As I’ve written many times, with the chance of getting any climate legislation out of Congress basically nil, President Obama’s agenda on climate change — and quite possibly his entire presidential legacy — depend on mobilizing the executive branch. There are a lot of possibilities there: implementing strict automobile fuel-efficiency standards and turning the EPA loose on coal-fired power plants, just for starters.
So far, as a new report from Buzzfeed confirms today, the president is making all the right noises. He’s hired John Podesta to oversee a new push on climate change action, and according to new reports, plans to dramatically raise the profile of the Council on Environmental Quality. This is all to the good.
But here the thing: I’ll believe this when I see it. President Obama has a long history of sluggish management of the bureaucracy, and of high-profile announcements that are followed through halfheartedly at best. Climate organizers like Bill McKibben should keep the pressure up.
Here’s Buzzfeed’s Evan McMorris-Santoro on the new agenda:
The Obama administration is getting ready to give a lot more juice to a key executive environmental office in a year officials say will be marked by the White House acting on its own when Congress won’t. The administration, led by newly installed senior adviser John Podesta, is expected to boost the profile of the Council on Environmental Quality…The backstage reshuffling hints at a streamlined process for bold new regulatory moves aimed at curbing greenhouse gasses and standing up the alternative energy industry.
This is all to the good, and I sincerely hope this works out. But successfully using the government to fight climate change will be a prolonged bureaucratic trench war, and quite frankly I’m not sure if President Obama has the determination for it. Aggressive, disciplined mustering of the executive branch’s domestic power takes things like, for starters, not waiting years to nominate people to incredibly important positions. Norman Ornstein put it well during the nadir of the Healthcare.gov fiasco:
It is the larger failure of public administration that has been endemic in the Obama White House, and is probably the president’s most significant weakness…many of the ideas on the table to streamline the nomination process for executive posts, including the cumbersome vetting element, were ignored. From the get-go, the Obama administration was behind the curve on nominating people to fill key posts; many remained unfilled for the first term. Combine that with the shocking failure to quickly nominate judges to fill vacancies—for a constitutional-law professor who had served in the Senate.
Maybe the tide has turned, and we’re going to watch carbon polluters be trampled by a hyper-aggressive EPA. But I don’t think climate activists should take it for granted. They should keep the pressure up, and continue demanding action on Keystone XL, efficiency standards, and most important of all, strong new carbon pollution regulations from the EPA.
Indeed, public pressure can only help these things. Bureaucracies are not monoliths. They respond to pressure like any institution. In any case, climate activists will still be needed after the Obama presidency, because even the strongest effort will not be enough to put the US on a sustainable long-term path. In other words, go McKibben go!