Rex Tillerson’s Vague Answers on Climate & Paris Agreement

How will the Trump Administration work with other nations to tackle climate change? Judging by Rex Tillerson’s remarks in his confirmation hearing and record of service—by doing very little to address climate change and by surrendering American leadership.

Rex Tillerson, CEO of the oil and gas company ExxonMobil, resigned last month after a four-decade career with the organization. We thought he was unfit to lead the State Department before his nomination hearing and we share that position after hearing more from him. Tillerson, in his Secretary of State nomination hearing last week, to take over as the U.S.’ top diplomat, said that U.S. should have a “seat at the table” in international climate efforts. But he wouldn’t commit to sticking with the Paris Agreement commitments or having the U.S. continue to lead international efforts. What became clear from his testimony is that Tillerson’s position on climate change is biased by his experience in engineering for of the world’s largest oil and gas company—and by the self-interested climate inaction promoted by ExxonMobil for decades.

Here are Tillerson’s responses to climate questions during the hearing, and evidence that his confirmation as Secretary of State could seriously damage U.S. leadership on climate change around the world.

Tilllerson still questions the science on climate change

Compared to the view of some Republican leaders, Tillerson’s admission that scientific evidence of climate change exists may look reasonable, but he then intentionally rejects the scientific predictions of climate impacts and raises doubts about its seriousness to the fate of humanity. As Mr. Tillerson put it:

“I came to the conclusion a few years ago that the risk of climate change does exist and that the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken. The type of action seems to be where the largest areas of debate exist in the public discourse.”

That may seem like a reasonable statement, but he follows it up later by rejecting decades of climate research showing the significant climate impacts that are already happening, and which will intensify without global action.

“The increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.”

This appears to be the new form of climate denialism—not the loony denial of the last few years (“I’m not a scientist”), but a deceptive attempt to make up excuses for inaction. I would sum it up as: “I guess it is real, but it won’t be that bad and we really don’t have to do anything to address it”.

Tillerson wants to back down on climate leadership

Tillerson was asked explicitly by Senator Cardin during the confirmation about the Paris Agreement, and whether the “United States should continue in international leadership on climate change issues with the international community?” His response, which may seem supportive out of context, is essentially a rejection of the US’ responsibility and opportunity to act on climate change:

“I think it’s important that the United States maintain its seat at the table on the conversations around how to address threats of climate change, which do require a global response. No one country is going to solve this alone.”

The implication of this last sentence is that other countries have not engaged. In reality, that is entirely false, as over 180 nations have put forward climate commitments as part of the Paris Agreement. The world’s major emitters including China, India and the EU have all committed to reducing their emissions. The Paris Agreement has secured meaningful commitments from all major countries in the world.

Senator Markey pressed Mr. Tillerson on what role the US will play in the international community, given his personal history at Exxon Mobil and the actions of that company, and why people should have confidence that the climate agreement the U.S. formally joined will be something that the Trump Administration will honor. As Senator Markey said: “We are not just any country; we cannot be a laggard; we must be the leader; the world expects us to be the leader on climate change.” Markey went on to ask: “Do you believe that it should be a priority of the United States to work with other countries in the world to find climate change solutions to that problem?” Mr Tillerson responded:

 “I think it’s important for America to remain engaged in those discussions so that we are at the table expressing a view and understanding what the impacts may be on the American people and American competitiveness.”

The implication from Tillerson’s remarks is that American interests may not be served by the Paris Agreement. This is a position shared mostly by organizations with support from the fossil fuel industry. In reality, the last Administration was able to negotiate an outcome that not only reduces global emissions for decades to come, but also opens up new opportunities in clean energy, sustainability, transportation and many other sectors where innovative American companies are at the forefront—and where millions of new jobs have been created.

It’s great that Mr. Tillerson has shown that he doesn’t think the U.S. should walk away completely from international climate action, but it isn’t clear whether his “seat at the table” will be as a good dinner guest or the drunk uncle.

Will the Trump Administration support the Paris Agreement?

The world is waiting to find out what Trump will do with the Paris Agreement. His campaign promise was to “cancel” it, but his nominee for Secretary of State has given a different answer when pressed by Senator Udall. As Senator Udall asked: “Mr. Tillerson, in your capacity as CEO of Exxon Mobil, you praised the Paris Agreement last year, noting that addressing climate change, and I quote, “requires broad-based practical solutions around the world.” Do you personally believe that the overall national interests of the United States are better served by staying in the Paris Agreement? If so why, and if not, why not?” Mr. Tillerson responded:

“…I think having a seat at the table to address this issue on a global basis and it is important that – I think it’s 190 countries or thereabouts have signed on to begin to take action. I think we’re better served by being at that table than leaving that table.”

Whoever becomes Secretary of State, let’s be clear that the United States must not only keep our “seat at the table” warm in the international climate negotiations. The next Secretary of State for the most influential nation in the world needs to ensure that the U.S. is a leader on the most pressing issue facing humanity. Leadership on climate change is not likely to emerge from Trump or Tillerson so hopefully they won’t turn the U.S. into a global pariah.  

Mr. Tillerson’s responses at his confirmation hearing make him unfit to be the Secretary of State. He showed no signs that he is prepared to help protect Americans from the ravages of climate change by being a leader in global efforts to address climate change. 

About the Authors

Han Chen

International Climate Advocate, International and Climate & Clean Air programs

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