5 Reasons Why Rex Tillerson Shouldn’t Be Secretary of State

The recent retired head of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, has been proposed to be the next Secretary of State. This position is the U.S. top diplomat representing U.S. interests around the world. It has also been a position that has been critical in helping to work with other countries to address global environmental challenges that know no borders. Rex Tillerson is the wrong person to lead the State Department and is one of Trump’s “Cabinet of Polluters”.

It is hard to come up with a short list of reasons why he is the wrong choice for Secretary of State, but here is an attempt at five reasons why Rex Tillerson shouldn’t be America’s next Secretary of State. His record on climate change, clean energy, and more environmental protections earns are poor.

1.   One word - Exxon.

It is hard to name another company that has left a more damaging trail around the world than ExxonMobil. Rex Tillerson has had a 40 year career at ExxonMobil where he became a senior executive and eventually the CEO in 2006. As President Truman’s famous statement highlights—“the buck stops here”—people in positions of power are responsible for the decisions that happen under their watch. ExxonMobil has been accused of human rights violations around the world, propping up dictators, and conducting operations that have had a devastating impact on the communities near their operations. This history raises serious questions about whether Rex Tillerson would operate a State Department that works with countries to strengthen basic environmental protections and health protections. This work has been a core component of American diplomacy for decades as it embodies the kind of world that American’s want, and because environmental devastation outside U.S. borders rarely is confined to those boundaries.

2.   Climate change denial, questions, and ambivalence

Reading some stories you might get the impression that Rex Tillerson may not be that personally bad on climate change. But that is a pretty low bar—it is the equivalent of believing that the best 10 year old basketball player can compete with LeBron James (the 10 year old looks good when competing against kids in his league, but would be out of their league against a professional basketball player). Exxon has been the face, banker, and lead lobbyist of climate inaction for over four decades. Exxon was behind efforts to question climate science and the efforts to undercut international action on climate change as they funded the front group leading the charge. Rex Tillerson in his public remarks has recognized that climate change is a real problem, but he has also said stated that humans can just “adapt” to climate change giving the impression that he is unconcerned with the costs, human toll, and devastation that inaction on climate change would have. Sadly the nominee for head of the Environmental Protection Agency (Pruitt), Energy (Perry) and Interior (Zinke) are to the right of this oil man on climate issues they flat out deny the science and need for any action. Admitting that there is a problem is the first step, but doing something to address the problem is the most important step. And on that front Rex Tillerson has led a company that has failed to act as if the climate science mattered.  

3.   Made business decisions inconsistent with climate action

Exxon is one of the biggest oil companies in the world with the second largest historical carbon footprint of all time. Rex Tillerson has referred to the Paris climate talks as “some serious issues that need to be talked about,” but his company has continued to make investments inconsistent with actually meeting the targets set forth in that agreement. Tillerson, like Trump, thinks there are “much more pressing priorities” than climate change. As secretary of state, Tillerson would be the primary authority in ensuring follow-through with Paris climate agreement. Exxon’s agreement with Russia to explore for oil​—the ones stopped because of the Russian sanctions—were largely to work in the Russian Arctic. Tapping into Arctic oil is incompatible with climate safety as reams of studies have found. So while Tillerson seems to accept that some climate action is required, his company has never acted as if his words mattered—money talks.

4.   Dismissive of clean energy

One critical tool to address climate change is to make major shifts away from fossil fuels to clean energy like wind, solar, and energy efficiency. So what has Exxon under Rex Tillerson done with its vast financial resources? He told shareholders that Exxon hadn’t invested in renewable energy because “We choose not to lose money on purpose”. The International Energy Agency projects that the global clean energy market will be over $60 trillion over the coming decades as countries address climate change. There are 2.5 million jobs in the U.S. in the clean energy sector and these jobs are spread throughout the 50 states. I guess he thinks that these workers and the companies behind them are money losers.

5.   “Friends” with only major emitter that hasn’t joined Paris Agreement

In 2013, Rex Tillerson was given the Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors Russia gives to foreign citizens, by Vladimir Putin. Russia is the only major emitter that has yet to formally join the Paris Agreement. Your friendships often speak volumes about your priorities and values. Being friends with the only major emitter that hasn’t joined the historic Paris Agreement speaks volumes about where his priorities align.


These are just some of the reasons why NRDC and over 57 national groups have stated that: “we believe he does not meet the standards required of a Secretary of State”. His views and priorities over his long career at Exxon highlight why he is the wrong person to lead U.S. international efforts to protect our children and grandchildren from the damages of climate change. These qualifications make him unfit to be the next Secretary of State.

About the Authors

Jake Schmidt

Director, International program

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