Secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson shows his true colors on climate change

President-elect Donald J. Trump’s secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson has been a bit of an enigma when it comes to his views on climate change. Unlike the nominees to head the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Department of Energy, he does not neatly fall into the climate denier camp. 

In fact, under his tenure as CEO of ExxonMobil, the company acknowledged the need to address global warming, endorsed a carbon tax and publicly supported the Paris Climate Agreement.

However, these moves came after decades of work to research the science behind climate change and then suppress, confuse and distort that science to protect the company’s business interests. 

Currently, at least two state attorneys general are investigating Exxon for its role in a climate disinformation campaign, along similar lines to inquiries that led to historic settlements with the tobacco industry in the 1990s. 

The revelations that have emerged about ExxonMobil’s historical knowledge of climate science, specifically the fact the burning oil and gas was causing global climate change, is known by the hashtag #ExxonKnew.

Against this backdrop, the confirmation hearing on Wednesday for Tillerson was seen as a good opportunity to get him on the record regarding his views on climate change, and what his agenda on the issue would be were he to get the job. 

His answers are likely to disappoint climate activists — who marched to the Senate in T. Rex costumes to protest his nomination — and scientists alike. 

Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia asked Tillerson about Exxon’s decision to fund organizations that put out misleading information about climate science. 

Tillerson dodged the questions, specifically whether the allegations from investigative reporting by the Columbia Journalism School, Los Angeles Times and InsideClimateNews are true.

“Senator since I am not longer with ExxonMobil I am not in position to speak on its behalf, I would have to defer to them,” he said.

Kaine asked whether Tillerson was unable to answer the question because of a lack of knowledge or if he was refusing to answer it. 

“A little of both,” was the reply, which was met with chuckles in the room. 

Tillerson’s science views don’t align with scientific community

During the first morning of his confirmation hearings, Tillerson was also asked about his personal views on global warming. 

“The risk of climate change does exist and the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken,” Tillerson said, noting that the most disagreement concerns what those actions should be. 

When pressed further, however, Tillerson said: 

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

Climate scientists would disagree with the latter part of that statement, considering that the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have long been predicted to — and are in fact already causing — global average temperatures to increase, sea levels to rise, precipitation extremes and heat waves to grow more frequent and extreme, along with other widespread impacts.

The Pentagon and intelligence community has even concluded that climate change is a major concern and a national security priority

As for U.N. climate negotiations

Tillerson, who worked at Exxon for his entire 42-year career, rising from the position of engineer to CEO, said the U.S. should stay engaged in the United Nations climate negotiations process.

Members of Greenpeace protest the nomination for Secretary of State of nominee Rex Tillerson during his  confirmation hearing, on Wed., Jan. 11, 2017.

Members of Greenpeace protest the nomination for Secretary of State of nominee Rex Tillerson during his  confirmation hearing, on Wed., Jan. 11, 2017.

Image: Sipa USA via AP

“I think it’s important that the US maintain its seat at the table on the conversations that address the threats of climate change,” Tillerson said regarding engagement in the U.N. climate talks. 

However, he stopped short of specifically endorsing the Paris agreement, saying, “No one country is going to solve this alone.” Trump has pledged to “cancel” the agreement, meaning that he would pull the U.S. out of it, which could deal a significant blow to international progress to rein in global warming.

The Paris Climate Agreement, which went into effect in November, is the first global agreement on climate change that includes pledges from all countries of the world to reduce their emissions of global warming pollutants such as carbon dioxide.

“It’s encouraging that Tillerson recognizes that climate change requires a global response and that the U.S. must be at the table,” said David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. Waskow added:

But he must go further. As the country’s potential top diplomat, Tillerson should understand that the U.S. needs to be a leader on climate change and honor its international commitments. The Paris Agreement is one of the singular achievements in international diplomacy in recent years, and the U.S. must continue to cooperate with the rest of the world in driving forward strong action on this urgent challenge.

Tillerson said President-elect Trump has solicited his views on climate change. Trump himself has, in the past, dismissed human-caused global warming a “hoax.”

“The president-elect has asked for my views on climate change,” Tillerson said.

“Ultimately the president-elect, he was elected, and I will carry out his policies.”

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