If it weren't real, it might read like a dark climate change comedy...
President-elect Donald J Trump is expected to turn to the leader of America's largest oil company, and the main villain in a new wave of climate change activism, to lead the State Department: ExxonMobil Corp. CEO Rex Tillerson. Multiple news organizations reported the pick on Saturday.
Tillerson has worked at Exxon for his entire career, which is important since Exxon is currently under investigation for misleading its investors and the American public about the threat of global warming since the 1970s. The investigations and environmental activism surrounding it are known by the hashtag #ExxonKnew.
Attorneys general in Massachusetts, New York and the U.S. Virgin Islands are leading probes into the company for working to deceive the American public and delay climate action.
The climate investigations are similar to the successful prosecution of the tobacco industry in the 1990s for knowing about the dangers of its products and mounting public relations campaigns to convince the public otherwise.
Environmental groups were quick to criticize Tillerson. After all, the State Department is tasked with leading America's diplomacy on climate change.
“This is unfathomable. We can’t let Trump put the world’s largest oil company in charge of our international climate policy," said Mary Boeve, the executive director of 350.org.
"ExxonMobil is still a leading funder of climate denial and is pursuing a business plan that will destroy our future. Tillerson deserves a federal investigation, not federal office," she said.
The confirmation hearings would provide an opportunity for climate activists to advance the climate investigation since it would put Tillerson under oath before the Foreign Relations Committee. Some pro-climate action members of that panel, such as Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, would likely ask questions to further the investigation.
"We'll be pressuring Senators to turn the confirmation process into a hearing on ExxonMobil’s history of climate deception," Boeve said.
Jamie Henn, the communications director for 350.org, said the nomination could benefit the #ExxonKnew probe: "If the nomination comes to fruition it would set the stage for a public trial where Tillerson would be grilled under oath — exactly what climate organizations want," said.
Connecting the dots
The apparent Tillerson appointment comes amid other signs that climate scientists and policy makers are in for a bruising four years under Trump. For example, last week Trump announced the appointment of Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, who is currently suing the EPA to stop its landmark climate regulations, to lead that agency. Pruitt has a record of casting doubt on mainstream climate science and working hand-in-hand with oil companies.
In addition, the transition team sent an unusually intrusive questionnaire to the Energy Department, seeking information about agency personnel working on climate change.
“Trump’s cabinet represents a who’s who of climate-deniers and fossil fuel hacks, so we’re shocked but not surprised that he chose the head of one of the world’s largest and most environmentally disastrous oil companies to be his ambassador to the world," said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune, in a statement.
Exxon technically acknowledges climate change
Tillerson and the company he leads are not in the same climate-denying league as Pruitt, at least not on the surface.
Officially, Exxon supports efforts to enact a carbon tax, and acknowledges that human activities are causing climate change. Both of these positions are in opposition to the president-elect, who has called climate change a "hoax" and proposed no plans to combat it.
However, Tillerson has fought shareholder resolutions seeking more transparency about how global climate policies, such as the Paris Climate Agreement, could affect the business. More importantly, the company has also provided millions in funding for organizations that spread misinformation about climate science.
“While Rex Tillerson acknowledges the growing dangers of climate change and has expressed support for the vital Paris accord, his actions to counter the threat are what truly count. As the nation’s top diplomat, he must embrace the spirit of that agreement: a commitment to shift away from the fossil fuels driving climate change and toward cleaner, smarter ways to power our future," said Natural Resources Defense Council president Rhea Suh, in a statement.
Unique among the world's oil giants, many of which are coming to realize that they will have to operate in a carbon-constrained world in order to limit global warming, Exxon has remained steadfast in planning for a world in which burning oil and gas will be virtually unrestricted.
In its most recent official forecast, Exxon projected that oil and gas will make up 60% of the world's energy supply in 2040, about the same share it holds today.
Its scenarios paint a rosier picture for the future of oil than many of Exxon's peers do, including the French oil company Total, which decided in May to align its business strategy with the Paris treaty.
Tillerson has repeatedly emphasized the need to first address energy poverty worldwide before cutting emissions, whereas climate science shows that the two need to take place simultaneously to avoid dangerous global warming impacts such as the runaway collapse of the Greenland ice sheet.
"As policymakers develop mechanisms to meet the Paris goals, ExxonMobil encourages them to focus on reducing emissions at the lowest cost to society, keeping in mind that access to affordable and reliable energy is critical to economic growth and improved standards of living worldwide," the company said in a Nov. 4 statement when the Paris Agreement entered into force.
Other potential hurdles for the nomination are Tillerson's close ties to many foreign leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2012, Tillerson received the Order of Friendship medal from Putin in recognition of his efforts to work with Russian oil companies to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic.
That deal fell victim to sanctions imposed on Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, but could be resurrected through diplomacy.