Tillerson Hedges on Climate Science, but Would Not Abandon Paris Agreement

In his Senate confirmation hearing for secretary of state, Exxon's former chief differs with Donald Trump on keeping the country in the international accord.

Former ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson testifies during his confirmation hearing for secretary of state before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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Rex Tillerson told the Senate panel considering his nomination for secretary of state that he supported the United States remaining in the Paris climate agreement and that he has made his views known to Donald Trump.

The position, repeated several times during a day-long hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, puts him at odds with the president-elect’s campaign vow to “cancel” the landmark global accord.

But Tillerson acknowledged that this advice would have to be squared with Trump’s own promises to put “America first” in the new administration’s energy policy, which heavily favors the unrestricted use of fossil fuels.

“We’re better served by being at that table than leaving the table,” Tillerson said in response to a question from Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, noting that more than 190 countries had come together to tackle climate change.

Tillerson, chairman and chief executive of ExxonMobil until two weeks ago, did not mention the accord or climate change in his nine-page prepared introductory remarks. But again and again in his wide-ranging testimony, he was pressed by Democrats to articulate his views on the climate crisis, because as secretary of state he will have to lead the country’s climate diplomacy.

Though Tillerson cautiously backed the Paris agreement, mainly to ensure other countries are doing their fair share of climate action, on other climate change issues he was more doubtful. He pushed back against the growing scientific evidence that links global warming to severe weather events, habitat loss and spread of certain diseases. He also declined to answer questions about Exxon’s ambitious in-house climate research in the 1970s and why it pivoted to funding climate denial campaigns afterward, telling senators to ask the company.

Read our live updates from the Senate confirmation hearing.

Most Republicans on the committee made it clear that they have no objections to Tillerson, with many calling him an “inspired choice.”

“The depth and breadth of his experience as an accomplished and successful business leader and skilled negotiator give him a solid understanding of our current geopolitical and economic challenges, making him uniquely qualified to serve in this important office,” Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said.

Democrats were generally cordial with Tillerson. But over social media and in closing remarks, they and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida continued to express reservations about him largely over human rights issues and his muddled answers about whether Exxon lobbied against sanctions on Russia. Climate activists were more pointed, insisting that Tillerson should not be confirmed.

“Tillerson is still lying about what Exxon knew about climate change. Asked directly about the company’s climate cover-up, Tillerson demurred and denied,” said May Boeve, executive director of 350.org. “We need a secretary of state who acknowledges that the climate crisis requires bold action, not an oil industry CEO who is dedicated to spreading misinformation.”

In fact, questions by Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia about Exxon’s early climate research and its pivot to funding climate denial provided a rare, eye-opening unscripted moment in the hearing. Citing InsideClimate News’ 2015 investigation into Exxon, Kaine asked Tillerson why after investing heavily in climate research as early as the 1970s and recognizing the risks, the company then chose to support organizations that sought to undermine the scientific consensus that its own scientists had confirmed.

Tillerson brushed aside questions, saying they should be directed to Exxon, not him. “I’m in no position to speak on their behalf,” he said. “You will have to ask them.”

Eventually, Kaine asked whether he was “unable” to answer, or “unwilling.”

“A little of both,” Tillerson answered, getting a quiet laugh from the room but an expression of disbelief from Kaine, who said Tillerson surely knew a lot about the subject.

With Exxon under investigation by state attorneys general over what the company knew about climate change and what it told shareholders and the public, it could have complicated matters for its lawyers if Tillerson testified under oath on the matter.

Tillerson did show that he still believes that climate science is not conclusive enough to discuss how rising greenhouse gas emissions will affect life on Earth, nor what is the best policy to confront it, as he often claimed at Exxon. In an exchange with Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Tillerson said he did not concur with intelligence and military assessments that climate change is a serious threat to national security.

When Merkley asked whether, for example, droughts like Syria’s could spark refugee crises, Tillerson responded: “The facts on the ground are indisputable, in terms of what is happening with drought, disease, insect populations, all the things you cite. The science behind the clean connection is not conclusive and there are many reports out there that we are unable yet to connect specific events to climate change alone.”

In fact, scientists have made considerable progress in making that connection, a field known as attribution studies. Some events are harder to link conclusively to climate than others, but as Merkley commented, the evidence is growing stronger all the time. And even Tillerson agreed that the lack of precision in the science “doesn’t mean we should do nothing.”

Tillerson said that Trump had sought his opinions on issues including climate change. But he also made it clear that he and Trump did not see eye-to-eye on climate change or the Paris accord. He noted that Trump would be the decision maker, even on the question of whether to pull out of Paris. 

Tillerson suggested that the “America First” motto that Trump ran on would be a key criterion in assessing participation in the global climate accord. No climate actions taken by the U.S. should put the nation’s industries at a competitive disadvantage, he insisted.

“I also know that the president as part of his priority in campaigning was to put America first. So there’s important considerations as we commit to such accords and as those accords are executed over time. Are there any elements of that that put America at a disadvantage?” he asked.

The climate agreement, while binding on all parties, leaves it up to each country to determine its own national contributions to the effort. But it calls for steady increases in each nation’s ambitions, with no backsliding. If the U.S. stays in, Tillerson would guide the next round of emissions belt-tightening, starting with annual talks in Bonn at the end of this year.

Many Republicans want the agreement submitted for the Senate’s advice and consent, where it would almost surely die. President Obama said that is not necessary as it is not a formal treaty under U.S. law, but an ancillary pact. Asked about this, Tillerson said merely, “It looks like a treaty.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire questioned Tillerson about the U.S. committment to the 2009 pledge by G20 nations to phase out fossil fuel subsidies.  “I’m not aware of anything the fossil fuel industry gets that I would characterize as a subsidy,” he said. “Rather it is simply an application of the tax code.”

In fact, the U.S. has a long history of production incentives and federal support for the fossil fuel industry defined as subsidies by the Organization on Economic Development and Cooperation, of which the U.S. is a member.  Current tax breaks and other subsidies to the coal, oil, and gas industries total $3 billion annually, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Tillerson came in for considerable grilling regarding Exxon’s landmark contract with Russia in 2011 to develop oil and gas in the Arctic and then its lobbying against sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 in response to its invasion of Ukraine. At first, Tillerson said he did not know of any lobbying on the sanctions, and then said any discussions with the Obama administration were about quickly finishing an exploration well that was underway when the sanctions were imposed.

Exxon responded in a statement: “As our former chairman said, we provided information about impact of sanctions, but did not lobby against sanctions. The lobby disclosure reports cited do not contradict his testimony.”

But lawmakers contended that efforts to shape the sanctions constitute lobbying.

Tillerson also said repeatedly he would recuse himself from matters directly related to Exxon for the period required by law—one year. “Beyond that, though, in terms of broader issues that might involve the oil and natural gas industry itself, the scope of that is such that I would not expect to have to recuse myself,” Tillerson said, clearly leaving the door open to him dealing with climate  policy while in office.

“In any instance where there is any question, or even the appearance [of conflict of interest], I would expect to seek the guidance of counsel from the office of ethics in the State Department, and will follow their guidance,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts said he didn’t think that safeguard was sufficient. “I think it would be far better for you just to say for the duration of your time as secretary you will not allow for your own personal involvement in any part of a decision about anything that affects ExxonMobil anywhere in the world.”  

That would be a tough standard, since the company says that it does business in 200 countries and territories—essentially everywhere in the world.