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Secretary-of-state designate and former chief executive of Exxon Mobil Rex Tillerson testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on Thursday.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state suggests the United States would be best served by remaining in the Paris climate accord, but the incoming Republican administration could seriously undermine the international agreement by failing to honour commitments made by President Barack Obama.

At his confirmation hearing this week, former Exxon Mobil Corp. chief executive Rex Tillerson adopted a softer tone on climate change and the United Nations agreement reached 13 months ago in Paris than Mr. Trump did during the election campaign.

But while he acknowledged the reality of human-caused climate change, Mr. Tillerson also indicated he does not view global warming as a pressing priority – "one of the most urgent challenges of our times," as Mr. Obama called it – that requires decisive action at home or ambitious U.S. leadership on the international stage.

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Read more: Rex Tillerson, Trump's likely secretary of state, is a life-long oil man who backs Keystone

Read more: Donald Trump's cabinet picks reflect Republicans Party's conservative wing

Mr. Trump has largely dismissed concerns about climate change, threatened to pull out of the Paris accord and has promised to reverse key Obama administration policies aimed at achieving the emission-reduction targets promised under the UN deal.

His pledge to reverse the U.S. course on climate change policy threatens to derail international progress in addressing the looming climate crisis. It has also sparked concerns in Canada about federal and provincial climate strategies –including carbon pricing – that could impair the competitiveness of energy-intensive industries here.

On Thursday, experts said it is difficult to judge how the Trump administration will approach the Paris accord – whether to exit it over time, try to undo Mr. Obama's ratification of it, or simply fail to meet its commitments and U.S. financial promises that helped secure the deal.

Mr. Tillerson offered a lukewarm endorsement for climate-change action. Unlike some Republicans, including Mr. Trump's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, the former Exxon boss did not question the basic scientific conclusion of human-caused climate change.

However, he insisted "our ability to predict that effect [of rising greenhouse gas concentrations] is very limited." That lack of precision, he added, "does not mean we should no nothing." He supported the need for global action, but noted Mr. Trump will ultimately set the policy.

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Mr. Tillerson repeatedly said at the confirmation hearing that the United States needs "a seat at the table" to protects its interests at international climate talks, which suggests the former oil executive would not favour withdrawing from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, under which the Paris accord was negotiated.

"If I had to place a bet," Daniel Bodansky, an international law professor at Arizona State University, said on Thursday, "which I wouldn't feel very confident about given Trump's unpredictability, I would say they will just continue [in the agreement] and then not do a whole lot."

Legally withdrawing from the Paris accord would take four years, but the incoming administration could sow international uncertainty by declaring an intention to begin the process.

Some Congressional Republicans say the Paris accord amounts to a treaty that should have received Senate ratification, and Mr. Tillerson said it "looks like a treaty." However, Mr. Obama's executive order ratifying the agreement would be hard to unwind, Prof. Bodansky said.

One route would be not to meet U.S. commitments and promises made under the Paris process. The accord has few binding commitments other than the need to set national targets, report on emission levels and implement domestic measures. Failure to do so carries no penalty, although Mr. Trump would no doubt face court challenges if he takes that course.

Mr. Obama pledged the United States would reduce its emissions by 26 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025, and Mr. Trump could ignore that commitment. The United States also promised to provide $3-billion in aid to developing countries next year and to work with other developed countries and the private sector to come up with $100-billion in climate aid in 2020.

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Those financial commitments were key in persuading developing countries to accept the UN accord.

"They are critically important," Oonagh Fitzgerald, director of the international law program at Waterloo's Centre for International Governance Innovation, said in an interview.

"It is an ongoing commitment that was made that they would keep contributing to this thing and building on it over time. So if there was suddenly a big shortfall, it would have a huge practical impact. … Money is definitely critical to making things work in every respect in this agreement."

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