ExxonMobil's Tillerson could moderate Trump on climate change
© Getty Images

Some major environmental advocates are painting the nomination of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State as not only the ultimate symbol of crony capitalism and fossil energy power run amuck, but very bad news for climate change.

“We can’t let Trump put the world’s largest oil company in charge of our international climate policy," said Mary Boeve, the executive director of 350.org. Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, the largest U.S. environmental group by membership, said he was “shocked but not surprised that [Trump] chose the head of one of the world’s largest and most environmentally disastrous oil companies to be his ambassador to the world."


Yet there’s a better case to be made that Tillerson, should he be confirmed, will be a moderating influence on the far-right climate science denial of Trump himself and his other major appointees thus far.

ExxonMobil and Tillerson acknowledge the key elements of climate science, including the role of man-made greenhouse gas emissions in increasing global temperatures and causing climate change. Exxon supports the Paris Agreement on climate and at least some domestic policies to address climate change.

We can expect Tillerson to hold to most of these views under questioning by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing that begins today, based on comments from Senator Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinDemocratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry On The Money: Biden, Democratic leaders push for lame-duck coronavirus deal | Business groups shudder at Sanders as Labor secretary | Congress could pass retirement bill as soon as this year Top Democrat: Congress could pass retirement bill as soon as this year MORE (D-Md), the senior Democrat on the committee, after he met with the nominee recently.

Moreover, Tillerson’s stature and credibility within the Republican Party, the business world, and with many foreign leaders, could almost uniquely allow him to engage on climate change with the international community with a minimum of far right climate denier attacks.

Granted, the bar for improvement under Trump couldn’t be much lower. Right now, the climate denial wing of the Trump transition is not just ascendant, but appears almost unchallenged.

With long-time climate deniers like Myron Ebell at the helm of the transition, Mr. Trump has nominated energy and environmental cabinet members — including Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt at EPA, former Texas Governor at the Energy Department, and Rep. Ryan Zinke as Interior Secretary — all of whom are either climate science deniers or skeptics.

Notably, not one of these three Trump nominees could become the CEO of a major publicly traded U.S. oil or gas company while holding their current views, since all major oil and gas CEO’s are essentially required by their shareholders and board to acknowledge the overwhelming basic science of climate change. Major public U.S. companies, unlike major U.S. political parties, cannot have leaders who deny basic facts regarding science.

So, right now, the proposed Trump cabinet is far to the right of “Big Oil” on climate science and policy. The upper hand that climate deniers like Ebell currently hold was demonstrated when the Trump transition asked DOE employees to complete a questionnaire obviously intended to identify those who had worked on climate related issues or made them a priority. After a media firestorm and public outcry, the Trump transition disavowed the questionnaire.

Apart from bolstering acceptance of facts around climate science, Tillerson at State could take the rougher edges off of at least a few of Trump’s climate policies. For example, Tillerson at State might allow Trump to more easily elide or ignore Trump statements during the campaign that he would withdraw from (or “cancel”) the Paris Agreement on climate.

Rather than formally attempting to leave either the underlying UN climate process, begun under President George H.W. Bush, or the Paris deal, as he has threatened, Trump might simply say he doesn't think the US should be bound by the greenhouse gas emissions pledges President Obama made.

Put another way, any attempt to formally leave the Paris deal with Tillerson at State gives powerful new ammunition to critics who would point out that Trump is far to the right of big oil on both climate science and the Paris agreement itself. Ironically, given Exxon's public stances, Tillerson might bring Trump equal measures of new pressure and political cover to at least engage more seriously on international climate change issues.

Of course, problematic aspects of the Tillerson confirmation remain. The ExxonMobil CEO’s close ties to Vladimir Putin have many in the security community deeply concerned about a “tilt to Russia” at the very moment when the intelligence community issued an unprecedented public report finding that Putin directly ordered Russian operatives to pursue a hacking and espionage plot against Democrats specifically aimed at making Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rages against '60 Minutes' for interview with Krebs Cornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Pa. lawmaker was informed of positive coronavirus test while meeting with Trump: report MORE president. Expect incredible fireworks on this issue during the Senate Foreign Relations hearing.

The appointment also continues the trend of naming only the wealthiest and most powerful to Trump’s “Billionaire’s Cabinet”. For a candidate who ran on economic populism but supports tax cuts for the rich, this seems yet another brewing political problem.

But on the questions of climate change itself, the Tillerson appointment might become a strangely facing-saving way for the Trump Administration to bring itself back from the abyss of climate denial and complete withdraw from key international climate institutions. Indeed, there seems to be an emerging schism or split within Trump Transition between what might be termed "pro-business pragmatists" like Tillerson at State and “anti-climate science idealogs” like Scott Pruitt at EPA.

This could allow Trump to project a less radical set of positions internationally through the State Department, including probably paying lip service to the Paris agreement, while having his EPA, Energy, Interior and other departments resume below-cost leasing of coal on US public lands, overturn a whole suite of EPA regulations on CO2 and methane, water down fuel economy standards, and cut funding for renewable energy and low emissions technologies growth.

Needless to say, we are entering a strange universe when the CEO of the world’s largest oil company, a corporation which has a history of climate science obfuscation and denier funding, could lead the President of the Unites States toward a slightly less irresponsible set of climate science positions and international policies. But such is the state of affairs as our Post-Truth President, Donald Trump, gets ready to take office.

Paul Bledsoe, a Washington-based energy consultant, has served on the staffs of the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Commission, the Senate Finance Committee, and the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill