Podcast: Former Climate Czar Carol Browner on Obama’s Environmental Record

President Obama has been criticized heavily for not doing enough to stand up to the vicious blitz on climate science. He’s also being attacked aggressively on the right for using his presidential powers to act on environmental issues outside of Congress.

So where does he stand? For those who’ve seen the words “climate change” disappear almost entirely from the President’s lips, he’s been a huge disappointment — even a failure, as Climate Progress editor Joe Romm wrote after the collapse of a comprehensive climate bill. And moving into this week’s climate talks in Durban, the lack of action in the U.S. has substantially reduced the country’s credibility.

But Carol Browner, Obama’s former “Climate Czar” who worked within the Administration to get a climate bill passed, believes the President’s record will be judged on his full range of initiatives, including what he’s been able to do outside of the deeply-dysfunctional Congress.

In an interview on the Climate Progress podcast, Browner shares her perspective on Obama’s environmental record. She points to initiatives like greenhouse gas standards for cars, power plants and oil refineries; clean energy investments from the Recovery Act; and mercury standards from power plants — all being developed during a time of deep hostility to any sort of environmental regulation.

“I would encourage, and I have encouraged my friends in the environmental community to look at the President’s record from day one…. If you look across the two and half/three years of the President’s tenure, what you see is a very, very strong commitment to both environmental protections, and investments in clean energy, and the regulations to create the market opportunities for investments in clean energy technologies.”

Browner was also the longest-serving Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, staying with the Clinton Administration under both terms. So she’s experienced first hand the attacks on environmental regulations, particularly during times of economic stress.

In this podcast, we’ll talk to Browner about why economic progress and strong environmental standards are not mutually exclusive. She’ll also describe why she’s optimistic about the future of clean energy in the U.S., even with a growing political movement to discredit the sector.

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20 Responses to Podcast: Former Climate Czar Carol Browner on Obama’s Environmental Record

  1. Thomas says:

    I hope we’ll see something inspirational coming from the US at the Durban talks, unlike the pathetic speech given by the energy secretary last year.

  2. fj says:

    excellent analysis from an expert and optimist who says ultimately, “we’re going to get this right,” on the “great moral dilemma of our time.”

  3. Alan Gregory says:

    “Growth” almost always involves destroying the natural landscape.

  4. Nick Berini says:

    How does the interior department opening up federal lands for coal and oil extraction sit with the assertion that Obama is doing everything he can outside the ‘deeply dysfunctional’ congress?

    That’s actually not entirely sarcastic – is there something I am missing? Why isn’t this presented alongside the auto standards etc. when discussing the president’s environmental record?

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    The “deep hostility to any sort of environmental regulation” is a minority position, and stems from systemic corruption of our government and media. Numerous polls indicate that the American public want more environmental regulation, not less. Obama has been opposed by extreme minority positions here, not the American people. Attempts to placate them with things like stalling ozone regs and ramping up drilling in the Arctic leave us puzzled, since the Right hates him just as much anyway.

    A big disappointment has been the failure of Obama and the Democrats to use the environment and the climate as campaign issues. We could guess what the reasons are- some Democrats like Salazar and Nelson are knee deep in oil themselves. The argument that it’s a political loser, and could be defeated by “job killing” arguments, does not ring true.

    I would be interested in Browner’s take on Democrats’ passivity here. This is a moral issue, and includes remedies to see that our biosphere survives in something resembling its present form.

  6. Joan Savage says:

    Hear! Hear!

    Browner is spot on on numerous points. Two I particularly like.

    We need to keep hearing that Obama must have the cooperation of Congress to accomplish relevant legislation, and it’s up to the many of us to help get Congress back on track.

    Browner’s closing point that we must be pro-active about preventing climate change, before physically experiencing its consequences, is just huge.

  7. fj says:

    the real gorilla in the room is the gorilla in the room ie the fossil fuel industry

    which unfortunately defines a certain functional reality which — optimistically — seems to be changing

    6trilliondollarTransportation @grist

  8. Tony says:


  9. Ken Barrows says:

    Indeed it does. Politics isn’t going to solve the climate problem. I wish I knew what is.

  10. Target0 says:

    I think we are a little late to be pro-active, it looks like the people of Texas are already experiencing climate change on a daily basis.

  11. Jeff Huggins says:

    News From Delphi

    I’m told that on the Temple to Apollo, at Delphi, are inscribed these words: ‘Know Thyself’.

    Recently, I’ve been giving some thought to one part of the problem we all face. Why is it that even very brilliant people, judging by most standards, either cannot muster the will or an effective, competent “way” to make much greater progress regarding climate change?

    Alas, here is a problem we face.

    There is a difference between these two things:

    * An independent and unconstrained focus on a problem (as large and multifaceted as it may be) and getting it addressed; or

    * A focus on a problem in which the well-intentioned effort is ultimately shaped, colored, or constrained to some degree by other considerations — such as a real or perceived co-dependence with a particular political party.

    This difference is not important so long as two aims — getting the problem addressed, and maintaining some allegiance to a party — are highly harmonious and can be achieved together. But when the party’s actions are not sufficient to address the problem, a gap is created between these two aims.

    And that is precisely what is happening now, and here.

    How is this paradox, this dilemma, resolved by anyone who wants THE PROBLEM resolved (in this case, climate change) but, at the same time, who feels a fundamental need to maintain some allegiance to the political party?

    By this: by adopting the “lesser of two evils” paradigm of voting — either explicitly or implicitly, either by action or by default.

    The philosophy/argument that bases itself — and reveals itself — via statements like “but the Republicans would be even worse”, or “be realistic”, enables the perceived reconciliation of the two aims, that is, of solving the problem and maintaining allegiance to a party, even when the actions of the party make achieving both of those aims at the same time impossible.

    Have I put it clearly? Do you see the point?

    Consider the philosophy that holds that we, everyone, should vote for President Obama again, and vote for the Dems again, no matter what they have and HAVEN’T done, because “the Republicans would be much worse.” This is the “lesser of two evils” approach.

    People might hold that view based on one or both of two (or more) reasons: they might actually believe that such an approach IS, ultimately, the best way to get the problem solved sufficiently; OR, they might hold the view, at least in part, because it helps them reconcile two of their aims that, as the facts unfold, would otherwise be hard to reconcile.

    Of course, people are not the same as organizations. So individual people may see, or perceive, this problem but nevertheless be encumbered and constrained because of the organizations they’re in. But that’s an issue, because individuals who are not part of organizations don’t usually have the large platforms that come from organizational affiliation.

    So, presently, we have a problem, it seems to me. Many of the main organizations that have a sincere and heartfelt goal to address climate change — the environmental organizations, ClimateProgress and CAP,, and so forth — also, for different reasons, have some dependence on, co-dependence with, or affiliation with the Democrat party and, thus, the Obama Administration. IN EFFECT, these organizations are not pure, unencumbered, problem-focused organizations. In other words, they each, I suspect, would find it hard to jettison their “ultimate voting allegiance” to the Demo party even if it appeared wise, or necessary, to do so in order to make real progress against the actual problems, like climate change. The comforting “reconciling thought” is this: “better to vote for the Dems than for the Repubs”. How many times have I heard that thought expressed in the last four months (including here)?

    Of course, that idea — that paradigm — ENABLES the Democrat politicians to largely ignore these groups and, in essence, take them for granted. Lawrence O’Donnell, among others, has basically told us that this is the case.

    So there is a vicious cycle, leading nowhere. The “vote for the lesser of two evils” way of thinking enables the politicians to ignore their bases. Period. This is FAR EASIER to understand than the science of climate change itself. And, this way of thinking conveniently allows folks to comfortably think that two increasingly divergent aims can both be accomplished: addressing climate change, and allegiance to a party.

    To be clear, it is not necessarily the case that these two aims can’t both be achieved, but whether they can or not will depend on the politicians, and whether they are even called to the task, and the test, will depend on US. In other words, the public — us — has to be willing to say, “If you don’t promise to do X, in clear terms, and if you don’t actually do X, we won’t vote for you!” WE have to pose such clear questions, make clear demands, and be willing to not vote for politicians who don’t MEET those demands.

    But, of course, we are falling WAY SHORT of posing clear questions, demanding answers, placing conditions on our upcoming votes, and so forth. Who is we?, CP/CAP, and etc. Yes, I understand that tax law places some restrictions on what organizations can do. But THAT is part of the problem, and we aren’t admitting it, considering its implications, and taking it into account in our thinking about what can be done here, and in other efforts. (Alas, it seems that nearly all efforts are somehow influenced and encumbered by the same or related issues, so, in a sense, “the system” is deeply constraining efforts to improve it.)

    That’s it for now. Sorry for the diatribe. These are real issues, and I don’t hear many people admitting them or discussing them.

    Be Well,


  12. Raul M. says:

    That’s nice, but isn’t the upper class the ones that have the nice properties on the west coast of the U.S.?
    And doesn’t the ocean circulate clock wise in the Pacific?
    And don’t slot of people depend on smart people to figure things out?
    And aren’t the seafood dishes in the nicer restaurants sourced many times from the Pacific?
    Yeah, I think it is good that she may still call on the President of the U.S. on occasion of need.
    Back way back when, the first time around there was study to determine whether seafood was safe due to mercury and some also had their own Geiger counters after the nuke testing that went on.
    It is good to consider how we do need to be careful.
    I don’t think that any media event showing any one person enjoying a seafood dinner caught off the west coast would change the chances much of the nuke tide circulating.
    I don’t think my concern for changes in the chem of the ocean stream would change it’s course either.

  13. Peter Mizla says:

    The Democrats record on the environment and climate change is nearly as bad as the republicans. The GOP denies there is a problem- the Democrats hide in the closet.

    The current Democratic party reminds me of the conservative Democrats running in the 1920, 1924, and 1928 elections- basically corporate Democrats who differed little from Harding, Coolidge or Hoover.

    When the Myth of a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage fell through the floor in October 1929, did the Democrats only then begin to crusade against the corporations and the rich.

    Same is true today, Clinton and now Obama represent almost the same ideals as the GOP- when the climate really begins to go down, will they open their cowardly mouths? Time will see.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Mike, that is where ‘Plan Obama’ was such a triumph for the 0.01%, Obama’s real ‘base’, ie those who own and control him, and have done so since he was talent spotted at college. After the Bush years there was a real groundswell to do something about a corrupt, unjust and ecologically suicidal capitalism run rampant. What more clever ploy could there be then to stand a Trojan candidate, who promised much, whose rhetorical gifts were pronounced and who presented a false image of a ‘New America’ an America with a non-White, non-establishment face? It conned them in the tens of millions, in the USA and overseas, and millions still refuse, out of embarrassment or steadfast hope, to admit that they have been had. Of course Plan Obama initially involved Obama being a one-term aberration only, serving his masters for four years and so outraging the voter patsies that they would stay away from politics and voting for years, delivering Government back to the 1%’s slight favourites, the Republicans. So it transpired last November, but since then I’ve become convinced that Obama serves the elites so very, very,well that they have decided to grant him another four years to serve their interests, before he retires to his sinecure at Goldman Sachs. Hence the shambles of the Republican selection process.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    When people are even mildly ‘pro-active’ the pepper spray and billy clubs are swiftly put into use.

  16. Mark Shapiro says:


    But clean energy, slower population growth, conservation, and preservation will always be better than the alternatives.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Know thyself’ is essential (your real self), but so too is ‘Know your enemy’. That is, know what it is that makes people positively hate you for wishing to preserve humanity from ecological catastrophe, and know just who are your enemies, and who are your true friends and, crucially, the false friends, the Obamas, Blairs, Rudds etc who so bedevil us. And ‘The lesser evil’ is still evil.

  18. Bob Carver says:

    ARRA did nothing but waste my time. I submitted five proposals to the DOE. Independent reviews were favorable, but we got ZERO dollars to continue our work on alternative energy production. As far as I am concerned personally, ARRA was just a con to get money into political cronies’ hands.

  19. Greg says:

    We (those who voted for Obama the first time around) have to be motivated to actually show up at the polls and so we can’t/won’t be completely ignored.

  20. John McCormick says:

    Jeff, in a Nov. 20 post you asked me:

    “How do you think your approach will change “the reality” of 2011/2012 so we can benefit from a MUCH MORE dedicated and effective Administration in the coming term, and so the Dems will have learned the lesson and do even better in future cycles?”

    Jeff, I have convinced myself that rethugs will take control of the Senate in the 2012 election (23 Senate Dems up for re-election, some are open seats; 10 rethug Senators).

    With that in mind, I have also convinced myself that a re-elected President Obama will be the only stop gap against repeal of everything and anything that has meaning and value to social progress, including child labor laws, worker health and safety, pesticide regulations, Clean Air Act, Roe v Wade…tell me when to stop!

    A Grundwich, in the Oval office and a rethug Congress will have 8 years to tear down our freedom and democracy.

    And, lest we overlook Ed Gillespie’s Red State Plan. An Excerpt from a recent New Yorker:
    “In the spring of 2010, the conservative political strategist Ed Gillespie flew from Washington, D.C., to Raleigh, North Carolina, to spend a day laying the groundwork for REDMAP, a new project aimed at engineering a Republican takeover of state legislatures. Gillespie hoped to help his party get control of statehouses where congressional redistricting was pending, thereby leveraging victories in cheap local races into a means of shifting the balance of power in Washington.”

    Jeff, the above is the reality I see, feel, fear. It is less than a year away and the Kroch bros have the money and the fascination to make it all come true.

    Laying all of our anger, frustration and disappointment at the feet of President Obama is a denial of the political condition we voters created in the 112th Congress. It can get worse. I’m certain it will.

    How can we then throw the match into that gun powder-filled mess by assuring a rethug president will have full control over every aspect of our life.

    I see darkness ahead for elderly, very low income persons, those suffering long term and expensive illness, laborers, inmates, public school students…tell me when to stop.

    First we dig deep into our wallets, buy up and establish honest radio, TV and print media, train Americans how to think rationally about their government, prep good candidates to run for every elective office in the land, disinfect the US Congress and Supreme Court and, basically, own our Democracy.

    Yes, it will take a generation to achieve this and maybe all the other bricks falling upon us will make all that more difficult and possibly futile. Now, this morning, today, I am worried about Medicaid and EPA funding after the 2012 election. Short term reality? I agree. But, a step at a time. And, we do have a responsibility to those who cannot defend themselves against the likes of rethugs.

    P.S., your suggestion about a direct and open letter to Romney is super and people should take you up on it.


    John McCormick