How Aggressively Will the New Administration Address Global Warming?

Very, it would seem.

This isn’t exactly a surprise. Obama campaigned hard on the subject. But a couple of personnel moves in recent days suggest that, despite the cratering economy, the administration is also eager to tackle the energy/global warming issues.

The first move is the ouster of John Dingell as chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, to be replaced by Henry Waxman.

Both men are Democrats, but Dingell is from the old school, and from Michigan, with a reputation for being auto-industry friendly; Waxman, from California, is an avowed environmentalist. (To be reductive: Dingell is gas-powered while Waxman is wind-powered.) Between this switch and the rejection (for now) of the Big Three’s plea for Congressional aid, the gas-burning car paradigm looks headed for a shift.

Also interesting is the expected appointment of Peter Orszag as director of the Office of Management and Budget. As director of the Congressional Budget Office, Orszag has been, among other things, a blogger. Here are his posts on climate change; and here’s a presentation he recently made at Wellesley College on the subject. Here’s his summary of the basic science:

+ Virtually impossible to account for 20th-century changes in climate without attributing a significant but uncertain share to anthropogenic G.H.G. emissions.

+ Only about half of warming already set in motion has occurred to this point.

+ Much more warming than that is likely, however,

– Reducing emissions from current levels would still mean rising concentration.

It is statements like these that have gotten Orszag called an alarmist.

If this administration gets its hands dirty with energy and climate issues — and it looks as if it sure plans to — we are in for a very interesting four years, to say the least. If nothing else, it will be nice to hear some policy arguments that incorporate lots of economic and scientific material.

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  1. Mo says:

    I like how he notes that the anthropogenic share is uncertain. Basically, it probably plays a role but we don’t know how much.

    Here is the difficulty with global warming research on the global level: no control group. We have nothing to compare the situation to (except other time periods, which creates a real problem).

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  2. Mercutio.Mont says:

    “If nothing else, it will be nice to hear some policy arguments that incorporate lots of economic and scientific material.”

    I’d assign a very low probability to this happening.

    Making sausages.

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  3. MikeM says:

    I like how the Obama Administration gets credit for the switch from Dingle to Waxman.

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  4. Mike says:

    “(To be reductive: Dingell is gas-powered while Waxman is wind-powered.) ”

    All politicians are wind-powered.

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  5. EricM says:

    The urgency of GW cannot be overstated, as Orszag appears to understand from his science-based, conservative statements. Another way to look at the problem with the numbers:

    – preindustrial levels of GHG CO2: 270 ppm
    – current level: 385 ppm and rising at rate of 2 ppm/yr
    – realistic level at which we can expect to level off (if we act quickly): 450 ppm
    – highest level at which marine and land ecosystems can maintain balance: 350 ppm (Hansen, et al, NASA, 2008)

    That leaves us 100 ppm above where we need to be, which is 50 years of polluting at current levels: that’s a lot of heat absorbing carbon.

    During his campaign, Obama very clearly and plainly described a plan to develop 5 million new green jobs, an FDR-sized worker program, and he was elected with a solid majority. I believe this is a mandate for new energy and economic policy to shift away from fossil fuels and towards the green economy that the human ecosystem depends upon.

    It will be an interesting 4 years indeed. Let’s hope it’ll be the discussions in DC that are interesting and not the heat waves in the mid-west, more powerful hurricanes off Florida, more forest fires in the west, more pine beetle infestations in our forests, etc., etc

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  6. James A says:

    Talk about setting up for one of the greatest tax schemes of all time (and at exactly the wrong time I might add). The entire carbon credit trading system is based on an assumption that relies on a lot of guesstimates about what will happen to the climate in the future. Given my local weatherman can’t forecast past one day (see previous Freakonomics posting for that), one can only imagine how they can predict the coming global apocalypse with such certainty. I would much rather the free market dictate the rate and extent of change to deal with climate change. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s anyone left now in Washington who believes the same as I do.

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  7. Bill Hewitt says:

    Actually, MikeM, you can pretty well take it as a given that Obama expressed his preferences in any number of ways to the House Democratic caucus. There is at least one very significant link between Henry Waxman and Obama: Phil Schiliro will be the new Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs and was Waxman’s Chief of Staff.

    That’s not the whole story, to be sure. Some of this story goes back nearly 30 years. See more on this at

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  8. David Zetland says:

    All I care about is that they push carbon TAXES back on the agenda to complete with Cap and Trade.

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