Carol Browner Departs the Obama Administration

By Chris Mooney | January 25, 2011 7:21 am

Little did I know, when I composed my somewhat cynical take on global warming and the upcoming State of the Union speech yesterday, that the chief White House figure charged with achieving climate change action would shortly be departing. Carol Browner is taking off, her chief mandate–a climate bill–unmet.

There’s no surer sign that nothing major is going to happen on global warming in the next two years–except maybe some brutal battles at the EPA. The president can adopt centrist, business friendly talking points and even get himself reelected in that way–but the climate system is another matter. It won’t be waiting for anybody.

Incidentally, a valued correspondent reminds me of a weakness in my last piece, in which I argued that the clean energy message was the right one for the president to adopt:

Don’t get me wrong: I think climate scientists should communicate clearly about climate science to address the many misconceptions out there on the topic—and they’re becoming better and better at doing just that, in real time. I also think it’s important to expose misinformation campaigns, and trace them to their corporate and think tank origins.

But I’m not sure that presidents, environmental groups, and even some leaders of industry are wrong to focus on a message about clean energy innovation, rather than warnings of planetary climate instability.

The problem here is that there’s no room left for talking about climate change adaptation, which is something that citizens, cities, and states have to be concerned with, but that gets left out of the “green jobs” message–and isn’t an exclusively scientific matter either. There’s a need for the government and president to lead on this subject. I may have more about that soon.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Global Warming

Comments (12)

  1. Exactly. It’s all very well to frame your message, or pitch your campaign using audience-friendly language, or disguise your motives as something less threatening, but that tactic will almost certainly bite you on the ass eventually. When the circumstances change, as they most certainly will. Energy innovation is a great idea and might sell well today, but what if we suddenly discover enormous previously unknown, cheap-to-access reserves of oil on U.S. soil? Could happen. Suddenly efficiency and innovation aren’t so important any more.

    If we haven’t been hammering away on the threats posed by climate change in the meantime, that just means our task is even harder.

    Of course , climate activists HAVE been hammering away about the myriad, non-climate-related benefits of clean tech for years. And it hasn’t been working all that well. A bit, but not much. So when I read about someone wanting the president to focus more on energy innovation instead of global warming, what that means to me is throwing in the towel.

  2. Sean McCorkle

    Who was it that said “Its not a level playing field”?

    The other side of this debate can and does get away will all sorts of unprincipled things. I’m not advocating the mimicking of their methods, but how important is it to make the correct and honest argument take hold in the general public if it takes many years or even decades to do so? And what will be the consequences of the delay? Its guerrilla warfare, and adapting tactics to take on a highly adaptable and successful opposition is not giving up, its the only successful strategy.

    Of course , climate activists HAVE been hammering away about the myriad, non-climate-related benefits of clean tech for years

    Not very effectively in my opinion. For starters, in the US, the point should hammered home be that we are completely dependent on oil, our economy and national defense is completely dependent on oil, and most of the worlds reserves are in unfriendly hands.

  3. “The president can adopt centrist, business friendly talking points and even get himself reelected in that way–but the climate system is another matter. It won’t be waiting for anybody.”

    But the climate system will still be there, waiting for him to address it in a second term, assuming he’s re-elected, and presumably less encumbered by short-term political needs.

    Back to the topic at hand, and some historical perspective, if anyone’s interested:
    http://www.collide-a-scape.com/2011/01/25/was-carol-browner-another-wind-dummy/

  4. Eric the Leaf

    “…suddenly discover enormous previously unknown, cheap-to-access reserves of oil on U.S. soil. Could happen.”

    Seriously?

  5. Nullius in Verba

    “but how important is it to make the correct and honest argument take hold in the general public if it takes many years or even decades to do so?”

    Vitally important. Because even if nobody spots your inaccuracy or dishonesty immediately, we will eventually, and then everything you built on those foundations will be undermined. Everything you built to the same nominal standards, everything you checked and validated using the same methods will be questioned.

    “but what if we suddenly discover enormous previously unknown, cheap-to-access reserves of oil on U.S. soil?”

    It’s been said of shale gas, recently.

    But you ought to think more laterally. What if Obama announced suddenly that the US was going to build 400 new IFR nuclear reactors in the next ten years? That’d be on the order of $800bn, or roughly the size of the stimulus, only spread out over a decade or so.

    Could happen…? :-)

  6. Sean McCorkle

    @5

    Vitally important. Because even if nobody spots your inaccuracy or dishonesty immediately, we will eventually, and then everything you built on those foundations will be undermined.

    Noble and commendable. Can we please hold Fox news to these standards?

  7. Nullius in Verba

    #6,

    Don’t you already?

    You didn’t even have to explain why you picked Fox News as an example – I knew straight away what you were alluding to. Which supports my point – do you want climate science to acquire the same reputation as Fox News?

  8. wxv6

    I’ve recently been convinced that anthropogenic climate change, while frighteningly real, is not as problematic as peak oil. Peak oil will hit our society harder and sooner than climate change, I think, severely cramping economic growth and western lifestyle (the worth of these two things can obviously be debated).

    And by no one’s design and quite inadvertantly carbon emissions will begin to fall on their own or at least level off as a result (Peak oil will not reduce coal consumption after all, but coal can’t be substituted directly for petroleum especially not at the same prices as today).

    Consider that the IEA (the U.S.A. based global energy monitoring organization) announced in its “2010 World Energy Outlook Report” that global conventional petroleum production peaked in 2006. See link:

    http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-11-11/iea-acknowledges-peak-oil

    They present the find in a convoluted way by saying that unconventional oil (tar sands, etc) and biofuels will pick up the slack. Unfortunately tar sands are far more expensive to extract, and biofuels aren’t as energy dense as crude oil.

    As it happens, the obligatory goals for us in light of climate change or peak oil are basically the same. But perhaps it is easier to convince republicans and conservatives of the need for renewable energy if one focuses on the peak oil argument over the climate change argument. Should we change our tactics accordingly?

  9. Nullius in Verba

    “But perhaps it is easier to convince republicans and conservatives of the need for renewable energy if one focuses on the peak oil argument over the climate change argument. Should we change our tactics accordingly?”

    I’ll leave the choice of tactics up to you, but you won’t find conservatives any easier to convince, since many of them recognise it as part of the last big scare back in the 1970s. We already had that argument out in about 1980 – when the environmentalists said civilisation would collapse from lack of resources before 2000 if we didn’t act to prevent it urgently.

    Here’s what they said the last time round:
    “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. Population control is the only answer.” “In ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish.” “A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells, the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people. We must shift our efforts from the treatment of the symptoms to the cutting out of the cancer. The operation will demand many apparently brutal and heartless decisions.” “Before 1985, mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity . . . in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion.” “By 1985 enough millions will have died to reduce the earth’s population to some acceptable level, like 1.5 billion people.” “By 1980 the United States would see its life expectancy drop to 42 because of pesticides, and by 1999 its population would drop to 22.6 million.”

    Interesting, isn’t it?

    And yes, Peak Oil was one of the things they predicted would happen (in 1974 they said it would happen by 1995, I think). Conservatives with long memories are well aware of it.

    After it became obvious that the dire predictions were not happening, that health, nutrition, and life expectancy were still going up, and things were not running out, Peak Oil and its friends were put on the back burner and something else appeared – a new set of predicted scenarios. It was different, but strangely… familiar. The following was written in about 1990.

    “To many Americans and Canadians, the greenhouse signal literally became visible during the last two weeks of October of 1996, when winds that seemed to roar without respite gathered a “black blizzard” of prairie topsoil that darkened the skies of sixteen states and the Canadian Maritimes. The dust penetrated the lungs of cattle, stopped traffic on interstates, stripped pain from houses, and shut down computers. People put on goggles and covered their noses and mouths with wet handkerchiefs. They stapled plastic sheets over windows and doors but still the dust seeped through.”

    The rest of the chapter gets even better. I recommend looking it up.

    Should you change your tactics? I’d say so. But given the long, long history here, I don’t really expect it to happen.

  10. Eric the Leaf

    @wxv6
    I think you’re probably right. And Staniford always contributes thoughtful analysis. The IEA has traditionally been overly optimistic, but since 2008 they have been changing their tune. It still stretches the imagination to believe a 50 year trend in discovery will be reversed (see the sky-blue in the graphic).

    By they way, there is at least one courageous conservative Republican congressman, Roscoe Bartlett, who takes the approach that you suggest. Google his website and listen to his speeches before an empty House of Representatives.

    Chris should be advertising this man.

  11. Sean McCorkle

    @7
    Don’t you already?

    And what good will that do? One or only a few voices against a national network? Possibly the most dominant vehicle of political influence on the large-scale population in the US?

    do you want climate science to acquire the same reputation as Fox News?

    You present a false dilemma. To reiterate from #2, I’m not advocating the mimicking of their methods. If there are several arguments for switching to renewables (freedom from hostile nations, diversity, sources won’t become depleted) which are effective with the populace, in contrast to concerns about climate change, which is not so effective, then go with the former. They are good reasons to switch in and of themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that.

    The other unfair aspect of that comparison, is that Fox news conducts communications, and climate scientists conduct research.

  12. Nullius in Verba

    #11,

    “One or only a few voices against a national network?”

    In this case, it’s more than a few. Like I said, I knew very well what you were talking about, and I don’t even live in the USA.

    But one of the lessons of the climate sceptics and the new media is that a few voices can have a big effect, if a lot of other people like what they say enough to pass the news on. If somebody reveals a hole in a big media argument, and explains it in a self-contained way, people will get to know about it. Mainstream media no longer has a controlling monopoly on news dissemination.

    You could ask the same question about the few voices of climate sceptics against the collective might of the world’s governments, the UN, the vast majority of the media, Jon’s list of organisations of scientists, the big environmentalist NGOs, the alternative energy industry, Al Gore, and the climate scientists themselves. With, (in most cases,) no funding, no positions of authority, no government support, no accumulated reputation, a bunch of disparate, unknown amateur statisticians and physicists working in their own time have come close to derailing the entire show.

    How? Because the mainstream made the mistake of offering up “scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. […] Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” And attempting to strike that balance introduced fatal flaws in the case presented that sceptics were able to exploit. The presentation of those flaws, where things were not quite “correct and honest”, proved very convincing.

    It’s not just a matter of noble and commendable principle, it’s a simple strategic fact. If you claim to be an authority and take shortcuts with the truth, each case of it is like a bomb planted under your own position waiting to go off. Sceptics avoid it by not claiming to be authorities – even though that means they don’t get authority’s advantages.

    Don’t get me wrong – I don’t necessarily want you to take my advice. Your side compromising so much on “correct and honest” makes my argument a lot easier. If I thought there was any chance at all that you (collectively) might listen to me, I wouldn’t say it. I just find it entertaining to tell you, knowing there’s nothing you can do about it.

    “If there are several arguments for switching to renewables (freedom from hostile nations, diversity, sources won’t become depleted) which are effective with the populace, in contrast to concerns about climate change, which is not so effective, then go with the former.”

    That’s fine, until circumstances change and you find your alternative reasons no longer apply. You’re left having to suddenly (and obviously) switch arguments mid-stream, and it gives the strong impression that you’re not saying what you really mean, that it’s only an excuse.

    If there genuinely are other good reasons to switch, and you can persuade the public of that, then they are a “correct and honest argument” and your dilemma doesn’t apply. If it’s either not correct or not honest, it’s something else entirely.

    “The other unfair aspect of that comparison, is that Fox news conducts communications, and climate scientists conduct research.”

    I thought we were talking about communicating climate science to the public?

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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