“What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”
I have no particular interest in defending Mr Tillerson, or to engage here in a weighing up of how many billions of poor people are suffering or will suffer from the effects of global warming versus how many would suffer from a global economic slowdown. But I do think that this statement, on its own, is not enough to condemn him. That some people think it does points to a rhetorical confusion at the heart of the environmental debate which doesn't do supporters of action on climate change (of whom I am one) any favours.
Tillerson is right in this sense: it's the future of humanity that should matter to us, not the future of what we call the Earth. We are not, and nor should we be, on a mission to save the planet.
Let's remind ourselves of what this relationship - the one between us and the planet - is based on. Our planet came together from leftover bits of sun about 4.5 billion years ago. In its hot, molten youth it was covered in volcanoes and had the unfortunate habit of smashing into other planetary bodies (one particularly violent collision left the planet tilted to its current, rather louche angle, and blew out the lump of shrapnel we know today as the moon). After this early trauma, the planet cooled down, chilled out, crusted up, and got wet. At about a billion years old, the first microscopic cells of life appeared on the earth; a billion years later, photosynthetic cells started "giving back", as they say in Silicon Valley, pouring oxygen into the atmosphere, making the planet safe for yuppies, otherwise known as multi-celluar life forms, which really only got into their stride about half a billion years ago. A tiny proportion of these life forms became charismatic animals like lions and dolphins - and one of these new arrivals is known as homo sapiens (though only homo sapiens know this).Now, it turns out that this particular newcomer has very bad habits and appears to be intent on screwing up the biosphere that enabled it to exist in the first place. So it may very well be that it causes its own demise, possibly along with the demise of a lot of other species, including many of the charismatic, cuddly animals it professes to care about. But think about this from the planet's perspective: you've only barely got used to the idea that life exists on your surface (perhaps it's slightly uncomfortable, like having nits). You've seen different life forms, mainly germs, come and go. Then very recently, just now in fact, one particular species turned the heat up a bit. They ought to be careful, those guys. Can't be good for 'em. Oh well, yawn, time for a cosmic nap.
The point of this brief and unreliable history is that the planet doesn't want or need saving. It doesn't care what we do. It was here long before we arrived and it will be here long after we've gone. We've given it a narrative, a name ("Earth") and even a sort of hippy-dippy personality, sometimes known as Gaia. But the fact is, it's just a rock, in a gassy wrapper.
The argument shouldn't be about saving the planet versus saving humanity. It should be about the best way of saving humanity. We need to make it all about us.