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Environmentalists Help Shape Obama's Energy Agenda


With less than a month before his inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama has fulfilled his promise to quickly name his cabinet and senior staff positions. Environmentalists are generally pleased with his appointments and want to help focus the new administration's environment and energy agenda.

At a news conference to announce members of his environment and energy team, President-elect Obama reiterated a familiar message from the campaign trail: His administration would tackle climate change and develop new forms of energy and new ways of using it. (Click to view video of announcement.)

"This will be a leading priority of my presidency and a defining test of our time. We can't afford compliancy, nor accept more broken promises," he said. "We won't create a new energy economy overnight. We won't protect our environment overnight, but we can begin that work right now if we think anew and if we act anew." (Click to read Obama's statement on science and technology team.)

Environmentalists have weighed in on how to do that. Late last month, 29 environmental advocacy organizations submitted a green action plan to the Obama transition team.

The 391-page report addresses the dual goals of environmental protection and economic recovery, which National Wildlife Federation President Larry Schweiger says are central to solving the nation's problems.

"I believe that what we need to do right now is to dig our way out of the financial hole that we are in right now with a green shovel by investing in emissions reductions and by investing in adaptation in the natural world in the face of climate change," Schweiger says.

The pressure is on Congress to pass an economic stimulus package in the early days of the Obama administration, says Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute. He says how the money is targeted will show how committed lawmakers are to green change.

"A key question from an environmental point of view is going to be how much of this is traditional public works and how much of it is an investment in building the low-carbon, high-efficiency economy of the future," Lash says.

Obama campaigned on a platform that would reduce carbon emissions through a cap-and-trade system, a program that has support in Congress and among many of America's largest corporations. It also has an outspoken advocate in Obama's nominee for energy secretary, Steven Chu.

"What the world does in the coming decade will have enormous consequences that will last for centuries," he told reporters. "It is imperative that we begin without further delay."

A climate bill will be high on the agenda of the new Congress, but Lash points to a concern leftover from the last Congress - China.

"If we impose the cost of reducing CO2 emissions on American industry and country 'X' - read China - does not, we'll lose even more jobs to country 'X', and we can't afford to do that at a time of financial crisis," Lash says.

This is one reason why the Bush administration backed away from the Kyoto Protocol. It argued that the global climate change treaty would hurt the U.S. economy, while allowing growing economies like China and India to ignore emissions targets.

In 2008, China overtook the United States as the world's top polluter. Together, the two countries are responsible for more than 40 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

To oversee the U.S. battle against global warming, Obama named Carol Browner, who served as Environmental Protection Agency administrator under President Bill Clinton. As climate "tsarina," Browner will coordinate energy and climate policy from a new office in the White House.

"We can create jobs, curb greenhouse gas emissions, reduce dependence on foreign oil and help restore America's leadership around the world," she says, by shaping an environmentally sustainable world economy.

"To succeed, we must work together. We must work across party lines. We must enlist both the private and public sectors, and we must summon the best from our partners around the world."

Lash agrees with that approach, saying, "If we were to find agreement on dealing with climate change, reflecting our mutual interests in defining and competing for tomorrow's markets and our capacity to make reductions, the world will move."

Lash says that if such a bilateral agreement on climate, technology, clean energy and energy security begins to emerge, "That's a really, really big deal for the hopes of what we can do together."

Lash expects a top-level U.S. official to go to China next year. The outcome of those meetings, he says, could set the stage for a new global climate treaty when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.