Ben Geman Mar 14
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What Rexit could mean for climate change

Rex Tillerson on Tuesday. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson yesterday might impact U.S. climate policy, especially as the secretary-in-waiting, Mike Pompeo, has openly questioned the dominant scientific view on human-induced global warming.

The big picture: The rapid-fire departure of White House aides George David Banks, Gary Cohn, and now Tillerson means the disappearance of the more moderate voices — by Trump administration standards — on climate policy from the president's orbit.

Flashback: Banks, Cohn and Tillerson were all on the losing end of the fight to keep President Trump from saying he would withdraw from the Paris accord.

But, but, but: It's also true that the U.S. has not gone further by formally abandoning the underlying UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and has continued participating in talks around topics like the Paris deal's transparency provisions.

“Tillerson was not going to go out on a limb on climate, but the existing climate and environment career staff... were pretty secure and have had a role to play in Tillerson's State Department."
— Atlantic Council climate expert David Livingston in an interview.

"The downside scenario is Pompeo looks for an opportunity to signal a clean break with Tillersons’s tenure at the helm of the State Department,” Livingston said, noting effects on climate policy but also other environmental work.

One emerging idea: Some observers speculated that Pompeo will simply lack bandwidth to pare back climate efforts much beyond the watering down that has already occurred.

  • "Given the other issues on the plate of the State Department (North Korea, Iraq, etc.) and the need to hire key, unfilled positions, it's unclear that Director Pompeo would prioritize a major shift in the policy direction on climate," Kalee Kreider, a former adviser to Vice President Al Gore, tells Axios.
  • “The best outcome on climate might be a sort of benign neglect on the part of Pompeo, which would allow the more knowledgeable career staff to continue to look out for U.S. interests within Paris agreement deliberations, in particular in the Paris agreement working group on transparency, where the U.S. and China share leadership,” Livingston said.

The intrigue: A lot could depend on who Pompeo seeks to install in key State roles. Pieces in the Washington Post and E&E News point out that the White House has not put forward a nominee to serve as assistant secretary of state for Oceans and International, Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

  • “I think Pompeo’s views are fairly negative about the Paris agreement and climate action, particularly compared to Secretary Tillerson,” said Sue Biniaz, a former State Department climate negotiator, tells the Post.
  • She adds: “But I think it all depends on whether this becomes an area of focus, and whether people are brought in to change the policy.”

Post-mortem: In a blog post yesterday, Harvard's Robert Stavins, a longtime observer of international climate talks, said Tillerson deserves credit for keeping State engaged at UNFCCC talks, including the delegation he sent to annual negotiations in Germany last year.

  • "[N]egotiators from other Parties to the Paris Agreement personally related to me how surprised they were by the constructive role the U.S. delegation was continuing to play (in putting meat on the bones of the Paris Agreement)," writes Stavins, who is with Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

The bottom line: Stavins also said, however, that Tillerson was ineffective at pushing Trump "toward a more sensible path on climate change policy."

Erica Pandey 4 hours ago
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How China became a powerhouse of espionage

Illustration: Sarah Grillo / Axios

As China’s influence spreads to every corner of the globe under President Xi Jinping, so do its spies.

Why it matters: China has the money and the ambition to build a vast foreign intelligence network, including inside the United States. Meanwhile, American intelligence-gathering on China is falling short, Chris Johnson, a former senior China analyst for the CIA who's now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells Axios: "We have to at least live up to [China's] expectations. And we aren't doing that."

Caitlin Owens 4 hours ago
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Congress doesn't love the spending bill, but it passed anyway

Congressional leaders
Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. (Photo: Matt McClain / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

House Speaker Paul Ryan touted the defense spending increase, Sen. Rand Paul angrily tweeted about arcane government spending, and Democrats shook their head at the lack of gun control measures. But most members of Congress accepted the omnibus spending bill for what it is: A giant collection of what has to get done to keep the government functioning, while mustering enough votes to pass.

Why it matters: This is a $1.3 trillion dollar bill affecting every branch of government that passed mostly because it had to. Members voted on it without really reading it, as it was released Wednesday night and passed the Senate shortly after midnight Friday.