For environmentalists, the name Chuck Hagel is synonymous with America's abandonment of the world's only climate change treaty.
But with Hagel facing myriad attacks as President Obama's likely nominee for secretary of Defense, the man who helped kill the 1997 Kyoto Protocol is now getting a wary embrace from the very policymakers who crafted and backed the agreement.
Environmental leaders and former aides said they aren't aware of Hagel holding any strong environmental convictions. Still, several said, the former Republican senator from Nebraska appeared to have undergone an evolution over the decades from his days as a junior lawmaker leading the charge against global climate action into an elder statesman supportive of the United States' playing a larger role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
"This is not a disaster," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, who served as assistant secretary for oceans and environment in the State Department during the Kyoto negotiations. "I don't see him as being a negative."
President Obama is expected to nominate Hagel as early as today to replace Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. If confirmed -- an outcome that is still questionable, since the Vietnam veteran and two-time Purple Heart recipient is drawing objections from a trifecta of former Republican colleagues, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and gay-rights activists -- he will preside over steep budget cuts, a drawdown of U.S. force levels in Afghanistan and unrest throughout the Middle East.
Climate change and energy might not get top billing in the thick portfolio awaiting the new Pentagon chief, but experts say the issues involved are significant.
Republicans over the past year have taken aim at the Defense Department's investments in clean energy and alternative fuels, including a Navy program to sail a "Green Fleet" powered by biofuels off the coast of Hawaii. Meanwhile, a growing number of national security experts have pinpointed rising global temperatures as a threat multiplier that could exacerbate land, water and resource tensions in already fragile countries.
An earlier skepticism
David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate and Clean Air Program, who served on the U.S. negotiating team that completed the Kyoto Protocol, noted that Hagel would be working for a president who cares about climate change and in an administration that takes the threats of global warming seriously.
"I would expect that he would respect the analyses that show, from the military's point of view, the threat multiplication from climate change impact," Doniger said. "Nothing tells me that he would be in any way hostile to those positions."
Hagel was a freshman senator when President Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that called for industrialized nations to cut emissions but allowed developing countries -- including growing powers like China and India -- to keep polluting. Now-deceased Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), from a coal-friendly state, was casting about for a partner to fend off Kyoto -- and according to those involved in the 1997 debate, Hagel's name was dropped by members of the National Mining Association.
Together, Byrd and Hagel crafted a resolution that cut Kyoto off at the knees and that to this day shapes the international climate negotiations. It stated that the United States should accept no climate agreement that did not demand comparable sacrifices of all participants or that would result in "serious harm" to the U.S. economy. It passed 95-0.
"How could any treaty aimed at reducing global emissions of greenhouse gases be at all effective when it excludes these 130 nations? It won't," Hagel said on the Senate floor at the time. "The exclusion of these nations is a fatal flaw in this treaty."
In interviews over the past few weeks, environmental leaders and former Hagel aides said Hagel was never a climate skeptic. Rather, they said, he came at the issue from a concern about job losses and economic hardships in his state. Some said the measure even was meant to encourage a better climate change treaty.
But a review of Hagel's statements then and now shows a murkier picture of his actual views on the science behind climate change.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Hagel touted writings by skeptics Fred Singer, Richard Lindzen and John Christy and warned that "the scientific community has simply not yet resolved the question of whether we have a problem with global warming."
"I suggest, again, that common sense dictates you don't come up with a solution to a problem until you are certain that you have a problem. However, the Clinton administration has proceeded to negotiate a solution before we have a confirmation that there is a problem," Hagel said then.
In a 2005 interview with the environmental magazine Grist, Hagel said he has always believed that "climate change is a cycle of the world." When pressed about whether he believes climate change is linked to human activity, he said, "We've known we've had an impact, absolutely, but exactly what impact human society has had on climate we're not quite sure."
And after the 2009 U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, he noted that "climate is changing all the time" but sidestepped the question of human involvement, saying, "I always accepted the premise that we are in this dynamic flow of climate change."
Evolution into pragmatism
Nevertheless, supporters say they believe post-Kyoto history has shown that Hagel has taken a pragmatic approach to climate change and energy issues.
"This has never been his top priority," acknowledged Andrew Holland, a former Hagel aide and now a senior fellow for energy and climate at the American Security Project. But, Holland said, Hagel always tried to take the middle ground -- and authored compromise clean energy amendments to the 2005 energy bill, which remains the only climate legislation ever signed into law.
According to Holland, the incentives provisions for innovative technologies authorized the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program for clean energy and ultimately became part of the Obama administration's economic stimulus bill.
Meanwhile, he noted, Hagel co-sponsored a bill in the 110th Congress that would have required the director of national intelligence to submit to Congress a National Intelligence Estimate on anticipated geopolitical effects of climate change. The bill faced Senate opposition and never passed but, according to Holland, nevertheless was adopted by the intelligence community.
And Nigel Purvis, president of Climate Advisers and also a former Kyoto negotiator for the U.S. State Department, said he has worked with Hagel in recent years on the bipartisan Commission on Climate and Tropical Forests and described him as an advocate. The panel laid out recommendations for forest conservation as part of a broad climate bill then wending its way through Congress.
"He was terrific. He never thought the [greenhouse gas] cap-and-trade bill would pass the Senate, but he said if it does pass, it ought to reduce U.S. costs by giving companies credit for helping developing nations save tropical forests," Purvis said.
Of the former Kyoto opponent as Defense secretary, Purvis said, "It would be wrong to think a Hagel Defense Department would be hostile to climate action per se. Yet I don't think it would be near the top of his priority list, either."
A bipartisan player
Retired Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn, president of the American Council On Renewable Energy, said in a statement that he doesn't think Hagel should be judged too harshly on his Kyoto past and noted that the defense community has a whole has shifted its position considerably on climate change since 1997.
"I believe that he's got a track record of being a very thoughtful legislator and a guy that's not afraid to reach out in a bipartisan way," McGinn said.
"He strikes me as the kind of individual and public servant who's very thoughtful and not locked into any type of partisan box or ideological box. Because of that, his ability to consider additional information and new evidence, if you will, is going to be a real strength that gives me confidence he would be a good leader in all of the aspects of national security, including climate change," he said.
And Jonathan Lash, former president of the World Resources Institute and now president of Hampshire College, said he got to know Hagel well when the two co-chaired the Waste Disposal Subcommittee of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future.
"I came away with deep respect for his thoughtful open-mindedness and integrity. He understands the science on global warming and its significance and has the courage to stand up for the truth, whether it's popular or not," Lash said.
Claussen noted that while Hagel's energy views are important, the bulk of the Obama administration's climate policy this term will be focused in the State Department and U.S. EPA. Still, she said, she expects a Hagel Pentagon would continue the agency's clean energy and climate security work.
"I don't see him going back on that kind of thing, and I don't see him saying the Pentagon shouldn't look at alternative energy systems," she said. "I don't think he'd be a leader on it, but it's not clear to me that the secretary of Defense has to be."
Reporter Julia Pyper contributed.
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