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  • Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump

    Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump's pick for U.S. secretary of state | Photo: AFP

Published 13 December 2016

The ExxonMobil CEO will be Washington's top emissary on climate change. His company funded climate change denial campaigns for decades.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump announced Tuesday that he has nominated ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to arguably the most important position in his Cabinet — secretary of state. While Tillerson has no experience in public office, his nomination has drawn the ire of environmentalists for his company’s actions on climate change while even members of Trump's own party are uneasy with the pick due to the CEO's ties to Russia.

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Trump tweeted Tuesday that Tillerson is “one of the truly great business leaders of the world.” A statement from his transition team said that “his tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics make him an excellent choice for secretary of state.”

“He will be a forceful and clear-eyed advocate for America’s vital national interests, and help reverse years of misguided foreign policies and actions … Rex Tillerson’s career is the embodiment of the American Dream,” the statement continued.

However, the 64-year-old Texan has never held public office and has been a lifelong employee of the oil giant, one of the biggest companies in the world. While Trump's team claimed that ExxonMobil is “one of the largest and most respected companies,” it has a rap sheet of destructive practices and of trying to subvert action and research on climate change.

ExxonMobil is under investigation by the New York attorney general's office for allegedly misleading investors, regulators, and the public on what it knew about global warming — an investigation Tillerson called a “distraction.”

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While Exxon scientists warned the company about climate change as early as 1982, it funded several groups that ran climate denial campaigns and joined a coalition of fossil fuel companies to make the uncertainties of climate science “conventional wisdom.”

“Rex Tillerson and his company are disproportionately responsible for unconscionable backsliding and delay on climate action," Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen said Tuesday. "A lifelong employee of Exxon, Tillerson has overseen the company’s aggressive attack on state attorneys general who are investigating Exxon's deception regarding climate science.

Trump, who has previously referred to climate change as a “hoax” fabricated by the Chinese, on Sunday told Fox News that in regard to climate change: “I'm still open-minded. Nobody really knows. Look, I'm somebody that gets it, and nobody really knows. It's not something that's so hard and fast."

Environmentalists already alarmed by the prospect of a “climate purge” by the incoming Trump administration of civil servants who worked on environmental policies under the Obama administration, something that was reported last week by Bloomberg News, have been equally wary of the head of an oil company as secretary of state and what appears to be a blurring of the political and corporate world, within Trump's Cabinet.

President of the Center for International Environmental Law Carroll Muffett told Democracy Now, as rumors began to surface, that Tillerson being picked would be “patently irresponsible.”

Food & Water Watch head Wenonah Hauter said that the prospect of Tillerson at the head of U.S. foreign policy “is a frightful prospect for our planet.”

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“At a time when we should be rapidly transitioning away from dirty, polluting energy, Trump’s Cabinet of Wall Street billionaires and industry insiders will turn us back to a gilded age while inviting climate chaos,” added Hauter on Sunday.

Tillerson is also tight within Russian circles. In 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded Tillerson the “Order of Friendship,” the highest title honor a foreigner can receive from the state.

He has been a key negotiator with Russia over oil projects and has advocated that ties between the two powers be improved, particularly after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis in early 2014.

Tillerson has been a vocal critic of the sanctions as it forced ExxonMobil to scrap a number of projects, costing the company at least US$1 billion in losses.

Tillerson, had previously helped to strike a deal with Rosneft, Russia's largest state-owned oil company, for joint oil exploration and production in 2011. The companies have since formed 10 joint ventures for projects in Russia.

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