Environmentalists fear their top priority - a national climate-change policy - will be sidetracked in Congress by concerns over the slumping economy.
President-elect Barack Obama has said the policy is a “matter of urgency” and furthered his commitment on Monday by naming the top members of his energy and environment team. He said the team would lead his drive toward renewable energy and away from oil and would coordinate the often interlocked domains of energy and climate policy.
Yet the green lobby, filled with optimism after the election of a Democratic president and Congress, now sees the expanding meltdown of the economy as a major obstacle.
“One thing we face is the inaccurate assessment that additional environmental concerns will affect the economy the wrong way,” said Tony Iallonardo, public-policy communications director for the Audubon Society. “Overcoming some of that will be a challenge, and that´s what we´re trying to do.”
Roger Schlickeisen, chief executive officer of the Defense of Wildlife Action Fund, said critics should remember that economic activity depends on a healthy planet.
At a minimum, he said, a federal policy on climate change should call for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, more so if technological advances allow it.
“It is the living natural world that provides for our [gross national product],” Mr. Schlickeisen said. “If we let that biodiversity diminish, we will be perilously undermining our economy. You can´t have a strong economy without a healthy environment.”
Whether most Americans agree with that connection is another matter. “I don´t think they do,” he said. “That´s part of the education problem.”
A coalition of 27 leading environmental groups last month released a report, “Transition to Green,” aimed at providing an environmental blueprint for the Obama administration. The 391-page document, which offers recommendations on a host of environmental issues, refers to the promise of a green economy led by the renewable-energy industry.
“In November, Americans made their preference clear that the federal government has a critical role to play in unleashing homegrown, innovative energy solutions that would create new jobs, reduce global warming pollution and cut our nation´s dependence on oil,” the coalition said in a Nov. 25 statement.
At the same time, however, coalition members made it clear that their top environmental priority remains climate change. The solution, they say, is a federal policy that would feature a carbon cap-and-trade system aimed at reducing emissions.
“Such a system is critical to address climate change and raise revenue needed to transition to a clean energy economy,” the statement said.
And there´s the rub, critics said. Placing restrictions on automobile, airplane and industrial emissions or charging a fee to those unwilling or unable to reduce theirs, isn´t exactly a recipe for economic revitalization.
“There´s no question that invoking a policy that´s going to reduce emissions is going to have a damaging effect on the economy, and everybody knows that,” said Robin Rivett, president of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a pro-industry group based in Sacramento, Calif.
“This administration´s top priority is economic recovery,” he said. “There´s going to be a tremendous backlash if you put global warming at the top of the agenda. We´re going to have a very strong economy before you can regulate business in that way.”
Environmental groups already have moved to curb emissions through the Endangered Species Act. Earlier this year, they scored a key victory when the Fish and Wildfire Service agreed to list the polar bear as a threatened species because of threats to its habitat caused by climate change.
Mr. Obama’s announcements Monday included Carol M. Browner, who was Environmental Protection Agency administrator in the Clinton White House. Taking the new post as White House energy and environment coordinator, Mrs. Browner will be in charge of integrating the often disparate federal agencies that deal with energy and climate policies.
Lisa M. Jackson, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine’s chief of staff and former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, was picked to head the EPA. Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley was selected to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
“The pursuit of a new energy economy requires a sustained all-hands-on-deck effort because the foundation of our energy independence is right here in America, in the power of wind and solar, in new crops and new technologies, in the innovation of our scientists and entrepreneurs and the dedication and skill of our work force,” Mr. Obama said Monday.
Environmentalists and Democratic congressional members widely lauded the naming of the “Green Dream Team” on Monday. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, called the group “exciting and experienced.”
David Hayes of the World Wildlife Fund and John Leshy, who served as solicitor general under President Clinton, are members of the Interior Department transition team and have been mentioned as candidates for interior secretary.
Those names have already run into resistance from groups concerned about the economic effects of the Obama administration’s policies. The American Land Rights Association has issued an alert to its largely rural members urging them to lobby their senators against the appointment of any Clinton administration alumni.
“You do not want to have to fight for survival in a new Obama War on the West,” the alert said.
Chuck Cushman, who heads the group, predicted “a hard next four years” for rural communities that depend on mining, ranching and other environmental bete noires for their survival. At the same time, he said, no one really knows what Mr. Obama will do.
“Obama´s a very interesting guy,” he said. “The jury is still out on whether Obama has it in his heart to carry out the culture war the environmentalists want him to carry out.”
• Tom LoBianco contributed to this report.