The Obama administration comes to office with an environment and energy agenda that has been deferred for about a decade. Energy is one of the crises confronting the economy and imperils the long-term sustainability of the planet. If we solve that problem, we can reduce pollution and greenhouse gasses and reignite economic growth.
The new president clearly understands the importance of the issue and has assembled an impressive array of talent to manage sustainability policy. His most important move was to name former Envioronmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner to a newly created White House position as the federal government's energy and environmental policy "czar." The White House staff has long had senior officials charged with such critical areas as economic and national security policy, but environment and energy policy has never enjoyed that degree of prominence, nor senior staff within the president's own office.
Browner could be the perfect person to handle the internal political battles that will be fought to bring sustainability to the top of the political agenda. And she will not work alone; the entire Obama "green team" is strong, and includes a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and men and women with a great deal of experience in environmental issues.
Capable as they are, they must overcome the near-decade of deferred progress. Staffers at EPA, Interior and the Department of Energy are demoralized, many talented people have left federal service, and the environmental community has shifted much of its attention to state and local initiatives, viewing the federal government as hopeless. But sustainability issues require federal and international action. Climate change is the most urgent agenda item—but there are other critical issues.
I see several specific initiatives that must be undertaken immediately. The Obama administration must open up serious international negotiations to set global limits on carbon dioxide emissions. The Clean Air Act must be amended to regulate carbon dioxide as an air pollutant. And a carbon tax, or a cap-and-trade program, must be developed to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Tax incentives and low-cost loans should be put in place to encourage more energy-and water-efficient buildings, both new construction and retrofits.
In addition, there must be more basic and applied research on developing renewable energy sources, particularly solar power. The Bush administration's rules that opened federal lands to increased exploitation must be reversed. And we must provide technical assistance, and capital, to developing nations in order to help them improve their agriculture and water technologies.
The greatest challenge to this new team is to make it clear that there is no tradeoff between economic growth and environmental protection. Economic growth depends on a sustainable biosphere. The best way to address the nation's current economic crisis is to build a sustainable economy: an economy built on renewable energy, mass transit and green buildings. At long last, our economic, political and environmental agendas have converged.
Cohen is executive director and chief operating officer of the Earth Institute. He is also director of the Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) and director of the Environmental Policy Concentration at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).
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