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Opinion Trump’s pick for secretary of state backs the Paris climate deal Trump would scrap

President-elect Donald Trump has picked Rex Tillerson as his nominee for secretary of state. Here's what you need to know about Tillerson. (Video: Thomas Johnson, Victoria Walker, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

Donald Trump says climate science is a “hoax,” and has vowed to pull us out of the Paris climate accord. This threat has world leaders literally scrambling to figure out how to save the planet from a Trump presidency before it is too late, as they look for ways to lock the deal in place.

However, one person who might not agree with Trump on this matter is the person who would be dealing directly with the fallout from such a rash move: Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice to be secretary of state.

In speeches earlier this year, Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, praised the Paris climate accord. Crucially, he not only recognized the problem of global warming; he also extolled the Paris agreement as the right sort of framework for tackling it.

Here’s what Tillerson said in a speech in November, at a conference in Abu Dhabi:

“At ExxonMobil, we share the view that the risks of climate change are serious and warrant thoughtful action. Addressing these risks requires broad-based, practical solutions around the world.”
“Importantly, as a result of the Paris agreement, both developed and developing countries are now working together to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, while recognizing differing national responsibilities, capacities and circumstances. The best hope for the future is to enable and encourage long-term investments in both proven and new technologies, while supporting effective policies.”

Tillerson made very similar remarks about the Paris accord in another speech in October. In this one, he also endorsed the idea of a carbon tax as a tool for curbing carbon emissions that, he said, is preferable to regulatory solutions. Basically, Tillerson is saying that the future — including that of the energy industry — depends on the success of private sector innovation in helping tackle climate change, but also that this can (and indeed must) unfold in a policy environment that encourages it.

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The key to Tillerson’s remarks is that he endorsed two features of the Paris deal: first, that international cooperation between developed and developing countries is key to achieving reduced global greenhouse gas emissions; and second, that key to making this work is allocating the burden fairly among different countries.

“He’s really clear in saying both that he supports the objectives of the agreement and that it’s a viable framework for moving forward,” Chris Field, the director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, told me today. “This is more than just saying climate change is real. He’s also saying that it’s really important that the international community has pulled together and agreed on a broad set of directions for addressing it.”

It’s also worth noting that the secretary of state will occupy a potentially influential position when it comes to advising Trump on how to deal with the Paris accords. Now, it’s hard to say what Trump’s intentions here truly are. Transition officials have leaked that the new administration is looking for ways to pull out of the deal as quickly as possible. But Trump himself has hinted that he might be rethinking this goal.

Whatever Trump is really thinking on this matter, Tillerson might be well positioned to advise Trump against pulling out of it. As noted above,  Tillerson agrees with the deal’s objectives. But Tillerson might also recognize that the international diplomatic fallout from pulling out of it could create an enormous headache that isn’t worth the trouble, and he might make that case to Trump. As secretary of state, this is something Tillerson would be charged with dealing with.

“Pulling out of the climate deal will have significant implications for the willingness of other countries to work with the United States on other issues,” says Heather Hurlburt, a senior staff member at the New America Foundation who was a speechwriter at the State Department in the 1990s. “The secretary of state will be really well positioned to explain that to the president and the White House — if the president and the White House think that international cooperation on other issues is worth the effort.”

The word “if,” of course, is the rub.

The other relevant angle here concerns why the CEO of ExxonMobil praised the global climate deal in the first place. Exxon has been criticized for promoting climate change denialism and not acting on its own knowledge of the risks of climate change. But in his October speech, Tillerson suggested that solutions designed to lower global carbon emissions are essential to the energy industry’s future ability to succeed, since expanding energy supplies safely and responsibly is crucial to keeping economic opportunity and living standards — and with them, energy demand — rising.

Hurlburt points out that this embrace of the Paris climate deal suggests a recognition on the part of energy industry that long term predictability — in the form of a commitment to a low carbon future — is essential to long term success. Hundreds of U.S. companies have urged Trump to keep us in the Paris deal, arguing that building a low carbon economy is essential to long term prosperity. Such arguments might appeal to Trump — and, one hopes, can compete with the arguments he will hear from his administration’s climate change denialists.

“The Paris deal provides a predictable structure within which Exxon can do business,” Hurlburt says. “The thing the more rabid climate change deniers want will produce a less stable environment for industry — including the energy industry. The question is how long it will take for Trump to learn this.”

If he ever does at all.