Only one pick for President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet has called man-made climate change an “important global issue” that the world must address. He happens to run one of the corporations that sells the fossil fuel largely responsible for the problem.
Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson is Trump’s choice for secretary of state, and Exxon, a $370 billion company, is the largest US oil drilling and refining corporation. Trump made the nomination official Tuesday morning.
"Rex knows how to manage a global enterprise, which is crucial to running a successful State Department, and his relationships with leaders all over the world are second to none," Trump said in a statement.
One of the ironies to emerge out Trump’s right-leaning cabinet choices is that Tillerson, who heads an oil and gas company many environmentalists identify as Public Enemy No. 1, is, at least on paper, one of the most progressive Trump nominees on the issue of climate change.
“The risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action,” the company Tillerson runs states on its website. “Increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere are having a warming effect.”
However, climate change activists such as those at Greenpeace warn that it is more important to note what the company has done regarding climate change rather than what it has said.
Exxon’s official position on climate change emerged after decades of denying it was an issue at all. Through the 1990s and much of the 2000s, the firm was helmed by the staunch climate denialist, Lee Raymond. Under Raymond, Exxon denounced the emerging scientific consensus that heat-trapping gases are warming the planet through the writing of newspaper advertisements and the funding of conservative nonprofits.
But when Tillerson took over Exxon in 2006, the company changed tack. A year into Tillerson’s tenure, the company for the first time acknowledged that climate change is real. “There is no question that human activity is the source of carbon dioxide emissions,” a spokesperson told reporters.
Two years later, as Barack Obama prepared to take over the White House and push a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse gas emissions from industry, Tillerson spoke publicly about the need to address climate change — in part in order to lobby the new administration on Exxon’s preferred method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which is a carbon tax, an alternative to the market-based cap and trade system.
“As a businessman, it is hard to speak favorably about any new tax,” Tillerson said in a 2009 speech. “But a carbon tax strikes me as a more direct, a more transparent and a more effective approach.”
Exxon has also voiced corporate support for the 2014 Paris climate deal, which entered into force this year. In it, the US pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by about 30% by 2030. Tillerson along with UN ambassador-designee Nikki Haley would be responsible for guiding US participation in the agreement if the Trump administration decides to stay in it.
But as a carbon tax has found little favor in Congress, Exxon has profited from the slow progress the US has made toward regulating emissions. Activists say that laggard progress is still abetted by Exxon’s philanthropic funding. The company is also currently locked in legal battles to stymie the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts from investigating whether the company misled investors about about financial risks that climate change poses to the firm.
“Those actions have made more impact than his last-ditch rhetorical efforts to be on the side of science,” Cassady Craighill, a spokesperson for Greenpeace USA, said.
More recently, Tillerson has tamped down calls for aggressive climate action by arguing the effects of global warming are difficult to model yet manageable for human to adapt to.
“I’m not disputing that increasing the CO2 in the atmosphere is going to have an impact,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations in 2012. “It’ll have a warming impact. How large it is is what is very hard for anyone to predict.”
Most other Trump nominees align more closely with the president-elect himself, who has famously dismissed climate change as a Chinese hoax and more recently stated that he is just “not a big believer in man-made climate change.”
For example, Scott Pruitt, Trump’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, rejects the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is warming the climate. “That debate is far from settled,” he wrote earlier this year.
Similarly, Trump’s cabinet nominee currently serving in Congress — Sen. Jeff Session for attorney general, Rep. Mike Pompeo for CIA director, and Rep. Tom Price for secretary of nominee for health and human services — have staunchly opposed EPA efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, the direction the Obama administration turned to with the collapse of cap and trade.
Sessions, for example, has inaccurately said there has been “almost no increase” in global temperatures in 2015, which was the hottest year on record until 2016. Pompeo has said that “there are scientists who think lots of different things about climate change,” even though surveys show 97% of scientists studying the issue agree humans are warming the planet.
Other nominees with no apparent record of denying the science have settled on the newer tack of opposing the cost of addressing climate change. In 2009, for example, Elaine Chao, Trump’s choice for transportation secretary, wrote that Democrats “pushing ‘global warming’ legislation … would drain trillions of dollars out of the private economy and into federal coffers.”
In a final irony over Tillerson’s reported ascent to the State Department, Exxon is a corporate descendant of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, at one time the largest oil firm in the world. The company was broken up in 1911 in a landmark Supreme Court anti-monopoly decision that sought to curb the political and economic power of the firm.
Today, Rockefeller’s environmentalist descendants are embroiled in a very public feud with Tillerson’s Exxon over the firm's actions on climate change.
This story has been updated after Trump officially nominated Tillerson on Tuesday morning.