Report — From the July 2014 issue

Promises, Promises

Can Obama redeem his environmental failures?

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John Podesta first began advising Barack Obama in the summer of 2008, when the junior senator’s improbable rise from mixed-race son of a single mother to president of the United States was acquiring a giddy sense of inevitability. Climate change was a top concern for Podesta — and, it seemed, for Obama himself. In July, a group of experts informally representing the Democratic candidate traveled to Beijing for confidential talks with Chinese officials, hoping to foster a new era of climate cooperation after eight years of obstruction on the part of the Bush Administration.

Podesta, who as White House chief of staff had steered Bill Clinton’s presidency through the impeachment crisis, soon became Obama’s transition manager, helping him identify and vet prospective Cabinet members and other high-ranking officials. “I fought very hard to create a separate office [in the White House] for climate and energy,” Podesta told me. And the person initially chosen to run that office — the former EPA administrator Carol Browner — was, in Podesta’s opinion, “extraordinarily well qualified.”

Bubbles of air trapped in snowstorms 5,000 to 10,000 years ago emerge from an ice sheet melting as deposits of soot and small rock particles, or cryoconite, increase heat absorption © James Balog/Aurora Photos

Bubbles of air trapped in snowstorms 5,000 to 10,000 years ago emerge from an ice sheet melting as deposits of soot and small rock particles, or cryoconite, increase heat absorption © James Balog/Aurora Photos

But when I interviewed Podesta last November, he did not pretend that Obama’s climate record as president had been satisfactory. Seated at his kitchen table in Washington, D.C., Podesta was dressed in running clothes; at age sixty-five, he still competes in marathons. I began by asking, “How will history judge President Obama on climate change, if history is still being written fifty years from now?”

Obama will be viewed as someone “who tried to address the challenge,” replied Podesta. He was willing to take risks and expend political capital on the issue — a rare and commendable thing. “But fifty years from now, is that going to seem like enough? I think the answer to that is going to be no.”

Of course, the president faced bitter opposition from the Republicans. But Podesta believed that some of Obama’s top aides shared the blame for his lackluster record. “There were people inside the White House in the first two years who were not there” on climate change, he said. Their attitude was dismissive at best: “Yeah, fine, fine, fine, but it’s ninth on our list of eight really important problems.”

“You headed his transition team,” I pointed out. “Do you feel any responsibility for helping select those people?”

“Which people?”

I mentioned that Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff during Obama’s first two years in office, was frequently accused of being climate non-enthusiast number one. Lawrence Summers, the president’s chief economic adviser, was criticized in similar terms.

Podesta stared at me in silence, then he asked if we might speak off the record. We did. When we returned, he limited himself to noting that decisions about the economic team and its policies were “made by the president, and they were not made around the question of climate change. We were in the middle of a fiscal crisis.”

What Podesta did not tell me in November — perhaps he didn’t know yet — was that he would soon return to Obama’s inner circle to try to salvage his climate legacy: in January, he began serving as White House counsel. Since then, the president seems to have begun tackling the issue with renewed vigor. In his 2014 State of the Union address, he framed it as a moral imperative, pledging to “do everything we could” to leave our grandchildren “a safe, stable climate.” And in June, the EPA is scheduled to announce what may be among Obama’s furthest-reaching initiatives: new regulations on the greenhouse gases emitted by the nation’s 1,500 power plants, historically the largest source of U.S. carbon pollution.

1 President Obama, through a White House spokesman, declined to comment.

But Podesta seemed to realize, if only privately, that Obama had a long way to go on climate change. In November, the once and future presidential aide told me that Obama would likely go down in history as someone “who couldn’t break through contemporary politics to the place we need to go.”1

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is the author of six books, including, most recently, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.

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