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Will climate change get sidelined under Trump’s key aide Tillerson?

Rex Tillerson’s appointment as US secretary of state raises several questions, all equally troubling: Will he be able to divorce his business dealings from his diplomacy? Will his closeness to Russia’s Putin and Rosneft influence US policies? And most importantly, how will he approach climate change issues at home and at international negotiations?

opinion Updated: Dec 15, 2016 00:35 IST
Darryl D’Monte
Darryl D’Monte
Rex Tillerson,Donald Trump,ExxonMobil
Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, is Donald Trump’s choice as the next US secretary of state(REUTERS)

A supreme irony in United States president-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet appointments is that he is choosing the very kind of corporate honchos whom he accused Hillary Clinton of supporting during the campaign. He called for “draining the swamp”.

In October he said: “We’ve seen this first-hand in the WikiLeaks documents in which Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors.”

In choosing Rex Tillerson to be his secretary of state, Trump couldn’t have chosen someone who better represents a “special interest”. As CEO of ExxonMobil, he headed the biggest oil and gas company in the world, the fifth-largest publicly traded company by market capitalisation. In 2014, Forbes listed it as the second most profitable company in the world out of 500.

Read | Trump picks Tillerson as top diplomat, sets up messy confirmation fight

His net worth of $150 million is overshadowed by that of his cabinet colleague, Betsy DeVos, who is worth $5.1 billion. The combined net worth of the Cabinet is estimated to be around $14.5 billion, most of whom have no experience in government. Trump has brandished as hubris what was camouflaged in Washington: Every US government is beholden to corporate interests, who also fund their campaigns, but he has gone much further by putting plutocrats directly in power.

There are two concerns regarding Tillerson. First, will he be able to divorce his business dealings from his diplomacy? Trump referred to his “deep understanding of geopolitics” as a qualification for his key post. ExxonMobil operates in 50 countries and is in many ways a State in its own right. It is economically larger than many countries and has its own foreign policy and contracted security forces. Can what is good for corporations be good for the US?

Second, Tillerson has been far too close to Russia President Vladimir Putin and his company has extensive dealings with Russia. In 2011, he brokered a deal whereby ExxonMobil gained access to the enormous resources beneath the Russian Arctic, in exchange for which Russia’s State-owned oil company, Rosneft, was able to invest in the US goliath’s operations overseas. Tillerson is not only friendly with Putin but also counts Igor Sechin, Rosneft’s executive chairman and a former deputy prime minister who has been described the second-most important man in Russia, as a personal buddy.

Read | Trump’s pick for top US diplomat has close ties to Russia

Potentially, Tillerson faces a direct conflict of interest. The 2011 Exxon-Rosneft deal was frozen by the US in 2014 when it imposed sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea and military incursion into Ukraine. This had cost the company $1 billion and Tillerson asserted that decision-makers should be aware of the “collateral damage” in imposing sanctions. Since he has to formulate foreign policy, will he turn a blind eye to the depredations of countries, some of which have a dubious record in their oil and gas industries?

At the best of times, business and diplomacy make strange bedfellows. In Tillerson’s case, the situation in even more complicated by the fact that the CIA has accused Russia of hacking emails to embarrass Hillary Clinton before the election and US President Barack Obama has ordered an enquiry into this extraordinary allegation. This is a true-life plot that belittles any fiction conjured up by scriptwriters of American political TV serials.

Tillerson’s appointment has to be gauged against one vital yardstick: How he deals with climate change issues at home and in international negotiations. It is undoubtedly the single-most vital issue that confronts the world, since it threatens every nation. Unlike his president, he is not an agnostic. He has referred to the “catastrophic” consequences if left unchecked. He is obviously in favour of continuing to use fossil fuels, which cause global warming, but isn’t necessarily against a carbon tax.

Read | Critics ask if Rex Tillerson can turn from corporate to national interest

However, this may well be instance of double-speak, since Exxon has earlier lobbied against the scientific acceptance of climate change. And deeds speak louder than words: It dragged its feet in cleaning up the spillage in Alaska in 1989 from its oil tanker, Exxon Valdez, considered one of the worst in history. While courts originally slapped damages of $5 billion, this was substantially reduced later.

As secretary of state, Tillerson will determine US policy in implementing the UN’s 2015 Paris agreement, which it has ratified. His president and several Cabinet colleagues will be less than enthusiastic in doing so. The US has only voluntarily agreed to reduce its emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025 and “make best efforts” to reduce them by 28%. This is extremely modest and pales by comparison with the EU, which sets reductions on 1990 levels, as well as China.

Read | Why a US-China war cannot be ruled out under Donald Trump’s leadership

He will be abetted by Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s former attorney-general, who now heads the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt has the dubious distinction of unsuccessfully suing the EPA several times. Obama had to bypass the Republican-controlled Congress by introducing the Clean Power Act through an EPA promulgation. While Trump declared the law a “war on coal”, Pruitt has challenged it in 27 states, arguing that it violates states’ rights. He is also alleged to have close ties to coal and gas companies.

Make no mistake. The US is undergoing a fundamental change, with corporate interests openly gaining ascendancy and short-term objectives overruling strategic national and international interests. Will it begin to resemble Russia, a country with unscrupulous oligarchs, and forfeit its claim to being a leading democracy?

Darryl D’Monte is chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 14, 2016 19:20 IST