Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson on Wednesday doubled down on his belief that climate change is real and that the United States should remain a member of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change regardless of President-elect Donald Trump’s publicly stated stance that climate change is a hoax. “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,” Tillerson, former CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil, said during his nomination hearing. “The type of action seems to be where the largest areas of debate exist in the public discourse.”
Over a more than eight-hour hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the nominee was grilled on topics ranging from his relationship with Russia to human rights in Saudi Arabia, and, of course, his views on how the U.S. should address climate change.
At the center of that discussion was the continued U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement, the first global agreement on climate change. The U.S. formally joined the agreement in September of last year, after which Trump vowed to “cancel” the deal. When the accord entered into force in November, much earlier than anticipated, Trump’s ability to withdraw the nation from the agreement became much more limited. Entry into force triggered a four-year lag period during which no member state can leave. There has been speculation that, to get around that, Trump might just pull the U.S. out of the UNFCCC, the treaty under which the agreement was drafted.
Tillerson said directly he does not believe the U.S. should withdraw from the Paris Agreement. “I think having a seat at the table to address this issue on a global basis, and it is important that, I think, it’s 190 countries or there about, have signed on to begin to take action,” he noted. “I think we’re better served by being at that table than leaving that table.”
The Paris Agreement currently has 194 signatories and has been ratified by 125 nations.
Some of Tillerson’s other answers on climate issues did not satisfy committee Democrats. Asked about his personal view on whether human activity is causing the climate to change, Tillerson suggested he does not believe the science is conclusive. “The increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), unsatisfied with that response, grilled Tillerson on the topic near the end of the hearing. Merkley recounted a conversation he and Tillerson had in his office prior to the hearing. “You noted earlier in your conversation with the chairman that our ability to predict the impacts of climate change are very limited, but I believe that when I met with you, you indicated that, but you also indicated that while we can’t model with certainty, that shouldn’t bother people too much. The fact that we have a risk and challenge, we shouldn’t let that go,” Merkley said.
Tillerson conceded that he had made that comment while meeting with Merkley. “I think the fact that we cannot predict with precision and certainly … doesn’t mean that we should do nothing,” he said.
The Obama administration has treated the issues of climate change as a national security risk, terming it a “threat multiplier” due to its potential to “exacerbate many challenges, including infectious disease and terrorism,” according to the Department of Defense. Tillerson, however, does not share this view. “I don’t see it as the imminent national security threat that perhaps others do,” he said.
Several senators also questioned Tillerson about an investigation by the New York attorney general to determine if ExxonMobil management knew more about the risks of climate change decades ago than it let the public know. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has suggested the company might have known about the dangers of global warming as early as the late 1970s but misled consumers about the science up to 2014, potentially violating New York’s securities, consumer, and business fraud laws. Tillerson has been with Exxon since 1975 and took the CEO position in 2006. He retired in mid-December, days after being selected by Trump.
Exxon has denied the allegations. “Activists deliberately cherry-picked statements attributed to various company employees to wrongly suggest definitive conclusions were reached decades ago by company researchers. These activists took those statements out of context and ignored other readily available statements demonstrating that our researchers recognized the developing nature of climate science at the time which, in fact, mirrored global understanding,” Ken Cohen, former vice president of public and government affairs, said in a October 2015 statement.
The committee has not yet voted on Tillerson’s nomination. Inauguration Day is Jan. 20.
Tillerson’s sometimes wishy-washy comments on climate stood in stark contrast to a presentation given Monday by Secretary of State John Kerry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “All five of the hottest years on record have occurred within the lifespan of Twitter, just to give you a sense of what’s happening. The last decade was the hottest in human history, recorded history – and it was preceded by the second-hottest in recorded history – which was preceded by the third-hottest decade in recorded history. So common sense tells you that something is happening,” Kerry said.
The secretary of state added that the solutions to climate change are already known, but action to implement those solutions is lagging. “The answer to climate change is not a mystery and it’s not awaiting discovery – at least, not every aspect of it. I just had a conversation a little while ago with the president, talking about whether we can find ways to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. I mean, there are all kinds of different things waiting for us. But by and large, we know exactly what has to be achieved, and that is a transition away from dirty, outdated sources of energy that we rely too heavily on in order to move to cleaner, more efficient sources,” Kerry said