People, planet, and the path ahead
Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Wednesday Jan. 11, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Steve Helber/AP | Caption

His zeal isn't clear, but Tillerson calls climate change a 'threat'

Unlike some other Trump Cabinet picks, Rex Tillerson acknowledges climate change. His confirmation hearing to become secretary of State leaves doubts about how much climate action he supports.

Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson staked out new ground for the incoming Trump administration, saying that rising greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet, during a Wednesday confirmation hearing.

That view, held by a long-time oil executive who appears poised to become the US government’s public face to the world, is notable because President-elect Donald Trump has been at best dismissive of the issue, calling it a “hoax” and, more recently, saying “nobody really knows.”

Some other Trump nominees to Cabinet-level agencies have track records of similar skepticism about climate change, so Mr. Tillerson’s reference to it as a “threat” to “solve” stand out.

To supporters of action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions – that means most Americans – his position is a welcome contrast with denial of the problem. But a flip-side reality also emerged Wednesday: If Tillerson pays lip service to climate action, it remains far from clear whether he’ll back meaningful US policies on the issue.

There’s a difference between acknowledgement of the challenge and action. And to some listeners, conservatives as well as environmentalists, Tillerson’s words at the hearing were if anything less action-oriented than statements he had made as CEO of ExxonMobil.

In the past Tillerson has voiced support for the 2015 United Nations climate agreement struck in Paris. (Mr. Trump vowed to “cancel” the deal the campaign trail, though he has since said he is “studying” it.) But on Wednesday, Tillerson was vague when asked whether he supported it. Instead, he said "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.”

'Circumlocutions'

“His circumlocutions on the extent of the climate problem and his views of Paris agreement are problematic,” Paul Bledsoe, a former Senate staff member and climate adviser in the Clinton White House, said in an email. “Senators need to elicit more clarity, otherwise it appears the Trump administration is to the right of Exxon-Mobil on climate change science and policy."

The less forceful backing of the Paris deal sounded like Tillerson might have “softened” his position compared with when he led ExxonMobil, John Eick, director of energy, environment, and agriculture with the conservative group American Legislative Exchange Council, told the Monitor.

“It will be interesting to see how his opinions working with President-elect Trump will differ from working with ExxonMobil,” Eick said. “The stances of the organization don’t always represent the individual."

Even if Trump and Tillerson stay in the Paris deal, there's no binding commitment to actually reduce emissions. The incoming Trump administration could simply do nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions toward the targets pledged by the Obama administration, while still technically complying with the treaty.

That’s partly why having a “seat at the table” isn’t the same as leading on international climate change, says Karen Orenstein, deputy director of the economic policy program with environmental group Friends of the Earth.

“Under [President George W.] Bush the US had a seat at the table and we used it largely to be disruptive at the UN climate negotiations in a negative way,” Ms. Orenstein says. “So the question is what kind of seat will the US occupy?”

Trends in global energy markets

Climate-action boosters have tried making the case to the Trump administration that markets are trending toward low-carbon energy. US leadership on climate could help drive long-term job creation in clean energy, they argue. Many hope Tillerson might keep the US engaged and perhaps build on the Obama administration’s work.

But detractors, particularly free-market oriented conservatives, argue the international climate deal infringes on US sovereignty and would require a shift toward costlier alternative energy. They say doing so would burden US households and that businesses would find it harder to compete if companies abroad don’t face the same kind of environmental standards.

"Countries that attempt to influence," Tillerson said, "by acting alone are probably only harming themselves."

Tillerson also raised some eyebrows with his specific wording on climate science at the hearing.

He cast doubt on the ability to “predict” the effects of climate change.

“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,” Mr. Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But he added that while “the increase of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect” he thought “our ability to predict that effect is very limited."

Tillerson noted scientists normally avoid stating a precisely defined link between climate change and a specific event of extreme weather. While that's true, many climate scientists acknowledge climate change makes the chances of such events occurring more likely.

Later, he added that “the fact that we cannot predict with precision … doesn’t mean that we should do nothing."

Mr. Tillerson’s supporters have urged senators and the public to view him as a private citizen rather than the former head of the world’s biggest oil and gas company.

'An engineer that believes in science'

“I predict that he’s going to be overwhelmingly supported,” Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee said Friday at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast event in Washington, D.C. “I think Democrats are sitting down with him and realizing that this guy’s a scientist and an engineer, or an engineer that believes in science, so on some of the issues that you know they care about I think the answers they’re getting are much different than they thought.”

During the hearing, Mr. Tillerson noted he and Mr. Trump haven’t had detailed conversations about climate change policy but that Mr. Trump “knows I am on the public record with my views.”

“I look forward to providing those, if confirmed, to him and policies around how the United States should carry it out,” Mr. Tillerson added.

ExxonMobil was a late Paris backer, but his company was under pressure following reporting from InsideClimate News that documented the firm had ignored decades worth of its own research showing greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels would heat the planet. Attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts also initiated fraud investigations that stemmed from the reports.

ExxonMobil, where Mr. Tillerson has spent his entire professional career, also for years funded conservative groups that distorted climate science to sow doubt about the greenhouse gas effect of burning fossil fuels, according to a March 2016 study by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers.

In a terse exchange during the confirmation hearing regarding ExxonMobil’s funding of such groups and quieting of its own research, Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia asked Mr. Tillerson, “Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question or are you refusing to answer my question?”

“A little bit of both,” Mr. Tillerson responded.

Congressional correspondent Francine Kiefer contributed to this story.