Crystal Balls Glow Green

Press speculates (responsibly) on key Obama environment/science picks and policies

Reporters wasted no time this week in their rush to speculate about who president-elect Barack Obama will tap for key environment and science positions in his administration, and about how related policies will reflect his promise of change.

The media prognostications in this realm are no different from those about who will lead every other department and agency in Washington, from the Treasury to FEMA, which is to say that they’re all very interesting and worthwhile, but haven’t moved far beyond the point of speculation. The same can be said about the coverage of how science and environmental policies will change under Obama — without much new information to work with, most articles are resigned to repeating the well-trod positions he laid out during the campaign. This isn’t to say that all this reporting is for naught, however. The sheer volume and tone of the coverage is fascinating, and suggests that science and environment is a policy area where many people expect to see the most the dramatic break from the Bush administration — greater even than in foreign policy and economic regulation.

Despite a tone that’s a tad hyperbolic, a headline and lede from the Guardian in the U.K. captures what many “green” minded people are thinking or at least hoping: “Obama victory signals rebirth of US environmental policy — President-elect Obama will shred the Bush administration’s energy policies and introduce a major climate change bill in an attempt to bring the US back into the international environment fold according to his senior advisers.”

Well… maybe. There are still many hurdles to accomplishing that goal, not least of which is the fact that the economic crisis threatens to blunt investment in renewable energy and support for cap-and-trade especially. Thankfully, after a few rosy paragraphs, the Guardian’s article accounts for that possibility, but notes European environmental organizations remain optimistic. One of the article’s best lines comes near the bottom, where a source frets that “Obama could leave the UK trailing in the race to capitalize on the huge new opportunities for environmental technologies.” Silicon Valley hopes so, reports the San Jose Mercury News, and environmentalists in the U.S. are, of course, equally jubilant at the prospect of a greenshift in American politics. Environment News Service, an online news wire, has a good roundup of almost a dozen advocates expressing their confidence in the president-elect.

More interesting than those sanguine reports, however, is a Reuters article with the headline, “Investors want proof of Obama ‘green’ change.” It quotes a variety of sources saying, among other things, that cap-and-trade is “by no means a done deal” and that they would like to see the first installment of Obama’s ten-year, $150-billion, clean-energy support plan in his first budget. Likewise, Planet Ark, an environmental organization and news service, reports that “US biofuel makers, struggling to make a profit at a time of tumbling oil and gasoline prices, look upon President-elect Barack Obama as a staunch ally for growth.”

More than his policy, however, the press seems to be focusing on those people that will help him craft it. The media speculation centers, unsurprisingly, on who will head the Environmental Protection Agency, which earned notoriously poor marks on everything from air pollution to endangered species under the Bush administration. According to posts at Bloomberg News, The Wall Street Journal, and Politico, the short list is headed by Kathleen McGinty, the former secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection; Mary Nichols of California’s Air Resources Board; Ian Bowles, of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection; Lisa Jackson, who just left the New Jersey environment commission; Carol Browner, a former EPA chief under the Clinton administration; Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an environmental lawyer; and Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.

More useful than those enumerations of potential picks, however, is an article by Darren Samuelsohn at the online news outlet Greenwire. Unfortunately, the piece is stuck behind the publication’s strict pay wall, but Samuelsohn was able to get a positive ID on the team that will help Obama make his decisions:

Former Clinton Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes will be in charge of transition planning for all of the key energy and environmental agencies, including U.S. EPA and the Interior, Energy and Agriculture departments. The transition team also will be split up by individual agencies.

At EPA, Obama has picked Robert Sussman and Lisa Jackson to run what will be a 10-12 person transition team, developing key policy recommendations and also monitoring the status of final Bush administration actions. Other members of the EPA transition team will be named in the coming days, according to two Obama advisers.

Other reporters would be well advised to approach these individuals in order to glean more useful insights about how Obama is putting his team together. Returning to the séance table for a moment, however, there a couple other speculative articles worth noting. Reuters’s Deborah Zabarenko, for instance, has an interesting piece that asks, “Could Obama appoint a ‘climate czar’?” The environmental community—rather than anybody close to the president-elect himself—seems to be floating that question, but the story captures the opinion held by many that environmental issues have been so “wide-ranging” and interconnected that higher coordination is necessary.

It’s an opinion that extends beyond the environmental realm. In a piece for ABC News headlined, “Science in a post-Bush world,” reporter Ki Mae Heussner has the subhead, “Wanted: A Cabinet-Level Science Advisor.” Indeed, criticism of the Bush administration is not limited to its global warming policy. During the presidential campaign there was a well-coordinated effort by an illustrious and diverse group of politicians, scientists, and journalists for a science debate that would address questions as wide-ranging as embryonic stem cell research, the safety of consumer products, and drug policy. Obama has already pledged to address many of those issues, but whether or not he will elevate the position of science adviser to cabinet level remains to be seen.

In a similar vein, Politico reports that Obama “is seriously considering the creation of an Energy Security Council within the White House, according to sources close to the transition.” The article also notes, however, that “A key Obama aide would not confirm the likelihood of a new council.” But though the future is far from certain, further insights can be found at a creative online exercise taking place at The New York Times’s new Green, Inc. blog, where the team invited a roundtable of energy experts to weigh in on what may come.

And finally, it’s well worth checking out the rolling coverage at Grist’s Barack Obama topic page. There, Kate Sheppard reports that “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), at a press conference on Wednesday, talked up the need for a stimulus package that includes green elements, ideally before Obama even takes office.” And David Roberts makes the smart observation that “Greens are deeply accustomed to believing that politicians are humoring them and will abandon their concerns at the first sign of lobbying … Perhaps, at least for a short while, Obama has earned the presumption of good faith.”

And perhaps he has. But if the last four days are any indication, the press isn’t going to leave it at that (indeed, I’ve only mentioned a fraction of the coverage here; for more, see the round-up at Knight Science Journalism Tracker). Journalists have spent eight years covering Bush’s environmental negligence—and this time they expect real change.

N.B. Anybody that is unfamiliar with the environmental issues that Obama will have to contend with should check out David Biello’s excellent, link-heavy round-up at Scientific American.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.