Rex Tillerson just took the State Department another step back from acting on climate change

A key envoy position has been abolished.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s tenure has been beleaguered by waves of resignations from senior officials, while political appointment positions remain empty. Now, after emerging from a $1.1 million study to overhaul the department’s organization, Tillerson has decided to cut a number of special envoy positions — traditionally held by experts in the field who can help execute U.S. foreign policy — saying they are redundant or outdated.

The climate change envoy position is among those that will be cut.

“Today, nearly 70 such positions exist within the State Department, even after many of the underlying policy challenges these positions were created to address have been resolved,” Tillerson wrote in a letter to Congress announcing the change.


According to the State Department’s website, the climate change envoy “is responsible for developing, implementing, and overseeing U.S. international policy on climate change.” Todd Stern, who served in the role for nearly eight years during the Obama administration, was the country’s chief negotiator for the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement, which the website says “is the most ambitious climate accord ever negotiated.”

The Trump administration, though, has signaled a rapid and dramatic retreat from climate action. President Donald Trump has denied the link between human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, and most of his Cabinet likewise dismisses climate science. Tillerson himself is the former CEO of ExxonMobil, which is currently under investigation for its role is attempting to discredit climate science in the public sphere, even while privately acknowledging the risk of continued carbon emissions from sources that include Exxon’s own products.

Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris agreement earlier this summer, over Tillerson’s rumored, but apparently discreet, objections. Even if Tillerson thought the country should stay in the agreement for political reasons, he has been clear that the United States will no longer support overseas development of clean energy. The Green Climate Fund, to which the country pledged $3 billion and has given only $1 billion, has been cut from the White House budget.


Given that the State Department is no longer pursuing climate policy, it might not be a surprise that the State Department has cut the position.

“I believe that the Department will be able to better execute its mission by integrating certain envoys and special representative offices within the regional and functional bureaus,” Tillerson wrote Corker, “and eliminating those that have accomplished or outlived their original purpose.”

The climate envoy was one of more than 60 envoys. Thirty positions will keep the title of envoy, while another 21 will be placed in bureaus of the agency. “Nine positions will be eliminated entirely and another five will be folded into existing positions,” CNN reported.

The push to reduce the number of envoys did not begin with Tillerson.

“Through the years, numbers of special envoys have accumulated at the State Department, and in many cases, their creation has done more harm than good by creating an environment in which people work around the normal diplomatic processes in lieu of streamlining them,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said in a statement. “I appreciate the work Secretary Tillerson has done to responsibly review the organizational structure of special envoys and look forward to going through these changes in detail.”