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.


Placing U.S. Government Views on Climate Change into Historical Context

In this year of 2018, the Europe Union, China, India, Brazil, Korea, Canada, and other countries are negotiating the details for implementation of the Paris Agreement, and are developing domestic policies to achieve their respective Nationally Determined Contributions under the Agreement.  At the same time, the United States – under the leadership of President Donald Trump – has announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement as soon as permitted (November, 2020), and has taken significant steps to immediately roll back domestic climate change policies put in place by the Obama administration.  This may be a good time to place this quite deviant U.S. government behavior into historical context.

Where to Begin?

This blog is dedicated to an economic view of the environment, and my essays here typically feature analyses of existing or proposed policies, with a look to the future, particularly in the realm of global climate change.  Today, however, I take a look back, with an examination of the early history of deliberations in the U.S. government about climate change.

Of course, the history of climate change science goes back at least to Svante Arrhenius, the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish physicist and chemist, who in 1896 calculated how increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) would increase the Earth’s temperature through the greenhouse effect, a finding that was picked up many years later by Guy Stewart Callendar, Charles David Keeling, Roger Revelle, and others.  But my focus is not on the history of the science, but on a very specific dimension of the policy history, namely the history of discussions within the U.S. government regarding climate change and potential policy responses.

Some might think that the starting point would be the 1988 Congressional hearings – led by U.S. Senators Timothy Wirth and Albert Gore – which the New York Times covered in a long article.  That was during the last year of the Reagan administration, but the story really begins more than two decades earlier – in 1965.

Before going further, I want to give credit to two people who have written about this – David Hone, Chief Climate Change Advisor for Shell, and Jairam Ramesh, formerly chief negotiator for India at the conferences of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee, 1965

More than fifty years ago, on November 5, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson released a report authored by the Environmental Pollution Panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, pictured here.


Remarkably, the report included a 23-page discussion of the climatic effects of increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), due to the combustion of fossil fuels, and – interestingly enough – concluded with a proposal for research on a specific approach to responding, namely with what is now called “geoengineering.”  Below is the table of contents of that section of the report – on “Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide,” and you can read that section of the report here.

In his introduction to the report, President Johnson emphasized that “we will need increased basic research in a variety of specific areas,” and then went on to state:  “We must give highest priority of all to increasing the numbers and quality of the scientists and engineers working on problems related to the control and management of pollution.”  What a contrast with the anti-science approach of the current resident of the White House!

A Striking Nixon White House Memorandum – 1969

Daniel Patrick Moynihan – surely one of the leading public intellectuals of the twentieth century – was a Harvard professor (1966-1969, 1971-1973 ), advisor to President Richard Nixon (1969-1970), U.S. Ambassador to India (1973-1975), U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (1975-1976), and U.S. Senator (1977-2001).  On September 17th, 1969, while he was working in the White House, Moynihan sent a memorandum to John Ehrlichman, then a key Presidential assistant (who subsequently served 18 months in federal prison for his role in the Watergate conspiracy).  The original memorandum is in the Nixon Library, but you can also read it immediately below.  It is well worth reading!

Historical Context and the Path Ahead

From the perspective of 2018, as we enter the second year of the Trump administration, it may – or may not – be comforting to recognize that scientific and even policy attention by the White House to climate change goes back more than five decades, to the administration of Lyndon Johnson.  Since then, there have surely been ups and downs – through the administrations of Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush (I), Clinton, Bush (II), and Obama, but the current administration is an outlier in its utter disdain for sound science and related hostility to sensible public policy (in this and other domains).

The list of Presidential administrations above should remind us that whether a single four-year term or the maximum eight years, administrations are relatively short-lived when judged in historical context.  And they tend to swing back and forth between the two political parties.

All of which reminds me of a true story.  In November, 2016, just days after the U.S. Presidential election, I was in Marrakech, Morocco, for the annual U.N. climate negotiations.  I was speaking on a panel assembled by the government of China in their Pavilion.  Those who preceded me voiced their dismay about the election and their very low expectations for the climate change policy that would likely be forthcoming from Donald Trump and his administration-to-be.

Our moderator from the Chinese government then introduced me to speak, and as I listened with headphones to the simultaneous translation, I heard him say, “And now Harvard’s Professor Stavins will bring us some good news from the United States.”  I was dumbfounded.  What could I possibly say?  I walked to the lectern, sipped some water, took a deep breath, and said to the audience, “When you get to be my age, you recognize that four years is not a long time!”

That will have to suffice as an “optimistic” conclusion to today’s essay.


Trump’s Paris Withdrawal: The Nail in the Coffin of U.S. Global Leadership?

The announcement on June 1st by U.S. President Donald Trump that he will withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement was, in my view, misguided; and the justifications Mr. Trump provided were misleading, and to some degree, untruthful.  In this essay, I seek to explain why I believe that withdrawing from the Paris Agreement will be damaging both to the United States and the world.  Sadly, Trump’s withdrawal announcement gave the impression that the President has little understanding of the nature of the Agreement, the process for withdrawal, or the implications of withdrawal for the United States, let alone for the world.  Rather, Mr. Trump appears to be channeling talking points from his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, and his supporters among Alt-Right nationalists, isolationists, and anti-globalists.

Some Context

Let’s start with a few numbers. The United States accounts for about 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with China the largest emitter at 30%, followed by the European Union (10%) and India (7%). But climate change is a function of atmospheric concentrations, and when looking at cumulative emissions since 1850, the United States is first with 29% of the total, then the European Union (EU) with 27%, and then Russia and China with 8% each.  With Trump’s announced withdrawal, the United States will join Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries among 195 that are not Parties of the Paris Agreement.

Global Implications of U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

With the United States out of the Paris Agreement, it loses the ability to pressure other countries, such as the large emerging economies, to do more.  Worse yet, the announced departure may encourage some countries to do less than they had planned.  In the worst possible outcome, the U.S. announcement might eventually even lead to the broad Paris coalition unraveling.  However, initial indications from the EU, China, India, and other key Parties to the Agreement is that they will maintain their targets, and some may even make them more aggressive because of President Trump’s short-sighted action.  Only time will tell.

What Does President Trump’s Announcement Actually Mean?

In several ways, the President’s announcement was both confused and confusing.  The President stated that the country “will withdraw from the Paris climate accord but begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accord or an entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States.  We are getting out. But we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great.”

First, the notion of re-negotiating the Paris Agreement is a non-starter.  Within hours of the President’s announcement, the idea of renegotiation was rebuked by French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Premier Paolo Gentiloni, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, among many other world leaders.

Second, what could Mr. Trump even mean by his assertions of the deal’s “unfairness” to the United States, and what should we to make of his statement that such unfairness could be addressed through renegotiation?  According the Paris Agreement’s own provisions, there is a required three-year delay from November, 2016 (when the Agreement came into force) before any Party (country) can even begin the process of withdrawing, and then there is another year of delay before that process is completed.  So, what the President actually announced – in effect – was the U.S. government’s intention to begin the process of withdrawing some two and a half years from now, and to complete that withdrawal process in November, 2020.

Thus, the announcement was equivalent to stating that the U.S. will remain a Party to the Agreement for virtually the entire term of this administration (which it will).  The administration could – in theory – submit a revised Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) that is consistent with what the country can accomplish in emissions reductions (possibly a 15-19% reduction by 2025 compared with 2005, according to a recent Rhodium Group analysis, instead of the Obama NDC of a 26-28% decline), consistent with the broad rollback of Obama-era climate regulations that President Trump has initiated.  The country-specific NDC is the key element that can be thought of as affecting “fairness” of the U.S. role under the Paris Agreement, because it is only through the self-determined, voluntary, country-specific NDCs that any national targets or actions are specified.

Given that the Administration had already begun the process of unraveling Obama-era climate regulations (that were to be used achieve the Obama NDC), the announced withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has no additional effects on U.S. emissions mitigation actions.  Hence, it is fundamentally dishonest to claim as a justification for the withdrawal that this will reduce costs for the U.S. and save jobs.

Beyond the national targets and actions specified by the U.S. NDC, there is one other aspect of pledged action under the Paris Agreement that could be considered to affect fairness, and that is the set of pledges of financial contributions to the Green Climate Fund, to which industrialized countries have voluntarily pledged $10 billion since 2013 to help low-income countries reduce their GHG emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change.  If the U.S. were to fulfill its original $3 billion commitment to the Fund, this would amount to $9.41 per capita, ranking 11th among country pledges, starting with Sweden’s at $59.31 per person.  However, the President had previously announced that no funds will be going to the GCF (beyond the $1 billion already delivered during the Obama administration).  That makes the per capita U.S. contribution a bit more than $3 per capita, ranking close to the bottom of the list, only above South Korea’s pledge of about $2 per capita.  So, with this financial element, as well as with regard to domestic emissions mitigation actions, withdrawal from the Paris Agreement can have no real effects on the “fairness” of the U.S. role.

The Paris Agreement Was the Answer to U.S. Prayers

The very structure of the Paris Agreement itself was and is the answer to U.S. prayers, going back to the bipartisan Byrd-Hagel Resolution of 1997, in which the U.S. Senate – in a 95-0 vote – said that it would not ratify an international climate agreement that did not include the large emerging economies (China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, and Korea).  After more than 20 years of negotiations, an important breakthrough came with the signing of the Paris Agreement, which increased the scope of participation from countries accounting for just 14% of global emissions (under the current, second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol) to countries accounting for 97% under the Paris Agreement.

Furthermore, in addition to including all countries, the Paris Agreement answered a second key U.S. demand by granting all countries the right to determine their own targets and their own paths of action (through their respective NDCs).

And the third of three U.S. wishes was also granted by the Paris Agreement by providing for transparency around how countries report their emissions and demonstrate progress toward their respective targets.

Thus, the Paris Agreement was truly the answer to bipartisan U.S. prayers going back at least twenty years, and was eminently “fair” to the United States.  What, then, can renegotiation possibly accomplish that would make this President happy?  Perhaps one option would be to rename precisely the same agreement the “Mar-a-Lago Accord” (or simply the “Trump Agreement”)!  That might change this President’s mind.

A Rebuke to Countries around the World … and to U.S. Businesses

Mr. Trump’s decision is a remarkable rebuke to countries and heads-of-state around the world, as well as corporate leaders in the United States, and some key senior officials in the Administration, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.  However, the announcement does attempt to fulfill the President’s campaign pledge to “cancel” the Agreement that he claimed would “destroy American jobs.”

But dropping out of Paris will have no meaningful employment impacts.  Again, Trump had already launched the process of undoing domestic climate regulations from the Obama administration.  Also, the much-talked-about coal jobs are not coming back.  The losses that have taken place over decades are due to increased productivity (technological change) in the coal sector, and more recently, market competition from low-priced natural gas for electricity generation, not environmental regulations — and certainly not CO2 regulations that had never been implemented.

Support for Trump to keep the United States in the Paris Agreement was broad-based within U.S. private industry – from electricity generators such as PG&E and National Grid, to oil companies such as Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon-Mobil, BP, and Shell (the last two having large operations within the U.S.), and a very long list of manufacturers, including giant firms such as General Motors and General Electric.  Even some of the largest coal producers, such as Arch Coal, Cloud Peak Energy, and Peabody Energy, told the President about their support for the U.S. remaining in the Agreement. This broad support was due to a simple reality – leaders of successful businesses make decisions not on the basis of ideology, but based on available evidence.

Damages to U.S. International Relations

The potential damages to U.S. international relations are grave, but should we be surprised?  After all, this is the same President who withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership days after inauguration, thereby handing over to China economic leadership in Asia; and the same President who just last month dismissed and diminished NATO and insulted our key European allies, thereby granting Russian President Vladimir Putin one of his greatest wishes.  Former Mexican President Vincente Fox may have summed it up best with the shocking assessment that “the United States has stopped being the leader of the free world.”

At a time when the U.S. wants and needs cooperation from a large and diverse set of countries around the world on matters of national security, trade, and a host of other issues, it is counter-productive in the extreme to willingly become an international pariah on global climate change, but that is what President Trump has accomplished.

Defining U.S. Climate Policy Geographically, Rather than by Federal Government Action

Of course, this is not the end of all climate change policy action in the United States.  Climate policies in California, Oregon, Washington, and the Northeast will remain in place, and quite possibly be strengthened. And more than half of all states have renewable energy policies; just since Election Day, the Republican governors of Illinois and Michigan have signed legislation aimed at increasing solar and wind generation. At the federal level, important tax credits for wind and solar power will likely continue to receive bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress.

But it is highly unlikely – in the absence of a significant economic recession – that those policies (plus others from cities across the country) will be sufficient to achieve the climate targets that made up the Obama administration’s anticipated contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement.

Trump’s Core and a Sad Bottom Line

For President Trump’s core supporters, the move was probably perceived in very positive terms.  As Cary Coglianese, a professor of law and political science at the University of Pennsylvania, has said, “For Trump supporters it looks like he’s delivering on a campaign promise — it looks like he’s standing up for Americans against the rest of the world.”  The opposition to Paris among Trump’s electoral core (and a considerable share of Congressional Republicans) seems to be linked with their admiration for his “America First” battle cry, which builds on nostalgia for an earlier (and whiter) America with its long-gone manufacturing-based economy, plus doses of xenophobia, hostility to immigration, fear of globalism, and opposition to multilateral agreements of any kind.

The President’s announcement of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement will indeed appeal to his core constituency, and thereby may help galvanize his base, and that may be the central White House objective at this time when the administration is facing grave questions and challenges from Congressional hearings and Justice Department investigations. As Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, and I wrote in April in The Boston Globe, “reducing emissions will not be cheap or easy, but the greatest obstacles are political.”

The announcement by President Trump that he will withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement was based neither on real science nor sound economics.  Rather, it was confused, misguided, and – in some ways – dishonest.  Sadly, that makes it consistent with much of this President’s behavior – in a variety of policy realms – during the campaign and since he assumed office.