Biden is pressed to support a National Climate Council

Source: By Jean Chemnick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, October 6, 2020

A Biden White House could borrow a 12-year-old idea from Obama climate consigliere John Podesta to create a high-level council for organizing global warming policy across the federal government.

Podesta wrote a memo in 2008 that called for a National Climate Council when he headed the Obama-Biden transition team. The idea was never adopted, though Podesta went on to helm Obama’s second-term climate effort in a role that served roughly the same purpose of providing White House oversight to domestic and international climate efforts.

But the idea of creating a deeper bench of climate experts within the White House is up for consideration again as liberal think tanks, environmentalists and alumni of past administrations look ahead hopefully to a Biden victory next month.

“It’s definitely one idea of structure rather than substance that has got a lot of salience across the board from people in the climate community,” said Thom Woodroofe, senior adviser on multilateral affairs at the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former climate diplomat.

Podesta, who is advising the Biden campaign, revisited his idea this year in an article in the May/June edition of Foreign Affairs magazine with Obama climate envoy Todd Stern.

“Modeled after the National Security Council and the National Economic Council, the National Climate Council would boast a specialized support staff capable of directing and delivering quantifiable results across the federal government,” they wrote. “It would spearhead executive action and legislation and coordinate between actors at the state and local levels.”

The council’s remit would cover everything from the diplomatic and security aspects of climate change to deployment of clean energy and efforts to boost climate resilience, they wrote.

The idea appears to be percolating in Democratic policy circles, though experts say the details aren’t ironed out yet. Alumni of Obama’s second term, when Podesta would routinely call high-ranking agency representatives into his office to receive progress reports in implementing the Climate Action Plan, say a similar coordination role will be necessary to resuscitate U.S. climate policy after President Trump’s efforts to disband it.

Joe Goffman, an EPA senior counsel under President Obama, said there was substantial discussion around the council during the Democratic primaries earlier this year.

“Anything that re-creates what John Podesta and Brian Deese were able to accomplish in the second term would be invaluable,” said Goffman, referring to the White House official who took over the role from Podesta in 2015.

Nathaniel Keohane, a White House special assistant during Obama’s first term who is now senior vice president for climate at the Environmental Defense Fund, said a climate council could provide valuable support to a Podesta-like figure in a Biden administration and underline that climate change is a presidential priority.

But he said the details would be important. It would matter, for example, where the White House’s top climate official sat in relation to the president. Podesta famously had an office adjacent to the Oval Office and frequent access to Obama.

“In my view, it would be much more valuable to have an informal apparatus that didn’t have a name but that was led by somebody with the president’s trust sitting in the West Wing who had clear, dotted-line relationships with people who were tasked with climate and energy in the NSC at a senior level,” Keohane said.

Setting up a new policy council in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, for example, led by someone with no relationship with the president or other top White House decisionmakers would be “a check-the-box exercise,” he said. It would look like a step forward for climate change but could actually lead to the issue being even more siloed than it was before.

“You need a really single, forceful, powerful actor within the White House with the mandate to lead the president’s climate agenda across the White House and the rest of the government,” said Jason Bordoff, who served as senior director for energy and climate change at the NSC under Obama.

Like Podesta, that person should have enough stature to engage foreign ministers directly. Podesta was instrumental in forging the U.S.-China deal on climate that made the Paris Agreement possible.

Bordoff, who is founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, said that figure could direct a National Climate Council.

Bordoff’s own proposal, which could work in conjunction with the creation of a new policy council, would be for the Biden administration to introduce a deputy national security adviser for climate and energy within the NSC. The Obama White House created lower-level “senior director” and “special assistant to the president” positions for climate and energy.

But the introduction of a higher-level deputy role would help integrate climate considerations into broader national security planning and across U.S. foreign policy, Bordoff said, giving climate change a seat in senior staff meetings.

It would also increase the likelihood that climate change would appear on the president’s daily briefing and would be considered when setting strategy on issues not narrowly focused on global warming.

“Many issues of national security consider counterterrorism, they consider nonproliferation. I think they increasingly need to consider climate,” said Bordoff. “Because we know that over the coming decade or two that climate is going to drive increased desertification, which may drive increased conflict and migration that helps to, for example, bolster the recruiting potential of Boko Haram.”

The elevated position would also signal to the world that climate change is a U.S. foreign policy priority, as it did when President George W. Bush created a deputy national security adviser position for Iraq and Afghanistan. And it would ensure climate is considered more broadly within agencies.

“I don’t want to say that every issue is a climate issue, because it’s not, but I think we need to move in the direction where climate is being more broadly considered for issues that are not narrowly defined as international climate issues, like how do we rejoin Paris or how do we get the Kigali Amendment [on hydrofluorocarbons] through Congress,” Bordoff said.