The most overused fable in movies is the story of the frog and the scorpion. If you’ve watched a movie in the past two decades that includes an evil character, or a character revealed to be evil, you’ve heard it. If you’ve been living in a tree fort or grew up Amish, here’s the quick version. A scorpion asks a frog for a lift across the river. The frog says, “You’re a scorpion. When we get half way across, you’ll sting me and I’ll die.” The scorpion says, “If I sting you halfway across, we’ll both die.” The frog agrees to carry the scorpion across the river. Halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog. As they both start to drown, the frog asks, “Why would you sting me?” The scorpion says, “Look, I’m a scorpion. This is my nature.” The moral of the story: We are what we are. I was reminded of this fable when Exxon released a report to shareholders about the potential financial effects of climate change regulations.
It happened like this. Some environmental advocacy groups and stockholders asked Exxon to release the report. The thinking here was Exxon would have to admit that environmental regulations, such as a reduction of carbon-based emissions of 80% by 2040, would leave Exxon with unusable reserves of oil and natural gas. The stockholders would freak out at the potential losses, forcing Exxon to move toward alternate energy solutions.
As you probably guessed, that’s not what happened.
Exxon’s report was one giant middle finger in the face of environmental reform.
At no point in their report did Exxon mention a plan to deal with environmental regulations. Why don’t they have a plan? Because they don’t need one. Exxon believes that a “scenario where governments restrict hydrocarbon production … is highly unlikely.” Why do they think it’s highly unlikely that governments around the world will get tough on carbon emissions in the fight against global warming? Because Exxon lives in the real world. And in the real world, people like having power for their homes and gas for their car.
Exxon knows that as the world grows, the need for energy grows with it. Developing countries will be faced with a choice: allow unfettered use of oil and natural gas and live with the damage to the environment, or put the environment first, restrict carbon emissions and pay the economical price. Every country in the world chose the first option. Every country in the world will continue to make the first choice. And Exxon will be there when they do.
You can keep betting on human ideals all you want. Exxon will keep betting on human nature.
Why would Exxon plan for a future that they want no part of? They are an oil and gas company. They make their money drilling wells and selling oil. As long as there is a demand for their products, they will supply them. Expecting Exxon to put the environment above their bottom line is like expecting a scorpion not to sting you halfway across the river. They are what they are. It’s up to us to recognize the danger.