Trump’s Sec. of State nominee refuses to answer for his company’s promotion of climate denial

Tillerson wouldn’t acknowledge what Exxon knew about climate, and understated scientific consensus on climate impacts.

Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson faced a barrage of questions from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) on whether Exxon had continued to promote and fund climate science denial, despite possession of internal science to the contrary.

Those claims were first made public in a series of investigative reports published last year by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times, which revealed internal Exxon documents showing that Exxon scientists knew about the reality of fossil fuel-driven climate change as early as the 1970s. Those reports have led to investigations into Exxon’s climate denial by two state attorneys general, as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Despite working for Exxon for more than 40 years, however, Tillerson refused to answer Kaine’s question.

“Are these conclusions about ExxonMobil’s history of promoting and funding climate science denial, despite its internal awareness of the reality of climate change during your tenure with the company true or false?” Kaine asked.

“Senator, since I am no longer with ExxonMobil, I am in no position to speak on their behalf,” Tillerson responded.

Kaine then pressed Tillerson further, underscoring that he was “not asking [him] to speak on ExxonMobil’s behalf.”

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Kaine confirmed that Tillerson had been with Exxon for nearly 42 years, and that he had spent approximately half of those years in an executive and management position, becoming CEO in 2006.

“I’m not asking you on behalf of ExxonMobil. You have resigned from ExxonMobil. I’m asking you whether those allegations about ExxonMobil’s knowledge of climate science and decision to fund and promote a view contrary to its awareness of its science, whether the allegations are true or false,” Kaine repeated.

But Tillerson again dodged the question, saying that “the question would have to be put to ExxonMobil.”

Kaine then asked for clarification as to whether Tillerson did not know the answer to the question, or was simply refusing to answer the question.

“A little of both,” Tillerson responded, prompting laughs from some in the audience.

Exxon has decried investigations into its climate denial, going so far as to sue two state attorneys general who were considering or actively participating in investigations. Exxon also tried to stop New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman from obtaining documents related to Schneiderman’s fraud investigation, though the New York Supreme Court ruled in October that Exxon must hand over those documents. The decisions to fight the investigations in court were made while Tillerson was still CEO of Exxon.

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In response to Tillerson’s refusal to answer questions about Exxon’s climate denial, 350.org executive director Mary Boeve released a statement sharply criticizing Tillerson’s nomination.

“Tillerson is still lying about what Exxon knew about climate change. Asked directly about the company’s climate cover-up, Tillerson demurred and denied,” Boeve said. “We need a Secretary of State who acknowledges that the climate crisis requires bold action, not an oil industry CEO who is dedicated to spreading misinformation. Tillerson deserves a federal investigation into Exxon’s lies, not a cabinet appointment.”

Kaine also offered a response to the exchange on Twitter Wednesday afternoon.

Earlier, during questioning from Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), Tillerson also misstated the confidence within the scientific community to anticipate the consequences of climate change.

“The increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect,” Tillerson said. “Our ability to predict the effect is very limited.”

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That is untrue. While scientists are still debating some potential impacts of climate change — how it might increase or decrease the number of tropical storms, for instance — other effects are well-established. There is little doubt within the climate science community that increased greenhouse gas emissions will drive up global temperature, and that those temperature increases are already taking place. Scientists know with certainty that rising temperatures are causing glaciers and permafrost to melt and shrink, and that melting glaciers, coupled with increasing temperatures, are causing sea levels to rise.

What climate scientists are uncertain about is to what extent climate change will continue in the future, and what those impacts might be on a very long time horizon (like 1,000 years in the future) — in part because much of that depends on the magnitude of humanity’s response to the problem.

Update: This piece has been updated to include a tweet from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA).