Leading environmentalists in Washington are ecstatic about most of President-elect Barack Obama’s newly announced cabinet choices, though a closer look suggests that greens may soon be unhappy with the Obama administration’s positions on greenhouse gas emission cuts, nuclear power, so-called “clean coal” and other key issues.
More than any president in US history, Obama seems to understand both the threat global warming poses and the economic opportunities it presents. Obama gave the climate issue unprecedented emphasis during his campaign, most notably on election night, when he called “a planet in peril” one of the three biggest problems awaiting him as president (giving it equal billing with “the greatest economic crisis in our lifetimes” and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). As president-elect, he has promised “a massive effort” to invest in green energy as a way to heal both the economy and the atmosphere, as well as a vigorous return of US leadership on international climate negotiations. Now, with his cabinet selections, Obama has given some indication of how he hopes to pursue these ambitions.
The most important picks so far include Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, from which post she will oversee America’s participation in the negotiations in Copenhagen next December on creating a successor to the Kyoto treaty; Stephen Chu as secretary of energy, an agency whose budget is mainly devoted to nuclear weapons but that takes the lead on energy policy; Carol Browner as a special assistant to the president, who will have the job of coordinating energy and climate change policy across the administration; Lisa Jackson as administrator of the environmental protection agency, which is responsible for enforcing US environmental laws and regulations; Ken Salazar as secretary of the interior, who will oversees public lands and endangered species issues; and Bill Richardson as secretary of commerce, who will play an important role in Obama’s green economic policies.
Green activists have been far more enthusiastic about these picks than their counterparts in the spheres of economics and foreign policy have been. Obama chose a “Green Dream Team,” gushed Gene Karpinksi, the president of the League of Conservation Voters. Anna Aurilio, the director of the DC office of Environment America, told the environmental website Grist, “It’s pretty clear that President-elect Obama’s picks represent a 180-degree change in terms of what direction they’re going to be heading on critical issues facing the country.” Referring to Browner, who was the EPA administrator during the Clinton administration and before that a close aide to Senator Al Gore, Aurillio said, “[Obama] couldn’t have picked a better person.” Joseph Romm, a former department of energy official who now writes the indispensable blog Climate Progress, was equally enthusiastic about Chu, calling him “a terrific choice” because of Chu’s strong views on climate change, his experience at running the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, the most important renewable energy lab within the DoE, and his reported skepticism about coal’s future in a carbon-constrained world.