November 6, 2008

Obama Presidency Could Bring Swift Climate Policy Changes

Environmental groups have high hopes for a Barack Obama presidency. Some are discussing the possibility of the new appointment of a "climate czar."

Environmental advocate groups believe a person in such a position could oversee groups such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department, to focus on tackling global warming and fostering clean energy to jump-start the flagging economy.

"For the first time, candidates and voters are really connecting the dots between energy, the environment and the economy," said Cathy Duvall, Sierra Club's political director.

The Bush administration has been accused by environmental groups of politicizing decision-making and failing to act on U.S. government scientists' recommendations to curb greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Many hope that an Obama presidency will mark a quick turnabout for environmental policy.

Duvall added that Obama would make cleaner energy a top priority during his presidency. One way to coordinate these interrelated issues would be to have one person in charge, based at the White House.

This could be part of a White House special council on energy and environment, analogous to the National Security Council. This kind of organization could be more effective than the Environmental Protection Agency has been under President George W. Bush, one source said.

"For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime -- two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century," the Illinois Democratic senator said in Chicago.

Obama has made it clear that he views each of these issues as dependent on each other.

There is currently a White House Council on Environmental Quality that is the Bush administration's policy voice on climate change, but its staff is small and it might not have the resources to do the wide-ranging job some environmental experts see as necessary.

"What Obama understands is that dealing with the transition to a new energy economy is the centerpiece for getting the economy moving again," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"I think they need to make clear who's running the show on these issues," Meyer added. "It's got to be someone who has the trust and ear of the president, someone who's positioned in the White House and someone who has the authority to get the agencies to cooperate on running the agenda. That's a heavy lift."

Experts have already begun speculation as to who would be likely to take the position of Environmental Protection Agency administrator. Likely candidates include Democratic Governors Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Kathleen Sibelius of Kansas, both of whom have pushed to limit greenhouse emissions.

Kathleen McGinty, Pennsylvania's former Environment Secretary, has also been mentioned as a possible EPA chief.

Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute, which does policy research on environment and sustainability, is also considered a potential candidate.