Climate Pact Survival Hinges on ‘America First' Vow, Tillerson Says

By Dean Scott

President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for top U.S. diplomat, Rex Tillerson, said Jan. 11 the U.S. should stay “at the table” on the Paris climate pact and hinted that Trump conceivably could keep the U.S. in the deal—as long as it can be squared with his “America first” campaign vow.

Trump’s “priority during the campaign was, ‘America first,’ so there is an important consideration as we commit to such accords and as those accords are executed over time,” the former Exxon Mobil CEO told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Tillerson also sought during his confirmation hearing to allay concerns that State Department employees who have worked on the climate issue might face retaliation in the next administration; he also sidestepped Democrats who demanded he defend allegations that Exxon Mobil worked for decades to quash climate science.

Trump’s pick for secretary of state is at odds with the president-elect on the 2015 Paris deal reached by the U.S. and nearly 200 nations, which Trump vowed to “cancel” during the presidential campaign. Under the deal, developed and developing nations agreed for the first time after more than two decades of United Nations talks to take action to address climate change.

The committee’s top Democrat, Ben Cardin (Md.), and other Democrats including Ed Markey (Mass.) and Tom Udall (N.M.) repeatedly pressed Tillerson over whether he will press Trump to ultimately abandon his campaign pledge to move the U.S. away from the agreement.

All Elements of Deal Under Consideration?

If he is confirmed, “I’m sure that there will be opportunities [for] the president-elect to get a fulsome review of our policies around climate issues, global accords and agreements. I feel free to express my views to him around those,” Tillerson said, adding that he has already voiced his support for the pact directly to Trump.

“I also know that for the president, part of his priority during the campaign was, ‘America first,‘ so [that] is an important consideration,” Tillerson said, particularly “as we … commit to such accords, and as those accords are executed over time.”

The question, Tillerson said, is “are there any elements of that [deal] that America could participate” in? The former Exxon Mobil CEO, who spent virtually his entire career at the company, would if confirmed succeed Secretary of State John Kerry, a long-time advocate of international climate action who helped negotiate the Paris deal.

Environmental advocates are pressing Democrats on the committee to reject Tillerson due to his long career at Exxon Mobil. But barring some unexpected disclosures or controversies, he is expected to survive a confirmation battle.

A Lonely Advocate?

Tillerson is seen as a lonely advocate of the climate pact in the incoming administration; Exxon Mobil welcomed the deal’s entry into force in November as an “important step forward by world governments” to confront “the serious risks of climate change.”

“I think it’s important that the United States maintain its seat at the table on conversation around how to address the threat of climate change,” Tillerson said at the first of what could be a two-day hearing. The nature of the climate threat requires such “a global response,” he said, adding “no one country is going to solve this alone.”

Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) reiterated late in the day that he expects to resume Tillerson’s confirmation hearing Jan. 12.

Retaliation a ‘Pretty Unhelpful’ Start

Udall pressed the nominee toward the end of the all-day hearing whether the American people would be better served by the U.S. being in or out of the Paris deal, which countries expect to implemented over the next two to three years through talks under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“I think we’re better served at being at that table than leaving that table,” Tillerson said.

Udall also asked the nominee for secretary of state if he would “persecute” State Department career employees who worked to address climate change.

“No sir. That would be a pretty unhelpful way to get started,” Tillerson responded.

Tillerson also said he continues to support a tax on the carbon content of fossil fuels as the best policy approach for addressing climate change, although he stressed that his former company backed that approach in the context of an ill-fated congressional effort in 2009 and 2010 to pass cap-and-trade legislation.

There is little appetite for a cap-and-trade bill or other climate legislation in the Republican-led House and Senate, although climate advocates are hopeful a carbon tax might be put on the table in any broad tax reform package.

Tillerson said he’d continue to support the carbon tax approach in part because it would replace a “hodgepodge” of other policies and tax credits that in the end are less efficient.

A second “qualifier,” Tillerson said, is that any such tax would have to be revenue-neutral, returning all of the funding raised to taxpayers, such as through reduced payroll taxes. “It’s not a revenue raiser,” Tillerson said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington, D.C., at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at

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