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02 Oct 2009 12:29 pm

Carol Browner: Now is the Time to Move on Climate

Important guests at confabs like The Atlantic's "First Draft of History" sometimes strain to avoid saying anything of substance. Not Carol Browner. The White House "climate czar" firmly and repeatedly pressed the case that the United States must act now to limit greenhouse-gas emissions; that sweeping change was necessary and piecemeal fixes insufficient; and that enacting new regulations would establish the conditions for businesses to pioneer new technologies. To this she added the underappreciated point that the history of major changes in U.S. environmental law shows that new rules invariably turn out to be cheaper and easier to implement than almost anyone anticipates at the time.

Browner's appearance this morning had the added impact of coming in the wake of two major climate-related developments this week. First, the announcement that the Environmental Protection Agency plans to restrict greenhouse-gas emissions from factories, power plants and other industrial facilities--a "seismic shift" in climate policy, as one leading environmentalist told USA Today this morning. This was timed to coincide with the second piece of news, the introduction of a Senate climate bill. Democrats are expected to have a tough time getting a bill through the Senate. But the threat of EPA regulation puts pressure on opponents to play ball or lose the chance to influence how emissions are regulated.

Browner was candid about the difficulty the administration faces in achieving its climate goals. She singled out the unrelenting pressure to satiate the 24/7 media cycle, and the difficulty,relative to 30 years ago, getting Americans to adopt a crisis mentality toward the environment. "If you think about environmental movement in the 1970s," she said, "we were dealing with things you could see, feel and touch. Smog that was visible, the Cuyahoga River catching on fire." The challenge of climate change, she said, is that "we're asking leaders and public to do things the benefits of which are further down [the road]."

While maintaining that the administration pursue any avenue that was open to it, Browner emphasized that the White House prefers a cap-and-trade system to regulate emissions, a preference based on the results of the last major U.S. environmental law. "One thing we learned after [the passage of] the 1990 Clean Air Act was that cap-and-trade was the least costly way of achieving reductions." The ability to design such a system is, in turn, why Browner says the administration wants Congress to pass legislation rather than relying on EPA regulations (which would likely spark major litigation and delays). But she was equally candid about the difficulty of passing a bill and knocked down the suggestion that President Obama might sign climate legislation before the international community meets in Copenhagen in December to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. "Obviously, we'd like to be through the process," she said. "That's not likely to happen. But we could perhaps be out of committee...We will go to Copenhagen with whatever we have."

On the topic of the world's largest carbon emitter--China--Browner expressed measured optimism. "I think there are two things China is thinking about," she said. "One is the global market for clean energy technology...the second thing--if you've traveled to China you know how awful the pollution is. ...What you have happening is an environmental movement emerging like in the U.S. in the '70s. So some of the things they're doing are in response to people making same demands on their politicians as we once did for ours."

Browner emphasized again and again that in order compete in the clean technology market, the United States needed to set clear standards--something that can only come from comprehensive legislation. "We need to give the business community certainty and predictability," she said. The payoff, she promised, would be "a whole new generation of jobs and a [stable] climate."

Watch the full video of this session:


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