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Team Green

The Obama Cabinet's energy and climate players The President-elect sent two clear signals Monday when he announced his energy and environment team. The first is that science is back in Washington, stepping forth from its banishment to the Dark Ages by the Bush administration. The second is something..

The Obama Cabinet's energy and climate players

The President-elect sent two clear signals Monday when he announced his energy and environment team. The first is that science is back in Washington, stepping forth from its banishment to the Dark Ages by the Bush administration. The second is something I've been hinting at for awhile: that environmental policy is energy policy is economic policy.The still-forming Obama administration knows that coordination and cooperation between agencies will be the key to energy and climate progress. The new energy team follows in the wake of Bill Richardson's appointment to head the commerce department; the New Mexico governor has long supported the development of a strong and binding climate change and energy plan. Add to that Ken Salazar and Tom Vilsack-who Obama is expected to announce today as his choices for secretaries of the interior and agriculture, respectively. Salazar, the Colorado senator and lifelong rancher and farmer, has been a vocal opponent of moves by the Bush administration to open up Western lands to oil shale speculation. Vilsack, the former Iowa governor and a 2008 Democratic presidential hopeful, has spoken extensively about shifting government subsidies away from agriculture as commodity and toward food production and conservation. Other Cabinet officials, such as the as-yet-unnamed transportation secretary, will also play essential roles in securing our energy future.But, this energy and environment team will be the primary guides, and environmentalists and progressive beltway insiders alike seem impressed with Obama's choices. The cast who will steer the transition to a low-carbon energy and economic future includes: a Nobel Prize-winning physicist; a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) and current League of Conservation Voters (L.C.V.) and Audubon board member; and a mother who sees a message in the plight of her native New Orleans. Gene Karpinski, president of the L.C.V., calls it a "green dream team."So who are these folks, and what are their roles?Stephen Chu, Secretary of EnergyChu (pictured above) won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for research in atomic physics, specifically using lasers to cool molecules and slow their movement so that their individual atoms could be studied. Since then, he's shifted his focus towards clean energy solutions and energy efficiency, whether directing the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (L.B.L.), joining the Copenhagen Climate Council, or chairing United Nations-sponsored efforts on sustainable energy in the developing world (pdf)."His appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science, we will make decisions based on the facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action," Obama said in his introduction of the esteemed physicist at Monday's press conference. Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, joked, "Following on the heels of the anti-science Bush administration, its like going to Mensa after spending eight years in the Flat Earth Society."Chu offers several advantages aside from his Nobel cache: He is well acquainted with the Department of Energy's (D.O.E.) research lab system-of which L.B.L. is a part. He's a Chinese-American, who's already appearing on the front pages of China's newspapers; his high-profile appointment could pave the way for improved relations between the West and Asia on climate change. He's anti-coal, calling the energy source his "worst nightmare." But, most importantly, for the first time ever, we'll have someone atop the D.O.E. who really gets the severity of the climate challenge. "[Climate change] will cause enormous resource wars, over water, arable land, and massive population displacements," Chu said earlier this year. "We're talking about hundreds of millions to billions of people being flooded out, permanently."


Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate ChangeEarlier this year, I hoped (out loud) that Obama would create a climate or energy "czar" to coordinate such efforts across agencies. Well, she won't be a czarina, but, while Browner's newly formed position carries a terribly bureaucratic name, the importance of her job cannot be overstated. "Carol understands that our efforts to create jobs, achieve energy security and combat climate change demand integration among different agencies; cooperation between federal, state and local governments; and partnership with the private sector," Obama offered Monday.Browner, a personal friend of Al Gore, sat atop the E.P.A. for all eight years of Clinton's term, and since, she has been a champion of the economic and business potential of not only clean energy development, but also greenhouse gas regulation. While nobody outside of the transition team's tight-lipped, inner circle knows for sure exactly what the extent of Browner's powers will be, these interviews she did for the On Day One project offer a good sense of where her priorities when the administration begins its work.

Lisa Jackson, Environmental Protection Agency AdministratorJackson is faced with a formidable, early challenge: regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act (a designation made possible by a recent Supreme Court decision). Hard line "greens" worry that she won't be "activist enough" as a regulator. It's hard, however, to imagine that Browner, who was famous for her strict stance on pollution regulations, would allow for a toothless E.P.A.

Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental QualityThis position, criticized as merely cheerleaders for White House statements in the Clinton and Bush administrations, will take on heightened importance during Obama's tenure. Expect Sutley's office to regularly research and churn out reports on various policy issues and meet with and consult with various environmental, industry, and business groups. Sutley-who currently oversees climate and energy policy issues for Los Angeles has a wide and varied background in land-use, water, and energy on both state and federal levels.(Photo credits: Chu, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab/Roy Kaltschmidt; Browner, from Flick user Center for American Progress)