If Tillerson Departs State Department, Will We Go from Bad to Worse?

On November 30th, 2017, the New York Times broke the story that the Trump White House is planning to oust Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, and replace him with Mike Pompeo, the current Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives.  (Pompeo, the Times story also suggested, would likely be succeeded at the CIA by Tom Cotton, Republican Senator from Arkansas.)

What should we make of this change – in terms of climate change policy – if it does happen?

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 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 recently returned), 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 Secretary 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 a few days ago how the Foreign Service is being virtually dismantled under Tillerson.

In another harsh New York Times Op-Ed, Antony Blinken recently assessed “How Rex Tillerson Did So Much Damage in So Little Time.”  But, as Blinken points out, the great irony is that Tillerson has 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 not), and very partisan (which, again, Tillerson is 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 is 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 last January, he stated that Obama’s view that climate change is a significant issue for national security was “ignorant, dangerous, and absolutely unbelievable.”

Secretary Tillerson’s exit from the State Department and Mr. Pompeo’s entry, if these take place, 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 last year I had remained stubbornly non-partisan, but thirteen 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.

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