Climate Feedback

Climate policy under Obama: advice, and some results

Like nearly everyone else in America, we at Nature have been thinking about how life might change when the US presidency changes hands next week. From the magazine’s Washington DC offices, just a few blocks from the White House, we’ve been watching the red-white-and-blue bunting go up on buildings along the inaugural parade route. And in this week’s issue, we’ve taken a look at some of the legacies that George W. Bush leaves behind and some of the promises that Barack Obama has been holding forth. (See a related editorial here.) cover_nature.jpg

First up: some advice from experts. In our Commentary section, six leading voices weigh in with their thoughts on how Obama could improve science at various federal agencies. Notably, Christine Todd Whitman – former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency – takes her former boss Bush to task. Among other things she writes: “Although…Bush originally told me that the EPA would be the administration’s representative on the environment, subsequent actions by the vice-president and the CEQ [Council on Environmental Quality] proved otherwise. In fact, towards the end of my tenure at the EPA I was told in no uncertain terms that when the CEQ spoke, it was speaking for the president even if on an issue that the EPA felt needed more work.”

Whitman’s main advice to Obama? Clarify who will speak for the president on environmental matters. This becomes even more important now that Obama has designated Carol Browner as a climate/energy coordinator who, somehow, will have to run the gauntlet of EPA, CEQ, the Department of Energy, and all the myriad other federal agencies that have a piece of climate and energy policy.

Also in the same package, former senator Tim Wirth lays out his argument for why the US must lead the way to a new deal at the climate summit in Copenhagen in December 2009. Obama has said he will make climate a priority, but little time remains to hammer out the international agreement that is meant to replace the Kyoto protocol on climate change, which expires in 2012. His administration will have to hit the ground running and come to agreement in the first few months on the broad outlines of the deal it hopes to achieve, Wirth advises. Have your say about Whitman’s and Wirth’s commentaries here.

Also in this week’s issue of Nature is a report from Jeff Tollefson on the $800-billion-plus economic stimulus package that Obama and Congressional leaders have been hammering out. As Jeff reports, scientists are practically rubbing their hands with glee in anticipation of scoring billions of extra dollars in research and other funding. The House Appropriations Committee today released the proposed American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009, and indeed it looks as if scientists have scored extra funding. On the energy front, it proposes $32 billion to “transform the nation’s energy transmission, distribution and production systems by allowing for a smarter and better grid and focusing investment in renewable technology”. This includes $11 billion for research and development into a smart electricity grid; $8 billion in loans for the renewable energy industry; $2 billion for competitive grants to universities, companies and national laboratories for research into energy efficiency and renewable energy; $2.4 billion for demonstration projects for carbon capture and sequestration; $2 billion in incentives for advanced vehicle battery research; and a host of other tax credits and incentives in the energy arena. The proposal also includes $3 billion extra for the National Science Foundation; $400 million to NASA for climate change research; $600 million to NOAA for satellite development including climate sensors; and $200 million to modernize facilities at the US Geological Survey.

What remains unclear is whether a one-time injection of money, as the stimulus package is designed to be, is actually good for long-term research. Some thoughtful commentators have noted that it’s much more preferable to have increased funds built into the bottom line of the agencies’ year-by-year budgets. What do you think? Leave a comment below.


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