Former White House Climate Adviser: ‘We Just Don’t Have Enough Time’

Source: By Eric Roston, Bloomberg • Posted: Wednesday, November 11, 2020

John Podesta explains how the Biden administration should address a warming planet

John Podesta

John Podesta. Photographer: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

John Podesta served in the White House as counselor in charge of climate and energy policy during President Barack Obama’s second term. He has no desire to reprise his role in the Biden administration, but in an interview he still has some advice for the incoming team.

“The key is setting the right destination. That’s why these net-zero [emissions] commitments are so crucial,” Podesta said, in a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg Green ahead of the election. “I’m leaving it to the younger set, let’s put it that way.”

Podesta is founder and a director of the think tank Center for American Progress and an advisory board member of the group Climate Power 2020. He was also President Bill Clinton’s first staff secretary and later chief of staff. Decades of experience give him an insider’s view of how to manage a vast, messy bureaucracy to grapple with a vast, messy issue. He also has a clear sense of what’s changed in the five years since he held a White House job job. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

relates to Former White House Climate Adviser: ‘We Just Don't Have Enough Time’

Podesta, third from left, along with Vice President Biden, second from right, listen to President Obama speak at the White House in February 2014.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

What’s changed since you left the White House in 2015?

The most important thing that’s changed is the politics. People thought climate change was a problem when Obama was first elected in 2008. They were generally in favor of investment in clean energy, energy efficiency, and the attendant things one needs to get emissions down. It wasn’t a top-tier issue for most people. That’s changed.

They now know that extreme weather and other effects, like rising sea levels, are going to undermine their security and wellbeing. Just over the course of the primaries and into the general you saw how much Biden leaned into this question, and made it central to his plan to recover from the Covid-induced recession.

Why do czars draw so much interest? What’s a “climate czar” anyway?

Accountability and ambition need to be organized, and come from the president himself. You need structures in the White House to organize the whole of government, to tackle this both domestically and internationally. Going back to 1993, I saw the success of creating the National Economic Council and the ability to get much better economic decision-making. You had a cabinet-level group of people, who were thinking through how to move the economy forward. I’m an advocate for doing the same thing for climate and energy.

What I’m certain of is you have to vest that coordination function in the White House. If you’re really just counting on appointing good people who care about the topic to the federal agencies, and they’re not certain whether they have the backup of the White House, you’re just not going to get as much done.

When you’re in the White House, how do all these intense considerations – domestic and international politics, scientific guidance, technology potential — wind together into anything coherent?

When I was in the White House, we were managing to a 2°C scenario [or trying to limit global warming to that threshold]. Science said that would require an 80% reduction [of emissions], by mid-century, for countries around the world. And that was basically the commitment that Obama made.

Subsequent to that, a very important report, the so-called 1.5°C report, laid out the extensive damage that would result unless we are net-zero by midcentury, not just 80% of the way there. That 20% difference is probably the hardest to get but the most important: The catastrophic destruction of the natural world has spillover effects on food systems, water systems, human security, the number of internally displaced people, the number of climate refugees, the impact on the stability of fragile states, etc. That report changed people’s thinking. And that’s where this whole movement comes from to get emissions to net-zero.

You can’t completely eliminate emissions from a modern society. You can get very close to zero, but you’re going to have to be removing carbon dioxide to get to that net-zero, and you’re going to have to keep doing that throughout the rest of the century. Mid-century is only 30 years away.

How has Black Lives Matter changed the climate debate?

It’s become very much front and center to the transition to a new, clean-energy economy. The injustice that was exposed by Covid-19 is part of a structural environmental injustice. The investments needed to transform the economy also have to be fairly and equally distributed. We have to invest in a just transition that takes into account the communities that have borne the brunt of pollution, for many, many years. Biden’s committed to directing 40% of $2 trillion to distressed communities.

What was your reaction to the exchange about oil in the last presidential debate, in which Biden backed a transition away from fossil fuels?

You’re not going to turn the tap off tomorrow. It will take a while. It begins with eliminating subsidies to the oil industry, as Biden has suggested. Eventually you want to be producing electricity through clean sources, and you need to electrify everything that we’re using fossil fuels for now. The U.S. is moving in that direction. It just needs to go faster.

There are policies that enable that transition from an internal combustion-based transportation sector to an electricity-based transportation sector, like Biden’s plan and support for clean-tech manufacturing that can build and deploy 500,000 power stations, so that people don’t have that road-range fear.

The pledges coming from the private sector are amazing to me. It’s not just the tech companies who are pledging to go net-zero. It’s spread into retail even, and some of these harder to decarbonize sectors, like cement. The power sector probably wants to go a little more slowly than Biden does, but it’s not massive resistance. It knows it needs to get there.

The question is, what are the incentives? Is there a penalty to pay for continuing to pollute? Those are the things that need to be resolved. Biden’s program is really built around major investments in this clean tech economy, in building a just and fair economy.

Can the White House and a Republican-controlled Senate agree on anything?

There’s bipartisan support for some aspects of a climate program, particularly the reduction of so-called F-gases, hydrofluorocarbons, which is significant. It’s like 0.5°C by the end of the century. There is Republican support for that. But it’s hard for me to see [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell going along with the kind of major investment program that Biden’s talking about for a build-out of that green infrastructure.

Wha’s the current shape of the U.S. government’s science staffing?

Trump’s war on science has hit this arena and health care, in particular. You’ve seen a lot of loss of expertise in the agencies. People just have had it. There’s been a real brain drain. This is an area that cries out for a better flexibility, like hiring mid-career people for temporary assignments.

How will the courts affect the new administration?

The administration will be less inclined to use novel regulatory theories, for fear of doing work that could take years and then have it all blown apart by a very conservative Supreme Court majority. I go back to [new Justice] Amy Coney Barrett, who everyone agrees is brilliant, but couldn’t even muster an answer that climate change is real. Because somehow in her mind it was a political issue.

What have you learned from Republicans?

“Republicans” is a broad term. Congressional Republicans have moved from being in denial to denying that we should do anything about it. There are many other Republicans who grasp the severity of the challenge and are prepared to act. But when it comes to congressional Republicans, they operate in a herd.

There are efforts underway to see if you can get some at least bipartisan dialogue going in both the House and the Senate. The problem is we can’t wait for that to develop. We just don’t have enough time. People argue that if you do it in a bipartisan way, it’s more durable, and I can see that that’s true. But we can’t wait anymore, and if it means that we have to go forward than I’d rather go forward. It’s better to get something in place, prove that it’s effective, show the jobs that it’s creating, and try to defend from that position, then wait for, you know, Republicans to go to science seminars.

It’s really, really rooted in in the congressional wing of the Republican Party. Money from the fossil fuel industry is heavily weighted towards their campaigns. I don’t see anybody stepping up and doing something serious. I hope they do!