NEW YORK Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday that efforts to address climate change should focus on engineering methods to adapt to shifting weather patterns and rising sea levels rather than trying to eliminate use of fossil fuels.
Tillerson said humans have long adapted to change, and governments should create policies to cope with the Earth's rising temperatures.
"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," Tillerson said in a presentation to the Council on Foreign Relations.
"The fear factor that people want to throw out there to say 'We just have to stop this,' I do not accept."
Exxon Mobil, 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.
Still, Tillerson said issues such as global poverty were more pressing than climate change, and billions of people without access to energy would benefit from oil and gas supplies.
"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 by making fossil fuels available to parts of the world that don't have it," he added.
Tillerson's remarks followed by just a few days a global meeting in Rio de Janeiro aimed at setting up goals for sustainable development to help the very people the oil executive mentioned. Many of the world's poorest are expected to feel the harshest effects of climate change, including sea level rise, more severe storms, floods and droughts.
The gathering of government officials, business people and non-governmental groups ended with what some participants considered lackluster results.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touched on some of the subjects Tillerson mentioned when she said at the Rio meeting, "Governments alone cannot solve all the problems we face, from climate change to persistent poverty to chronic energy shortages."
The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has emphasized the need for mitigation of global warming, including limiting climate-warming carbon emitted by fossil fuels like oil, along with adaptation to it.
(Reporting By Matt Daily, additional reporting by Deborah Zabarenko in Washington)