A united environmental community gets attention from the Obama team
Green groups in D.C. seem downright giddy about all the signals they’re getting from Obamaland thus far. From appointments to key posts to his pledge earlier this month to “launch a massive effort to make public buildings more energy efficient,” there’s a lot of anticipation that the next four years will bring major change to energy and climate policy.
And, according to environmental leaders, they’re getting plenty of attention from the transition team. “We’re not having to bang down the door at the Obama administration,” said Melinda Pierce, deputy legislative director for the Sierra Club. She noted that by the first week of December, the Obama team was already reaching out to green leaders and meeting with them about transition efforts at the EPA and the Departments of Energy, Interior, and State.
“I was around for the Clinton transition, and I don’t recall their proactively reaching out and meeting with stakeholders, certainly not before January,” added Pierce. “I think it was more a case of enviros beating on the door and saying, ‘Here are our priorities.’ The Obama transition has its act together and is systematically inviting stakeholders to weigh in on budget and policy priorities.”
The Obama camp, for its part, is publicizing its work with green leaders. Last week, it posted a video showing transition-team members meeting with the heads of several big enviro organizations to discuss the groups’ “Transition to Green” report [PDF].
Many attribute the attention from the Obama team in part to increased coordination among environmental organizations. Twenty-nine major national groups, including all the big names, came together late last month to unveil “Transition to Green,” a 391-page document detailing exactly what they hope the next administration will do on environmental issues. On Dec. 11, 17 of the groups joined together again to introduce a separate proposal for a “green recovery” package that they’d like to see passed early in Obama’s presidency, with funding for energy efficiency, transit, renewables, and infrastructure upgrades.
The coalition working together on these initiatives includes everyone from grassroots, deep-green groups like Greenpeace to Environmental Defense Fund, whose forte has been working with the more conservative corporate world.
“I think it’s actually fairly remarkable that the community could come together on such an extensive, comprehensive set of recommendations,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife. “After 17 years of being the CEO of this organization and working with the rest of the community … I do think this is the most extensive and comprehensive set of recommendations that we have been able to come together on for a new president coming in.”
Said Pierce of the Sierra Club, “One of the things we decided early on was that, going through this, the power of speaking in one voice would be a whole lot more valuable piece of input to the Obama administration than any one of us. There was a real effort to coordinate and come up with a document of our shared priorities.”
Part of that coordination was agreeing that the transition document would prioritize climate and energy policy above other environmental issues.
“To revitalize our faltering economy and meet the immense challenges of global warming, we must transform the ways America and the rest of the world produce and use energy,” the groups wrote in “Transition to Green.” “At the cornerstone of the President’s economic recovery strategy should be three closely related goals: cutting the pollution that causes global warming, repowering America with clean energy, and ending our dependence on oil.”
Schlickeisen and the leaders of several other big enviro organizations say cooperation on the transition proposal grew out of increasing efforts over the past few years to organize collectively. A loose coalition of enviro-group leaders known as the “Green Group” has been meeting regularly for years.
“We have a strong sense in what we call the Green Group that the more unified we can be, the more effective we’ll be, the more influential we’ll be,” said Union of Concerned Scientists President Kevin Knobloch. “If there’s division in our ranks, particularly public division, we won’t be as heard.”
For at least the past year, the group has focused on climate and energy as their top priority. “Coming out with the top-line energy and climate ask was very easy because that is just totally consistent with the path that we have been going down for over a year,” said Francis Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Representatives from the groups began meeting several months ago to formulate the plan, breaking up into teams and sub-teams to address the different agencies. To help with the process, they hired as consultants Dinah Bear, who served as general counsel at the White House Council on Environmental Quality for more than two decades, and Donald Barry, who was assistant secretary of the interior in the late ’90s.
The transition document, delivered to the Obama team on Nov. 24, includes plenty of suggestions about Bush-era policy initiatives that enviros would like to see reversed, but also many proactive proposals.
“I’ve been in this business for a long time now, and a lesson I’ve learned is that it’s a lot easier for our community to work together on defense than it is on offense,” said Schlickeisen. “So the fact that we could come together on a set of recommendations that comprehensive is fairly remarkable.”
The economic downturn has a lot of folks nervous about the prospects for major changes in environmental policy, but many are hoping that the economic situation will actually spur government spending on programs that would create new jobs and reduce reliance on dirty energy sources. Judging by Obama’s statements thus far, enviros see reason to hope.
“We’re very realistic to realize that it’s going to be hard to make commitments and advance policy if it isn’t in line with how we get the economy moving again,” said Beinecke. “That’s going to be the top priority, because it’s affecting people in their lives every day. I’m very heartened that [Obama] sees the path to economic recovery to be to invest in a green energy economy, which absolutely is directly linked to climate policy … The fact that the president-elect is linking them is a huge plus, and we’re going to work hard with his team to identify how we think that needs to happen.”
Knobloch argues that environmental improvements are key to turning around the economy. “You hear politicians saying, ‘I’m going to create jobs.’ It’s important to push back and say, ‘How? Where?'” said Knobloch. “This is where the beef is, that we have this extremely inefficient energy economy, half as efficient and twice as wasteful as our counterparts, per person, in Europe and Japan, and that makes it an inefficient and vulnerable economy.”
The environmental leaders caution that it won’t be easy to accomplish their goals next year. “Often the devil is in the details on these things, so there’s always going to be lots of room for disagreement down the way,” said Schlickeisen of Defenders of Wildlife.
But for now, they’re more optimistic, and more united, than ever.