On his last day in the White House — Feb. 12 — John Podesta reflected on the year he had spent serving as President Obama’s senior counselor. Here’s an edited version of the interview.
Q: Where do you think you had the most impact during this West Wing stint?
A: Definitely in the climate and energy space, and in what the president talked about when he first approached me when we talked about me coming here for a year, which was to ensure the Climate Action Plan was well implemented. I think we’ve done a very, very good job of that, across the government and across our team here at the White House, and I was happy to be part of that.
We’ve also really invigorated the conservation space here. We’ve made enormous progress, with the president now protecting more land and waters than any president in history.
Q: What was the most difficult?
A: Probably the piece that was a challenge throughout the time I was here was working with the Chinese on a joint announcement in China. I think that put tremendous energy into finding a positive solution in Paris [at the 2015 U.N. climate talks], and that took a lot of time and a lot of work, along with my State colleagues, starting with Secretary [John F.] Kerry and Todd Stern, our chief climate envoy. I think that was a major achievement, to have the Chinese declare for the first time they would peak their emissions. And to do it with the American president in Beijing sent a very sharp signal to the world that we could make progress on climate change, and it sent a signal to the market that investments in renewable, clean energy technologies are the way of the future.
Q: How do you think it sent a signal to the markets?
A: The Chinese commitment on non-fossil power is 20 percent of their total electricity production by 2030,which is an equivalent investment in clean power as the entire coal power they currently have. So that’s a lot of renewable energy, wind and solar, combined with what we’re doing here in the United States. In 2012, more than 50 percent of new capacity was renewable energy in the United States. The price of solar is coming down dramatically. We’ve increased the amount of solar installation more than tenfold since the president came into office.
So that combination of those two big economies making big investments in renewable energy is going to drive cost down and drive clean energy production up. So I think that is a very positive market signal that clean energy is the future.
[That gave] momentum for an agreement being made. . . . And I think that the U.S. leadership, domestically, has given the capacity to move forward in that process a very strong momentum. The Clean Power Plan has meant that we have tremendous leadership and credibility on the topic. That’s given the opportunity for people to get serious, rather just blaming each other and saying the other side’s not doing enough. That’s why the announcement . . . kind of galvanized the world community in thinking we actually can tackle this problem.
Q: What do you think needs to be done in the remaining years of the administration to address climate change?
A: There’s a lot of work to complete. We need to finalize the rule of the Clean Power Plan. We need to regulate methane emissions from oil and gas production.
I think we can finally see making progress to reduce the super-pollutant [hydrofluorcarbons] through the mechanism of the Montreal Protocol . . . as a result of the president’s direct, bilateral diplomacy. First with President Xi [Jinping] in Sunnylands and now with President Modi of India. . . . There are still some other players who could cause problems. But with India and China on board, I think we can make progress on phasing down those very strong, harmful pollutants and replace them with alternative chemicals.
[On public attitudes about global warming] people are prepared to do something about it, including Republicans. Well, maybe not Republican politicians, but Republican voters are prepared to do something about it. That builds both a constituency for action, and a rejection, I think, of climate denial which we’ve seen over the last six or seven years, particularly in the political space.
Q: To what extent do you think what the administration has done is sufficient in addressing climate change?
A: The president has a suite of authorities that get us to a point, but Congress needs to engage in this to make the progress we’re going to really need to do what scientists are telling us is necessary to put us on a path to this deep, deep decarbonization that we need to have by mid-century. So I think we can get up to 2025. But after that it gets tough without any new legislation. I don’t see any prospect of that in this Congress. So it will be up to the next president and the next Congresses to tackle that problem.
Q: To what extent do you think the strategy you’ve pursued has contributed to political polarization, and alienated the Republicans who would have to approve a future climate bill?
A: The administration went through a big effort in 2009, in 2010. There was a lot of support for that, obviously legislation passed the House of Representatives. We tried to work on a bipartisan basis in the Senate, that wasn’t to be.
But now I think when you put someone in charge of the [Senate Enivironment and Public Works] Committee who thinks climate change is a hoax, our prospects for finding bipartisan solutions tend to get reduced. So we’re just going to have to do what we need to do, using existing authorities, and I think if there’s opportunity to find common-sense solutions, we’re certainly open to it. But if we have to sit with our hands folded until the climate deniers on Capitol Hill change their mind, we’re not going to do that.
Q: What about public lands conservation?
A: We have racked up, already, a tremendous record of protecting the most precious spaces in the country, as well as using the powers the president has under the Antiquities Act to recognize some very special historic places in the country. And we’re about to do a little more on that. I had a hand in getting that ready but it will happen in the days after I’m gone, [Obama designated three national monuments last week.] There are some other places we’re looking at, both on land and in the oceans, that are very special and are candidates for future protection. Those analyses are in train.
I had that experience with President Clinton. Once you get out to visit some of the places that are really spectacular in this country and understand that you can have a hand in not only remembering how they connected to the history of our country but to protect them for future generations, presidents kind of get into that. So I think President Obama’s no exception. He keeps telling he wants to go to the Remote Pacific islands. But I keep telling him it’s a long way, having flown over it on my way to Palau. It’s a long way to go.
Q: What do you think the next Democratic nominee, regardless of who that is, will have to embrace or distance himself or herself from the president?
A: They’ll have to offer real solutions to the question of how they’re going to build a clean energy future and how they’re going protect public health, and how they’re going to prepare the country for the inevitable impacts of climate change. I think they’ll have a strong platform to work from, because of actions President Obama has done. We’ll see there are some people who, I think, you could pigeonhole in the Republican side, who you could fairly label as denying the science of climate change. And I think there are some people who are perhaps more open to trying to find sensible solutions. The primaries will determine who’s successful in that regard. On the Democratic side, there’s no question that the nominee will emerge from the process both accepting the science and offering solutions for the future. And they’ll have a strong record to build on based on what President Obama has accomplished.
Q: What are specific examples you would give of President Obama’s interest in these issues?
A: From the moment of his speech after his reelection in 2012 through his State of the Union, I think he has really focused on this challenge and the need to, when he’s out of office, to look back and say he did what he could to make progress on this. I think he looks on this as one of the key, critical challenges the country’s facing, and I think he also really does recognize that the power of transitioning to a clean energy future could be a tremendous driver of future opportunity. So it’s got both costs and opportunities associated with it.
He’s very into it. He keeps abreast of it. I think that he was extraordinarily into, and had me briefing him on, the details of the China announcement right up to the night before the announcement. . . . He’s kind of all in on this stuff. When he called me into the Oval Office right before the helicopter took off [for his trip earlier this month to California], he gave me a framed copy of the joint announcement, which I will hold dearly.
Q: And what did he say?
A: He said he was glad that I came, and he was going to miss me.