Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has previously backed the U.S. staying in the Paris climate agreement, told lawmakers on Tuesday that his views have “never changed” but that he respects President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the international accord aimed at slowing global warming.
Tillerson was speaking at a budget hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where the panel’s top Democrat, Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, asked if he had changed his position on the agreement ahead of the president’s decision or whether the move was “just a political decision” by the administration.
“I’m deeply concerned with the direction that President Trump appears intent on taking our country and the world with it,” Cardin said. “I cannot tell you how devastating the president’s decision to walk away from the Paris accord was, not only to our allies abroad, but also to many Americans,”
Tillerson indicated he still believed the U.S. should have kept a seat at the table but that he was not able to sway the president.
“I will tell you that the president was quite deliberative on the issue and took some time to make his decision, particularly after he had heard from European counterparts,” Tillerson said. “My views were heard out. I respect that the president heard my views, but I respect the decision he’s taken.”
Under Tillerson’s leadership, Exxon Mobil Corp. praised the agreement when it went into force in November. Tillerson himself said during his confirmation hearings in January that the threat of climate change requires a global response and that it was important for the U.S. to remain a part of the 195-nation deal.
“Having a seat a table to address this issue on a global basis . . . it is important,” he said in January. “I think we are better served by being on that table than leaving that table.”
Despite the pressure from all sides, including other world leaders, some Congressional Republicans and presumably Tillerson, Trump early this month decided to take the U.S. out of the accord that was championed by his predecessor Barack Obama.
Trump left open the possibility of re-entering the accord after renegotiating a “deal that’s fair” and benefits American workers and industry, although the rules of the accord do not allow for a renegotiation at the request of just one country. A withdrawal also cannot be formalized until the agreement has been in effect for at least three years, but the White House says it will in the meantime not take any steps towards achieving U.S. carbon emission goals set as part of the nation’s commitment to the agreement.
Exiting the deal puts the U.S. in the same category as Syria and Nicaragua, the only other countries that had not signed on. Nicaragua did not join the accord because it wants tougher measures to control carbon emissions and slow global warming.
Tillerson was notably absent from the Rose Garden when Trump — who had for months teased his decision — announced the withdrawal flanked by other administration officials, including EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and White House chief adviser Steve Bannon.
Trump’s move caused alarm domestically, where critics warned of abdicating the country’s leadership role and abroad, where European allies like Germany indicated they were preparing for a world in which they can no longer depend on the U.S.
While Republicans stayed away from pressing Tillerson on the Paris accord during the hearing to examine the State Department’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal, Democrats unsurprisingly took the opportunity to voice displeasure with the administration’s withdrawal and warn of its ramifications.
“I truly believe that climate change will be a defining issue for our generation, not just an environmental or security issue or even an economic issue, although they’re all those, but a moral issue in which our success or failure as stewards of a nation’s interests and shapers of global interests will rise or fall,” Cardin said.
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said it appeared the “decision to take a big step back from U.S. leadership” was “intentional.”
But Tillerson said the U.S. will remain a global leader, although it will demand that the country’s allies do “their share,” echoing Trump’s frequent assertions that the U.S. carried the bigger burden in international agreements.