President-elect Obama will need top climate and energy advice in the White House


In the flurry of activity to fill key posts in the Obama Administration and gear up for January 20, climate change and energy policy are ranking as top issues right alongside the US economy, for the first time in the history of Presidential transitions.  Moreover, the “3Es” —energy, economy, and environment—are finally being talked about as being inextricably linked (and not just by environmental NGOs and progressive think tanks).  We say: It’s about time!  A “Climate Change Preparedness Council”  (our suggested name)—or a “National Energy and Climate Council” in the White House (recently proposed by Clean Air-Cool Planet and others) will be essential (but not sufficient!) for carrying out the strong leadership the nation and the world need.

Post by Anne Polansky

The prolonged drought in the White House that failed to produce even one drop of meaningful top-down leadership in the face of the increasingly harsh realities of global climatic disruption has led governors, mayors, and other community leaders to take action on their own, often charting new territory in developing innovative ways to bring down greenhouse gas emissions while learning how to cope and adapt to climate-related impacts.  It looks as though the climate frontiersmen and women grappling with climate change may finally get some help from the federal cavalry.  This week’s historic and (thankfully) indisputable election of Barack Obama and Joe Biden so far promises to bring strong winds of change, accompanied by a downpour of public policy proposals for approaching this most intractable and complex problem. 

The first “big idea” being vetted is whether to create a new body similar to the National Security Council to “ensure a central, empowered entity that reports directly to the President,” in the words of Rafe Pomerance, Adam Markham, and Brooks Yeager at Clean Air-Cool Planet.  And a small flurry of press articles asks: “Could Obama appoint a ‘climate czar’?”  (A short commentary:  doesn’t the word “czar” conjure too many negative connotations—our failed US drug policy for one thing and a dictatorial approach to problem solving for another.  How about, rather,  “President’s Climate Liaison” or “Citizens’ Climate Liaison to the President?”)

It’s difficult to imagine how the President and his cabinet will be able to negotiate the treacherous waters of appropriately aggressive and informed decisionmaking on the daunting array of issues comprising the climate crisis problem without a “swat team” close at hand—a high-level, savvy staff armed with a depth and breadth of understanding of science, technology, markets, law, politics, government agencies and programs, and so on, who can readily attract the ear of the President and be able to readily articulate the Administration’s vision for climate policy.  Our current configuration of agencies and departments, including the interagency US Global Change Research Program / Climate Change Science Program, together with a presidential science advisor at OSTP,  simply isn’t sufficient to satisfy the need for focused intelligence for policymaking.  This issue is simply too multifaceted and too in need of expeditious decisionmaking:  we are talking about no less than drastically shrinking the carbon footprint of our dinosaur energy economy, tackling the economic crisis in a way that promotes environmental as well as economic stability and sustainability, and essentially designing and executing a set of changes that taken together will lead to nothing less than a fundamental societal transformation.  Yes, there will be so-called “winners and losers”—some types of market activities and jobs will give way to others—but if we do this skillfully, we will see net job creation of significant proportions.  Van Jones and others have made this case with a certain degree of credibility; more work on this topic is clearly needed.

A White House climate council of some sort is an excellent first step.  But then we must acknowledge that the current federal climate change research system is too calcified and oriented toward basic science research to have the sort of demand-driven focus needed to answer key questions needed for sound policymaking.  A round of interviews with climate experts across the nation indicates to us that the creation of another new federal entity to meet this need may be called for—more on that coming soon. 

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