Climate deniers now rule in Washington and many are asking how much damage they can do. Already Trump has signed an executive order permitting the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, stopped after a long and bitter campaign when President Obama reluctantly vetoed it in 2015.
The pipeline will open up the vast tar sands reserves of western Canada, one of the “carbon bombs” that scientists say must not be allowed to explode.
But the burning question is this: How entrenched is the clean energy revolution in the US economy? Does it have so much momentum that it cannot be stopped or reversed by anything Washington does?
Some believe so, but I’m not so sure. One thing is certain: the energy revolution could have been far more advanced, beyond the point of no return, had President Obama not for years dragged his feet on climate action.
In his first term, his office was filled with “pragmatists” for whom climate policy was at the bottom of the presidential agenda, a second-term issue.
I gained an insight into this thinking in 2003 when, as head of the Australia Institute, I helped initiate a “three think tanks” project that set up a high-level global taskforce on climate change. Matthew Taylor, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (and later head of Tony Blair’s policy unit), came up with the idea for the taskforce.
Taylor asked me if the Australia Institute, which had been working on climate change for years, would join in. He and I sat at a café in London’s Covent Garden wondering who we could team up with in the United States. A junior IPPR researcher said she knew someone at the new Center for American Progress (CAP) in Washington.
CAP seemed to serve primarily as a parking lot for ex-Clinton administration apparatchiks while they waited for a return to government. Its boss was John Podesta, once Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and later co-chair of Obama’s transition team.
Most recently he ran Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. It was Podesta who fell for a phishing scam, allowing the theft of a trove of emails, allegedly by Russians, and soon published by Julian Assange in a way that would bring maximum benefit to Donald Trump.
Obama’s hard men
Even in 2003, when I turned up in Washington to meet him for the first time, Podesta had been the compleat Beltway mover and shaker for years.
I was asked to wait as he was on the phone. From the other side of the wall it sounded like an intense conversation. A staff member later confided to me that he had been leaning on retired US General Wesley Clark to withdraw from the nomination race to give John Kerry a clear run at George W. Bush.
We met. He came across as a hard man, seemingly devoid of human warmth. But what most alarmed me was his near-total ignorance about climate change. He knew just enough to know that it might become an issue and that CAP could benefit from being the American leg of the three-legged stool. But only if he could find some money, which would prove difficult for him.
As I left Washington I took with me serious doubts about teaming up with the Center for American Progress, but by then it would have been too awkward to uninvite them.
The membership of the taskforce we put together was quite eminent. Its first meeting was held in Windsor Castle (the Queen, we were informed, was not in residence) and the second was staged at Government House in Sydney, hosted by Premier Bob Carr.
A decade later Podesta would rewrite history to claim credit for initiating the task force. The Australia Institute did almost all of the intellectual work. The reaction from Washington to one of our first drafts was that we could not use the phrase “low-carbon economy” because Americans would confuse it with “low carb diet”. I am not making this up.
That was where CAP was up to on climate change. For the Americans to contribute anything useful to the work of the steering committee, Podesta had to bring in outside expertise, including hard-arsed lawyer Todd Stern. A Podesta protégé, Stern would later be appointed (by Hillary Clinton) Obama’s chief climate envoy, and be accused of being implicated in blowing up the 2009 Copenhagen conference.
Podesta also drafted Jonathan Pershing onto the steering committee. Pershing, then at WRI, had been a colleague of Podesta’s in the Clinton administration, and would go on to succeed Stern as Obama’s chief climate negotiator. Compared to the other two think tanks, the CAP people (with the exception of Ana Unruh Cohen) always took the cautious position.
When the three think-tanks project wrapped up in 2005 it was clear to me that Podesta, who’d taken little interest in it, still didn’t know or care much about the threat global warming posed to the world.
When in late 2007 Podesta was putting together Obama’s White House team he stacked it with “pragmatists” like himself whose only interest in climate change was whether it would win them votes or give them grief.
The concession to environmentalists was the appointment of John Holdren as White House chief science adviser. Holdren, a brilliant Harvard and Woods Hole physicist and environmental scientist, “got” climate change as well as any in the vanguard. (As it happens, he had been a member of the taskforce, which would have helped his later appointment.)
Early in Obama’s first term climate activists were willing to cut the President some slack, confident he would soon begin to act. But as the years went by and Obama did nothing they became alarmed and ramped up the pressure. By the end of Obama’s first term Holdren was despairing and contemplated resigning.
He decided to stay on because he could at least keep exerting pressure from inside the tent. It was only after another two years in office that Obama began to spend some serious political capital on climate change.
If he had precipitated the clean energy revolution in the United States five or six years earlier, there would be almost nothing for Trump now to unwind.