Exiled Obama aides work on climate in ‘alternative reality’

Source: Mark K. Matthews, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, October 16, 2018

They may be out of the White House, but the players behind President Obama’s landmark initiatives on climate change aren’t out of the fight.

Obama’s universe of environmental officials — almost to a person — has pressed ahead on climate and clean energy issues despite efforts by President Trump to reverse much of its past work.

Many of these officials, such as former Obama aide Kate Brandt, are doing it from the boardroom; in her case, as Google’s sustainability officer.

Others have set up shop in the nonprofit world or as activists. Among them: Luke Bassett, a climate policy adviser at Obama’s Energy Department, who now works on a similar portfolio at the Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy group.

Several Obama officials have found jobs in the arena of climate-friendly investing — a growing and potentially lucrative market.

These moves aren’t unique. It’s typical for administration officials to return to their chosen fields once their time with the government is over.

That said, one Obama alumnus made the case that it’s significant so many former aides and agency leaders have tried to keep up the momentum — a continuity that he said could foreshadow a second, more ambitious attempt on the federal level to address climate change and promote renewable energy.

“When the moment comes — and I can’t predict when — there will be another push on federal policy,” said Jon Carson, a former Obama campaign aide and onetime chief of staff at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “And when it happens it will be a remarkably different moment than it was in 2009 and 2010.”

His reasoning is that the Obama team didn’t have a built-in network of support when it took political risks on environmental issues — such as the $90 billion it steered to the clean energy industry as part of the roughly $800 billion stimulus package of 2009. But now, Carson said, there’s an established market in renewables that could provide a drumbeat of support for future solar and wind policies.

That includes Carson himself, who co-founded a clean-energy development company called Trajectory Energy Partners. He also has stayed involved politically — notably by supporting the candidacy of Democrat Sean Casten, another clean-energy entrepreneur trying to unseat six-term incumbent Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) (Climatewire, Aug. 7).

“He will walk into Congress a leader in this issue,” Carson said.

Cameron Davis, another administration veteran, is running for office in Obama’s political home turf of Illinois. Davis once served as Obama’s Great Lakes czar; now he’s trying to win a commission seat on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

If elected, Davis said he would push the agency to tackle issues like phosphorus runoff, which can affect the health of downstream waterways as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. “From an environmental standpoint, it’s a really important office,” Davis said.

Davis said he was inspired by Obama’s farewell speech in January 2017, particularly the part in which Obama said, “If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself.”

Davis said, “I let those words haunt me for a little too long.”

He was one of several former Obama officials interviewed for this story who said they remain in close contact with a number of their former colleagues. Some said this loose network often serves as a hub to share job postings or vent about the current administration.

But Davis said there’s a political angle too.

“Most of the chatter isn’t about policy,” he said. “It’s more about helping to turn out the vote. Because you can’t have good policy without electing good policymakers.”

One Obama alumna said last month’s Global Climate Action Summit in California served as a “reunion of sorts” for past officials in the White House, EPA and the Energy Department.

“I ran into people I worked with throughout my time in the Obama administration,” said Liz Purchia, EPA’s former head of communications. “It felt like an alternative reality if there were never a Trump administration.”

Purchia, who now works on climate and health at Harvard University alongside former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, said she expects candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential field to reach out soon to Obama’s environmental team as they prepare for a White House run.

“They will be tapping former Obama staffers, asking them to craft their energy and environmental positions,” Purchia said.

For prospective 2020 candidates, the business world is a good place to start.

Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is with Apple Inc., serving as its vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives. Rohan Patel, once a senior adviser for climate and energy policy, now works at Tesla Inc., the electric car company led by Elon Musk.

Several Obama alumni have landed in the finance field, specifically for banks and firms that invest in the broad category of “sustainability,” which includes everything from clean energy to waste management.

Among them is Ivan Frishberg, who promoted the administration’s climate policies at Organizing for Action, Obama’s chief mouthpiece. Frishberg is now the sustainability banking chief at Amalgamated Bank, an outfit that’s become a go-to financial institution for environmentalists (Climatewire, Sept. 28).

Brian Deese, who played a key role in Obama’s negotiation of the Paris climate agreement, is in a similar spot — he heads sustainable investing at BlackRock Inc., the global financial powerhouse.

A number of Obama officials now work for Ridge-Lane, an advisory and venture development firm, co-founded by Tom Ridge, the former chief of Homeland Security.

The firm has moved into the emerging sustainability market, and to help advance that line of business, Ridge-Lane has recruited former White House officials such as Christine Harada, once the federal chief sustainability officer, and Kerry Duggan, a top adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden on energy and climate issues.

“It is not a huge surprise that some top-shelf subject matter experts who care about the health of our people and planet have found ways to still work together to have real impact,” Duggan wrote in an email.

Duggan, who acted as a conduit between Detroit and the Obama White House, said another trend is the migration of administration officials into local and state government.

“A lot of us have gone out to the states and the cities to continue the work,” Duggan said.

One of those is Janine Benner, an Obama political appointee who was a liaison between House lawmakers and the Energy Department. She now heads the Oregon Department of Energy.

“The federal game has turned more defensive and the action is mostly at the state and local level,” Benner wrote in an email.

Not surprisingly, the advocacy world also has attracted its fair share of Obama officials.

Former deputy EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe is the president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Former Obama “climate czar” Carol Browner chairs the board of directors at the League of Conservation Voters.

And then there’s Bassett at the Center for American Progress.

He said he’s not surprised that many of his former colleagues remain engaged on climate change, which he called the “defining, existential crisis that is facing all of us.”

But he said it won’t be enough to simply take back the White House and continue where the Obama administration left off.

Bassett said Trump has cut into U.S. progress on climate by undermining Obama initiatives to reduce emissions from cars and power plants (Climatewire, Aug. 24).

Because of that, “we have to be even more ambitious,” Bassett said.

But, he added, to help accomplish those feats, the climate movement shouldn’t overlook the most famous Obama alumnus of all — Obama himself.

“He is personally passionate about this issue,” Bassett said. “I have no doubt that he and many of his staff are thinking about it.”