T. Rex: Engineering Fantasies

Global warming? “It’s an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions.”

According to Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s choice for Secretary of State, adapting to climate change is an engineering problem that has an engineering solution. A soundbite from a Council on Foreign Relations presentation by Tillerson has been widely reported. But it is worthwhile to consider his full answer and its context.

Here are the question and answer:

QUESTIONER: Hi, I’m David Fenton.

Mr. Tillerson, I want to talk about science and risk, and I agree with you that’s the way we must proceed. So, as you know, it’s a basic fact of physics that CO2 traps heat, and too much CO2 will mean it will get too hot, and we will face enormous risks as a result of this not only to our way of life, but to the world economy. It will be devastating: The seas will rise, the coastlines will be unstable for generations, the price of food will go crazy. This is what we face, and we all know it.

Now — so my question for you is since we all know this knowledge, we’re a little in denial of it. You know, if we burn all these reserves you’ve talked about, you can kiss future generations good-bye. And maybe we’ll find a solution to take it out of the air. But, as you know, we don’t have one. So what are you going to do about this? We need your help to do something about this.

TILLERSON: Well, let me — let me say that we have studied that issue and continue to study it as well. We are and have been long-time participants in the IPCC panels. We author many of the IPCC subcommittee papers, and we peer-review most of them. So we are very current on the science, our understanding of the science, and importantly — and this is where I’m going to take exception to something you said — the competency of the models to predict the future. We’ve been working with a very good team at MIT now for more than 20 years on this area of modeling the climate, which, since obviously it’s an area of great interest to you, you know and have to know the competencies of the models are not particularly good.

Now you can plug in assumptions on many elements of the climate system that we cannot model — and you know what they all are. We cannot model aerosols; we cannot model clouds, which are big, big factors in how the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere affect temperatures at surface level. The models we need — and we are putting a lot of money supporting people and continuing to work on these models, try and become more competent with the models. But our ability to predict, with any accuracy, what the future’s going to be is really pretty limited.

So our approach is we do look at the range of the outcomes and try and understand the consequences of that, and 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. The — how large it is is what is very hard for anyone to predict. And depending on how large it is, then projects how dire the consequences are.

As we have looked at the most recent studies coming — and the IPCC reports, which we — I’ve seen the drafts; I can’t say too much because they’re not out yet. But when you predict things like sea level rise, you get numbers all over the map. If you take a — what I would call a reasonable scientific approach to that, we believe those consequences are manageable. They do require us to begin to exert — or spend more policy effort on adaptation. 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.

I do believe we have to — we have to be efficient and we have to manage it, but we also need to look at the other side of the engineering solution, which is how are we going to adapt to it. And there are solutions. It’s not a problem that we can’t solve.

ALAN MURRAY: But let’s stick with that for just a second. I mean, Exxon Mobil, before you became CEO, was very aggressive and overt in challenging and mounting a public relations campaign against the sorts of things that Mr. Fenton just managed. You changed that when you came in. But I guess the question I’d ask — I was at my daughter’s graduation last weekend, and the graduation speaker said that global warming is the great challenge of your generation. Do you agree with that? Would you agree that it’s in — at least one of the top five challenges of the generation, or do you personally think that it’s been way overblown?

TILLERSON: No, I think it’s — I think it’s a great challenge, but I think it’s a question back to priorities. And I think, as I just described based on our understanding of the system and the models and the science and that there are engineering solutions to adapting, that we think it’s solvable.

And I think there are much more pressing priorities that we as a — as a human being race and society need to deal with. There are still hundreds of millions, billions of people living in abject poverty around the world. They need electricity. They need electricity they can count on, that they can afford. They need fuel to cook their food on that’s not animal dung. There are more people’s health being dramatically affected because they could — they don’t even have access to fossil fuels to burn. They’d love to burn fossil fuels because their quality of life would rise immeasurably, and their quality of health and the health of their children and their future would rise immeasurably. You’d save millions upon millions of lives by making fossil fuels more available to a lot of the part of the world that doesn’t have it, and do it in the most efficient ways, using the most efficient technologies we have today.

And we continue, and have for many, many years, talked on our energy outlook about the importance of ongoing energy efficiency, continuing to carry out economic activity with a lower energy intensity. And we’ve been very good as a country at doing that. We’ve been very good globally at doing that. And there’s more potential in it.

“My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that’s what I want to do.” — Rex Tillerson, to Charlie Rose, March 2013. To be sure, Tillerson’s answer was in response to the question, “is your philosophy ‘Drill, baby, drill!’?”

Andreas Malm cited Tillerson’s comments, both on drilling to make money and on engineering being the solution to climate change in the context of a discussion of geo-engineering in the penultimate chapter of Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. There he highlighted the incongruity that advocates of geo-engineering are typically antagonistic to the idea of a planned economy, yet the geo-engineering they promote would require centralized planning and international coordination of unprecedented, prodigious scale and complexity:

Planning the economy is the ultimate taboo; planning the climate is worthy of close consideration, an idea cognate with genetic engineering, GPS systems, smart devices, in vitro meat, drone warfare and other natural elements of late capitalist hypermodernity. Fossil capital would die in a transition; geoengineering may give it a new lease on life; what began as real subsumption of labour must end as real subsumption of the biosphere. There is that nagging feeling that a fleet of airplanes packed with sulphur are far more likely to show up than a special Ministry for a Transition to a Low-Carbon Future. It has become easier to imagine deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system than in capitalism.

When Tillerson spoke about an engineering solution to climate change, he talked about managing the consequences, adapting to higher sea levels and relocating agriculture. He didn’t specify trying to reverse global warming through blocking incoming solar radiation. But building dikes against rising sea levels and massively relocating agriculture are also forms of geo-engineering when undertaken on such a large scale. No less than schemes to block solar radiation, adaptation projects would require planning and coordination.

But engineering solutions also require something that Tillerson has little confidence in: the competency of models to accurately predict the severity and consequences of climate change. Tillerson’s insistence that there will be engineering solutions to engineering problems proceeds immediately after his dismissal of numbers that are “all over the map” — numbers that would be crucial to the success of engineering solutions!

What exactly is going on here?

Robert Fletcher and Crelis Rammelt refer to “Lacanian fantasy” in “Decoupling: A Key Fantasy of the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda.” Such a fantasy enables, simultaneously, both the promise of a future solution and an alibi for not achieving that solution in the form of a “disavowal,” which proclaims, in effect, “I know very well, but still…” The concept of decoupling GDP growth from carbon emissions and, by implication, from fossil fuel consumption, is the obvious complement to Tillerson’s engineering solution, in that the fantasy of decoupling envisions mitigation of climate change, while Tillerson’s fantasy envisions adaptation to the changing climate.

In its 2011 report on decoupling, the United Nations Environmental Program was more comprehensive in its disavowal of its solution than was Tillerson in his curt dismissal of the competence of climate models. Fletcher and Rammelt summarized that disavowal in the following excerpt:

Anatomy of a Disavowal 

While asserting the necessity of dramatic decoupling for any hope of genuine sustainable development, in short, UNEP simultaneously admits that: (1) there is virtually no evidence that (absolute) decoupling works; (2) the conceptual basis for even imagining its possibility is weak; and (3) even if it were possible, it would be politically infeasible. A clearer case of disavowal would be difficult to identify.

This disavowal is necessary because there are in fact fundamental tensions within a neoliberal capitalist economy, between the concerns for poverty alleviation, environmental protection, and profit generation that the decoupling proposal asserts are reconcilable. Biophysical growth—no matter how ‘dematerialized’—remains finite, and thus far, growth of the global financial system has, as evidenced below, continued to increase natural resource extraction in absolute terms. A reversal of that trend is nowhere in sight. At the same time, economic growth in and of itself will do nothing for poverty alleviation without strong redistribution policies that are contrary to strict market logic. Considered together, these problems raise serious questions concerning the viability of a SDG agenda rooted in the idea of decoupling.

To paraphrase from the UNEP’s disavowal, (1) there is virtually absolutely no evidence that an engineering adaptation to climate change will work; (2) the conceptual basis for even imagining its possibility is weak: according to Tillerson himself, “the competencies of the models are not particularly good”; and (3) even if an engineering solution were physically possible, there is no reason to expect that it would be any more politically feasible than decoupling GDP growth from fossil fuel consumption.