ExxonMobil is only a business, yet for a century and a half it has vexed, baffled, and unsettled us. Take Hannibal Lecter, Daniel Plainview, and Darth Vader, roll them into a single sinister character, and you start to grasp the feelings of generations of critics. "We need policy change on a global scale, and Exxon has been at the forefront of those blocking change," former Vice President Al Gore wrote a week ago on his blog.
But why? There are its outsized profits, of course -- $41.1 billion last year alone -- plus the remarkably enduring heartless persona of John D. Rockefeller, its founder in the old Standard Oil days. But Gilded Age ruthlessness and success in the contemporary capitalist West do not sufficiently explain the shadow that ExxonMobil seems still to cast on our collective imagination. After all, today's Apple is bigger than ExxonMobil, and the last of the robber barons have been dead for the better part of a century.
Enter a surprising and trenchant new decipherer of our confounded anxiety: Rex Tillerson, boss of the oil giant. Since becoming CEO six years ago, Tillerson has muddled the company's traditional image with a polished and deliberate nuance that seems to project caring. He has been "cautious, genial, accommodating and eager to soften [the company's] hard edges," Steve Coll, the author of Private Empire, a new book on ExxonMobil, told me.
But two weeks ago, the mild-mannered, pin-striped executive seemed to abruptly throw caution to the wind. In a speech before the elite Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York, he suggested that Americans suck it up and adapt to global warming. "We have spent our entire existence adapting, OK? So we will adapt to this," Tillerson said in reply to a question from the audience. "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." For starters, Tillerson said, ExxonMobil had set out to educate the "illiterate" public as to the facts, and move them away from the purveyors of "manufactured fear."
At once, we are back to the Exxon we once knew.
What got into the "cautious" Tillerson is a question between him, his board, and their shareholders. But conspiracy theories are unnecessary to explain the resulting nervousness of critics: As Coll's book describes, Tillerson's predecessor as CEO, Lee Raymond, declared war on efforts to restrain CO2 emissions, spending millions of dollars of company money starting in the late 1990s to fund writers and think tanks that cast doubt on climate science. The cash came from two places: directly from ExxonMobil's public affairs unit and channeled through the American Petroleum Institute, the industry's lobbying arm in Washington, D.C., Coll writes, and it managed to help roil four decades of U.S. environmental politics.