The New Year has begun with a blast of arctic air freezing much of the country. The winter weather – and of course it’s weather and not climate – isn’t exactly the kind of motivation people need to think about the globe’s warming.

And then there’s the economy. The relentless tide of gloomy news also isn’t helping to focus the American people on investing in CO2-lowering technologies, conserving energy and demanding costly changes to the nation’s power and automobile industries.

President Barack Obama

And yet the climate issue is expected to receive a lot of attention this year. President Barack Obama has promised dramatic Executive Branch action on the climate, and on Capitol Hill, new shifts in political power make Congress a likely partner for change.

Meanwhile, next December, climate talks in Copenhagen could – repeat, could – lead to a more promising successor to Kyoto, and perhaps to real global progress toward cutting greenhouse gases.

It’ll be a challenge to keep track of all the changes under way, but journalists will do well to follow a handful of key issues and topics as 2009 unfolds. Below is a rundown of key developments reporters might follow over the next several months.

Obama’s Environment Team

The President has assembled a blue-ribbon environment team that’s been widely praised. Few question at this point that the Obama Cabinet will take a radically different approach to many issues than did its predecessor Cabinet under President Bush.

But there are a few things journalists can watch out for as the new cabinet members get to work:

John P. Holdren
Source: Harvard Science.

John Holdren, Harvard energy/environment expert and Obama’s pick for science adviser, is an outspoken advocate for action to reduce CO2. He is the immediate past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and his position as science adviser is being elevated to the level of assistant to the President. How he exercises that clout on climate change in particular will demand close attention. One of Holdren’s first jobs will be to help appoint new members to the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. P-CAST will shape the quality and tenor of advice Obama receives on important science issues.

Carol Browner, White House coordinator of energy and climate policy, will be the nation’s new “climate czar.” But here too, the power she’ll wield, and how she will interact with established federal departments, agencies, and Cabinet Secretaries, is still unclear. A New York Times article discusses these uncertainties.

Carol Browner
Source: Time magazine.

Browner too has expressed strong views on the climate issue. As EPA chief in the Clinton administration, Browner supported the agency’s authority to regulate CO2 emissions under the Clean Air Act – something the Bush Administration refused to do even after a Supreme Court decision in 2007 affirmed its authority. Browner also has supported efforts by California to take aggressive steps to regulate CO2 emissions, particularly from automakers – unlike the EPA under Bush.

Nobel laureate Steven Chu, often portrayed as an innovator, is to head the Department of Energy. A committed advocate for federal research into new sources of energy as head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Chu has championed alternative fuels research, particularly on biofuels. Kenneth Chang and Andrew Revkin provide useful background on Chu in a recent New York Times story.

In his blog, James Fallows of The Atlantic has written that he hopes for another role for Chu as he takes over the energy department.

Steven Chu
Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“He could try to reframe the standoff between climatologists and those nonscientists who genuinely don’t understand how science works, and who genuinely believe that climate scientists’ consensus stems from politics,” Fallows wrote. “I think those people are reachable and need to be reached.”

Some climate “doubters,” including some in The Wall Street Journal editorial page and most of its opinion writers, are all but unreachable, Fallows wrote. But Chu could use his considerable reputation and talent for explaining science to the public to educate many who don’t adequately understand the climate change threat.

“That’s why one of my own main hopes for Chu is that on behalf of science, and from his new bully pulpit, he can re-start the techno-civic discussion concerning the nature of the AGW [anthropogenic global warming] consensus,” Fallows wrote.

“I’ll bet Chu, if he takes it up respectfully as a diplomatic mission, could instead get the reachables to recognize science’s inherent, dispassionate mechanisms for self-correction. I’ll bet he could illuminate scientists’ self-interested desire to promote themselves by genuinely, in fact ruthlessly, seeking truths about nature, with a consequent disinterestedness that has nothing to do with their political views because it has everything to do with their professional aspirations.”

Jane Lubchenco
Source: Oregon State University.

Among other important Obama picks for his environment team is Jane Lubchenco as head of NOAA. The renowned Oregon State University oceanographer (and also former AAAS president) is an intriguing pick for a few reasons that may not be obvious.

A tireless advocate for environmental protection in the oceans, and a significant voice for marine conservation, Lubchenco is also an expert on ocean acidification, perhaps among the most profound and widespread consequences of rising CO2 emissions. Lubchenco is also the architect of the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, which helps scientists better communicate their work to the general public, and participate more effectively in public policy.

Along with the selection of Holdren, the Lubchenco choice at NOAA is seen as a strong sign that science and scientists will play a more active role in White House policy making.

Ken Salazar
Source: Senate website.

Colorado Democratic Senator Ken Salazar, Obama’s pick for Secretary of the Interior, has said part of his job will be to meet the climate change threat with a “moon shot” toward energy dependence. How he manages the agency’s oil and gas leasing program, and the extent to which he promotes wind, solar and other green energy projects on federal lands, will test his rhetoric.

Some environmentalists say Salazar has not adequately spoken out about environmental consequences of oil and gas development in national forests and other wilderness areas.

Shifting Centers of Power in Congress – California Rising

No one should conclude that Obama, despite an inevitable “honeymoon” and sky-high standing in polls, long will have lawmakers in his pocket – despite the strong Democratic majorities in both houses.

But at the same time, developments in a House and Senate under firm Democratic control suggest that much of Obama’s climate agenda likely will gain the backing of some of the most powerful lawmakers in the 111th Congress.

The rise of Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., signals a real shift in congressional power. The new chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Waxman unseated long-time Chairman John D. Dingell of Michigan, who held the chairmanship for 16 years and was seen as too protective of the automobile industry.

A Congressional Quarterly profile of Waxman and the new power he wields offers useful insights.

Other California lawmakers are expected to lead much of the drive toward lower greenhouse gas emissions, as the shift of congressional influence to California amounts to a major factor in shaping environmental legislation.

Californian Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, for instance, has made it clear that she wants the federal government to emulate the kind of aggressive legislation forged by California legislators to lower CO2 emissions.

Another Californian, Senator Barbara Boxer, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, is expected soon to introduce two climate bills. One will be a $15 billion annual grant program to cut greenhouse gas emissions to promote innovations in alternative energy. The other would require the EPA to set up a cap and trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

With former Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley chairing the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the council is certain to be far different from President George W. Bush’s CEQ. Yet another Californian, Christina Romer, is to chair the Council of Economic Advisers. California Democratic Representative Hilda L. Solis, Obama’s Secretary of Labor, is expected to make “green jobs” part of her agenda.

Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post has detailed how Californians will help shape environmental policy, both in Congress and in the White House.

Movements by Key Interest Groups

All kinds of interest groups calling for action on the climate issue have publicized their recommendations. One of them, the liberal Center for American Progress, has pointed to a handful of actions that journalists should keep an eye on in coming months. Among them:

  • California is seeking a waiver from the Clean Air Act to go ahead with legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles by 30 percent by 2016. The Bush Administration has blocked California’s effort; the new president will be urged to sign the waiver.
  • In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority to regulate CO2. The Bush Administration’s EPA has refused to make the required “endangerment finding” that climate change caused by rising CO2 emissions poses a threat to the public’s health and safety. Under Obama’s leadership, the EPA could immediately make that endangerment finding.
  • How much of Obama’s stimulus program includes tax incentives, direct aid and other measures to promote alternative energy and other green technologies will reveal a lot about the president’s commitment toward a low-carbon economy.
  • How Congress crafts a cap and trade system will determine how effective the system will be. According to the Center for American Progress: “The program should require all emitters to buy pollution allowances in an auction, and it should rebate half of the allowance revenues to middle-and low-income households to help them offset any increase in energy costs. The other half should be invested in clean energy, health care and transit.”

In addition, a broad-based coalition of business and environmental interests, the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, USCAP, in mid-January announced a “blueprint for legislative action” urging a cap and trade approach to achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2050. The group counts among its members GE, BP America, Duke Energy, Du Pont, GM, Johnson & Johnson, Shell, Xerox, and Caterpillar and also includes the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, World Resources Institute, and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

The electric utilities’ Edison Electric Institute’s board of directors, reading writing on the wall, on January 14 expressed (pdf) its “commitment to swift enactment of federal legislation capping greenhouse gas emissions, has adopted an updated climate change framework calling for an 80 percent reduction of carbon emissions by 2050, from current levels.”

A Green Economy Amidst a Bleak Economy?

Popping up in the media over the past few months, particularly since the economic crisis unfolded last fall, have been stories about how the lending crunch is slowing stalling investments in green technology.

“Never mind the fall in oil prices. It’s the credit crunch that has siphoned momentum from alternative and renewable energy,” wrote Kristen Hays in the Houston Chronicle. “Analysts say many capital-intensive new projects or expansions of established ones are pretty much on ice until access to money loosens up.”

Debate over Obama’s economic stimulus package points perhaps to a tough road for those advocating federal investments in green technologies. In a Washington Post story, for instance, reporters Paul Kane and Michael D. Shear wrote of a developing tug-of-war between those lawmakers wanting an immediate return from the stimulus program and environmentalists and smart-growth advocates favoring a significant portion of stimulus money invested in “green collar” jobs that promote alternative energy and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

There is a lot of pressure to direct stimulus money to “shovel-ready projects” such as highway and bridge construction that will put people to work immediately. But advocates for action on the climate issue are wary.

“Environmentalists and their allies view old-fashioned highway construction as encouraging longer commutes and increasing the energy-consumption crisis of the past year,” Kane and Shear wrote.

The economic crisis is also altering plans by individual states to act. Washington State is scaling back plans to establish a regional cap and trade system. Facing a state budget deficit of $6 billion, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire is worried about the economic costs of the initiative. “Concerned about the bad economy and pressure on businesses, Gregoire is leaning toward giving away most of the pollution credits, rather than auctioning them off as environmentalists had hoped,” Phoung Le of the AP wrote.

The Long Road to Copenhagen in December

Given the current economic climate, the road to global climate talks in Copenhagen will be anything but smooth.

Obama has promised to re-engage the United States in helping to forge a successor to Kyoto. That approach will re-insert the nation into an international negotiation from which it was largely missing in action over the past eight years … but a lot of what happens in December will depend on what the U.S. brings to the table.

And therein lies potential for falling short of the kinds of global reductions in CO2 that scientists say are needed by 2050.

Without domestic progress toward a concrete plan to cut CO2 emissions, America may have little clout with developing nations – chiefly China and India – to take bold steps of their own.

And without China and India committing to significant cuts in CO2, the U.S. Senate may look hard before supporting sacrifices here and in the rest of the developed world.

If recent climate talks in Poznan, Poland, are an indication, movement toward a new international agreement will be extremely difficult.

‘Fiddling As World Melts’ … and Climate Change ‘For Ever’

In “Fiddling with words as the world melts,” The Economist magazine lamented the lack of progress in Poznan.

“At this pace, it seems hard to believe that a global deal on emissions targets … can be reached next December at a meeting in Copenhagen, seen as a make-or-break time for UN efforts to cool the world,” the article said.

There was some reason for optimism at the Poznan meeting, although all the good news seemed to come from Latin America, The Economist reported: “Mexico vowed to halve greenhouse emissions by 2050; Brazil said it could reverse a recent rise in deforestation and cut the rate of forest loss by 70% over the next decade; Peru said that with help it could reduce deforestation to zero.”

Whether the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluters go to Copenhagen with anything so ambitious will be among the most important climate questions of the New Year.

The London Independent attempted to place things in perspective, perhaps with a touch of hyperbole.

In his piece, Tom Burke, a visiting professor at Imperial and University colleges in London, challenged the world’s leaders to not lose sight of the climate change issue as they work on the economic crisis and continuing troubles in the Middle East.

“This is arguably the first week of the most important year in human history,” Burke began, acknowledging the risk he was taking in being too grandiose.

“In December, a meeting on an issue far more important to the future prosperity and security of everyone on earth will take place in Copenhagen. Yet, nowhere did its prospects make the front pages. Terrible though they are, war and recession pass.

“Climate change is for ever.”

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...