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Column: Why Tillerson’s departure is bad for U.S. climate change policy

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump decided to oust Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Much has been written about staff shake-ups at the White House in the wake of Tillerson’s firing.

What should we make of this change in regard to climate change policy?

Looking backward for perspective

On January 3, 2017, two weeks before Inauguration Day, I posted an essay on my blog on “Trying to Remain Positive,” in which I searched for any remotely positive elements of the incoming Trump administration. When it came to climate change, I wrote, “the least worrisome development in regard to anticipated climate change policy may be the nomination of Rex Tillerson.” I noted that as the CEO of ExxonMobil, the position Tillerson had before stepping down to become Secretary of State, he recognized the reality of man-made climate change, supported a carbon tax and called the Paris climate accord an “important step forward.”

Fast forward six months to June 2017. Despite Secretary Tillerson’s (apparent) support for the U.S. to remain in the Paris Agreement, the combined forces of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, and – most important – former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement, together with a host of moves to reverse the Obama administration’s domestic climate change policies.

Tillerson’s record at the State Department

Perhaps 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). Under Tillerson the U.S. sent 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 the talks. However, such continued bureaucratic involvement cannot make up for the fact that the U.S. has been 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 essay (and my expertise) to comment more broadly on 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 Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs — Nicholas Burns and 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 pointed out the great irony that Tillerson had “good judgment” on many of the critical international issues facing the Trump administration. In addition to (apparently) asking the president to keep the U.S. in the Paris agreement, Tillerson supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), former President Barack 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 State Department.

File photo of CIA Director Mike Pompeo on Capitol Hill by Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

File photo of CIA Director Mike Pompeo on Capitol Hill by Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

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 downsizing 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 Trump’s worst instincts, “now we may see them fully unleashed,” Blinken wrote. Good God, what a thought!

That is a rather frightening prognosis across the board. But what about climate change policy, in particular? Does Pompeo at least share 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 his tenure in the House of Representatives, before his move to the CIA, Pompeo, who represented a district in Kansas around Wichita, 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.”

Secretary Tillerson’s exit from the State Department and Pompeo’s entry, assuming he is confirmed by the Senate, may constitute yet another sad chapter in the short history of the sorry state of governance under the presidency of Donald Trump. During 28 years of teaching at Harvard, until 2016, I had remained stubbornly non-partisan, but 16 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, I want to recommend two books: How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (a pair of Harvard politic l 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.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this essay was published on Robert Stavin’s blog, “An Economic View of the Environment.”