Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is planning to eliminate the top climate envoy position at the State Department as part of a wider overhaul that could further aggravate the Trump administration’s contentious relationship with the scientific community.
Tillerson alerted Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) in a letter first obtained by CNN of his intent to reorganize, shift or scrap almost half of the agency’s nearly 70 special envoy positions, including removing high-profile representatives on the issues of climate change, the Arctic, Syria and cybersecurity. The letter was also sent to ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.).
"I believe that the department will be able to better execute its mission by integrating certain envoys and special representative offices within the regional and functional bureaus, and eliminating those that have accomplished or outlived their original purpose," Tillerson wrote.
The aim, Tillerson said, is to eliminate duplicative or unnecessary positions and empower regional bureaus.
The role of special envoy for climate would be "removed" and associated functions, staff and funding shifted to the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. Also on the chopping block are the positions of U.S. special representative for the Arctic and coordinator for cyber issues.
Tillerson’s move was not unexpected, given that the Trump administration has for months pledged to slash the special envoy positions created by executive fiat under the Obama administration. And Tillerson has for months spoken in support for reducing his agency’s footprint.
Reaction on the Hill
The letter appeared to gain support from Corker but is already touching a nerve among Democrats concerned about the dissipating focus on climate science and action under the Trump administration.
Corker in a statement yesterday applauded Tillerson’s reorganization plan, saying too many special envoy roles had allowed people to work around the "normal diplomatic processes in lieu of streamlining them." Corker noted that his committee last month passed legislation to require Senate confirmation for special envoys.
At a hearing last month, Cardin acknowledged Tillerson’s authority to reorganize the agency and said there are many special envoys at the State Department that do not need Senate confirmation. But Cardin also said certain issues deserve special attention.
"There’s a lot of support within Congress for particular envoys and we don’t want to diminish the importance of a particular area," Cardin said.
Democratic Sen. Ed Markey
of Massachusetts, also a member of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, firmly pushed back today on Tillerson’s letter. "The elimination of this critical position is just one more example of the Trump administration ceding American climate and clean energy leadership to countries like China and Germany," Markey said in a statement. "Secretary Tillerson must retain this position so that the United States keeps a seat at the table."
Vacancies and shrinking rosters
Tillerson’s letter arrives within days of the highly publicized departure of one of the State Department’s seven Obama-era science envoys.
A California professor, Daniel Kammen, resigned over the president’s positions on climate change and race.
Kammen, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, blasted the President Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate accord in a letter that spelled out the word "IMPEACH" using the first letter of each paragraph (Greenwire, Aug. 23).
The State Department has already seen a number of high-profile officials head for the exit.
The department’s science adviser, Vaughan Turekian, stepped down in July rather than seek renewal of his position, and the Trump administration has yet to appoint a science adviser or select anyone for the special coordinator for international energy affairs position.
And the agency’s Office of Global Change and Office of the Special Envoy for Climate Change has for months seen shrinking rosters and only two of seven science envoys at the agency have had their positions extended (Climatewire, Aug. 24).
Vacancies across the government and executive branch have raised eyebrows on both sides of the aisle. Trump waded into the prickly issue this morning, shooting down a conservative commentator who criticized the administration for failing to fill key roles.