Dear Mr. President: UCS Letter Outlines Concrete Steps Obama Can Take to Address Climate Change

March 11, 2013
Kevin Knobloch
Former contributor

Union of Concerned Scientists Board Chair Jim McCarthy and I sent a letter to President Obama to applaud his commitment to address the threat of climate change in his second term and to propose a number of concrete ways he can do so.

Echoing the President’s own understanding of the robustness of the body of climate science, we said that “continued high emissions will lock in increasingly dangerous and irreversible changes in climate for future generations.”

We stressed that we now have a renewed window for action, emphasizing that “public understanding of the urgent need to adopt measures that reduce the risk of disruptive future climate has shifted significantly in the past few years, creating a more favorable environment within which to win support for far reaching climate policies.”

The full text of the letter highlights what our UCS team believes are the highest priority measures the President can take in the next year or two.

(In our letter, we primarily focused on climate change, clean energy, and science leadership – not because other areas that UCS works on, like reducing the threat of nuclear weapons or moving toward sustainable agricultural practices, aren’t important, but because we thought it important to prioritize our “asks.”)

Wanted: Scientists and engineers in the cabinet, White House

One of those asks was that he build on his first term success of appointing highly capable scientists and engineers to key cabinet and other senior posts.

What some dubbed the “dream green team” was more accurately a dream science team, with Nobel laureate Stephen Chu, a physicist, as Secretary of Energy; Jane Lubchenco, with degrees in biology, zoology, and ecology, as Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; John Holdren, with degrees in aerospace engineering and theoretical plasma physics, as the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy; and Lisa Jackson, a chemical engineer, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Chu, Lubchenco, and Jackson have departed or shortly will depart the Administration, and the President appeared to be heeding our call when he named his new nominees for Secretary of Energy and the EPA, Ernie Moniz and Gina McCarthy, last Monday. (No successor to Lubchenco has been named yet.)

Of course being a scientist doesn’t guarantee a strong leader and manager of these large federal operations. The ideal combination is scientific expertise (or, at minimum, understanding how to access and rely upon it), leadership and management skills, policy knowledge and savvy, and commitment to public service.

A seasoned, versatile physicist

Like Secretary Chu, Dr. Moniz is a seasoned and well regarded physicist – at one point chairing the Department of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at another serving as director of the Bates Linear Accelerator Center.

And also like his predecessor, he has immersed himself over his career in understanding energy technology and policy, leading, for example, a series of studies on the future of nuclear power, coal, nuclear fuel cycles, natural gas, and solar energy in a low-carbon world.

Dr. Moniz has considerable experience managing federal government agencies, having served as Under Secretary of the Department of Energy from 1997-2001 and as Associate Director for Science of the Office of Science and Technology Policy from 1995-97.

He is also knowledgeable about nuclear weapons issues – a high priority at DOE — and is equipped to make the case that the President can achieve his goal of increasing US security by further reducing the size of our nuclear arsenal. In his former DOE role, he led a comprehensive review of the nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship program.

The nominee has attracted some concern from some in the environmental community because of his support for nuclear energy and natural gas, even as his views appear to be consistent with the President’s call for an “all of the above” energy strategy. It will be important for him to work with the science and environmental communities and industry to address the climate change and safety issues associated with those energy sources.

A science-based decider

Ms. McCarthy, with the benefit of a Master of Science in Environmental Health Engineering from Tufts University and tours of duty as a top environmental protection official for Republican governors in Massachusetts and Connecticut and her current role as Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, has consistently, in my observation, grounded her decisions in the best available science.

In fact, as I told the Washington Post last week, “What she’s tough about is the science-based standard. She’s very pragmatic about how you get there.”

She was instrumental, in President Obama’s first term, in fashioning the strong greenhouse gas emission standards that will nearly double the fuel economy of the American vehicle fleet by 2025 – standards that were widely endorsed by auto manufacturing companies, in part because of their attention to practical considerations. Similarly, the air toxics rule that she stewarded had strong science-based reduction targets and also flexibility for industry to help them achieve them.

These two nominees are in the spirit of the President’s first-term science appointments, and are a compelling signal that he intends to advance national action on climate change over the next four years. Our letter of February 21 has useful guidance for his new team on ways to make significant progress.