Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state, hinted on Wednesday that he would support keeping the United States in the historic Paris climate agreement.
Asked during his Senate confirmation hearing whether the U.S. should maintain its commitments in the accord, the former Exxon Mobil Corp. chief executive said the 180-country deal allows the country to influence the necessary “global response” to climate change.
“It’s important that the United States maintain its seat at the table with the conversations around how to deal with the threats of climate change,” he said.
The question came nearly 90 minutes into Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, during which his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin prompted intense scrutiny. Protesters interrupted the proceedings at least three times by holding up signs with the words “Reject Rexx” written in the same font as Exxon Mobil’s logo and shouting “oil is dead” and “please don’t put Exxon in charge of the State Department.”
Later in the hearing, Tillerson vowed to have a “fulsome review” of all climate policies around the world, including U.S. payments to the United Nations-administered Green Climate Fund to help poorer countries build up clean energy infrastructure. The fund has been a major tool for influencing less-developed countries, which depend on heavily polluting fuels like coal to grow their economies, to agree to cut back on emissions.
“Whatever is the most efficient, effective way to deliver electricity to these areas that don’t have it should be the American choice,” he said, suggesting the country could divert money to infrastructure projects that use cheaper fossil fuels instead. “That is the wisest use of American dollars.”
Tillerson hinted that he may renege on long-term U.S. commitments in the Paris agreement if the Trump administration deemed them to disadvantage the country economically.
“The president-elect, as part of his priority in campaigning, was ‘America First.’ So there are important considerations as to when we commit to such accords,” he said. “It’s important for America to remain engaged in those discussions so we are at the table, expressing a view and understanding what the impacts may be on the American people and American competitiveness.”
Tillerson, 64, has a complicated record on global warming. He spent 41 years ― nearly his entire career ― working at Exxon Mobil. He led the company for a decade, starting in 2006. During that time, the company acknowledged that the planet is warming and scaled back funding for a Big Tobacco-style disinformation campaign meant to seed doubt in climate science.
Trump, who has called climate change “a hoax,” began seeking ways to withdraw from the global accord to reduce greenhouse gas emissions soon after winning the election in November. Such a move would face fierce opposition. The historic agreement, the first time the U.S. and China have agreed to scale back carbon emissions, drew overwhelming support from business leaders.
More than 600 companies signed an open letter to the president-elect this week urging him not to renege on the country’s environmental commitments. Even Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly said in November that Trump should respect the agreement.
“President-elect Trump should accept the Paris Treaty on climate to buy some goodwill overseas,” O’Reilly said. “It doesn’t really amount to much anyway. Let it go.”
This article has been updated with more details from the hearing.