsens and our wealth is diverted to the massive costs of your "adaptation."

Here is your mistake: Exxon should get ahead of this issue. Instead of emphasizing the uncertainty of climate models, you should stress the need to mobilize our engineering ingenuity to move rapidly to a low carbon economy. Exxon should lead the way. If you don't, as the weather worsens your current business will be inevitably restricted and reduced by public insistence and you will be left out of the clean energy industries of the 21st century.

You are on record supporting a carbon tax. It's true -- only by pricing carbon to level the energy playing field can the market lead the way out of this mess. If we don't, the government intervention in the economy conservatives fear will be far worse than you can imagine -- the economy will be mobilized as if for war.

So lead the way -- join with business and environmentalists in a campaign to put a fee on carbon. But not a tax. It should be a slowly rising fee that is 100% rebatable to the public per capita. The government should get none of the money. Instead, every citizen would get an electronic rebate or a check every month, as they do from oil revenues in the state of Alaska. Over time, it will be a lot of money for families, and largely reverse the impact of higher energy prices. It's a market-based solution the public will support and conservatives can too.

And you need to act soon before you go down in history -- and to your grandchildren -- as the man who destroyed the future for enormous profits now. There is little time left to stabilize and reduce emissions before we risk terrible climate tipping points releasing potent methane from the Arctic and under the warming seas. If we burn all the unconventional fossil fuel reserves you are so excited about atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide will double or even triple from pre-industrial levels. Mr. Tillerson, the last time that happened in earth's history sea level was 250 feet higher. Fossil fuel CEOs like you now control the thermostat of the earth. You are dialing it way up way fast. Once the glaciers start to move, they can't be stopped. Do you really want the blame for that?

Very sincerely,
David Fenton

David Fenton is the CEO of FENTON, the global public-interest communications firm.