The Man Who Could Put Climate Change on the Agenda

Coral Davenport
National Journal

Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, is best known for two things: his national security chops—he had key roles on the White House National Security Council—and the high regard in which he’s held by President Obama. McDonough has been part of Obama’s inner circle for nearly a decade, and the president has called his new chief of staff one of his “closest and most trusted advisers.”

Here’s what a lot of people don’t know about McDonough: He has a background on climate change, and he takes the issue very seriously. “Denis McDonough understands the threat posed by climate change to national security more than any White House chief of staff in the 21st century,” said Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank where McDonough worked as senior fellow in 2006 and 2007; while there, he wrote and contributed to several papers on climate change.

Jason Bordoff, who served as the president’s special assistant for energy and climate change on the National Security Council, wrote in an e-mail to National Journal, “When Denis was deputy national security adviser … we worked together on several energy and climate-related issues. Denis recognizes that climate change is a serious problem, and that strong U.S. leadership and action is needed to address the challenge.”

Here’s why that’s important: If Obama wants to follow through on his 2013 Inaugural Address pledge to make climate change a cornerstone of his legacy, he’ll need to make a series of tough, highly controversial executive decisions. There is almost no chance Congress will pass climate-change legislation in his second term, which means that the White House will have to drive any meaningful policy action. That action will probably come in a series of aggressive Environmental Protection Agency regulations to slash pollution from coal-fired power plants, and in the president’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, the $7 billion project that would bring carbon-heavy tar-sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. Obama will also need to act ahead of a United Nations summit in 2015, at which the world’s nations are expected to sign a binding treaty to tackle climate change.

The pushback—from industries such as oil, coal, and manufacturing, and from powerful business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—will be strong, as will be the political and legal repercussions. Even some Democrats, particularly those from coal and Rust Belt states, aren’t enthusiastic about the White House moving forward with tough regulations that could hurt their economies. And some senior administration staffers think climate change is far from a top-tier issue and is a sure political loser.

People close to the White House say that’s where a chief of staff committed to the issue can have a big impact. Carol Browner, who was Obama’s top energy and climate-change adviser during his first term and headed EPA during the Clinton administration, said the chief of staff can help determine whether environmental policy gains traction. She cited John Podesta, President Clinton’s top staffer and a strong advocate for clean energy and environmental issues. “When I was in EPA, it made all the difference in the world when Podesta showed up and gave my issues a fair hearing,” she said.

During Obama’s first term, each of his three staff chiefs had areas of expertise, but none had much of a background in environmental issues. Former Rep. Rahm Emanuel brought congressional and political experience; William Daley a former chairman at JPMorgan Chase, was hired to win trust from the business community—and was slammed by the environmental community for advising the president to delay a key set of clean-air regulations until after the 2012 election; Jacob Lew, with his background on the federal budget, prioritized economic issues.

By comparison, Browner said, “Denis has spent a lot of time thinking about climate change in the context of national security and the military. He’s well informed and well versed on this.”

In a 2007 paper, “Balancing Our Climate Debt: The Group of Eight Have an Obligation,” McDonough and coauthor Rebecca Schultz called on the G-8 industrial nations to focus “on the devastating impact high energy costs and climate change have on the world’s most vulnerable populations.” They argued that the wealthiest economies should “offer the most vulnerable communities in the world the support they need to combat the impact of climate change and help them and the rest of the world transition to a low-carbon global economy.” The paper declared, “This is a climate debt the industrialized world owes to these poor nations.”

McDonough also contributed to a 2007 CAP report titled “Energy Security in the 21st Century,” which warned, “Climate change poses a significant and increasingly imminent security threat to the United States and the world, but the Bush administration continues to block domestic and international efforts to meet this challenge.”

In still another paper from the center, “Cleaning Up China: Opportunities Beckon for U.S. Businesses,” McDonough and coauthor Peter Ogden praised Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. for acknowledging climate change as a problem, and they urged him to push for promotion of U.S. clean-energy technology in China. “Now is the time to invest in the development of a domestic clean-energy industry that can outperform its international competitors and capture a large share of this rapidly growing market,” McDonough and Ogden wrote. “This is how America can work toward getting its trade deficit back into the black, and how we can help China to get into the green—for the good of both nations and everyone else around the globe.”

Ultimately, of course, the U.S. agenda on climate change will be set by the president himself. But Obama’s selection of a key adviser with such a deep record on the issue suggests he intends to take it seriously.