Rex Tillerson outlines US aid vision, with few commitments to climate change and health, during Senate hearings

Rex Tillerson, former ExxonMobil CEO. Photo by: Michael Wuertenberg / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, offered general support for furthering U.S. foreign aid and its development agenda as secretary of state, but expressed reservations on various hot-button topics — including women’s health and climate change — during an all-day Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing.

The United States’ relationship with Russia dominated the hearings — specifically, allegations of President-elect Donald Trump’s close political and business ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But questions on American aid policy were peppered throughout the sometimes-tense session, which was routinely interrupted by protesters.

Tillerson remarked favorably on the work of the independent U.S. foreign aid agency Millennium Challenge Corporation and PEPFAR, a global initiative initiative that offers programs and treatment for HIV/AIDS, malaria and other infections.

The MCC offers a “different model” of assistance based on the merits of economic freedom and other factors that speaks constructively to the problem of corruption in delivering assistance, Tillerson said.

Opinion: 4 questions on foreign aid for Rex Tillerson

At Rex Tillerson's confirmation hearing on Wednesday, asking serious questions could be a risky proposition for Senate Republicans since they could trigger ill-considered policy statements that are difficult to reverse. But at a minimum, senators and the American public have a right to expect answers to four fundamental questions on foreign aid and development.

“Where we can tie our assistance to obligations, it is important we do so, and to follow up. Every country’s issues need to be examine on a case-by-case basis and help that country continue its journey,” he said.

PEPFAR, Tillerson said, has been “one of the most extraordinarily successful programs in Africa,” noting that he has observed some of the malaria eradication work that “competent” nongovernmental organizations have conducted with support of the program.

He also affirmed his commitment to continue work for women’s economic empowerment through the U.S. Agency for International Development and other agencies. He spoke of a woman's bread-making and financing collective he observed in Papua New Guinea. Furthering work on “extraordinarily powerful programs” like these “is an important part of all of our foreign assistance, whether it is USAID, or other opportunities we have in more structured ways,” he said.

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But Tillerson did promise a full review of USAID’s operations and how it spends its budget.  

“There will be a complete and comprehensive review of how effective we are with the dollars over there [at USAID],” Tillerson said in response to a question by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker later in the afternoon. “I think there is a joint strategic plan that’s required between the state department and USAID in fiscal year 2017 that’s going to be a perfect opportunity... to take a comprehensive look at the effectiveness and what are our ranges of opportunities out there that might argue for greater funding.”

The ExxonMobil Foundation has programs on women’s economic opportunity and malaria. In 2015 it gave $227 million in global contributions. The multinational energy company — one of the largest in the world — reported $2.7 billion in earnings in the third quarter of 2016.

But Tillerson sidestepped the second question — on conflating global financing for women’s health with abortion — posed by New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen.

“I would want to examine all of the aspects of that program. I am just aware we do spend half a billion dollars now [on women’s health internationally],” Tillerson said.

“Approximately 200 million women worldwide have unmet family planning needs… and we see 52 million unintended pregnancies, resulting in 600,000 stillbirths,” said Shaheen, explaining this is not just a humanitarian issue, but an economic one.

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Multiple senators, including Virginian Democrat Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s pick for vice president, pressed Tillerson on his personal views on climate change and how he would lead on enforcing the Paris agreement on climate change, made effective in 2016. The U.S. and China — the two largest emitters — ratified an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in September. President Barack Obama is among the world leaders who has hailed the deal as a major victory.  

Amid uncertainty over how Trump will follow through on the deal, Tillerson today said it’s “important the U.S. maintain its seat at the table.” But he did not specify if or how the country would continue to lead on climate change internationally.

What we know about Exxon's Rex Tillerson and his likely impact on development

The ExxonMobil CEO's record on climate change — and lack of direct experience in development and aid — is raising some concern in the development industry over how he will lead as secretary of state.

“I came to the conclusion a few years ago that the risk of climate change does exist and that the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken,” Tillerson said in response to a question posted by Democratic Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey. “The increase in the greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited,” he added.

As Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley pointed out later in the day, you can be “at the table silent.”

Tillerson said that he does not consider climate change an “imminent national security threat” and questioned the “clear connection” between climate change and extreme weather, such as the increased likelihood of drought and hurricane intensity in certain regions. “There’s some literature that suggests that and there’s some literature that says it is inconclusive,” he said.

“I’m sorry to hear that viewpoint,” said Merkley, explaining that a consensus of scientific literature overwhelming shows that climate change leads to these and other physical impacts.

Tillerson conceded that his own views may not match with Trump’s, and that he would be limited in executing policy. Trump has vacillated widely on climate change, famously tweeting in 2012 that it is a hoax created by the Chinese, but saying more recently that he will “look very carefully’ at the Paris deal.

“The president-elect has invited my views on climate change. He’s asked for them. He knows that I am on the public record with my views and I look forward to providing those, if confirmed, to him in discussions around how the U.S. should conduct its policies in this area,” he said. “Ultimately the president-elect — he was elected — and I will carry out his policies in order to be as successful as possible.”

While ExxonMobil’s record on climate change skepticism has reformed under Tillerson’s leadership, the company has continued to fund groups that promote climate denial. Exxon is now under investigation by multiple U.S. state attorney generals offices for fraud, stemming from findings that it may have hid the risks of climate change from its investors.

Update: This story was updated with additional quotes from testimony on USAID and climate change given in the afternoon of Jan. 11.

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About the author

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    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.