WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST)- Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson on Wednesday (Jan 11) said he believes "the risk of climate change does exist, and the consequences could be serious enough that action should be taken."
But while the Obama administration and other world leaders have aggressively pursued efforts to slash carbon dioxide emissions and stave off global warming, the former ExxonMobil chief executive expressed little such urgency.
As by Senator Bob Corker about his personal position on climate change, Tillerson said he formed his views "over about 20 years as an engineer and a scientist, understanding the evolution of the science."
Ultimately, he said he concluded that the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect on the earth's climate, but he added, "Our ability to predict that effect is very limited," and that precisely what actions nations should take "seems to be the largest area of debate existing in the public discourse."
Tillerson's statements on climate change were in line with the views he has expressed in the past: In short, that climate change is real and could pose problems for humans, but that how big a problem it poses for mankind remains unclear.
Tillerson sees climate change primarily through the eyes of an engineer, as a problem that must be solved largely through innovation and ingenuity.
The sharing of his personal views on climate change came during one of several times the subject surfaced during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
At one point, he also had a testy exchange with Senator Tim Kaine, the former vice-presidential candidate, about whether ExxonMobil had for decades concealed from investors and the public what it knew about the science of climate change, going as far as paying outside groups to raise doubts about the growing scientific consensus around the problem.
"I'm in no position to speak on their behalf, you would have to speak to them," Tillerson said, dodging Kaine's questions about the company where he had worked for 40 years.
Kaine continued to press Tillerson about his knowledge of ExxonMobil's history on climate change. Tillerson continued to refer him to the company he led until recently.
At one point, Kaine asked, "Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question or are you refusing to do so?"
"A little of both," Tillerson responded.
Kaine later tweeted, "It's shameful Tillerson refused to answer my questions on his company's role in funding phony climate science. Bottom line: # ExxonKnew ."
Early in Wednesday's hearing, Senator Ben Cardin asked Tillerson if he thought the United States should continue to play a lead role in a global climate agreement signed in Paris in late 2015.
President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to "cancel" US participation in the accord, in which hundreds of countries collectively agreed to slash carbon emissions to help mitigate the effects of global warming.
"It's important that the US maintains its seat at the table about how to address the threat of climate change, which does require a global response," Tillerson said. "No one country is going to solve this on its own."
It was a brief exchange, with little new information about how the incoming administration might actually approach the issue.
But Tillerson said multiple times on Wednesday that the incoming president, who in the past has called climate change a "hoax," had solicited his opinion on the subject.
"The President-elect has invited my views on climate change, and he has asked for them, and he knows that I am on the public record with my views," Tillerson said at one point. "And I look forward to providing those, if confirmed, to him, and in discussion around how the US should conduct its policies in this area."
Ultimately, Tillerson said he would carry out the new president's policies, "but I think it's important to note that he has asked, and I feel free to express those views."
Later, speaking with Senator Edward Markey, Tillerson demurred on whether the United States would maintain its leading role in the Paris agreement.
"I'm sure that there will be opportunity... to do a fulsome review of our policies around engagement on climate issues through global accords, global agreements," he said. "And as I indicated, I feel free to express my views to (Trump) around those. I also know the president as part of his priority in campaigning was America first. So there's important considerations, as to, as we commit to those accords, are there any elements of that that put America to a disadvantage?"
In the past, Tillerson has articulated a more nuanced position on climate change than other Trump Cabinet nominees. He repeatedly has acknowledged the potential consequences of climate change and the impact of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere, but has questioned the reliability of climate models and suggested humanity has bigger problems to tackle.
Still, Tillerson and ExxonMobil generally have supported the Paris climate accord in the past, calling it an important international framework for tackling the problem.
"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," he said in a speech last year in Abu Dhabi.
"Importantly, as a result of the Paris agreement, both developed and developing countries are now working together to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, while recognising 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."
That's a far different position than that of Tillerson's predecessor at ExxonMobil, Lee Raymond.
On the Charlie Rose show in 2005, for instance, Raymond said "natural variability" could affect climate and said the science wasn't sufficient to determine whether climate changes amount to anything more than that.
Such statements help explain why many scientists and environmentalists have continued to criticise ExxonMobil's past record on climate change.