Clean Environment Smackdown: Stephen Colbert and Former EPA Chief Carol Browner Debate

In last night’s interview with former EPA Administrator Carol Browner, Stephen Colbert came out swinging with a line straight out of the Republican playbook:

“The EPA is useless. That is an indisputable fact…We protected the air and the water. We cleaned it up. Now you’re just rubbing it in our faces by continuing to keep it clean.”

Colbert gave Browner, a Center for American Progress Senior Fellow, the chance to defend the EPA, who explained why regulations create more economic opportunity. Ultimately, Colbert came up with his own solution — describing why pollution is a better job creator than cleaning up the environment:

“If there’s more pollution then there’s more work for the doctors who have to cure us of the diseases we get from the things we eat and drink. I can use your logic against you.”

Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann were furiously taking notes and have already added the talking point to their energy plans.

Watch it:


Colbert also has a very funny intro to the interview, in which he mocks the Republican claims that the EPA is a “job killer.”

“Yes. This job-killing cemetery is murdering jobs and then burying them in itself. Jobs. Everyone knows pollution is a job creator.”

Watch it:

11 Responses to Clean Environment Smackdown: Stephen Colbert and Former EPA Chief Carol Browner Debate

  1. Jeff Huggins says:

    May I Ask?

    I’m a bit new to think-tank stuff. But allow me to ask a question from outside the beltway, about 2,500 miles outside it.

    How can it be that CAP is a (probably the) leading progressive think-tank organization, and leading advocacy organization for progressive ideas, and that it’s full of folks such as John Podesta, Carol Browner, and others who had influential positions in previous Democrat administrations and are still closely connected to very senior folks in the present administration, and yet the Obama Administration’s policies and approaches are so far off from what we talk about here, and so ultimately ineffective, that it boggles the mind?

    When I was last in Washington, I took the easy stroll from the White House to CAP headquarters. Easy walking distance. But the Administration is failing so dismally with respect to climate change — and indeed isn’t even trying hard (according to any definition of that word, given what the President could and should be doing) — and has adopted deeply unwise and ineffective tactics — that it might as well be on the opposite side of the political, intellectual, and practical spectrum from CAP, or at least from ClimateProgress.

    Living in California, I’m about 2,500 miles from the White House, physically speaking. But even though CAP, CP, and the Obama Administration are only walking distance apart, physically speaking, the Administration seems ten thousand miles distant from what CP and CAP are, or would be, presumably advising, at least with respect to climate change. How is that? I don’t get it. I really don’t get it.

    Yes yes, someone might say, “But Jeff, politics is politics, and the Administration has lots of pressures on it, and there’s nothing to say that the leading progressive organization — a very healthy one, based in Washington, with all sorts of experienced fellows with connections — should have much influence. President Obama is his own person, and his advisers and staff are thinkers and politicians in their own right. They’ll do what they want.”

    Hhmmmm. What to make of that argument? Politics is at least partly — and indeed a very great deal — about relationships, shared values, and (you’d like to think) some degree of cooperation within the same political party. So something’s amiss. It’s not happening here. The Dems seem united on one thing — complaining about, joking about, and scaring us about the Repubs. That’s fine and dandy, to a degree, but can they not also be united on getting something REAL DONE? I mean, it’s getting depressing out here. At this point, I’m becoming more frustrated with the Administration, and with the apparent inner workings of the party, and with the apparent ineffectiveness of the progressive think-tanks and advocacy organizations, than with anything else. We always stop two steps short of doing the things, or writing the things, that might possibly generate some actual effectiveness. Is that because we don’t see the problems? Are we that poor at analysis? Or is it because we are too invested in the status quo, including the Democratic party status quo, and don’t actually want to rock the political boat to the degree that it’ll need to be rocked in order to actually get anywhere?

    We are acting as though our hands are tied. But who has tied them? (Ourselves!) And why? (You tell me.) There’s a great Bob Dylan song that everyone should listen to, called ‘What Good Am I?’

    In any case, aside from the speculation and complaints, I’ll simply pose the straightforward question to see if I can get a straightforward and reasonably convincing answer: Why is it that CAP and CP, and all of us, are having such little — very little — influence on a Democratic Administration, when CAP is packed so full of influential good-thinking Democrats?



  2. Joe Romm says:

    You can keep asking questions like these but they are just pointless. The administration ignores polling, which is to say, the wishes of the American people. As I’ve shown in a dozen holes in the last 2 years conversations with leading public opinion experts, this is a winning political issue, but the White House is run by world’s worst communicators who think they are the world’s best communicators.

    How pointless is your question? John Holdren talks to the president regularly and is his science advisor. He understands danger of doing nothing as well as anybody in the country. He can’t budge the President and Axelrod shut down his defense of climate science after Climategate. Same for Energy Secretary Chu. And Jane Lubchenco. (And Browner when she was there).

    Now if people inside the White House and Executive Branch can’t move Obama, what precisely is your point about CAP?

    The bottom line is that the WH is dreadful at messaging and related policy-making across the board (remember health care reform? No seriously. Do you remember it?).

  3. Jeff Huggins says:

    Joe, thanks for your response. To be clear, when I ask these questions, I do so within the context of understanding the points you’ve raised and covered before (although this isn’t to say that I’ve read every post, of course). The seeming disjunction that I’m pointing out remains. In order to address this disjunction, your response that (in essence) the Administration is simply terrible at messaging and doesn’t listen, only serves to shift the issue back to the other question I raise, which is this: If the Administration is so terrible, why don’t we demand better and set conditions for our continuing support? Or are we to remain committed to such an inept Administration? Realizing (now) that CAP/CP can’t take a specific stand on that, yet it could (I assume) host discussion of the question, pro and con. It is the hesitation to, and resistance against, entertaining that question, that I question. Someone — some writer — ought to be presenting that question and opening it up, explicitly, for discussion, pros and cons. (Forget about my earlier proposed post; the point is not my post, it’s the airing of the topic.)

    In a nutshell, we aren’t getting anywhere, and we’re getting there fast. Do you disagree? If not, then what’s your solution; what are your suggested changes in tactics? I’ve been trying to suggest some, or at least get them aired, but to no avail. I am, it seems, just supposed to show up to a few events, smile for the camera, say “please Mr. President”, and continue reading the latest news from CP. That set of tactics doesn’t really give one much reason for optimism, right?

    I deeply appreciate CP, but the movement seems stalled and deeply insufficient. I’ll be attending the “say no to Keystone XL” event in San Francisco when the President visits there next week (Tuesday), but we’ve got to think more creatively, and utilize more leverage, than that.

    Sorry for the complaints.

    Be Well,


  4. Edith Wiethorn says:

    Jeff Huggins does have a point, Dr. Romm, which your own points spotlight: the White House – that is, in the first-person, the Obama Administration – seems terrible at messaging because, in fact, policy actions & inactions speak a clearer message than defacto messaging words. Jeff Huggins point of points is – why does CAP continue to go on about the “bad messaging”? Einstein’s definition of insanity is continuing with the same methods & expecting a different outcome. The point is – given the track records all around – what can CAP begin to do differently to work toward a different, better outcome in public policy?

  5. Alex Carlin says:

    so, when John Holgren says to Obama “look, we gotta stop burning coal NOW or we get Hell and High Water FOR SURE” – what exactly does Obama say? what exactly does he think? I think the answer to that question can help us develop our new set of tactics. Does anybody know the answer?

  6. Robert Nagle says:

    Republicans are all too eager to bring up the climate change issue on the campaign trail. CW is that Obama’s positions, by contrast, will seem more moderate.

    But climate change is not an issue which you can simply deal with symbolically (as the Republicans did with flag burning, Right to Life Amendments, gay marriage and crap like that which don’t really require action, but just a public stance). Climate change isn’t something you can pay lip service to and expect public support. It has a target, actionable items and costs and benefits associated with it.

    I think the Obama Administration feels that it won’t pay a political price for supporting XL or not getting a climate change bill passed or delaying new EPA standards, that just being more reasonable-sounding than the Republicans is sufficient.

    But from where I’m standing, looking at actions, there’s not a lot of difference between Obama and Republicans like Rick Perry, except that Rick Perry is less afraid to talk about climate change in public.

  7. Raul M. says:

    my cat pee on the floor and I still tell her that was bad. Looking to one individual to lead us to safety is nice but that suggests that there would be followers. Making a count of followers is nice but were they still saying we will follow when the train had left years before? Chances of making a separate storm shelter to handle the 144 K expected survivors of climate disruption has better odds than converting the masses…

  8. Jeff Huggins says:

    Responses, and a Few More Thoughts

    Edith: Thanks for your comment. I agree with your points, and you put them well: Policy actions and inaction speak louder than words. And, the present question is what can CAP (and all of us) begin to do differently — very differently — to begin to achieve better outcomes?

    Robert Nagle, thanks for your comment. Well put. Climate change isn’t the sort of issue you can deal with based on lip service or even on small/modest actions that aren’t up to (nor reflective of) the gravity of the problem. Dealing with climate change will require the sorts of changes that probably can’t be achieved by paying lip service to the topic and by not speaking with real actions. President Obama’s so-called ‘messaging’ is not just nearly non-existent, and when it exists, not very good, in terms of words; the larger problem (much larger) is that his actions (and inaction) are largely inconsistent with what he says. THAT is a main cause of the mixed message he’s sending. Keystone XL will be the big — the very revealing — the decisive — test. If Obama says ‘yes’ to Keystone XL, we may as well toss into the wastebasket everything that might be said about his ‘word-messaging’, because his ‘real-action-messaging’ will have put a decisive and deep flaw into whatever messaging he might utter after that. In that case, we’ll need new leadership.

    Alex Carlin: Thanks for your comment. I think we’ll all learn the answer to your question when we see what Obama does with respect to Keystone XL. Still, I think it’s a great question, and I hope people here — anyone who might know what the answer is — will address it.

    Joe, thanks again for your earlier response. I’d like to add another point, involving an observation about your response. In your first paragraph, you say that the Administration “ignores polling”, the “wishes of the American people”. And you follow with the point that this is a “winning political issue”. Yet that sort of argument leaves me with a weird impression — granted, I may be misinterpreting you — that you, like most others in Washington, see this part of the question as a merely political one, and that the question of leadership has been overlooked. On a matter such as climate change (and you are nearly as familiar with the ethical arguments as you are with the science of the matter), the question is simply NOT one of polling. The President should be LEADING. He has much more access to top scientists than the average citizen does, and he’s supposed to be SMART, RESPONSIBLE, and a LEADER. If only five people in the U.S. citizenry knew enough about climate change to consider it to be serious, and to require action, all the more reason why a responsible President should take to the airwaves and do everything within his power to educate the entire public, asap. At this point, at this late date, it is largely irrelevant (to the question of what the President’s responsibilities should be on such a matter) whether climate change is a “winning political issue”. The President should lead, should use the bully pulpit, should align actions with words, should utilize the scientific community to help educate the public, and should MAKE climate change a “winning political issue”; and even to the degree he can’t quite achieve that as much as one might like, he should still make whatever decisions that his power allows him to address climate change, e.g., ‘NO’ to Keystone XL and other such things. It is only by means of such actions, and such leadership, that the President can achieve what he ought to achieve and what needs to be achieved. I think that too much of Washington has confused the ideas of leadership and responsibility, with that of polling. I’m also afraid that too many people have forgotten that actions speak MUCH louder than words — not a little, but MUCH — and thus that ‘whole-messaging’ and ‘action-based messaging’ are even much more important than ‘messaging via words alone’, although all are important, of course.

    In sum, though, I think that we are responsible for lowering the bar, and letting Obama get away with “whatever”, and that nearly everyone —, CP, CAP, and etc. — stops two steps short of writing and/or doing the sorts of things necessary to actually bring about real change. Our present lack of progress would seem to prove this assessment to be correct, yes?

    I enjoyed and appreciated the recent BEST post and the one on ethics, and I applaud the intent and efforts here, but I just think that we all ought to deeply revisit our strategies and tactics, because the current ones fall way short, and we are handcuffing ourselves.

    Thanks and Be Well,


  9. Neal J. King says:

    The problem for all environmental issues right now is that Obama & the Democrats know that the alternative, the GOP, is totally unacceptable: If the GOP win the Congress and the Presidency this time around, it’s “game over” for the foreseeable future. Even if the GOP just hold onto effective control of the Congress, it’ll be “game on-hold.”

    What I’m tempted to do is to get a bumper-sticker that says: “Vote Obama/Democrats: Lo2E”, for “Lesser of 2 Evils”.

  10. I see too much emphasis on what the TV media hands out for information. I would expect those who spend so much time on the internet to be better informed, and pay less attention to the cat fights and more to the substance. While the GOP is clearly beholding to fossil fuel lobbies, Obama has through executive order , used the military to provide an expansion of renewable energy , which improves our national security, reduces loss of life due to attacks on fuel convoys, and leaves our bases more secure than they would be if they relied only on the public utility grid, which is subject to attack. This military business has allowed renewable energy companies to scale up to provide large orders of products to military bases. Newer technologies are being tested and results are being recorded in actual use of geothermal, biofuel, solar, wind and fuel cell technologies. The Air force has tested using a 50% biofuel mixture with good results. The bases are saving money with renewable energy on site. The troops are saving money on batteries by using solar charging in the field. Solar and wind power can be attached to vehicles and trailers and allow remote locations to have power without the risk of fuel shipments, and the expense of importing fuels into remote areas, where the price of gas has been quoted as high as $400 per gallon, when delivered into the mountains of Afghanistan.
    I assume these efforts are not advertised to avoid provoking the entrenched interests that fight competition from renewable energy, or claim the “green agenda” is not sensible. But Obama alone has made this happen and now the solar industry produces 1.9 billion dollars of imports in 2010, and employs more people than coal mining or the steel industry.