Trump's pick for Secretary of State may be the administration's top climate change defender -- but big questions remain

Up until now, a good number of the prominent appointees to the Trump administration have been flat-out climate change deniers.

So it’s perhaps a bit of a surprise then that the oil company executive who Trump has nominated for Secretary of State, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, is someone who is openly willing to admit that climate change is a real problem.

“We believe that addressing the risk of climate change is a global issue,” Tillerson told company shareholders at an annual meeting last May.

Under Tillerson, Exxon has started to steer away from the climate denial groups supported by his predecessor, according to The New York Times; Tillerson has said the company supports a carbon tax (both in the past and as recently as October); and under Tillerson, ExxonMobil has expressed support for the Paris Agreement.

Still, Tillerson’s record on climate issues has not necessarily lived up to those statements, and environmental advocates have expressed serious concerns about the appointment.

In 2015, two separate bombshell investigative reports — one by InsideClimate News and the other by The Los Angeles Times — described how Exxon has conducted cutting-edge climate science for decades. Both reports allege that since the 1970s, internal documents have clearly shown that the company is fully aware of the risks of climate change. Yet publicly, they dismissed climate science until much more recently. In 2015 and 2016, states including New York, Massachusetts, and California have launched investigations to see if the company withheld information from shareholders.

ExxonMobil under Tillerson has vigorously denied that this is the case.

“We unequivocally reject allegations that ExxonMobil suppressed climate change research contained in media reports that are inaccurate distortions of ExxonMobil’s nearly 40-year history of climate research,” the company says in a statement.

At the same time, environmental groups have said that even if ExxonMobil under Tillerson has readily acknowledged that global warming is an issue, the company has continued to lobby against climate policies in countries around the world.

“Tillerson argues that uncertainties over specific model projections justify inaction,” writes Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The idea that Rex Tillerson may be supportive of ambitious climate policy is not at all consistent with our forensic analysis of the activities of his company ExxonMobil and its trade associations,” says Dylan Tanner, executive director of the UK-based nonprofit group InfluenceMap, in a statement emailed to Business Insider. InfluenceMap has analysed ExxonMobil’s climate lobbying actions under Tillerson, and argues that the company has a “systematic pattern of opposing climate policy on a worldwide scale.”

These are serious concerns. And they are far from the only questions about Tillerson.

Yet at least some open acknowledgment that climate change is a serious problem would be welcome. If Tillerson is confirmed by the Senate, we’ll have a chance to see if that conviction turns into action.

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