If there’s one thing to be sure about with the Trump administration, it’s that it is not one to shy away from controversy. So much was made clear by the President’s cabinet appointees. With confirmation hearings ongoing—and only James Mattis and John Kelly confirmed to head the Pentagon and Homeland Security, respectively—Senate Democrats aim to identify the remaining targets to go after.
Originally, many expected State Department nominee Rex Tillerson to be one of these. Given Tillerson’s previous position as the CEO of Exxon Mobil, environmentalists, in particular, were irate at his selection. In an ironic twist, it now appears the former oil man will be among the more progressive voices on climate change in the administration. If confirmed, what will Tillerson’s impact on US climate policy be?
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised to increase both shale gas and coal production, as well as ending virtually all domestic climate regulations put in place by the previous administration. Trump’s cabinet appointees for key positions in the Departments of Energy and Interior as well as for the EPA similarly suggest a hardline stance. What his team is proposing is to run the gamut of current US climate policies and then roll them back one by one. Shortly after the inauguration, the official White House website deleted nearly all mentions of climate change.
The US remains the world’s second largest producer of greenhouse gasses, so this type of policy rollback will be significant. In the short-term, the Trump administration’s relaxation of energy regulations is likely to have a negative but small effect on US emissions cuts. Yet, rather than domestic policy, US diplomacy is what will affect international climate negotiations.
Trump has repeatedly implied he would pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement on climate change that came into force last year. In addition, there’s every reason to think his administration will cut scheduled US contributions to the Green Climate Fund, set up to help poorer countries with their energy transitions.
The Obama administration negotiated the Paris accord as a subsidiary to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is a treaty the US Senate ratified. Under this construction, Obama avoided having to seek approval from a Republican majority in Congress. However, the corollary entailed that commitments under the deal would be voluntary. This has given the new administration the opening to do significant damage to the agreement.
While the majority of his confirmation hearings focused on other issues—principally Russia—Tillerson provided some insights into his thinking on climate change. His position is that “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect”. However, he also thinks that there is uncertainty as to precisely what that effect will be in the future. When pressed to state his opinion on the US role in the Paris deal, Tillerson commented that “the United States [should] maintain its seat at the table in the conversation on how to address threats of climate change”.
Under Tillerson, ExxonMobil moved closer to the climate mainstream. The company now acknowledges climate change as such and has also tacitly endorsed a carbon tax. Internally, Exxon operates a carbon pricing scheme to guide investment decisions. A trained engineer, Tillerson led the oil giant to invest in research to cut emissions in the petrochemical sector.
These positions don’t exactly put Tillerson at the forefront of the global climate movement. While not entirely clear, scientists have developed reasonably good estimations of the relationship between emissions and warming. ExxonMobil’s professed love for a carbon tax was borne more out of an attempt to pre-empt a US carbon trading scheme than genuine concern for the climate. Its internal carbon price is much lower than what would be needed to realize global climate goals. In addition, Exxon came under fire last year when it was revealed the company had lied to investors about climate risks. A recent article in the New York Review of Books describes the oil major’s history of climate denialism in painstaking detail.
What appears to distinguish Tillerson, however, is that he is not an ideologue on the level of his fellow appointees. By comparison, other cabinet selections such as Scott Pruitt, nominated to lead the EPA, have shown a much more pronounced commitment to gut environmental protections. It is perhaps a sign of the times that a former oil executive ranks among the moderate voices in the administration.
Tillerson’s comments in his hearings and his own professional biography suggest that he will aim to maintain a place for the US in international climate negotiations. At the same time, it seems likely that the US will simply ignore the Paris deal provisions and go its own way. The result would be a significant weakening of the agreement.
Rather than outright withdrawal, such a death-by-inaction strategy would probably be the preferred option for many Republicans. The diplomatic embarrassment of pulling out of a widely touted international agreement might be too much even for many in the anti-environment caucus of the GOP. In this context, Tillerson makes for a great selection for Secretary of State. As the Overton window in the White House shifts from climate action to climate skepticism, Tillerson could be the one to help the United States save face.