Climate Will be Tillerson’s Biggest Challenge

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As a world class international businessman, Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson will not need to take the State Department’s Negotiations 101 class at the Foreign Service Institute.  Anyone who could keep a billion plus dollar oil and gas deal on the rails with Russia knows a thing or two about negotiating.  One of the first things negotiators realize is that they have to know their own side of the table as well or better than the other side.  You can’t expect to make a deal with the other side of the table if your own side is still squabbling.  A Secretary of State especially needs the backing and confidence of folks back home to be effective abroad.  Tillerson will need not only Donald Trump’s blessing, but also the approval of Congress and the American public.  That’s why Senate confirmation is so important since it gives America’s top diplomat the full backing of the United States President and its people through Congress.

Tillerson moved Exxon from a position of climate change denial to “we’re listening and will be responsible.”

Tillerson will also not need much advice on Russia.  He knows Putin and knows how Russia operates.  But where U.S. interests, Tillerson’s own experience, and his new partners around the table will collide is on climate.   Tillerson moved Exxon from a position of climate change denial to “we’re listening and will be responsible.”  The world community has spoken in Paris and the Paris Climate Agreement means Tillerson will need to catch up with the international community.  Listening won’t cut it anymore.  The consensus is climate change is a real threat to current and future generations, and we need to take further concerted international action now.

Where things get tricky for Tillerson is convincing his backers that addressing this issue coincides with traditional conservative values.  Two pillars of conservatism have been part of a seawall against climate change action.  They are limited government and the efficacy of the market.  Protecting the environment and limiting greenhouse gasses would mean government regulations and interference in the marketplace where those regulations would hurt businesses producing greenhouse gasses.  Historically, for many conservatives, that was enough, game over, let the Grape Nuts crowd handle the whales, trees, and environment.

But there is another fundamental, unshakable pillar of modern conservatism that should make conservatives think twice.  That is the necessity of a strong defense.  If you admit that climate change is a national security issue, then you are putting the issue squarely in the conservative bailiwick.  Even the Pentagon sees climate change as a source of regional conflict, a threat to low lying bases and test facilities at home, and a reason to create a “green fleet” of U.S. Navy vessels.  National security issues trump (sorry) regulatory and even fiscal concerns.

The Patron Saint of modern conservatives, Ronald Reagan, said the environment should not be a partisan issue.  And few American Presidents have done as much for the environment as Teddy Roosevelt, so the precedent for environmentalism among Republicans goes way back. Presidential candidate George Pataki, a birder, is one of the few Republican advocates for the environment and his positions on climate could help bridge the divide between the skeptics at home and the consensus abroad.

Addressing climate now also aligns with other core conservative values.  Fiscal responsibility means spending a bit now to avoid paying a lot later. 

Addressing climate now also aligns with other core conservative values.  Fiscal responsibility means spending a bit now to avoid paying a lot later.  A few regulations that would have prevented the BP oil spill, for example, would have been worthwhile and saved money.  There is also a strong strain of stewardship in conservative values.  And if conservatism is hanging on to established knowledge, the debate is over in the international community.  That climate change is a worldwide threat is the view of the establishment from New Delhi to London to Beijing.  One thing the U.S. does not need is to be isolated from the international community.  Spending diplomatic capital trying to turn back the clock would not be energy well spent.

Today’s American conservative outlook is often shaped by the moral teachings of the Bible.  The Bible can certainly be used for viewpoints from every direction on the political compass, but you don’t have to go any further than the first chapter to see that “God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good!”  There are certainly enough natural treasures in the world that merit the Secretary of State doing what he can to be a good steward.  And he’ll have more than six days to do it.

About Thomas Armbruster 24 Articles
Thomas Armbruster is a columnist for The GeoStrategists. He is the former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In his long career as an American diplomat, Thomas Armbruster served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, Russia, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Political Affairs Officer and Nuclear Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and Vice Consul at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter for the CBS affiliate KGMB-TV in Hawaii. Mr. Armbruster holds a B.A. from McDaniel College, an M.A. from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. from the Naval War College.
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