Will the Obama administration be serious about climate change?

Tuesday, 11. November 2008     0 comment(s)
Raimo Väyrynen

Scenarios of climate change and its societal impacts are everyday stuff in today’s academic and think tank world. However, I recently came across a book that is in many ways fascinating. The is book edited by Kurt M. Campbell and entitled Climatic Cataclysm: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Climate Change (Brookings Institution Press 2008). The book has been produced and compiled under the auspices of the Center for American Progress that, John Podesta and his colleagues set up in 2003 and, which subsequently became a haven for Democrats that had fled the Clinton Administration in 2000 after the election of George W. Bush.

What is then interesting in this collection of articles? The first aspect to catch the reader’s attention is the acknowledgement section which lists a good number of members in the American scientific and policy elites with Democratic persuasion. The book itself outlines three plausible climate change scenarios developed by Jay Culledge who is a senior scientist from the Pew Center on Climate Change. These three scenarios depict expected, severe and catastrophic changes, and their consequences over the next thirty years, in the case of the first two scenarios, and over the next one hundred years in the case of the catastrophic scenario. After the specification of scenarios, several authors explore their potential political and social consequences.

The collection of authors is impressive (which does not, of course, necessarily assure quality). The authors include R. James Woolsey, a former director of CIA, and Leon Fuerth, the former national security adviser to Vice President Al Gore. The most interesting name among the authors is John Podesta who is now co-heading Barack Obama’s presidential transition team and who will, in all likelihood, be a central player in the new administration. Some rumors put him in the position of the Energy Secretary. Podesta is the former Chief of Staff of Bill Clinton and supported Hillary Clinton in Democratic primaries, but he made a smooth transition to the Obama camp, partly through the good services of Tom Daschle for whom he worked as an aide in the Senate.

In Climatic Cataclysm, Podesta has coauthored a chapter on the security implications of the “expected climate change” (for an academic reader it is relevant to note that his name comes before the co-author, Peter Ogden). The chapter is a matter-of- fact kind of analysis that builds its political commentary on the scientific conclusions made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The authors explore the implications of climate change for development and stability in various regions of the world and come to the conclusion that, despite the risk of hazards in many parts of the world, South Asia appears to be most exposed to adverse consequences of climate change. For good reasons, China’s and, to a lesser extent, Russia’s challenge to global warming and its curtailment receives a lengthy discussion.

In a policy perspective, the most riveting issue is, though, Podesta’s and Ogden’s discussion on the impact of climate change on energy policies. To cut the story short, the authors see that “oil will remain the key commodity for the United States” and while natural gas remains important, in the world the “rate of growth in coal consumption will exceed that of natural gas”. The authors are skeptical of nuclear power, as it has potential adverse consequences for national and societal security, while biofuels may become a consequential factor in transportation.

In his chapter, Podesta comes out as an unreconstructed conservative in energy policy. He is delivering a message that is at odds with Obama’s professed investment of some $ 140 billion in alternative sources of energy. Podesta and Ogden pay practically no attention to the alternative sources of energy, but their geopolitical view of the world considers fossil fules as the backbone of the energy policy of industrialized countries. As a result, either Obama has to give up his message of finding alternative solutions to the emitters of greenhouse gases or, if Podesta becomes the Energy Secretary, he has to change his mind (which does not seem to be easy for him as a gloves-off politician). (Subsequent note, John Podesta has announced that he will not take a position in the Obama adminstration)

True, Podesta and Ogden say that the United States is expected to be the “first responder” to various challenges but if the present article gives any hints, the United States will not be heading a revolution in clean energy technologies and the global mission to control climate change. There is an active debate going on in Obama’s transition team on whether the management of the financial crisis and various reform proposals made by the candidate during the campaign should be implement at once by a “big bang” or whether they should be sequenced so that health care, energy, and other problems will be addressed at a later stage. If Podesta takes the lead, a significant turn in energy policy may not be a priority issue.

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