Reading The Climate Change Czars

Sun, 2009-01-18 12:46Sheril Kirshenbaum
Sheril Kirshenbaum's picture

Reading The Climate Change Czars

Few challenges facing America – and the world – are more urgent than combating climate change…Many of you are working to confront this challenge….but too often, Washington has failed to show the same kind of leadership. That will change when I take office.”

So began Barack Obama in a video message addressed to the Bi-Partisan Governors Global Climate Summit just weeks after the election. However, while he supports an 80 percent reduction of emissions by 2050 through a cap and trade bill, Obama’s nominations leave us uncertain of how the new administration intends to take on global warming.  

The President-elect’s energy team marks a stark contrast from George W. Bush’s inertia on climate change. Consider Steven Chu, our next Secretary of Energy: As a leading voice in the science community on the dangers of excess CO2, he will be an advocate for the development of alternatives to limit fossil fuel consumption.

Likewise, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency Carol Browner will serve as Assistant to the president for energy and climate change. Her appointment makes additional strides toward an aggressive approach because she will coordinate agency climate change policies while balancing economic and national security considerations. Another strong pick is Lisa Jackson to head the EPA who is expected to play a critical role toward establishing cap-and-trade legislation. These nominations demonstrate that science will once again be taken seriously in government.

The science team looks equally promising. John Holdren as science advisor provides Obama with an international expert on climate and energy who has long advocated for firm government regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. Adding momentum, marine scientist Jane Lubchenco should guide the Commerce department’s focus on climate policy through her role as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Taking stock so far, the forecast looks bright, but do not declare victory quite yet.  There are also signs that the administration could falter when it comes to dealing with global warming in the strongest possible fashion. In particular, Obama’s other high level picks suggest there may be  serious impending battles in the White House over climate policy.

Consider economist Lawrence Summers’ appointment as director of the White House National Economic Council. The former Harvard President has taken vocal and controversial positions on the environment, describing the Kyoto protocol as “idealistic and visionary yet impractical, ultimately ineffective and perhaps even counterproductive because of the valuable political capital it consumes.”  He will be the president’s senior economic adviser and supports a carbon or gasoline tax over cap and trade regulation. Summers’ stance on energy decisions and their financial impact may be at odds with others in the Cabinet.

Or consider that last week, Cass Sunstein was chosen to head the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, part of the larger Office of Management and Budget. While the Harvard law professor’s writings support a cap and trade system, his is the office that was accused of taking the lead on assaults to scientific integrity during the Bush Administration. As my colleague Chris Mooney points out, let’s hope he rejects the idea OIRA should be in the business of questioning the scientific determinations made by expert agencies.

And it’s not just the administration, it’s also Congress. While global warming may be the world’s greatest threat, the climate in Washington, DC is probably tepid at best toward taking on the massive challenge of emissions policy reform. Our looming economic crisis gets priority this year and change will most likely be achieved by way of developing green technologies and creating green jobs, not sweeping regulatory action.  Emphasis will be placed on achieving less dependence on foreign oil for a myriad of purposes including national security and lowered energy costs rather than CO2 output.

Thus, the passage of a cap and trade bill poses many challenges for the immediate future. We may have the political capitol in the 111th Congress, but there exists a serious lack of will and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has not committed to holding a vote in 2009. The conservative Republican opposition appears hopeful as James Inhofe (R-Okla.) recently remarked momentum really is on “the skeptics’ side of the issue.”

And so at the dawn of the Obama administration, there is much reason for hope.  But in these uncertain times, we also have more reason than ever to work toward making sure we get the climate change policy we need.

This month we’re giving away FREE copies Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal.

Go here to find out more details about DeSmogBlog’s monthly book give-away.

Previous Comments

The description of the Kyoto Accord as “idealistic and visionary yet impractical, ultimately ineffective and perhaps even counterproductive because of the valuable political capital it consumes” is hardly news.  The Accord was a starting point with a shelf life, and the upcoming negotiations to hammer out something to take its place will (I hope) take into account everything that we have learned since then.  Obama is busy surrounding himself with people who are intelligent and scientifically savvy – but that doesn’t mean he won’t be keeping his own counsel as well.  This guy is bright, articulate and committed.  Let’s give him a chance to weigh everything and take a position.  I remain optimistic tht whatever he does will be a GAZILLION times better than what we might have expected with McCain & Buddy What’s’er-Name.

Fern Mackenzie

Though I agree that Obama enters office with a much stronger team on his side to battle the forces of the “black states”, he has a real challenge on his hands. I have spent several hours carefully reviewing the Steven Chu confirmation hearing and listening to the questions from senators from Wyoming (40% of the US coal supply), North Dakota, Indiana (97% of its electricity is from coal), and South Carolina pressing Chu to confirm that coal is not his “worst nightmare”. They demanded that he confirm his support scientific research to find ways of burning coal more cleanly - some day.

In the meantime, Chu was cautioned that doing anything to increase the cost of burning coal in the near term without a firm commitment from the Chinese would be a non starter. The questions from Sen Dorgan from North Dakota (29 million tons of coal produced each year) were especially pointed with a gloved threat, reminding Dr. Chu that he will be chairman of the appropriations committee that funds DOE.

Pew Research did a poll on how important climate change is compared to the economy, and jobs.  Concern over climate is declining, and it was never the greatest concern on American minds.  It will be very difficult for Obama to do what is necessary in this political climate.


It occurs to me that given the present economic crisis, it’s something of a victory that the climate issue has even stayed on the radar.  Also, knowing that Obama is science-literate and prepared to act may have allowed some people to turn to the economy and jobs again, more confident that climate change will be on the agenda.  Just a thought.

Sen Dorgan:  “… I’m pleased that you’re a nominee and I’m happy to vote for you….  You and I have talked at some length about the issue of coal, because 50% of all the electricity that we use in this country comes from coal.  All of us understand that we have to use coal differently in the future, but I think most of us understand we are going to use coal in the future….

I want you to - for the committee, because I’m perfectly satisfied - the statement you made about coal as your worst nightmare…  Address that for the committee….”

Dr. Chu:  “Senator Dorgan, thank you for giving me the opportunity to expand on that quote that has been rococheting around the Internet.  I said that in the following context.  If the world continues to use coal the way we are using it today, and the world - I mean in particular not only the United States but China, India and Russia - then it is a pretty bad dream.  That is to say in China, for example, they have not yet begun to trap the sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides.  There’s mercury.  There’s particulate matter, as well as carbon dioxide.  But I also say many times in my talks that coal is an abundant resource in the world.  Two thirds of the known coal reserves in the world lie in only four countries:  the U.S. first and foremost, followed by India, China, and Russia.  India and China, Russia and the U.S., I believe, will not turn their back on coal. So it is imperative that we figure out a way to use coal as cleanly as possible.  And so for that reason, and I think, again, my optimism as a scientist, we will develop those technologies to capture a large fraction of the carbon dioxide that’s emitted in coal plants and to safely sequester them.  So if confirmed as Secretary of Energy, I will work very hard to extensively develop these technologies, so that the U.S. and the rest of the world can use it. 

I think that, I mean, there are other, some people in the US who feel perhaps we should turn off coal.  But even if we do it, China and India will not.  And so we are in a position to develop those technologies so that the world can capture the carbon.  So I feel very strongly, as you know, in my communications to you, before the nomination, that I feel very strongly, that this is not only an opportunity - it’s something the U.S. with its great technological leadership, should rise to the occasion and develop.”

my notes:  Chu has been saying what he said in front of this committee for a long time.  Read the IAC “Lighting the Way” report that he co-chaired.  So I wouldn’t describe this testimony as somehow that he is being forced to say anything.

Chu is going to do what he can at the DOE to encourage new technology:

“First this fourth generation work that has essentially just begun over the last one or two years.  You accelerate in many different ways.  I think it - recognizing that it is a research program but also to really challenge the scientists who are working on this to keep their eye on the ball.  This is - so this is not a 10 - 20 year program.  This is something we can produce, I think, to get it testing, in a few years.  And so I think, you know, we’ve had other experiences in times of national emergency, national need, that some of the best scientists have stepped up to the plate and said, “yes, I was doing that, but this is of such importance that I’m going to focus on this” and really focusing on delivering solutions.  And so the good news is that because of the energy security, because of the climate change threats, of all these things, that some of the best and the brightest students in the country want to work on this.  So this is something one can work with.  You want to unleash some funds to start some support - graduate work, retraining at a post doctoral of some of the best and brightest who might have been trained in a traditional field of chemistry or physics who say, “I want to work on energy, but I want to be able to retrain”.  And so things like that, you know, direct - working with universities, national labs and industry.  There are a lot of exciting start-up companies that are - you know, it seems every week I learn of another one and what they’re doing.  I think the Department of Energy has to find a means of encouraging that work.  It’s we don’t know where the solutions will come from, but I do know that they will come from the best and the brightest intellects that we have in this country.” 

Mr. Holdren of vps hosting says that climate change is “happening so rapidly.” What is he referring to? The melting of the Arctic, where the ice is expanding? There is more young ice now, but that’s because the ice extent is growing back towards 1979 extents. Ice needs to become 2 years old before it can become older–we agree? The Greenland glaciers? Seemingly they are not melting as fast as predicted, so presumably not those either. Antarctica? No, plenty of cold and ice in Antarctica. Global temperatures then? We are 0.4 degrees Celsius above annual temperatures from the late 1800s–so not that either. (Speak up if any of this is wrong or misleading.) reseller web hosting Mr. Holdren wants to seed the upper atmosphere with “pollution particles.” His chosen medicine for the planet’s fever appears to be sulphur. Does anybody remember acid rain, which destroyed forests and lakes all over the U.S. and Canada? It was caused by atmospheric sulphur releases. Now it sounds like a good idea because Mr. Holdren wants it? It is getting a little alarming to listen to this genius and his doomsday talk. Not because anyone can believe him, but because he has power. Mr. Holdren needs to be removed from his position. If he wants to play with doomsday scenarios that’s fine, but that activity cannot be combined with representing the Adminsitration. His statements could frighten children and the gullible. Get rid of him before he does real damage. David (ecommerce web hosting)

This is correct that Obama’s other high level picks suggest there may be serious impending battles in the White House over climate policy. Leo

Few challenges facing America – and the world – are more urgent than combating climate change…Many of you are working to confront this challenge….but too often, Washington has failed to show the same kind of leadership. That will change when I take office

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