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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Environment’s Future: Looking Ahead

Air Date: Week of

Political candidates talked the talk, now that they’ve been elected will they walk the walk? John Podesta, President of the Council for American Progress, and Representative Sherwood Boehlert of New York consider the new Congress with Living on Earth host Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: For a look at the new landscape for the environment and energy in Washington we turn to two political insiders now. John Podesta, was Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton and now heads the Center for American Progress. And Sherwood Boehlert is the twelve-term Republican Representative from New York and chair of the House Science committee.
John Podesta, welcome to Living on Earth.

PODESTA: How are you today?

CURWOOD: And Congressman Boehlert, hello.

BOEHLERT: It’s good to be with you.

CURWOOD: Representative, it seems like some of the Republicans who did well in this election had a strong environmental message, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chris Shays survived in Connecticut. So is there a message to the Republican Party from those victories?

Congressman Boehlert at a press conference in the Senate Press Gallery. (Courtesy of United States House of Representatives)

BOEHLERT: There’s quite clearly a message and there has been year after year and when I bring it up with my colleagues there are those who say, “What do you get so excited about the environment for? Every time we take a poll, and people in this town take a pole every nanosecond. People are asked an open ended question they usually say in response to what concerns you the most they’ll say the war on terrorism or Iraq or the economy. And way down the list will be the environment. So why do you get so excited about the environment.” And I always respond in the same way. I say well that’s easy to explain. People across the country don’t think the policy makers in Washington are going to take leave of their senses and do something that will do damage to the environment. But when something like that is proposed and it has been unfortunately, too frequently by some of my colleagues in the past, the phones ring off the hook, the faxes are on overdrive, people send in mail by the ton. They want us to deal responsibly with the environment.

CURWOOD: What’s going to happen with climate change? Are we going to see any caps? And what are the prospects of the White House policy changing? Mr. Podesta?

John Podesta is the President of the Center for American Progress and the former Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton. (Courtesy of Center for American Progess)

PODESTA: Well, y’know, I’m not particularly hopeful that the President is going to change his views on this. I think that he’s, he’s long just said that we can rely on voluntary efforts. It’s clearer and clearer the science is just crystal clear that the globe is warming at a very rapid rate. And I think you see more and more people in the business community saying that we need to create a low carbon or a no carbon energy future and we need to create the right kind of economic incentives including putting a cap and a cost on putting carbon pollution in the atmosphere. I think it may take a new president to do that. But my guess is that both parties will compete on that question in 2008 election. And you’ve already seen the leading Democratic presidential prospects come out with very aggressive energy policies that include caps on carbon emissions including Senator Clinton, Senator Obama and others.

BOEHLERT: Well, John I want to give you a cause for some additional cause for optimism and I’m an eternal optimist. And I point out to the detractors in my party that even the President of the United States concedes that global warming is for real. I’ve talked to him about this subject one on one. And I’ll tell your listeners just what I’ve told him. I’ll say, “Mr. President, every time I talk with you on a sensitive issue that might be divisive like global climate change, I always feel better after talking with you.” And then I pause for effect. “It’s your staff that screws it up.” And he usually laughs. But I really do feel that he gets it more than some of his staff people get it. And no president wants to leave after two terms in the White House without a sense that history will treat him well. And this is one area where I think the President has an opportunity to address, in a responsible way, something that is important to all Americans and I just have a gut feeling that he’s going to do it.

CURWOOD: So let’s talk now about a big Democrat in the House is John Dingell. He’s been on the hill, it’s been almost 50 years or something like that.

PODESTA: Yeah, back in the 1950s.

CURWOOD: He’s in line to get back his committee chairmanship as House energy. Now in the past he’s opposed fuel efficiency. He’s opposed greenhouse gas caps. How much of a stumbling block do you think he’ll be for Democrats for the Congress in terms of focusing on environmental change and climate change in particular?

PODESTA: John Dingell’s been a champion on certain environmental issues: protection of natural resources. You know he’s a great hunter. He loves the land and protects natural resources. He’s been strong on clean water act. But he also comes from a district that is an auto-producing district and has been always worried I think about the impact of particularly clean air questions on the auto industry. I think that he understands now that probably one of the most important questions facing not only this country but facing the world is global warming and climate change and I think you’ll see him be active on the energy question and on the climate change question, I certainly hope so. Y’know, I think he’ll be pushed also by the members of his committee, who I think have gotten both educated on the question and will push forward to try to make some real change on that question.

CURWOOD: So let me ask you Congressman Boehlert, you’ve worked for many years on Capitol Hill with John Dingell across the aisle, sometimes in the majority, sometimes in the minority. How do you think he’s going to be to work with now on the question of climate change, global warming given that he does come from where they make cars in Michigan?

BOEHLERT: Well, that’s a big question mark. I have the highest regard for John Dingell. In so many areas I find myself a kindred spirit with him. But I would point out to one and all that he was the 800-pound gorilla in the room that has blocked repeatedly, been the leader of the opposition to the joint bipartisan effort on CAFÉ standards. The science is on our side. The technology exists to make more fuel efficient vehicles today. But quite honestly our primary opposition from that common sense approach has come from John Dingell, the auto industry, and I understand no one likes mandates, they don’t want to be told by the government they have to do anything, but if we sit back and wait for a voluntary program to trigger in we’ll probably wait throughout eternity.

PODESTA: I think I’d add just one point to what the Congressman said which is we absolutely need to improve the efficiency of our vehicles and we also need alternative fuels. And I think there’s a lot of bipartisan support in the Congress to try to move towards backing out some of the oils that we do import by really using the science to bring forward cellulosic ethanol and new fuels that will, in combination with more efficient vehicles could take a huge dent out of both the imported oil and the security concerns that go with it and also really reduce our greenhouse gases.

CURWOOD: Some would say that’s what happening in Washington on the question is kind of agreeing to collude to the oil addiction. I mean the president said we’re addicted to oil. But so far responding to the problem of addiction to oil from really both sides of the aisle kind of looks like two alcoholics saying, “Gee this is really bad for my liver” while ordering another scotch.

PODESTA: Well, maybe I’ll take that one first. I think the Congressman has rightfully said that both parties or at least some leaders in both parties have been impediments to raising CAFÉ standards. When I was in the White House working for President Clinton when we were trying to do that there were constantly riders put into appropriations bills that blocked our ability to do it. And that was bipartisan in its support. But I think things have changed. And I think that you see more leadership-I like to think that it’s from my party- but I think that we really need it from both parties to really move forward on this and to kind of break down the special interests hammerlock that particularly the oil companies have you know on the Congress in the past and on this administration.

BOEHLERT: I’m very optimistic as I look forward, not because of the election results, I’m a little be disappointed that the Democrats are back in the majority and my fellow Republicans are back in the minority. But the principle message out of the election of 2006 was that the American people are sort of fed up with the polarization and the lack of consideration for another point of view. And what they’re saying to those of us in Washington is sort of come together, agree on the problems and then try to develop a consensus solution. Don’t just talk about it. Do something.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you both. Sherwood Boehlert is the outgoing Republican Representative from New York’s 24 district where he served 12 terms without ever being defeated because you chose retirement, Sir. Thank you so much.

BOEHLERT: Thank you.

CURWOOD: And John Podesta is president of the Center for American Progress and formerly chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. Thank you, Sir.

PODESTA: Great to be with you. And Congressman, thank you for your service.

BOEHLERT: Thank you so much.



Congressman Sherwood Boehlert

The Center for American Progress


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