Fears about climate change are overblown and shifting weather patterns and rising sea levels should be considered an engineering problem, said the head of the world's largest oil refiner, ExxonMobil.
"The fear factor that people want to throw out there to say 'we just have to stop this,' I do not accept," Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil's chief executive, said in a speech on Wednesday (June 27).
Tackling global poverty should have a higher international priority than reducing carbon emissions, because it would give billions of the world’s energy poor access to oil and gas supplies, in his view.
"They'd love to burn fossil fuels because their quality of life would rise immeasurably," he said.
"You'd save millions upon millions of lives making fossil fuels available to parts of the world that don't have it," he added.
Tillerson proposed adapting to the effects of climate change through engineering methods, rather than attempting to prevent them by eliminating the use of fossil fuels.
Humans had long adapted to change, he said, and governments should thus create policies to cope with the Earth's rising temperatures.
"Changes to weather patterns that move crop rotation areas around – we'll adapt to that. It's an engineering problem and it has an engineering solution," Tillerson said in a presentation to the US Council on Foreign relations in New York.
Tillerson's remarks came five days after Rio+20 summit in which leaders aimed at setting up goals for sustainable development to help the very people the oil executive mentioned.
People in the many of the world's poorest areas are expected to feel the harshest effects of climate change, including sea level rise, more severe storms, floods and droughts.
ExxonMobil, once one of the staunchest critics of climate change research, has acknowledged under Tillerson's leadership that human-made emissions have contributed to altering the planet's climate.
The company now supports taxing carbon emissions.
But the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has emphasised the need for mitigation of global warming, including limiting climate-warming carbon emitted by fossil fuels like oil, along with adaptation to it.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the Rio Summit, "Governments alone cannot solve all the the problems we face, from climate change to persistent poverty to chronic energy shortages."
?BusinessEurope?, the European business lobby, argues that climate change can only be tackled globally.
"We are ... convinced that any further increase of the EU's unilateral 20% emission reduction target at this point in time would be unlikely to convince other nations to adopt comparable targets. Furthermore, it would send the wrong signal to European industry in times of economic crisis," said Jürgen R. Thumann, BusinessEurope's president.
Oxfam advocates ensuring that any climate aid to developing countries is additional to existing development aid commitments and comes from public sources.
"Only public funding can reach the most vulnerable communities struggling to adapt to climate change, and help poor countries adopt low carbon growth strategies," said David Waskow, climate change advisor for Oxfam. "And governments must make sure this funding is additional to existing aid targets – poor countries should not be forced to choose between building flood defences and building schools."
Governments and academics are deeply divided over the economic costs and benefits of combating climate change and moving towards a low-carbon economy.
The Stern Review, an influential enquiry into the issue, concluded in 2006 that fighting global warming would cost 1% of global GDP, while non-action could lead to a 20% loss of GDP in the long term. In comparison, research published in January 2009 shows that avoiding dangerous climate change could cost as little as 0.5% of global GDP.