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Rex Tillerson Dances Around Climate Change Questions During Senate Hearing

Tillerson acknowledged that climate change was real, but it's clearly not a priority.

by Grennan Milliken
Jan 11 2017, 9:34pm

The whirlwind Senate hearings to confirm members of President-elect Trump's cabinet continued today with sharp questioning of the longtime head of ExxonMobil and nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Mr. Trump's pick of the career oilman for the position has raised serious ire and concern among politicians from both sides of the aisle over his close business dealings with Russia, but also how, as a fossil fuel magnate, he may alter U.S. foreign policy on climate change.

During his confirmation hearing today before the Senate Foreign Relations committee, he acknowledged the existence and threat of climate change to some degree, unlike president-elect Donald Trump, but remained hesitant and elusive on the role that fossil fuels play in the process, and on how active a role the United States should take on combating it globally with the Paris Agreement. His remarks were carefully delivered, but revealed no indication that he was committed to dealing with the problem.

Tillerson's first legitimate quizzing on the topic of climate change came from Senator Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, but it seemed to wind its way around the matter of whether he actually believed in the scientific consensus on climate change. At one point Udall asked Mr. Tillerson if he shared the Trump transition team's desire to collect the names of Energy Department staffers who worked on climate science, to which he replied "No sir, that would be a pretty unhelpful way to get started," triggering scattered chuckles around the room.

This round of questioning didn't appear to sit right with Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Republican of Tennessee, who wanted a more direct answer on Tillerson's beliefs regarding climate change science. "Would you succinctly state your personal position as it relates to climate change?" He asked.

Tillerson said that after twenty years working as an engineer and scientist, "I came to the conclusion that the risk of climate change does exist. And the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken. The type of action seems to be where the largest areas of debate exist in the public discourse." The last part of Tillerson's statement would be a revelation if it were to be true, however, there are many politicians within Congress who still deny the basic science of climate change.

Tillerson didn't once mention the fact that the burning of fossil fuels, the product he has spent a lifetime selling, is the cause of the increased greenhouse gases.

Corker, still not pleased, pressed further. ""You believe, based on science, that human activity is contributing to climate change?" he said. Tillerson responded by explaining that he thought "greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited."

Again, as with his first answer to Senator Corker, Tillerson's acknowledgement that anthropogenic climate change is real and poses a risk to the security of the globe should come as somewhat of a relief to those concerned about global warming, but the Chief of ExxonMobil is still doing some serious hedging with these comments. For example, Tillerson didn't once mention the fact that the burning of fossil fuels, the product he has spent a lifetime selling, is the cause of the increased greenhouse gases.

He also suggested that scientists' understanding of how these greenhouse gases will affect life on Earth is minimal at best. But climate scientists have been getting an ever clearer picture of just how exactly excess carbon, methane and other gases are affecting life on Earth and how they will continue to do so in the future. The International Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations, a global authority on the subject, has confidently outlined possible outcomes of runaway climate change like increased and severe heat waves and droughts, rising sea levels, loss of species, abundant pests and disease, and more.

Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia and Hillary Clinton's running mate, also questioned Tillerson's sincerity. He confronted him with a fusillade of questions regarding a 2015 investigative report done by InsideClimate News. The report revealed that ExxonMobil invested heavily in climate research as early as the 1970s, recognized the risks of burning fossil fuels, but then turned face and supported organizations that sought to undermine the scientific consensus—that even its own scientists had confirmed.

Tillerson bluntly brushed aside the questions, stating flatly, "I'm in no position to speak on their [Exxon's] behalf. You'll have to ask them." He left the company at the end of last year around the time when he was being considered for the Trump administration post.

Tillerson was largely noncommittal when he answered Democratic Senator Edward Markey's question about whether the United States would honor its position in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. He mostly deferred to the President-elect on the matter, saying he would make his views known to Mr. Trump, but that the incoming president would ultimately come to his own conclusion. Mr. Trump has vowed to withdraw from the accord.

Read More: Are We All Screwed If the US Leaves the Paris Agreement?

Tillerson also said that when it came to the Paris climate accord, he would do as the President-elect and approach it with from an "America First" perspective. "There's important considerations as we commit to such accords and as those accords are executed over time, are there any elements of that put America at a disadvantage?" This gives the impression of leaving the door wide open for the United States to withdraw from the landmark agreement.

Overall, the oil magnate seemed to give the impression, or at least tried to, of being reasonably educated on climate change, which challenges his profoundly checkered history as an opponent of climate science during his long tenure as Chief of Exxon. Meanwhile, there's still little hope he will prioritize the issue on the world stage.

After all, Tillerson is being nominated by a President who has frequently denied the science of climate change, even famously declared that it is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government. And Tillerson, for his part, didn't seem as though he was going to be one to challenge that view.

"Ultimately, the President-elect was elected, and I'll carry out his policies in order to be as successful as possible," he said.

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