Obama’s climate Svengali exits with shot at GOP Congress

By Jean Chemnick | 02/13/2015 01:23 PM EST

President Obama’s outgoing senior counselor on global warming took his parting shot at a Republican Congress this morning, warning critics that their failure to support administration policies will cost the United States economic prosperity and jobs.

President Obama’s outgoing senior counselor on global warming took his parting shot at a Republican Congress this morning, warning critics that their failure to support administration policies will cost the United States economic prosperity and jobs.

John Podesta, who directed White House messaging and strategy on climate issues for the last 13 months, marked his last day in the Obama administration with an op-ed comparing today’s Congress with its predecessors that responded to environmental crises with bold legislation, such as landmark bills that established U.S. EPA and armed it with regulatory muscle.

"Unfortunately, many in today’s Congress are responding to the urgency of the climate threat not with action, but with obstruction, skepticism, and outright denial," Podesta wrote in Politico magazine. He pointed to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing this week on EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan in which Republicans skewered the rule and questioned the science behind it.


Congressional Republicans are expected to be relentless in attacking Obama’s second-term climate change agenda by loading up hearing agendas with critics of global warming policy, attaching language to spending bills and passing legislation aimed at knocking down regulatory initiatives.

But the GOP barrage will come at a cost, Podesta warned.

"Failing to take steps today to curb carbon pollution and other greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. would endanger our economy, our national security, and our children’s future," he wrote.

Podesta’s op-ed hit the same notes that marked his year at the White House: that inaction on climate change has dire consequences for the economy and environment, and the United States can’t delay action.

"As we have seen time and again, if the U.S. steps up and takes action — if we lead with conviction and demonstrate our commitment — other leaders will stand alongside us," he wrote. "It’s how we have tackled pandemics and natural disasters and wars — and it is how we will protect the planet for future generations."

When Podesta arrived at the White House last January, the Climate Action Plan — Obama’s blueprint for using executive power to tackle climate change in his second term — was already in place and agencies were moving forward to carry it out. It was up to the former chief of staff for the Clinton White House and founder of the influential liberal think tank Center for American Progress to craft strategies for putting existing laws to work to achieve Obama’s objectives and to devise communications initiatives to spread the word.

Podesta’s portfolio included many issues, but observers say that a priority for Podesta was to make progress on climate change in the face of a deadlocked Congress where no movement was possible on global warming legislation. Efforts to enact a comprehensive climate change law had foundered years before, and Obama had promised to do what he could in his second term to make progress on the issue using existing authorities.

And that was where Podesta could help, said Carol Browner, Obama’s first-term climate change "czar" and the Clinton administration’s EPA chief.

"What John brought to the White House is a deep knowledge of all of the various tools of the executive branch," she said. "There are a million laws on the books. And you can use those to make real progress."

Like Browner — who served at Obama’s White House when Democrats who controlled Congress were still trying for a cap-and-trade bill for greenhouse gas emissions — Podesta had deep policy experience. The Climate Action Plan, which was released just over six months before he arrived at the White House, includes interagency actions that needed coordination for cutting emissions, shoring up measures to combat the impacts of climate change and persuading other countries to act as well.

"I think he understood that there are multiple authorities, and that by using as many as possible you weave together something that may be greater than just the sum of the parts," Browner said.

Eric Washburn, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide who’s now an energy industry lobbyist at Bracewell & Giuliani, said: "I think John brought the climate change issue with him, frankly. He’s been passionate about that for a long time. And I think he made it one of his signature contributions to Obama’s policy agenda."

He added, "Everything climate-wise flowed across John’s desk."

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, blame Podesta for helping Obama circumvent Congress on climate policy and other issues.

House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), for one, said he can barely mention Podesta’s work without expletives. "The way he has moved the direction of the country in areas where he had that kind of influence, I think is really misdirected," he said. "So it has not been a positive result."

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) said that by putting a Democratic political operative in charge of his climate goals, Obama ensured that the issue would be politicized.

"It’s just a perfect example of the White House controlling EPA," said the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Power chairman. "He’s been so political on this issue that it’s another example of making it more difficult to deal in a bipartisan way."

Selling climate initiatives on Main Street

Podesta’s year was a dynamic one for administration climate policy. The marquee accomplishments were the release of EPA’s ambitious draft Clean Power Plan aimed at curbing utilities’ carbon dioxide emissions and a surprise announcement with China of post-2020 emissions reduction commitments. The White House counselor had a hand in both developments.

The year also featured a steady stream of announcements flowing from the White House that aimed to drive home one point: Climate change is an imminent threat to the United States, and the administration is doing what it can to combat it.

One of the first such announcements came during the president’s trip last February to drought-ridden Fresno, Calif., where he announced a $1 billion fiscal 2015 request to Congress for a new climate research and adaptation fund (Greenwire, Feb. 17, 2014).

A month later, Podesta joined forces with White House science adviser John Holdren to unveil the Climate Data Initiative — a program aimed at helping communities understand their vulnerability to climate change (Greenwire, March 19, 2014).

The National Climate Assessment followed in May, and the science report was transformed into a media event with television weather forecasters visiting the White House to do one-on-one interviews with the president about the link between climate change and extreme weather.

June saw the release of the Clean Power Plan, which was promoted as a bulwark against childhood asthma and other health-related impacts of global warming.

Podesta was key in orchestrating the rollouts, which were aimed at reaching Main Street America.

"John is very good at understanding how you have to explain complex issues to the public that ultimately need public support," Browner said. "So engaging them and helping them understand why you’re doing something, what it means, is incredibly important."

Washburn sees echoes of Podesta’s science message in Senate Democrats’ push to get their Republican colleagues on the record on climate change during last month’s floor debate on a bill to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline. An overwhelming majority of the Senate voted for an amendment stating that climate change was real and not a "hoax," while 15 Republicans supported language that linked human emissions to warming.

"I think John was probably behind a lot of that," said Washburn, who worked with Podesta on the staff of former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Podesta has also long made the case that climate change has an economic price tag and that avoiding action on the grounds that it will be costly is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

"I think that John’s always thought that there is a real urgency to the challenge," said Pete Ogden, who served as Podesta’s chief of staff at CAP. "It’s not simply that it would be a nice thing if we were able to transition to a clean energy economy but that not doing so will bring significant costs across a whole spectrum of areas from energy, to economic issues, to security issues."

Last year, Cabinet members ranging from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to White House budget chief Shaun Donovan began making high-profile speeches devoted to making the case that not acting on climate change would cost the United States in damage to infrastructure, health care costs and economic productivity.

Washburn noted that Podesta will be handing off his climate and energy portfolios to Brian Deese, deputy director of the White House budget office and a veteran of the National Economic Council. Obama’s choice of an economics expert to handle the final years of Climate Action Plan implementation was almost certainly blessed by Podesta, he said.

International outreach

What Podesta also brought to the White House was a conviction that climate change could be tackled only in partnership with other nations, and background work helped bring about the China and India agreements of the past year.

Browner, who is now a distinguished senior fellow at CAP, remembers Podesta hosting annual nongovernmental meetings with top environmental officials from the world’s two top developing emitters.

"John had built a very strong relationship with Chinese government officials on climate change and air pollution," Browner said. "And I think that was probably very helpful in the president’s efforts."

Podesta and White House climate adviser Dan Utech convened meetings in the White House for months last year to lay the groundwork for the deal, and Podesta traveled to China immediately before its release. Obama unveiled the deal in Beijing last November, and it included commitments by both of the world’s top emitting nations to control their greenhouse gas output.

The United States pledged to cut its emissions between 26 and 28 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2025. And China for the first time promised to stop growing its emissions by 2030 and to draw at least 20 percent of its power from non-fossil fuels sources by that year. Critics have said the deal saddles the United States with all the real responsibility, but Podesta and other administration officials have defended it, saying that China will have to begin work immediately to meet the 2030 commitments.

"The joint announcement galvanized the world in a critical year for international negotiations," Podesta wrote in his column today, referring to this December’s round of U.N. climate talks that aim to produce an international agreement. That was aimed at rebutting a favorite Republican talking point, "because they can no longer say that China will never act."