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A 'climate czar' in the Obama White House?

Environmental groups see Barack Obama’s victory as a chance to undo the Bush legacy on global warming, and one idea they are discussing is the idea of a White House “climate czar”.
Barack Obama Al Gore
Al Gore joins then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on June 16 in Detroit, where the climate crusader and former vice president endorsed Obama.Paul Sancya / AP
/ Source: Reuters

Environmental groups see Barack Obama’s presidential victory as a chance to undo the Bush legacy on global warming, and one idea they are discussing is the possibility of a White House “climate czar”.

Activists say such a post could oversee various government agencies, including 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. She said at a news briefing that Obama had made it clear that investing in cleaner energy would be a top priority in his plan for economic recovery.

One way to coordinate these interrelated issues would be to have one person in charge, based at the White House, according to sources in the environmental community familiar with the idea.

They said 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 EPA has been under President Bush, one source said.

So who might be tapped for such a position? Nobel laureate and former Vice President Al Gore comes to mind.

Gore 'has no intention'
His spokeswoman said Gore, who has made climate action his mantra, was not interested in such a job, but she appeared to leave a little wiggle room as well. “Vice President Gore has said on the record many times that he has no intention of taking a role in an Obama administration,” Kalee Kreider told

Obama intimated in his acceptance speech on Tuesday that he sees climate change as a critical problem, along with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the wilting economy.

“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 also has articulated that the economy, energy and climate change are interrelated problems.

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.

U.S. doesn't take part in Kyoto Protocol
Bush accepts that human activities spur climate change, but has rejected mandatory across-the-board limits on global warming emissions, maintaining that this would hurt the U.S. economy. The United States is alone among major industrialized nations in staying out of the carbon-curbing Kyoto Protocol.

Ther White House Council on Environmental Quality 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.

Meyer said this needs to be approached in a strategic and integrated way.

“I think they need to make clear who’s running the show on these issues,” Meyer said by telephone. “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.”

EPA speculation
With such a wide-ranging position still in the discussion stage, speculation has centered on likely candidates for EPA administrator.

These include:

  • Democratic Govs. Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Kathleen Sibelius of Kansas, both of whom have pushed to limit greenhouse emissions;
  • Carol Browner, who is part of the Obama transition team and a former EPA chief;
  • Mary Nichols, now head of California’s Air Resources Board and has been active in opposing a state ballot proposition that she maintains would increase greenhouse emissions. As a member of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration, she is seen as having the ability to work across party lines;
  • Kathleen McGinty, a former environment secretary for Pennsylvania; and
  • Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute, which does policy research on environment and sustainability.