Rex Tillerson is out as Secretary of State: What Should We Make of This?

Two hours ago, I received a “Breaking News Alert” from the New York Times“Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is out, after a rocky tenure. President Trump will replace him with Mike Pompeo, the director of the C.I.A.”  This came three months after the November 30, 2017 New York Times story, indicating that the Trump White House was planning to oust Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, and replace him with Mike Pompeo, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives.  Need I mention that the President labeled that November story “fake news?”

What should we make of this change — particularly in regard to climate change policy?  To examine this question, I can draw on my December 3, 2017 blog essay, “If Tillerson Departs State Department, Will We Go from Bad to Worse?”  In fact, that takes us back even further … to a time that now seems long ago:  the beginning of the Trump administration.

Looking Backward for Some Perspective   

On January 3, 2017, two weeks before Inauguration Day, I posted an essay at this blog on “Trying to Remain Positive,” in which I searched for any remotely positive elements of the incoming Trump administration.  I wrote:

“Remarkably, the least worrisome development in regard to anticipated climate change policy may be the nomination of Rex Tillerson to become U.S. Secretary of State.  Two months ago it would have been inconceivable to me that I would write this about the CEO of Exxon-Mobil taking over the State Department (and hence the international dimensions of U.S. climate change policy).  But, think about the other likely candidates.  And unlike many of the other top nominees, Mr. Tillerson is at least an adult, and – in the past (before the election) – he had led his company to reverse course and recognize the scientific reality of human-induced climate change (unlike the President-elect), support the use of a carbon tax when and if the U.S. puts in place a meaningful national climate policy, and characterize the Paris Climate Agreement as “an important step forward by world governments in addressing the serious risks of climate change.”

It’s fair to say that it is little more than damning with faint praise to characterize this pending appointment as “the least worrisome development in regard to climate change policy,” but the reality remains.  Everything is relative.  Of course, whether Mr. Tillerson will maintain and persevere with his previously stated views on climate change is open to question.  And if he does, can he succeed in influencing Oval Office policy when competing with Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to run EPA, not to mention Rick Perry, Trump’s bizarre choice to become Secretary of Energy?”

Since then, we have learned the answer to that question.  Despite Secretary Tillerson’s (apparent) support for the U.S. to remain in the Paris Agreement, the combined forces of EPA Administrator Pruitt, Secretary of Energy Perry, and – most important – former White House Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, the President announced in June of last year his intention to withdraw the United States from the Agreement, following on a host of moves to reverse the Obama administration’s domestic climate change policies.

Secretary Tillerson’s Record at the State Department

Perhaps Mr. Tillerson should be credited for the fact that the State Department has at least remained engaged in the climate change negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), including by sending a delegation to the annual talks in Bonn, Germany (from which I reported last year), where negotiators from other Parties to the Paris Agreement personally related to me how surprised they were by the constructive role the U.S. delegation was continuing to play (in putting meat on the bones of the Paris Agreement).  However, such continued bureaucratic involvement cannot make up for the fact that the U.S. is disengaged at political levels, which must be attributed – at least in part – to Tillerson’s ineffectiveness in tilting the President toward a more sensible path on climate change policy.

It is beyond the scope of this blog (and my expertise) to comment more broadly on Mr. Tillerson’s general leadership of the State Department or on the many key areas of international relations outside of the climate policy realm.  But, I will note that my Harvard Kennedy School colleague (and former ambassador), Nicholas Burns, together with another former ambassador, Ryan Crocker, described in a scathing New York Times Op-Ed how the Foreign Service has been virtually dismantled under Tillerson.

In another harsh New York Times Op-Ed, Antony Blinken assessed “How Rex Tillerson Did So Much Damage in So Little Time.”  But, as Blinken points out, the great irony is that Tillerson had “good judgment” on many of the critical international issues facing the administration.  In addition to (apparently) asking the President to keep the U.S. in the Paris Agreement, Tillerson supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, a calmer approach to North Korea, staying firm against Russian aggression (such as in Ukraine), and calming the Qatar-Saudi Arabia controversy, which was instigated, in part, by Trump himself.  But on all of these issues, Tillerson’s sensible, if inexperienced, diplomatic advice failed to win the day.

Out with the Bad, In with the Worse?

Enter Mike Pompeo.  What would his presence as Secretary of State mean – both broadly, and in particular, for climate change policy?

In broad terms, Pompeo is apparently smart (as is Tillerson), highly ideological (which Tillerson, a moderate, is decidedly not), and very partisan (which, again, Tillerson is certainly not).  This does not sound like good news for the leadership of the U.S. Department of State.

On the other hand, Pompeo might be expected to slow down, if not reverse, the hollowing out of the State Department’s political leadership and Foreign Service officer corps that has occurred under Tillerson’s enthusiastic down-sizing of the Department.

Antony Blinken’s conclusion was that with Pompeo in the lead, “we can expect a focus on hard-power solutions to every problem, … and an even more aggressive pursuit of ‘America First.’”  Whereas Tillerson apparently tried to check Mr. Trump’s worst instincts, “now we may see them fully unleashed.”  Good God, what a thought!

The Path Ahead for Global Climate Change Policy

That is a rather frightening prognosis across the board.  But what about climate change policy, in particular?  Does Mr. Pompeo at least share Mr. Tillerson’s personal understanding of the reality of the problem and the importance of addressing the threat?

Sorry, but the answer does not provide cause for hope.  In the House of Representatives, before his move to the CIA, Congressman Pompeo was a consistent, long-term, and vocal skeptic of the science of climate change, and an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s climate policies, which he characterized in 2015 as a “radical climate change agenda.”  Although he may have modified his views since his appointment as CIA Director, at his confirmation hearings in January, 2017, he stated that Obama’s view that climate change is a significant issue for national security was “ignorant, dangerous, and absolutely unbelievable.”

Final Words

Secretary Tillerson’s exit from the State Department and Mr. Pompeo’s entry, assuming he is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, will constitute yet another sad chapter in the short history of the sorry state of governance under the presidency of Donald Trump.  During twenty-eight years of teaching at Harvard, until 2016, I had remained stubbornly non-partisan, but sixteen months after the election, I still find it difficult to believe that we have elected such an individual to be President of the United States.

Whether or not you agree with my admittedly harsh assessment of this President, his administration, and the political environment in which we now find ourselves, I want to recommend two books:  How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (a pair of Harvard political science professors); and Trumpocracy:  The Corruption of the American Republic by David Frum (a conservative writer at The Atlantic).  Together they provide a superb diagnosis of the evolution of the current national — and international — political environment.  Unfortunately, I am still looking for a prescription for a promising way forward.


What Does the Trump Victory Mean for Climate Change Policy?


Those of you who have read my previous essay at this blog, “This is Not a Time for Political Neutrality” (October 9, 2016), know that my greatest concerns about a Trump presidency (then a possibility, now a certainty), were not limited to environmental policy, but rather were “about what a Trump presidency would mean for my country and for the world in realms ranging from economic progress to national security to personal liberty,” based on his “own words in a campaign in which he substituted impulse and pandering for thoughtful politics” … and “built his populist campaign on false allegations about others, personal insults of anyone who disagrees with him, and displays of breathtaking xenophobia, veiled racism, and unapologetic sexism.”

That’s a broad indictment, to be sure, but whatever real expertise I may have is actually limited to environmental, resource, and energy economics and policy, and so that has and will continue to be the real focus of this blog, “An Economic View of the Environment.”  With that in mind, I return today from last month’s brief immersion in partisan politics to discuss climate change policy.

Yesterday, an editor at The New York Times asked me to write a 500-word essay giving my view of what the Trump victory will mean for climate policy.  This morning, my very brief essay was published under the headline, “Goodbye to the Climate.”  Given the brevity of the piece, it does not touch on many issues and subtleties (I come back to that at the end of today’s blog post), but rather than take the time to expand it, I want to get this to you quickly, and so I am simply reproducing it as it first appeared in the Times (along with an interesting group of other essays, under the overall heading, “What Happened on Election Day:  How the election and Donald Trump’s victory looks to Opinion writers.”


The New York Times

Goodbye to the Climate

By Robert N. Stavins

Donald J. Trump once tweeted that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.” Twitter messages may not be clear signs of likely public policies, but Mr. Trump followed up during the campaign with his “America First Energy Plan,” which would rescind all of President Obama’s actions on climate change.

The plan includes canceling United States participation in the Paris climate agreement and stopping all American funding of United Nations climate change programs. It also includes abandoning the Clean Power Plan, a mainstay of the Obama administration’s approach to achieving its emissions reduction target for carbon dioxide under the Paris agreement.

What should we make of such campaign promises? Taking Mr. Trump at his word, he will surely seek to pull the country out of the Paris pact. But because the agreement has already come into force, under the rules, any party must wait three years before requesting to withdraw, followed by a one-year notice period.

Those rules would seem to be mere technicalities. The incoming Trump administration simply can disregard America’s pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 26 to 28 percent below the 2005 level by 2025. That is bad enough. But the big worry is what other key countries, including the world’s largest emitter, China, as well as India and Brazil, will do if the United States reneges on its pledge. The result could be that the Paris agreement unravels, taking it from the 97 percent of global emissions currently covered by the pact to little more than the European Union’s 10 percent share.

In addition, Mr. Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency probably will stop work on regulations of methane emissions (a very potent greenhouse gas) from existing oil and gas operations. Undoing complex existing regulations, such as the Clean Power Plan, will be more difficult, but a reconstituted Supreme Court will probably help President Trump when that plan inevitably comes before the court. Also, the new president will most likely ask that the Keystone XL pipeline permit application be renewed — and facilitate other oil and gas pipelines around the country.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump promised to “bring back” the coal industry by cutting environmental regulations. That may not be so easy. The decline of that industry and related employment has been caused by technological changes in mining, and competition from low-priced natural gas for electricity generation, not by environmental regulations. At the same time, Mr. Trump has pledged to promote fracking for oil and gas, but that would make natural gas even more economically attractive, and accelerate the elimination of coal-sector jobs.

If he lives up to his campaign rhetoric, Mr. Trump may indeed be able to reverse course on climate change policy, increasing the threat to our planet, and in the process destroy much of the Obama legacy in this important realm. This will make the states even more important players on this critical issue.

Robert N. Stavins is a professor at Harvard, where he directs the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.


Given the brevity of the piece, it is not intended to be comprehensive of the many implications for climate change policy of the Trump victory (nor the implications of the Republicans continuing to hold majorities in both houses of Congress).

And I did not get into the many subtleties of the issues I identified.  At a bare minimum, these would include:

  • the possibility of the new administration trying to bypass the four-year delay involved in dropping out of the Paris climate agreement by taking the one-year route of dropping out of the overall United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – signed by President George H.W. Bush and ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1992;
  • federal “climate change policies” that have been bipartisan and are therefore much less likely to be repealed, such the latest CAFE and appliance efficiency standards, and the recently extended wind and solar tax credits; and
  • the myriad of sub-national climate change policies, ranging from AB-32 in California to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the northeast (It’s not a coincidence that there’s a high – although not perfect – correlation between the states Secretary Clinton won in the election and the location of the most ambitious climate change policies).

On another occasion, after I’ve had an opportunity to reflect more calmly and carefully on the implications of the forthcoming Trump presidency for environmental, natural resource, and energy policy, I will return to this topic.  But for now, I have to prepare for my trip in a few days to Marrakech, Morocco, for the annual UNFCCC negotiations.  Given the election results, my meetings there may be quite strange, if not surreal. I hope to write about that in my next essay at this blog.


A Key Moment is Coming for the IPCC’s Future

About six month ago, I posted an essay at this blog (The IPCC at a Crossroads, February 26, 2015) highlighting some of the challenges faced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which plays an important role in global climate change policy around the world. [In previous essays at this blog, I wrote about problems with the IPCC process (Is the IPCC Government Approval Process Broken?, April 25, 2014) and about its significant merits (Understanding the IPCC: An Important Follow-Up, May 3, 2014; The Final Stage of IPCC AR5 – Last Week’s Outcome in Copenhagen, November 4, 2014)].

A Key Moment to Think About the Future of the IPCC

Now is an important moment to think carefully about the path ahead for this much-maligned and much-celebrated organization, because in early October of this year, the 195 member countries of the IPCC (who together constitute this “intergovernmental panel”) will meet in plenary in Dubrovnik, Croatia, to elect a new Chair, who will lead the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). There are some excellent candidates for the chairmanship. I hope they see (and read) today’s essay.

As I’ve said before, the IPCC is at a crossroads. Despite its many accomplishments, this institution, like many large institutions, has experienced severe growing pains. Its size has increased to the point that it has become cumbersome, it sometimes fails to address the most important issues, and – most striking of all – it is now at risk of losing the participation of the world’s best scientists, due to the massive burdens that participation entails.

In February of this year, we (Harvard) co-sponsored a three-day workshop on the future of international climate-assessment processes in Berlin, Germany, to take stock and reflect on lessons learned in past assessments – including those of the IPCC – as a means to identify options for improving future assessments. The workshop (titled “Assessment and Communication of the Social Science of Climate Change: Bridging Research and Policy”) was co-organized by: Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM, Italy), the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (USA), the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC, Germany), and the Stanford Environmental and Energy Policy Analysis Center (USA).  The workshop was funded, in part, by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

How Can the IPCC and its Procedures be Improved?

In an essay published in the Review of Environment, Energy and Economics (“Assessment and Communication of the Social Science of Climate Change: Bridging Research and Policy.”), Carlo Carraro (FEEM), Charles Kolstad (Stanford), and I offered our thoughts on the path ahead, drawing on our reflections on the Berlin workshop. We described a set of challenges and opportunities facing the IPCC, and provided options for future improvements. Here are some excerpts in five key areas.

1.  The IPCC could better integrate and coordinate across IPCC Working Groups, as well as enhance interaction between scientists and governments.

The scoping process could include more interaction between governments and scientists, driven by policy questions governments want answered and issues scientists feel need addressing. More experts could be involved in the process leading up to scoping meetings so that draft outlines going into scoping meetings might better reflect broad scientific consensus.

Feedback among policymakers, scientists, and other stakeholders during the assessment process could be improved. A lack of coordination and discussion between policymakers and scientists during the scoping and writing process has sometimes led to controversies and misunderstanding at the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) government approval sessions, which might have been avoided through earlier consultation

The Chair of the IPCC could enhance coordination among Working Groups. The Chair could improve coordination between Working Groups at multiple stages of the assessment process, including in the preparation of the Synthesis Report (SYR).

Special Reports could be developed to more flexibly target emerging issues, develop closer interactions between Working Groups, and inform future Assessment Reports. Shorter reports would be easier to produce and involve shorter turnaround times.

2.  The IPCC could enhance its interface with social scientific disciplines and communities.

Involving experts from a more diverse set of social-scientific communities in the scoping process, prior to scoping meetings, could enhance the quality of the Working-Group outlines and reports. Scholars from a wider range of fields might contribute to the scoping process by suggesting policy-relevant questions and by indicating which questions from policymakers are most amenable to response.

The IPCC leadership could strengthen engagement with relevant research communities that may initiate research projects and consortia to address gaps of knowledge identified in the IPCC scoping or assessment processes. Such recommended research might then be evaluated and incorporated as appropriate into Assessment Reports.

Consider establishing more formal interfaces with professional societies and national academies of sciences to facilitate identification of authors from various scientific disciplines, including social sciences, during the author selection process. This could facilitate the task of the Bureau, Coordinating Lead Authors (CLAs), Technical Support Units (TSUs), and governments in identifying and recruiting the most appropriate disciplinary mix of scientists for the IPCC.

3.  The IPCC could increase its efforts to facilitate the contributions of expertise from developing countries.

Selecting CLAs and LAs on the basis of scientific skills, capability, and reputation is paramount, but it is also important to reflect the perspectives of both developed and developing countries. Today, excellent scholars are available from all regions of the world.

The IPCC could invite authors from developing countries with less regard to where they are currently based. There are a significant number of scholars of international repute from the developing world living and working outside their countries of origin. These scholars could contribute significantly to IPCC reports

New partnerships, including with national, regional, and international academies of sciences, could support the author-nomination process. The academies might support CLAs, TSUs, and national focal points in identifying excellent researchers from a diverse set of geographic regions.

The IPCC could facilitate efforts of other organizations to build scientific expertise in developing countries. While the IPCC does not have the mandate to finance or execute such capacity-building efforts, the IPCC could recognize and support other international organizations that help develop stronger developing-country scientific expertise.

4.  The IPCC could increase the efficiency of its operations and ensure scientific integrity through organizational improvements.

 Preparing IPCC Reports is a complex management operation. Operational aspects of the Assessment-Report process could be improved significantly in a number of ways:

The IPCC should ensure that Chair and Co-Chairs of the Working Groups are selected early in the assessment cycle, and particularly before the scoping meetings, in order to enable careful preparation of the overall assessment process. Having the Chair and Co-Chairs engaged in the process from the beginning would also help foster a more deeply-shared vision between IPCC leadership and governments of the ultimate assessment products.

The IPCC could improve the efficiency of TSUs, which is essential for effectively managing the Assessment-Report process. The functioning of the TSUs requires frequent and intense face-to-face collaboration among staff and with the Co-Chairs. This requires maintaining a single TSU for each Working Group, physically located in a single geographic location under the authority of the Working Group Co-Chairs, with clearly assigned responsibilities. Geographic balance can be increased via global searches for qualified professionals, including from developing countries, to serve on the TSU staff.

Work organization, in particular of Lead Author (LA) meetings, could be greatly improved. Inefficient organization and high workload significantly reduce the incentives for researchers to contribute to the IPCC process. Frequent LA meetings are putting a high travel burden on authors, and the IPCC could reduce the number and length of LA Meetings (LAMs) and use means of remote collaboration, communication, and organization. Chapter Science Assistants (CSAs) provide critical support for chapter teams, facilitating the functioning and organization of work between and during LAMs. The IPCC could allow them to participate in all meetings and provide dedicated funding streams for CSAs for all chapters. The money saved by holding fewer and briefer LAMs could partly be dedicated to this purpose.

Consider expanding the definition of conflict of interest to include not only economic conflicts, but also conflicts due to institutional affiliation. For example, authors, Bureau members, Working Group leadership, and other IPCC personnel with dual roles as national negotiators could be identified as having a potential conflict of interest. Also, authors who work for an organization that aims to influence climate policy might be defined as having a potential conflict of interest. While this expanded definition need not preclude these individuals from working with the IPCC, public disclosure of the potential conflict of interest should help assure the integrity of the IPCC process. It could be valuable to have such an expanded definition in effect early in the AR6 process.

5.  Outreach and communications could be strengthened.

The SPMs, as well as the Technical Summaries (TS), are widely considered by non-experts to be difficult to access and understand. It would be difficult to change the SPM process, given its negotiated character. However, the IPCC could consider engaging expert science communicators to help produce more concise TSs, making them more accessible to policymakers and the general public. In addition, re-naming the TS as “Executive Summary” could more accurately characterize this component of the Assessment Reports and draw the interest of a broader readership.

The impact of IPCC publications on the UNFCCC process may have suffered from not being more closely aligned in terms of timing. The IPCC could consider synchronizing the IPCC Assessment cycle with the UNFCCC negotiation schedule.

Next Steps

My co-authors and I are continuing to develop our thinking on these and other issues associated with the functioning of the IPCC. Whereas some commentators have argued that the IPCC has outlived its usefulness (or is irreparably broken), I prefer to resist the temptation to “throw out the baby with the bathwater.” Instead, I welcome your thoughts on how the IPCC and its procedures can be improved.