When Barack Obama unveils his energy and environment team this week, greens across the country will be poring over the details in search of clues as to the President-Elect’s strategy for rolling back President Bush’s dismal environmental legacy. One appointment is likely face particular scrutiny: according to leaked reports, Obama is poised to appoint senior transition adviser and former EPA chief Carol Browner to be his “climate czar,” tasked with sparking spearheading his administration’s efforts on global warming and spark a clean-energy revolution.
That begs the question: What would a climate czar actually do? Browner’s precise job description isn't yet clear, but it’s likely that she’ll serve as a high-level White House adviser, coordinating the work of Cabinet officials and perhaps heading a National Energy Council modeled on Bill Clinton’s National Economic Council. That, at least, is the plan put forward by the Center for American Progress, the liberal think-tank that’s provided the intellectual muscle for Obama’s transition effort (and whose head, John Podesta, is co-chair of Obama’s transition team). “You’ve got Energy, Interior, EPA, Agriculture, Transport, State—all are going to have something to do with energy and global warming,” says Daniel J Weiss, the group’s director of climate strategy. “This would provide a person who could coordinate those activities.”
It’s unlikely that Browner’s business cards will actually read “Climate Czar”, since Obama reportedly dislikes the title’s autocratic resonances. Still, the media won’t let her abandon the title so easily, and conservatives are already trying to use the appointment to paint Obama as another high-handed, big-government Democrat. “I’m not sure what the climate czar is supposed to do—wave a magic wand and stop the waves coming in?” scoffs James Bovard, a libertarian author and rabble-rouser once dubbed the “anti-czar czar” by the New York Times. Bovard is skeptical that the new climate czar will be any more successful than the various drug czars who’ve been trying and failing to stem America’s drug habit for the past quarter-century. “This is typical of the Washington habit of using the ‘czar’ title to pretend the problem has been solved,” he said.
Either way, experts say there’s a risk that a climate czar would merely complicate things, further slowing the federal government’s already glacial efforts to tackle global warming. “It does create a new layer of bureaucracy,” says Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University. “It’s hard, unless you have the president’s backing, to impose one’s will on all the different departments and agencies.” Still, Obama really doesn’t have much choice: the sheer scope of the climate crisis makes the appointment of a single central manager a necessity rather than a luxury. “The government of the US today has gotten so big, and has its tentacles involved in so many different problems, that the need for coordination is stronger than ever,” Wayne adds.
Trying to herd Cabinet officials, agency staff and lawmakers—all with their own portfolios and agendas—could prove a thankless task. Former climate-policy aide to California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger Terry Tamminen, who advised Obama’s environmental transition team and who was himself seen as a candidate for the climate czar gig, says that while his wife is disappointed that she won’t be able to start calling herself a czarina, he’s personally happy to see Browner take the job. “Nobody’s going to say thank you to Carol for this,” he said. “It’s a hard job, and she’s doing us a great service—very few people could pull it off better than she could.”
Tamminen says that Obama appears to have taken a broad view in assembling his environmental team, not merely picking the highest-profile candidates for each position, but rather assembling a team with complementary skills. Likely Energy Secretary appointee Steven Chu brings technical expertise; Lisa Jackson, at EPA, has experience designing and implementing carbon-reducing programs; Nancy Sutley, heading the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, is a skilled behind-the-scenes fixer able to bring people together and hammer out compromises. Browner’s role, Tamminen says, will likely be to make sure that everyone keeps their eyes on the prize. “If this were a basketball team, you’d have some great players with individual skills—outside shooters, inside shooters,” Tamminen says. “Carol Browner is the perfect coach and the face of the organization.”
As figureheads go, Browner is no Al Gore—another much-discussed candidate for the job—but she’s certainly well-liked in environmental circles. “In our world of policy ... she’s actually a celebrity,” says Julia Bovey, media director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “People look at her and say ‘Wow!’” Browner used her time as EPA chief to tackle controversial topics ranging from air pollution to food safety, Bovey says, and showed political savvy in building bipartisan support. “She pulled it off,” Bovey says. “When we look back on the last eight years, the things she accomplished in her time seem pretty heroic.”
Browner’s track record suggests that she’ll seek win-win solutions to political disputes, trying to build consensus rather than simply to win arguments. That dovetails neatly with Obama’s post-partisan rhetoric, but could disappoint some liberals. Kyla Bennett, who worked at Browner’s EPA for most of the 1990s, says that her former boss had a troubling tendency to focus more on keeping her political masters happy than on doing the right thing for the environment. “The message we were getting was ‘Make the politicians happy so I don’t get in trouble,’” says Bennett, who now directs the New England branch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “I don’t think she’ll have the strength to stand up to senators and congressmen.”
Obama clearly feels differently: a part of Browner’s appeal is that it was she who, back in the 1990s, first seriously floated the idea of using the EPA to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act, rather than waiting for lawmakers to pass specific climate legislation (an idea that led to a Supreme Court case directing the EPA to do just that). In tapping Browner, Obama is sending a message to Congress that when it comes to getting things done, he and Browner are cut from the same cloth: ready and willing to bypass Capitol Hill altogether if lawmakers fail to move swiftly to pass cap-and-trade legislation.
That captures both the strength and the weakness of czar-level positions. Browner’s power will stem from her position as a symbol of the president’s will to push through climate and energy reforms; but as such, her influence will be contingent upon the president’s continuing support. I.M. Destler, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, draws parallels to Clinton’s National Economic Council, which did well under its first chief, Bob Rubin, but lost much of its clout after Rubin left to run the Treasury. “The personal relationships are crucial,” Destler says. “In the second term of the Clinton administration, the NEC faded.”
The lesson for Browner is that while it will be easy for her to thrive in the early days of Obama’s administration, as the President tries to deliver on his campaign pledges, it may become harder as time goes by and the President’s attention drifts to other priorities. In the long run, unless Browner can ensure that Obama himself remains committed to and engaged in the climate fight, she’ll be at risk of becoming just another toppled czar.
Story by Ben Whitford. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in December 2008.