In nominating ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to head the State Department, Donald Trump is paying homage to a pioneer of the climate-change head-fake. It’s simple: Act as if you acknowledge and care about climate change (as, in fact, a solid majority of American voters actually do), while simultaneously undermining all efforts to do anything about it. Tillerson and Exxon have been practicing this kind of deception for so long that they should have patented it.
If they had, Trump would be paying royalties, because he’s got this down cold. For a few days after the election, he even had some people hoping that he might be backing away from the anti-climate rhetoric of his campaign.
All such hopes, however, evaporated as quickly as Trump’s cabinet nominees were announced. And with Tillerson, Trump has outdone himself by asking a master of deception to serve as our nation’s top diplomat and climate emissary. As CEO of Exxon, Tillerson has spent the past decade running the biggest climate denial machine in the world (which is why it’s currently under investigation by attorneys general in California, Massachusetts, and New York for misleading its investors and the American public).
Exxon knew about climate change and the effects of fossil fuel emissions on global temperatures as early as 1977, and yet the company spent decades covering it up. This was worse than simply not making its own research public — Exxon spent millions of dollars as the leading funder of climate denial. Even today, when the whole world has agreed that fossil fuel emissions must be curbed, Exxon’s official projection is that oil and gas will make up 57 percent of the world’s energy supply in 2040 (slightly more than today).
Now some will claim that ExxonMobil (and by extension, Tillerson, who has spent his entire four-decade career working for the company) has relented slightly by finally acknowledging the reality of climate change and offering tepid support for the Paris Climate Agreement. Don’t be fooled: Both before and after Tillerson took charge, Exxon has always acted to protect the interests of one entity and one entity only: Exxon.
It doesn’t do much good to say we must reduce climate pollution if at the same time you are investing millions of dollars in Canadian tar sands, cozying up to Russian oil oligarchs, and fighting resolutions from your own shareholders seeking transparency and accountability on climate change. The last time we saw such cynical dissembling was when the second Bush administration pushed anti-environmental legislation with names like “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forests.” Look at the actions, not the words. Rex Tillerson’s actions make it obvious that he will willingly sacrifice a healthy climate for the sake of oil and gas.
Why would a reasonable person do such a thing? Because of a worldview that has been single-minded in its focus for more than four decades. Tillerson has spent his entire professional life serving Exxon to the exclusion of any other allegiance. More than once, this has brought him and Exxon into direct conflict with the interests and policies of the United States, as when he criticized sanctions on the Russian oil industry over incursions into Ukraine. It’s also resulted in terrible human rights violations thanks to Exxon’s relations with authoritarian regimes in countries like Indonesia, Chad, and Equatorial Guinea.
Don’t make the mistake of underestimating the ability of Tillerson, like Donald Trump, to say whatever he thinks people (and U.S. senators) want to hear. Tillerson is smart enough to play the role of a diplomat, even though he has no real experience in international diplomacy. He may even pretend to care about climate change. Don’t believe it. Never before has a nominee for Secretary of State been proposed who had such an outsized conflict of interest ingrained so deeply into his or her resume. This nomination doesn’t deserve to even make it out of the Senate Foreign Relations committee.