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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Energy & Climate Czar Leaves White House

Air Date: Week of

President Obama's "climate czar" Carol Browner's departure is another sign the administration has put efforts to directly reduce greenhouse gas emissions on hold.

Carol Browner came to the White House two years ago to help the President convince Congress to legislate a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. But, after failing to win Senate support for a climate bill, Obama has turned his attention to clean energy, and Browner is leaving her post. Living on Earth's Washington Correspondent Mitra Taj reports.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

GELLERMAN: And I'm Bruce Gellerman. The President has thrown his weight behind an ambitious clean energy plan. But in the wake of the failed effort to get a bill through Congress last year to address climate change, a key White House official is stepping down. Carol Browner was appointed to the newly created post of “energy and climate czar” at the outset of the Obama Administration. Now she's out and the future of the position is unclear. Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj has our report from Washington.

TAJ: When Carol Browner joined the White House to help the president broker a cap-and-trade deal in Congress, hopes for tough action on climate change were high. After all, Browner had served as Bill Clinton’s EPA administrator for two terms, and was a tireless advocate for keeping the planet cool. Here she is in 2006 as a private consultant commenting on George W. Bush’s lack of a climate plan:

BROWNER: This has been a passion of mine for many years. I think the single most important thing we can do now is call on Congress to set a cap, a national cap on greenhouse gas emissions. And I'm disappointed this administration has not taken the lead.

Browner briefing President Obama on the BP oil spill, one of her White House responsibilities when not working with Congress on a climate bill. (Photo: Pete Souza, The White House)

TAJ: Browner ended up on the other end of that disappointment last year when she stood solemnly next to Senate majority leader Harry Reid to deliver the news that the fight for climate legislation was ending. There simply weren’t enough votes.

BROWNER: Now obviously everyone is disappointed that we do not yet have an agreement on comprehensive legislation…

TAJ: Her departure is another reminder that tackling climate change is politically tough, and that the President has other priorities. Eric Pooley is the deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek and the author of the book “The Climate War.”

POOLEY: Despite all of Carol’s hard work the administration itself never threw its weight behind a specific bill. And so yeah, is it another milestone along a long road? I’d say yeah, it is. I think it’s a kind of a mop-up action in the same way that Joe Lieberman leaving the Senate is a sign that an era has passed, and there was an opportunity to make progress in that era in my view and we squandered that opportunity.

TAJ: Browner didn’t get a climate bill but she was key in negotiating new emissions standards with automakers. And where some like Pooley see a loss, some in Congress see victory.

ISSA: There is no vacuum left by her departure.

TAJ: California Republican Congressmen Darrell
Issa is chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He planned to use his authority to investigate Browner’s involvement in the administration’s environmental decision-making, and block her authority as a “czar.”

ISSA: What we want to do as a committee is we want to end unconfirmed czars. We want to ensure that people who control the taxpayer dollars or the authority of the president do so through a process of being named and confirmed by the Senate.

TAJ: The White House hasn’t said whether someone might take Browner’s place, and now that she’s leaving, Issa says he wants to help Congress keep the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Using EPA’s authority was the administration’s backup plan in the absence of a climate bill. Eric Pooley says Browner might have been useful in blocking attacks against the agency.

POOLEY: That’s going to be a big battle, but it’s a defensive battle and she chose not to stay around for that particular fight.

TAJ: While Browner prepares her exit, the spotlight is now on another star of the President’s “green team”, Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, to move the administration’s clean energy goals forward. The President’s State of the Union speech was sprinkled with references to efforts Chu will lead, and the thrust of the speech itself…

OBAMA: Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik…

TAJ: …had already been voiced by secretary Chu last fall:

CHU: On October 4th, 1957, Soviet Union launched a satellite, Sputnik.

TAJ: Chu’s “Sputnik moment” speech, like the president’s, also emphasized the need to invest in science and clean technology to get ahead in the world. And now it’s up to members of Congress to determine whether they think it’s the right moment. For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj in Washington.



Click here to watch Secretary Chu's 2010 Sputnik speech


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