A respected inside-the-Washington-Beltway climate change player changes its name. But also its focus? What to make of the new Center for Climate and Energy Solutions? (Note the word ‘change’ dropped there? Does it matter?

The New Year in Washington, D.C., will start with the absence from the climate change scene of what has been a strong and firm voice for sound policy.

News Analysis

Or will it? What’s in a name?

Quite a lot, actually. And one need not be such an old-timer on matters dealing with climate change to wonder about the transition recently announced by the respected Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

That name is no more. Now it’s the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, abbreviated to C2ES.

The renaming, reframing, and reorganization of that 13-year-old yet somehow venerable organization arises from a decision of the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts, its principal funder since its inception, to move from a grant-making institution to more of an operating organization. So much for the kind of big and multi-year funding that had sustained the Pew Center since its start.

So it was change or die. Still headed by Eileen Claussen, a former EPA and State Department official who originally launched the effort, the group chose to change. And therefore to live.

But what about that new name? How much to read between the lines about the dropping of “Change” from the title, while retaining “Climate”? And is “Center” meant to connote not just an organizational focus, as in convening place, but also a positioning emphasis — as in the “center” or “middle” of the spectrum on the issue? What about that seemingly innocuous word “and”? Apparently it’s meant to underscore a continuing focus on energy AND climate: In other words, this won’t be just an all-out emphasis on all-things-energy related, but rather an emphasis on energy matters specifically as they apply to our changing (that word) climate.

But don’t ignore the shortest word in the title here: It’s “for” as in Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Not, emphasis here, “on.” The latter might have implied a bit more of an academic or somewhat stand-back attitude, rather than an advocacy or leaning stance; not just study of or on a subject, that is, but rather proponent for. And there’s said to have been a lot of back and forth internally before the “for” was settled on.

Rather than choosing to “go silently into the night,” Claussen recently told an E&E News interviewer, “we made a decision to rebrand.” Asked how having HP, Shell, and Entergy as its principal financial sponsors rather than the decidedly greenish Pew Charitable Trusts, Claussen replied, “I don’t think I would ever do this if I wasn’t going to be independent, and I actually think they value our independence.” She pointed out that the big monied interests (and there are others too helping to fund the group) “can hire a lobbyist to do a particular job for them, or they’re part of an association that will speak for their sector.”

“What they want from us is information and analysis and a clear head and an ability to find a solution,” Claussen told that interviewer.

Around the Nation’s Capital, interviewer Monica Trauzzi continued, “nobody seems to want to talk about climate change.” Has that term in itself become so toxic politically that the very words need to be avoided? C2ES Executive Vice President Elliot Diringer, years ago an environmental reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle, insists that wasn’t part of the name-change equation. He says the “for” terminology and the “Solutions” wording reflect more internal brain-storming, and he insists that shying away from climate change matters just isn’t in the cards.

Claussen took a similar stance in her radio interview. “I mean, this is a serious issue, we actually have to deal with it,” she told Trauzzi. “Wishing it away or pretending that it doesn’t exist is really silly …. We understand that you have to manage this risk. Yeah, you should talk about climate and we intend to.”

With the Pew Trust funding running through March 2012, Diringer insists the organization in the future will remain “as committed as ever to addressing climate change” even as it picks up something more of an energy workload. He says the new group is holding steady financially and that support from what it labels “Major Contributors” (Alcoa Foundation, Bank of America, Duke Energy, The Energy Foundation, G.E., and Rockefeller Brothers Foundation) remains level.

Without the anchor of that Pew Trust support — which Claussen says had contributed about 70 percent of operating income — it’s unclear how long the group’s overall funding level can remain steady or grow.

Also unclear at this point is just how the group itself and its steady message on the seriousness of the climate change challenge might evolve in the future. It certainly doesn’t take much digging to identify points where ongoing Shell corporate initiatives, to choose just one example, may not be easily seen as being in the best interests of climate stability.

By no means alone in experiencing wrenching funding challenges in the current economic climate (pun intentional), the core C2ES group likely can be viewed as having banked a fair amount of good will and credibility among those who have followed their work. A key issue down the road may involve how successful the new group is in retaining not only its top staff, but also the many high-quality junior staffers who have contributed much to the group’s successes over the years.

Can it maintain that track with the bulk of its support now coming not from a fiercely independent and progressive-leaning deep-pockets foundation, but rather from several giants of the business community, inevitably carrying their own sometimes climate-inconsistent objectives?

That the Pew Center-to-C2ES transition comes at a time of repositioning on the part of a number of leading environmental organizations, as reported by Leslie Kaufman in The New York Times, only makes more daunting the assembly of the puzzle pieces of key players in ongoing climate change considerations in Washington and, more broadly, across the country and the globe.

One thing remains certain at this early stage in the transition. The niche ably filled by the old Pew Center in Washington climate change politics and policy circles is a critical one. Either it will continue to fill it and fill it well … or someone else will have to move in to do so. Right now may not be the time that phones are ringing off the hooks around the I-495 Beltway with frantic policy calls concerning climate change. But given the nature of the challenges surely lying ahead, it’s a matter of when, and not whether, those rings will return. One can hope that something like the old Pew Center — be it C2ES or someone else — will be there to answer the calls.

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...