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5 Key Takeaways From Rex Tillerson's Confirmation Hearing

By Andrew Seifter

Secretary of state nominee and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 11. Tillerson is already under fire for making the seemingly false claim that Exxon has not lobbied against sanctions on Russia and other nations that would affect Exxon's business dealings, but here are five other climate change-related takeaways that reporters should keep in mind in their coverage of the hearing and Tillerson nomination going forward.

1. Tillerson distorted climate change science … again.

As researchers at Harvard and MIT have documented, Tillerson has falsely claimed in the past that the temperature record "really hadn't changed" over the previous decade and repeatedly made scientifically inaccurate claims "seeking to sow doubt about the reliability of climate models."

Tillerson again wrongly cast doubt on climate models during the confirmation hearing. When asked by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) whether climate change is caused by human activities, Tillerson replied that the "increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect," but that "our ability to predict that effect is very limited."

In reality, "climate models have proven themselves reliable in predicting long-term global surface temperature changes," as The Guardian's Dana Nuccitelli has noted. Indeed, in remarks to Mashable responding to Tillerson's comments, Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann similarly said, "Climate models have proven extremely skillful in predicting the warming that has already been observed." And David Titley, the former head of the Navy's climate change task force, explained, "The ability of climate scientists to predict the future is significantly more skillful than many other professions (economics, intelligence, political science) who try and predict the future."

As Texas Tech University climate researcher Katherine Hayhoe told Mashable, climate projections of emissions scenarios are "based on physics and chemistry, the fundamentals of which have been understood" since the 1850s.

2. Tillerson disputed the Pentagon's determination that climate change is a significant national security threat.

When Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) asked Tillerson whether he sees climate change as a national security threat, Tillerson answered, "I don't see it as the imminent national security threat that perhaps others do."

Among the "others" who disagree with Tillerson is the Pentagon, which has called climate change a "security risk" and said that considering the effects of climate change is essential to meeting the Defense Department's "primary responsibility" to "protect national security interests around the world." A 2014 Defense Department report similarly stated that climate change "poses immediate risks to U.S. national security" and a bipartisan group of defense experts and former military leaders recently sent a briefing book to President-elect Donald Trump containing recommendations for addressing these risks.

For its part, the State Department's Office of the Special Envoy for Climate Change calls climate change a "global threat."

3. Tillerson refused to discuss the "ExxonKnew" scandal.

Tillerson refused to answer questions from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) about media investigations documenting that Exxon's own scientists had confirmed by the early 1980s that fossil fuel pollution was causing climate change, yet Exxon funded organizations that helped manufacture doubt about the causes of climate change for decades afterward. Tillerson declared that he was "in no position to speak on [Exxon's] behalf" and that "the question would have to be put to ExxonMobil." Kaine explained that he wasn't asking Tillerson to respond on behalf of Exxon, but rather to confirm or deny the accuracy of the allegations against the company, which he ran until the end of December. When Kaine asked Tillerson whether he was unable or unwilling to answer Kaine's questions, Tillerson replied: "A little of both."

The media reports on Exxon, published in the fall of 2015 by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times, prompted attorneys general in New York, California, and Massachusetts to each launch investigations of Exxon that are still ongoing. As InsideClimate News noted, "If Tillerson spoke about this under oath at this hearing, it conceivably could complicate matters for lawyers at the company he led."

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