Combining energy and climate advice into one White House position is not a perfect solution


Global climatic disruption has been elevated as a national priority to the point that the Obama-Biden administration has acknowledged that it must have one or more top-notch climate advisers in the White House to deal with the problem effectively.  However, the selection of former EPA Administrator Carol Browner to serve as the President’s adviser for both clean energy policy and climate change raises a question about how much high-level attention will be given to the need for enhanced national climate change preparedness that includes adaptation (reducing vulnerability) to the unavoidable impacts of climate disruption, as well as mitigation (reducing emissions). 

Post by Anne Polansky

Clearly, the US must now take a leadership role on the world stage by reducing our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, primarily through a much less polluting, more sustainable set of energy policies and programs than are in place today.  Mitigation—avoiding the unmanageable consequences of global climate disruption—must be a central component of US energy policy going forward.  The selection of Carol Browner to serve as the President’s top adviser in the monumental effort that will be needed is a good start. 

We share the concern of many state and local officials and grassroots organizations that “adaptation”—managing the unavoidable consequences of global climatic disruption—must take a seat at the table alongside “mitigation” as the US tackles the climate change threat.  Just as we would protect the American people from a terrorist or other threat of violence or destruction, we need to take steps now to better protect and secure the American people from a growing list of climate impacts.  This is especially true for inhabitants of densely populated coastal areas vulnerable to increased hurricanes and storms, flood zones, regions vulnerable to prolonged drought, cities subject to heat waves, sensitive populations such as the young and elderly, and so on.  Whether and how to protect coastal lands from inundation due to sea level rise, which agricultural regions will need to grow different crops better suited to an altered climate, how to provide water to the 30 million people now dependent on the Colorado River, how to prepare our public health infrastructure for new health threats related to climate disruption, and so on—the challenge is daunting—can no longer be left to governors, mayors, and county councils to reckon with on their own.  Focused, meaningful, and ongoing federal attention to climate change preparedness at every level of society will be needed. 

The essential concern is that we will not be able to turn around our heavily fossil fuel-dependent society on a dime; creating a true “sustainable energy future” will necessarily require the hard work of the Department of Energy and other agencies and departments, as well as hundreds of thousands in both the public and private sector, and will likely be more than enough to occupy the full-time attention of a White House energy and climate adviser.

A sense of this has already been articulated, perhaps inadvertently, in this coverage by Kent Garber in US News and World Report:

Steven Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a 1997 corecipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics, has emerged as Obama’s likely pick for secretary of energy. Lisa Jackson, a former commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection who was trained as a chemical engineer, is expected to become administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. And Carol Browner, former EPA chief in the Clinton administration, is expected to be asked to serve as a “high-level coordinator” on energy issues—and perhaps something of a “czar” on climate change.    (emphasis added)

Meanwhile, climate change impacts will take their toll, on the US economy, on human life, and on terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems.  Numerous federal agencies should play a role in addressing the need to build climate change resiliency into policy and planning decisions going forward.  This is not a challenge to hand off to the President’s top science adviser at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), still to be named.  OSTP oversees all major research and development initiatives in the federal government, including climate change science conducted under the US Global Change Research Program (renamed the Climate Change Science Program under Bush).  It is, rather, a problem of connecting federal resources and scientific and technical expertise with society to prepare the nation for the likelihood of climate conditions never before experienced in human history. 

Doesn’t this challenge merit its own White House adviser?

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