From Trump and His New Team, Mixed Signals on Climate Change - NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth
President Donald Trump

President Donald Trump

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From Trump and His New Team, Mixed Signals on Climate Change

"I'm still open-minded," Trump said. "Nobody really knows."

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    Calling Rex Tillerson an international deal-maker, the Trump transition team announced this morning that the Exxon Mobil CEO is president-elect Trump's choice for secretary of state, despite concern over the CEO's close ties to Russia's president. (Published Monday, Jan. 9, 2017)

    He brushed off climate change as a Chinese hoax, then called it the real deal and finally declared that "nobody really knows." Donald Trump is sending mixed signals on whether or how he will try to slow Earth's warming temperatures and rising sea levels. 

    Since he was elected, Trump has met with prominent climate activists Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio. He's suggested his daughter Ivanka, a close adviser, has a particular interest in the issue and could be his envoy. But he has also tapped oil industry champions for his Cabinet, men who say they're determined to reverse President Barack Obama's efforts to rein in emissions.

    The pushback has already started. Environmentalists were outraged by the Trump transition team's decision to ask the Energy Department for a list of staffers who worked on climate change — a request the administration refused out of concern it could be used to try to purge climate-change believers. Trump's team later said the questionnaire "was not authorized" and that the person responsible had been "counseled."

    Yet if Trump's record on climate change is complex, in his administration, he won't be the only one.

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    Two days after Trump was elected, oil giant Exxon Mobil tweeted a declaration of support for the Paris deal, a global emissions-cutting pact that marks the biggest step the world has taken to date on climate. Weeks later, Trump tapped Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state, a position putting Tillerson at the helm of U.S. efforts to implement — or scuttle — the Paris deal.

    Though environmentalists often vilify Exxon, Tillerson almost surely signed off personally on the tweet, said individuals familiar with Exxon's structure and operations, who weren't authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity. And under Tillerson's leadership, Exxon has started planning for climate change and even voiced support for a carbon tax.

    So, in a strange twist, Trump's selection of an oil magnate for chief diplomat has been reassurance to some that the next administration may not herald the end of climate change efforts that burgeoned under Obama.

    "Tillerson is probably the least-bad choice among a lot of bad options," said Andrew Logan of Ceres, a coalition of institutional investors concerned about climate change. "Tillerson could be a moderating influence on Trump, keeping things from being as disastrous as they otherwise might be."

    Democratic attorneys general have been suing Exxon over allegations the company for decades concealed its own scientific research showing climate change was occurring. Tillerson, in public comments, has explicitly acknowledged climate change and said the risks could be "significant," but has suggested it's a low priority.

    "There are much more pressing priorities that we as a human being race and society need to deal with," Tillerson said in 2012, citing people living in poverty who he said would benefit from cheap energy.

    Other Trump picks are openly hostile to calls to act on climate.

    His choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency — responsible for domestic emissions-cutting measures — is Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a vocal denier of climate change science. The vast majority of peer-reviewed studies and climate scientists agree the planet is warming, mostly due to man-made sources. But Pruitt has sued the EPA repeatedly to stop its climate agenda, including Obama's sweeping power plant rules.

    And Trump's nominee to run the Energy Department, former Gov. Rick Perry, also has questioned climate science while working to promote coal-fired power in Texas. Though Perry, like Tillerson and Pruitt, has close ties to the oil industry, he also oversaw the growth of renewable power in Texas, which became the lead wind-energy producer while he was governor.

    Perry in 2012 famously called for abolishing the Energy Department, which plays a major role funding clean energy projects. Under Obama, the U.S. has dramatically ramped up production of renewable energy from sources like solar, in part through Energy Department grants.

    Amy Myers Jaffe, an energy policy expert at the University of California-Davis, said Trump's administration is likely to embrace Tillerson's view that engineering and innovation, not government, are the solution. She said the falling cost of clean energy and desire of companies to appear climate-friendly are likely to produce those changes anyway.

    "The common denominator looking at Trump's appointments so far is that there's clearly a sentiment that the energy sector is overregulated, and therefore we could probably expect a rollback," Jaffe said. "But I think we're getting to the point where some of these technologies can stand on their own."

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    Yet those looking to Trump for clarity won't find it — at least not yet.

    In a television interview last week, Trump said he was still "studying" the Paris pact to determine whether to pull the U.S. out, as he threatened during the campaign. And asked about the science of climate change, Trump demurred.

    "I'm still open-minded," Trump said. "Nobody really knows."