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President-Elect Barack Obama Names Environmental Team as Climate Change Conference Wraps Up in Poland

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President-elect Barack Obama has unveiled his nominees for top climate change and energy positions in his administration. Nobel-winning physicist Steven Chu has been tapped to serve as Energy Secretary. Lisa Jackson, chief of staff to New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, will head the Environmental Protection Agency. Former EPA head Carol Browner will run a newly created White House council to oversee environmental issues. And Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley will head the White House Council on Environmental Quality. At a news conference in Chicago Monday, Obama highlighted his plans to encourage innovation to address the US dependency on foreign oil. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President-elect Barack Obama has unveiled his nominees for top climate change and energy positions in his administration. Nobel-winning physicist Steven Chu has been tapped to serve as Energy Secretary. Lisa Jackson, chief of staff to New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, will head the Environmental Protection Agency. Former EPA head Carol Browner will run a newly created White House council to oversee environmental issues. And Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley will head the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

At a news conference in Chicago Monday, Obama highlighted his plans to encourage innovation to address the US dependency on foreign oil.

    PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: In the next few years, the choices that we make will help determine the kind of country and world that we will leave to our children and our grandchildren. All of us know the problems that are rooted in our addiction to foreign oil. It constrains our economy, shifts wealth to hostile regimes and leaves us dependent on unstable regions. To control our own destiny, America must develop new forms of energy and new ways of using it. This is not a challenge for governmental alone; it’s a challenge for all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Observers say that while Obama’s energy and environmental nominees agree that human-driven global warming poses a stark threat, there are key differences in how they think it should be addressed.

Andrew Revkin is an award-winning science reporter with the New York Times, also writes the “Dot Earth” blog on the New York Times website. His latest book is called The North Pole Was Here: Puzzles and Perils at the Top of the World. He was just awarded the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism, the first science writer to win the award.

Andrew Revkin joins us now in the firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ANDREW REVKIN: It’s good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Good to have you with us, Andrew. Can you start off by talking about these appointments now?

ANDREW REVKIN: Sure. Well, I think this all sort of reflects President-elect Obama’s — that this is a priority for him, even with what’s going on with the economy. He’s got a team here that kind of encapsulates a lot of experience, people who can talk to Congress, and Carol Browner clearly knows Washington. She spent two terms — she’s, I think, the longest-serving EPA administrator from her Clinton years. So she knows the inside. And Dr. Steven Chu, who I’ve interviewed in the past about energy and climate, knows the science, and he knows it pretty deeply, and he knows how hard it is to get sometimes an idea from a laboratory and to become the new norm for energy. And he —-

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who he is, where he comes from, Steven Chu.

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, his Nobel Prize is in pretty basic physics. It’s about how to keep atoms cold and stuff like that, stuff like my colleague Dennis Overbye would write about, who writes about things that I can hardly get my head around.

But in the last five years or so, Dr. Chu went to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to create -— and he came there with this — his mandate for that lab was that energy is our new frontier. And he started to develop programs there that are very much aimed at trying to sort of have big breakthroughs on non-polluting forms of energy that we’ll need as the world heads toward nine billion people, more or less, with everyone wanting a decent life. We need more energy than we have now, even if you set aside the climate problem. But when you add the climate challenge with these building greenhouse gases, that creates this even bigger imperative.

So he’s got the — he clearly has the grounding in both the science and how the science has to translate into products. You know, how do you interface with private sector? How do you make this all happen? So I think the combination shows some possibility of breaking through. As I think President-elect Obama said, you know, this isn’t going to be easy. It’s also a sustained challenge. This is not a one-year kind of issue. It’s a years long, a decades long kind of challenge.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does nuclear fit into this picture?

ANDREW REVKIN: It wasn’t mentioned yesterday, but nuclear — well, during the campaign, the President-elect did say pretty clearly that if certain hurdles can be overcome with nuclear technology, which have been persistent hurdles for decades — you know, how do we get agreement on what to do with waste? Can you make these plants truly safe and secure? You know, whether those issues get traction in the next number of years, if I had to put money on it, I would doubt it. So, the challenges of nuclear, of course, are also financial. You need $8 or $10 billion to build a new nuclear power plant. Even if you had community support and all that stuff, it’s a very big challenge.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, you’ve got to deal with the nuclear waste, which is a so far unresolved issue —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- which means that nuclear industry cannot move forward unless there’s tremendous government subsidy.

ANDREW REVKIN: Yeah, well, not to mention, as I wrote back in 2006 — and we’ve kind of covered this for a long time — if you look at the climate challenge and you want to say — even if you were like the most gung ho nuclear supporter and you said that’s the way we’re going to attack this, you would have to build, between now and 2050, about nearly a thousand new nuclear power plants around the world. And that would just bite off about one-twelfth of the anticipated growth in greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal. So even an absolute peddle-to-the-metal enterprise with nuclear barely nibbles at the size of the challenge, anyway.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about this conference that just wrapped up in Poland. Obama’s energy and environmental appointments came days after a major international climate conference in Poland failed to set ambitious new goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Wealthier nations were also accused of failing to provide enough money to help poorer countries cope with droughts and floods and rising seas. The World Wildlife Fund director, Kim Carstensen, said industrialized nations have blocked progress at the summit.

    KIM CARSTENSEN: We’ve seen a lack of leadership among the developed countries, lack of leadership from the US, because they can’t lead at the moment because they’re waiting for a new president. We’ve seen a lack of leadership from the European Union, who are not leading at the moment, because they’re completely inward-focused, completely looking at themselves and the EU package that they agreed today.

AMY GOODMAN: Although the Obama transition team didn’t take part in the UN summit, there was at least one connection between Poznan in Poland and Chicago. Before arriving in Poland last week, former US Vice President Al Gore held a private meeting with President-elect Obama. The two discussed Obama’s environmental plans and his reported intent to emphasize science in shaping policy. At the Poznan conference, Gore urged climate delegates to approve a new climate treaty next year.

    AL GORE: To those who are fearful that it is too difficult to conclude this process with a new treaty by the deadline that has been established for one year from now in Copenhagen, I say it can be done, it must be done. Let’s finish this process at Copenhagen. Don’t take the pressure off. Let’s make sure that we succeed.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined also, in addition to Andrew Revkin of the New York Times, by Bill McKibben. He’s a leading environmentalist. His 1989 book The End of Nature was one of the first to describe global warming as an emerging environmental crisis. His latest book is called Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. He has just returned from Poland, where he attended the UN climate change conference in Poznan, co-founder of the environmental mobilization campaign called The number 350 refers to calls for a new global target to reduce carbon dioxide levels to no more than 350 parts per million.

Bill McKibben, talk about this conference in Poznan, Poland.

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, Amy, it was as often a sort of drear gab fest in a lot of ways. But there were two important things that happened, both along the same lines. The politics of this, as opposed to the policy, is finally starting to change as more and more people begin to realize that we’re way deeper into the climate problem than we thought.

First thing that happened was that the small island nations and less-developed countries of the world, the first and most vulnerable victims to climate change, sharpened their rhetoric considerably. They started talking about survivability and asking other nations, many of which complied, to sign a pledge saying that whatever they did, they would try to build a climate policy that allowed all nations of the world to survive, not to sink beneath the rising seas or the expanding deserts. I mean, we’re seriously talking, in the not-too-distant future, about hauling flags down outside the UN, because those countries no longer exist. That began to sharpen, the rhetoric.

The other thing that happened — and you didn’t play this clip from Gore’s speech, but it’s the one that got him by far the longest and lustiest round of applause — was when he said — and this was an [inaudible] breakthrough — that we have to start aiming for 350 parts per million CO2. That sounds like a small technical change from 415 parts per million, the current goal, but in fact it changes every aspect of this debate. Since we’re already past 350 — we’re at about 387 parts per million now; that’s why the Arctic is melting — it means that we have to treat this as the full-on emergency that it is, not one more problem on a long list, but the absolute central keystone problem that we have to go to work on in the most impassioned way right now.

Now, look, the momentum of the talks is such that they’ll kind of drag on in their current form for a while towards Copenhagen next December. But I think that the reality of the world’s — the reality of the physics and chemistry in the atmosphere is beginning to overtake the political reality that’s been the main feature of these talks. We’re going to see a much sharpened, much heightened debate with a lot more people getting a lot angrier and demanding actual change.

AMY GOODMAN: I should say Bill McKibben is joining us from his home by Democracy Now! video stream. For those who are watching on TV, you see the snowy outside. Bill McKibben, just back from Poland. Andrew Revkin also wrote extensively about what was happening in Poznan, about this North-South, this wealth nation-poorer nation divide. Can you elaborate on that, Andrew?

ANDREW REVKIN: Yeah. Well, in 2007, already, we wrote a long series of stories called “The Climate Divide,” which was illustrating one of the most uncomfortable realities about climate change, which is that the countries that are most vulnerable to climate extremes right now, even before you add the big pulse of what would come from the buildup of greenhouse gases, they’re all — they’re not the countries that have any history emitting the gases that are starting to cause the change. So there’s this sense of obligation of the rich countries to act.

And what it’s doing, it’s intensifying this longstanding, festering kind of North-South, you know, what-are-you-going-to-do-for-us question. And again, it’s getting more intense. You see in Africa, the African Union in 2007 had some very strong statements about, again — and, actually, you know what’s really strange, is Europe and some of the greener countries involved with Kyoto, they’re pressing Africa to worry about greenhouse gases, even as Africa is saying, “Hey, you guys have the entire history of building this problem. So what are you going to do for us?”

It’s just — and how that plays out, I don’t know. It’s going to be tough, because, strangely, the IPCC projections from last year, this big intergovernmental panel on climate that came out with these four reports, the fourth in twenty years, and four big chapters, they — if you look in there, oddly, the agricultural productivity, for example, of the Northern Hemisphere, places like where we live, may actually go up for a while because of longer growing seasons, before we have our own — we hit our own wall. So there, the countries that are least able to deal with this right now are saying, move. Our citizenry is sort of sitting around, and even our, in some cases, governments are saying, “Well, you know, maybe we don’t need to move so fast.” And you get this really strong sense of a dynamic that could be very real trouble. You’re going to see more and more of this kind of yelling. Now, how that resolves, I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Bill McKibben, how did it play out at the conference, the stopping of any kind of serious arrival at some kind of goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions?

BILL McKIBBEN: No one expected this conference to do that. This was an interim thing. Everybody is waiting to see what happens in Washington.

But the real bottom line is that what we need between now and Copenhagen, if anything is going to happen, is a movement. And that, we can really sense beginning to build there in Poland. We at, which emerged as the kind of de facto global grassroots climate movement, had organizers there from every continent. We had 100 or 200 young people from all around the world, doing an amazing job of lobbying their delegations, but, much more importantly, laying plans for a huge international day of action next October 24th.

We got some little sense of what that was going to look like during the week, when we organized a little demonstration almost as a test in the Himalayan nation of Ladakh. 1,500 people turned out for a [inaudible] day-long 350 rally, as it were, led by the Buddhist association there in Ladakh. That’s the equivalent of about two-and-a-half million people turning out on the Washington Mall for a demonstration, given their population size. I think it gives some sense of the kind of movement that’s beginning to build around the world, especially in poor nations, but also in rich ones, to demand real change. If we can bring it together at before Copenhagen, we have a chance of really changing that debate.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, Greenpeace, Ruckus Society, Rainforest Action Network are all organizing around this March 2nd anti-coal plant civil disobedience. Where is the coal plant that you’re organizing against?

BILL McKIBBEN: If the people in Ladakh are doing what they need to do, one of the things we have to do in this country is take on our dependence on coal, where 50 percent of our electricity comes from. On March 2nd, a bunch of us will be organizing the first big mass civil disobedience in this country around coal outside the coal-fired power plant that powers the nation’s capital. Wendell Berry and I just sent out a letter — the Kentucky farmer and writer — asking people, please, to come for this first big event. You can find more information at the Rainforest Action Network website, or just Google “civil disobedience March 2nd Washington.” And it’s going [inaudible] to be [inaudible] just — we’ve done a pretty good job in the last two years on blocking new coal-fired power plants. We need now to take on the whole question of coal. Jim Hansen of NASA, our greatest climatologist, said recently that if the entire world is not out of the business of burning coal by 2030, and the developed world well before that, there’s no way that we’ll ever get back to 350 parts per million. We will have put too much carbon into the atmosphere. So this is job one.

AMY GOODMAN: And where this coal-fired plant is exactly outside D.C., outside the nation’s capital?

BILL McKIBBEN: Just outside the capital. In fact, you can — it’s an incredible view, with the smokestack from it dropping coal soot all over the poor people of Washington. But right past the smokestack, you get a beautiful view of the Capitol Dome.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, I’d like to ask you to stay with us. We’re going to break. But last comment, Andrew Revkin of the New York Times, on where you see the direction of the Obama energy team going?

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, there’s two directions: legislation and innovation. And legislation is going to be all focused on trying finally to get through Congress a cap-and-trading system. That’s what Obama said he was going to push for. There is disagreement among economists and some environmental experts on whether that’s better than an outright tax on the carbon content in fuels, but something — it’s going to be a challenge there, because coal and energy are not sort of red state-blue state issues. They’re black state issues, meaning there are fossil states that are Democratic, there are fossil states that are Republican. And that’s what makes this so dogged and challenging politically.

On the other side, though, it’s clear — and again, Dr. Chu at Energy Department recognizes — that we’ve completely disinvested in energy research in this country for the last thirty years, as has Europe, the same deal. We’ve just sort of put it on — it’s like we plug in and don’t think about it. And when you look at our energy research budget compared to our budget for the National Institutes of Health, for what happened during the Apollo program, those were tens of billions of dollars a year to go to the moon, to fight cancer, and $80 billion a year to fight wars. That’s basic research. Our basic research budget for energy, including getting more coal out of the ground, not just solar panels, is $1 billion a year. It’s chump change.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Revkin, thanks so much for being with us, from the New York Times. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to look at the naming of a Secretary of Agriculture. It hasn’t happened, but there’s a big movement to name a Secretary of Food, or Food and Agriculture. We’ll be back with a hog farmer from the Midwest, from Iowa.

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