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What senators should ask Rex Tillerson about climate change

Exxon supports the Paris climate agreement. Would Tillerson support it as secretary of state?

rex tillerson

The confirmation hearings for ex-Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson are likely to be dominated by questions about his ties to Russia, the subject on everyone’s mind these days. Vox writer Zack Beauchamp has a nice piece on some other key questions senators ought to ask.

One of those questions is about climate change, and it’s worth focusing on that subject for a moment, because this is a very strange and uncertain moment in climate politics.

Normally a presidential candidate would have taken some kind of position on a subject of this significance, laid out some kind of policy, and it would be up to his Cabinet, including secretary of state, to carry it out. Confirmation hearings could then focus on the Cabinet candidate’s plans and ability to implement the administration’s policy.

But Trump doesn’t have stable, discernible policy views, as such. He hasn’t laid out a consistent position on climate change.

He tweeted that it’s a hoax and has said that the Paris climate agreement is a bad deal.

But then again, he struck a different tone with the New York Times in November after the election:

On climate change, Mr. Trump refused to repeat his promise to abandon the international climate accord reached last year in Paris, saying, “I’m looking at it very closely.” Despite the recent appointment to his transition team of a fierce critic of the Paris accords, Mr. Trump said that “I have an open mind to it” and that clean air and “crystal clear water” were vitally important.

Al Gore also said he had an “extremely interesting conversation” with him. Oh and Ivanka is apparently a climate czar now.

But then again, one member of his transition team is the Heritage Foundation’s Steven Groves, who recently co-wrote a piece called “The Pathway Out of Paris” that advocated withdrawing from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) altogether. And his pick for the Environmental Protection Agency is Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a climate denier who has dedicated his career to fighting against EPA regulations. And that New York Times interview is more ambiguous than it seems.

trump and coal
Donald Trump in coal country at a rally in May 2016.

The point is that Trump’s approach to international climate affairs is likely to be fluid and easily suggestible, so his secretary of state will probably have an unusually direct influence on policy. It matters a great deal how Tillerson thinks about these things.

Tillerson and Exxon on climate

Perhaps the fullest account of Tillerson’s views on climate change can be found in this 2012 interview at the Council for Foreign Relations. Here I’ve strung together some of the most relevant bits:

I'm not disputing that increasing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere is going to have an impact. It'll have a warming impact. The — how large it is is what is very hard for anyone to predict. … [W]e will adapt to this. Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around — we'll adapt to that. It's an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions. … I think there are much more pressing priorities that we as a — as a human being race and society need to deal with.

At a shareholder meeting in 2013, he echoed all these points and had this to say about climate activists’ beloved goal of limiting atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to 350 parts per million or less:

We do not see a viable pathway with any known technology today to achieve the 350 outcome that is not devastating economies, societies, and people’s health and wellbeing around the world.

Taken together, this is the more sophisticated form of conservative climate skepticism, sometimes called “lukewarmism.” In short, it accepts that carbon boosts temperatures (thus avoiding the awkward “denier” label) but insists that:

  • warming is likely to be mild and damages relatively manageable,
  • reducing greenhouse gases is too expensive,
  • the developing world needs fossil fuels to escape poverty, and
  • we can just adapt to whatever warming occurs.

Given all that, no substantial reduction in fossil fuel use is justified. Lukewarmism is a way to deny the need for urgent action on climate change without denying its existence. (See: Bjorn Lomborg.)

It’s safe to assume that Tillerson’s view is roughly representative of Exxon’s institutional beliefs on the matter, which explain its mostly PR-based response.


Pressured by activists, Exxon’s public statements have gotten more openly climate-friendly. Its official “position on climate change” is:

The risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action. Increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere are having a warming effect. There is a broad scientific and policy consensus that action must be taken to further quantify and assess the risks.

(Notice how they got sneaky there at the end — a broad policy consensus … on the need for further assessments.)

When the Paris agreement was signed, Exxon issued a statement saying:

ExxonMobil supports the work of the Paris signatories, acknowledges the ambitious goals of this agreement and believes the company has a constructive role to play in developing solutions.

And it added, on policy:

The best policy options to achieve that goal will be market-based, predictable, transparent and globally applicable to promote innovation and technology breakthroughs required to address climate change risks. ExxonMobil has for many years held the view that a revenue-neutral carbon tax is the best option to fulfill these key principles.

This adds up to, you might say, corporate lukewarmism. It acknowledges the problem, but advocates a policy (a “globally applicable, revenue-neutral carbon tax”) that has no chance of ever being implemented.

Meanwhile, the company goes about its business: maximizing production of fossil fuels. And despite protests to the contrary, it has continued to donate money to right-wing policy advocacy groups that take a much less sensible line on climate than it does. (Read Alexander Kaufman on Exxon’s web of donations.)

Climate activists are highlighting the denialism, but the real intent behind the donations is likely more prosaic — building up state-level policy and politics that protect the company’s profits. That is the goal of both the shady donations and the sunny PR strategy.

What senators can ask Tillerson about climate change

So what does this all mean for Tillerson at State?

Tillerson sees climate change as a relatively mild problem to be managed, both policy-wise and PR-wise. This, sadly, puts him at the sane end of the climate spectrum in the incoming administration. He is, at the very least, not a zealot who just wants to blow shit up.

rex tillerson & vladimir putin
Rex Tillerson and Vladimir Putin.
(Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

That means, to my mind, that he’s unlikely to push for withdrawal from the UNFCCC. That would be a flamboyant kick in the face to the international community, which (thanks in large part to the structure of the Paris agreement) has begun to take climate seriously. It would create endless headaches for him on other matters that he actually cares about.

That’s also true of formally withdrawing from the Paris agreement. And there are practical reasons to stay in, even if the administration doesn’t care much about climate. It allows the US to see what other countries are up to, if nothing else. And it marks the end of the bifurcation in responsibilities between developed and developing countries, which is in America’s interest.

The quiet way forward for Tillerson (and Trump) would be to continue to pay notional tribute to Paris while simply doing nothing to honor the commitments Obama made there. Reverse domestic carbon policies. Don’t donate anything to the UNFCCC Green Fund. Otherwise ignore the subject.

The domestic outcome of this “benign neglect” approach would be the same as withdrawing — fewer regulations, more greenhouse gases — without the fireworks.

But Trump likes fireworks. His supporters like fireworks. Will Tillerson be a steady hand or will he get pushed in a more Trumpian direction?

That’s what senators should ask him. Does he agree with Exxon that the Paris deal is a positive step forward? Does he think the US is obligated to meet the emission targets it pledged there? If the US withdraws from the Paris agreement, how will it affect relationships with key allies? Will he make climate change a top-level issue, as John Kerry did, or will he assign it to a functionary?

In short, what can the international community expect from the Trump State Department on climate change?

These questions are unlikely to be asked, and unlikely to be answered if asked, but I know I’m not the only one who’s curious.