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Elation to Confusion to Elation Again: The Obama Appointments roller-coaster when it comes to energy and environmental issues

December 18th, 2008 · No Comments

Watching Barack Obama and the appointments since the election has created the foundation for an emotional roller coaster while  been a serious one for those concerned about energy and environmental issues.  When it comes to Obama’s own actions, elation that his first major policy statement/engagement after the election was a strong statement on the need for action on climate change and his desier to lead. Confusion (concern) that, however, his targets for action fall far short of what science recommends.

Elation comes with many appointments.  John Podesta as head of Transition, Hillary Clinton as SecState, Bill Richardson at Commerce, Carol Browner in the White House on Energy/Climate Issues.  Truly, elation. All of them ‘get’ global warming and the challenges we face and the opportunities we have in creating a clean energy future.  And, it goes further than that with many appointments. Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy: Super Elation.

But not all the appointments are as clear cut for standing ovations when it comes to energy and environmental issues. Jim Jones, as National Security Advisor, is coming from a Vice-Presidency at the global warming denier / delayer supporting US Chamber of Commerce where he developed energy policy that is best described as ‘climate delayer’ in tone.  Tom Vilsack, perhaps due to the state he governed, is a massive promoter of questionable (fiscally, environmentally, energy balance) corn-based ethanol.  Ray LaHood, for Transportation, has (generously) an uneven record on energy and environmental issues and strongly supported drilling and increased oil supplies as an ‘answer’ to our petroleum addiction.  Being generous to the situation on those and other appointments, confusion about the centrality of sensible energy and global warming policies to an Obama Administration.

Today, science and better paths in the face of global warming hit the trifecta. It is Congresswoman Hilda Solis for the Department of Labor, Professor Jane Lubchenco to direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and John Holdren as the Presidential Science Advisor (and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy).  A massive turn back to ELATION!

Holdren was an Obama campaign advisor and an international expert on energy and climate issues.    He has been the director of the Woods Hole Research Center for the past three years, was the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2006, and has been associated with Harvard University and Berkeley Universities as a professor on energy and environmental sciences/public policy.   Department of Energy: Nobel-prize winning scientist.  Science Advisor: a science held in quite high regard by the community.   From Holdren’s bio:

Dr. Holdren’s work has focused on causes and consequences of global environmental change, analysis of energy technologies and policies, ways to reduce the dangers from nuclear weapons and materials, and the interaction of content and process in science and technology policy.

While there is no such thing as an all-encompassing or perfect fit, those interest arenas seem a strong fit with many of the challenges this nation faces and the opportunities that science/technology might offer in better understanding them and help us (the US and all of us) deal with them.

As with Steven Chu, Holdren adds quite a bit of material to the reading list for anyone seeking to understand his thinking:

Dr. Holdren is the author of some 300 articles and papers, and he has co-authored and co-edited some 20 books and book-length reports, such as Energy (1971), Human Ecology (1973), Ecoscience (1977), Energy in Transition (1980), Earth and the Human Future (1986), Strategic Defences and the Future of the Arms Race (1987), Building Global Security Through Cooperation (1990), Conversion of Military R&D (1998), and Ending the Energy Stalemate (2004).

Holdren has a strong science background and, as well, a strong background in thinking about and being engaged in the policy challenges of applying science to solve problems.

And, as David Sasson highlights, Holdren has no desire to waste time with global warming deniers and “skeptics”.

The few climate-change “skeptics” with any sort of scientific credentials continue to receive attention in the media out of all proportion to their numbers, their qualifications, or the merit of their arguments. The attention and credence they receive are a menace, of course, insofar as this delays the development of the political consensus that will be needed before society embraces remedies that are commensurate with the magnitude of the climate-change challenge…..

Members of the public who are tempted to be swayed by this vocal fringe should ask themselves how it could be, if human-caused climate change is just a hoax, that the leaderships of the national academies of sciences of every country in the world that has one are repeatedly on record saying that global climate change is real, dangerous, caused mainly by humans, and reason for early and concerted action to reduce those causes; that this is also the overwhelming consensus view among the faculty members of the earth sciences departments at every major university in the world; and that all three of holders of the one Nobel prize in science that has been awarded for environmental science (Crutzen, Rowland, and Molina, in 1995, for figuring out what was happening to stratospheric ozone) are all leaders in the climate-change scientific mainstream.

The fact is that anybody who could believe that the cream of the part of the world scientific community that has actually studied this phenomenon could be co-opted by hoaxers or suffering from mass hysteria is just not thinking clearly.

Rather than the White House being a core ally and supporter of Global Warming deniers and skeptics, reality-based respect for and promotion of science seems likely to be the ruling paradigm. (John Holdren reader)

From Joe Romm who calls this “Obama’s strongest message on climate yet“.

[Holdren] probably has more combined expertise on both climate science and clean energy technology than any other person who could plausibly have been named science adviser. [The appointment is] an even stronger signal than the terrific choice of Steven Chu for Energy Secretary that Obama is dead serious about the strongest possible action on global warming. After all, the science adviser works out of the White House and oversees science and technology funding, analysis, and messaging for all federal agencies. … Kudos to Barack Obama for another terrific choice.

From this corner, too, a standing ovation.

Professor Jane Lubchenco will move from Oregon State University to direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). According to one report,

one of the nation’s most prominent marine biologists, … a conservationist who has devoted much of her career to encouraging scientists to become more engaged in public policy debates, is also a vocal proponent of curbing greenhouse gases linked to global warming.
The appointment marks a shift for NOAA …. Lubchenco has criticized the agency in the past for not doing enough to curb overfishing.

Lubchenco, much like Steven Chu and John Holdren, has sought to move science from the laboratory to a central role in policy-making, bridging a gap that has grown over the past several decades, with a decaying voice for science in the halls of power. These appointments clearly signal a 180 turn as to that trend.

But these aren’t ‘simply’ policy wonks, but each is a serious scientist. A, as with Chu and Holdren, Lubchenco is held in high regard within the scientific community. As with Holdren, for example, Lubchenco is a past President of the American Advancement for the Advancement of Science, received a MacArthur (genius) award, numerous honorary degrees, etc …

Andrew Rosenberg, who served as deputy director of NOAA’s Fisheries Service under Clinton and is now University of New Hampshire professor of natural resources and the environment, praised Lubchenco as an “absolutely world class scientist.”

“When has NOAA been headed by a member of the National Academy and a fellow of the Royal Society?” he said, referring to America and Britain’s most prestigious scientific societies. “That’s exactly the right signal. It establishes NOAA as one of those key scientific agencies.”

Yes, NOAA is a “key scientific agency” with a real role in increasing our understanding of and helping to find solutions to some of the most critical problems before us. Rosenberg continued,

By selecting someone who’s both a respected researcher and an active player in national policy discussions, Rosenberg added, “it’s saying that science agencies have a role in policy. They need to be tightly connected, and I believe they will be tightly connected under Jane.”

These thoughts about Lubchenco working on the connection between science and policy almost certainly could have been written of Chu and Holdren as well. This is a quite positive statement after eight years of active efforts to denigrate science and avoid having science actually influence policy decisions. Lubchenco is, well, a “powerhouse appointment“.

Secretary of Labor

Not to forget about Representative Solis.

My one chance to shake Hilda Solis’ hands came as she introduced, with passion, one of my heroes, Van Jones. Solis is closely aligned on Green Jobs as one might tell by the fact that she introduced, fought for, and celebrated the Green Jobs Act (video statement).

Solis highlights the win-win potential for Green Jobs, which don’t ‘just’ help the planet but also will help citizens across the country.

There is tremendous job growth potential associated with green sector jobs. The Green Jobs Act will help train workers for jobs which offer higher wages, greater access to benefits and more career choices by authorizing $125 million for workforce training programs. The training will be targeted to veterans, displaced workers, at risk youth, and individuals in families under 200% of the federal poverty line.

In addition to Green Jobs, Hilda Solis has also been a voice for environmental justice, including HR 7194, the Climate Change Rebate Act “to hold low-income individuals and households harmless” in the face of any carbon tax or cap and trade program.

Solis’ appointment merits applause for many reasons, but one of the chief ones is that “green jobs” is now front and center for the Department of Labor’s agenda, starting from the Oval Office and amplified, almost certainly, from the Secretary of Labor’s desk.

Applauding Today’s Trifecta

Today’s news of Obama Administration appointments merits, without question, elation on the part of those concerned about fostering a prosperous and climate-friendly future for America, Americans, and the rest of humanity.

Let’s hope tomorrow brings reason not for confusion but even more elation.

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Tags: climate change · Energy · environmental · Global Warming · government energy policy · Obama Administration · political symbols