President-elect Donald Trump's nominees for the Cabinet began appearing before the U.S. Senate to start their confirmation hearing process on Tuesday -- and some of the slots to be filled will have major implications for American climate change policies. Rex Tillerson, who announced his retirement as CEO of ExxonMobil, is scheduled to appear before the Senate on Wednesday, as is Elaine Chao, Trump's nominee for Secretary of Transporation.
On Monday, environmentalists nationwide organized protests at senators' home offices, with organizers calling on their representatives to refuse to confirm Cabinet nominees hostile to combating climate change.
The #DayAgainstDenial protests attracted hundreds of demonstrators in cities large and small, organizers said. More than 200 people arrived at Senator Susan Collins’ office in Portland, Maine, according to protesters, who said it was among the largest demonstrations ever organized outside Collin's Portland office. Protests in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco each drew crowds that numbered in the hundreds (despite sub-freezing temperatures across much of the U.S. on Monday).
According to protest organizers, ralliers in Newark, New Jersey, calling for Senator Cory Booker and Senator Robert Menendez to reject Trump’s cabinet nominees were joined by Congressman Frank Pallone, who urged climate activists to "keep up the fight" on Twitter.
Activists face an uphill battle in preventing Cabinet nominees from being confirmed. Republicans control 52 Senate seats, plus Mike Pence, Vice President-elect, would cast the decisive vote in the case of a tie.
Trump expressed little concern about the nomination process, telling reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower Monday morning, "I think they’ll all pass."
Senate Democrats voiced opposition to the nominees for many reasons. "Bear in mind President-elect Trump's nominees pose particularly difficult ethics and conflict-of-interest challenges," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York told the Associated Press. "They come from enormous wealth, many have vast holdings and stocks, and very few have experience in government."
Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson spent his entire professional career at ExxonMobil -- a company currently under investigation by two state attorneys general for concealing what it knew about climate change from investors for decades and under a federal Securities and Exchange Commission investigation that is probing not only whether Exxon overstated the value of its oil and gas reserves, but also how it handles climate change and the prospects for regulation worldwide in its disclosures to investors.
"Scientists and Pennsylvanians have spoken: climate change is an urgent threat to the health and safety of our communities and to people all over the world," protest organizer Mitch Chanin of 350 Philadelphia said in a statement.
"We need cabinet officials who recognize those realities and who will work for a just and rapid transition to renewable energy," he added, "rather than denying the threats that we face and advancing the interests of the fossil-fuel industry."
Since, 2006, Exxon, under Tillerson, has publicly acknowledged that climate change is real. The company's official position on climate science includes a statement that "[i]ncreasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere are having a warming effect."
After that acknowledgement, however, Exxon still continued to support organizations that deny climate science like the American Enterprise Institute and American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and has spent over $1.8 million on campaign contributions to politicians who deny climate change or the role that people have played in warming the globe.
Tillerson came under fire for his admissions on climate change from the extreme right.
"I do not understand, however, why [environmentalists] would oppose Tillerson, who believes in man-caused global warming and supports the Paris Climate Agreement," Jay Lehr, a director of The Heartland Institute -- which received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from Exxon under Tillerson -- said in a statement. "I hope he is Trump’s sacrificial goat to the Senate committees that will be questioning his appointees."
Protest organizers said that given Exxon's record, they did not believe Tillerson's statements accepting climate science or supporting the Paris agreement were very useful for predicting what organizations run by Tillerson will actually do.
"A quick look at ExxonMobil's 'Energy Outlook,' their annual report on the future of the market, shows that they're counting on fossil fuel use to increase and have no intention of helping the world meet the targets laid out in the Paris Agreement," said Jamie Henn, co-founder of 350.org.
Climate scientists have warned that because of methane leaks, a switch from coal to natural gas for powering the nation's electrical grid could actually be worse for the climate than a continued reliance on coal. In other words, carbon emissions are not the only greenhouse gas emissions that matter; methane leaks matter too.
"Exxon isn't stupid, they know that the best way to weaken climate policy is to get a seat at the table and offer up a low price on carbon that will drive out coal but help their natural gas business," Henn added. "This offering up of false solutions is just as dangerous as straight up climate denial, if not more so."
Another campaign against Tillerson's nomination also launched on Monday. The Reject Exxon campaign said it had gathered over 16,000 letters to senators asking them to oppose Tillerson's appointment.
Trump's nominee for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, came under fire for his support for a law to deregulate fracking in 1999 -- a bill that Sessions sponsored the same year that he and his wife invested in an oil and gas company involved in fracking, organizers from Food and Water Watch said, citing reporting by DeSmog's Steve Horn.
"Senator Sessions’ attempt to deregulating fracking at a time his wife was acquiring a large stake in an oil and gas company that would directly benefit raises many questions," Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch said. "It adds to the many other ethics questions that are swirling around his nomination -- not to mention his troubling civil rights record."
Trump's nominee for Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, has also worried environmentalists with her record of defending fossil fuels.
"As a longtime resident of Kentucky who has spent many long hours listening to the worries and anxieties of the people of my home state, particularly those in the Kentucky coal fields, it has become increasingly clear to me that the Foundation’s ‘Beyond Coal’ initiative is incompatible with my commitments to the Commonwealth and its people," she wrote while resigning from a foundation that backed the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.
Chao is scheduled for nomination hearings on Wednesday as well. If appointed, she will run the federal agency that sets fuel economy standards for the nation's fleet of motor vehicles.
Protest organizers also focused on the nominations of former Texas Governor Rick Perry -- a board member of Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline; Scott Pruitt, Trump's choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency, who has been called a "Climate Change Denialist" by The New York Times; and Ryan Zinke, who once said that climate science is "not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either," to head the Department of the Interior.
Regardless of the outcomes for the nominees, protest organizers said they would keep the pressure on throughout the Trump administration.
"The resistance against Trump’s agenda doesn’t end with opposing his denying nominees," Sam Rubin, the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizer for Food and Water Watch, said. "It must include a bold call for environmental justice. We need a clean energy revolution, and we need it to provide high quality jobs that address the worst inequalities in our society."