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Obama's Far-flung Climate Team

So energy and environment types are still waiting for Obama to appoint someone—anyone—to the EPA, Department of Energy, or Interior Department, to say nothing of Agriculture and Transportation. What's the hold-up? By some accounts, Obama's aides are debating whether to create a brand new position that would oversee the administration's climate/energy strategy and coordinate efforts among different agencies. I'm loath to use the bizarrely prevalent term "czar" here, but what's a better word? Alternatively, Obama could adopt Hillary Clinton's proposal for a National Energy Council that would do much the same thing.

Yeah, yeah, czar-mania has become a stale joke in Washington, but this is actually a solid idea. Trying to fend off drastic climate change is going to require major economic restructuring, and that will mean close coordination among the departments of agriculture, transportation, energy, commerce, labor, HUD, maybe even the State Department… To take one example: Robert Puentes had a terrific piece at TNR Online a few weeks ago about how the Transportation Department very rarely takes the broad view on transportation infrastructure—in fact, the United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn't put much thought into how to link up existing rail, air, transit networks. Now, reducing CO2 emissions 80 percent by 2050 is going to mean thinking strategically not just about transportation networks, but also how to link them up with land-use patterns and a modernized electric grid… Needless to say, whoever takes this czar job—if it gets created—better be seriously experienced at turf warfare, like a green Dick Cheney.

Anyway, that brings us to Bill Richardson. Joe Romm points to a Greenwire story about Richardson's appointment as commerce secretary, and notes that even this seemingly out-of-the-way agency is going to play a major role in climate matters. Not only is Richardson going to act as Obama's economic evangelist, singing that green-job gospel wherever he goes, but he'll also be overseeing NOAA, which consumers about 60 percent of the department's budget and deals with oceans, fisheries, and—crucially—climate data:

Richardson will also oversee appointments to key political positions, including leaders for NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Those appointees will inherit the implementation of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act mandate to end overfishing, along with increasing budget demands for new satellite systems. Aimed at providing science agencies and the military with climate and weather data, the satellites have saddled the agency with ballooning budget requirements and the need for massive restructuring.

Satellite and climate change issues will be some of the most crucial issues facing the new administration. Fisheries and marine conservation is a major focus for NOAA, but about 70 percent of the agency’s budget goes to science and technology.

The fact that Richardson takes global warming very seriously is an encouraging sign, as is the fact that Obama didn't just hand this job to some wealthy donor as a sign of things. In fact, as Romm points out, Richardson's appointment will be much more significant from a climate standpoint than the fact that the new national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, used to sit on the board of Chevron, which was cause for a minor (mostly media-driven) freak-out a few weeks ago.

--Bradford Plumer