Carol Browner on Climate Change: "The Science Has Just Become Incredibly Clear"

Obama adviser Carol Browner says that Americans are more ready than ever to conserve energy.

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This is the second time around in a top government job for Carol Browner. She was director of the Environmental Protection Agency under Bill Clinton and has returned as a senior adviser to President Barack Obama for energy and climate change. Browner says eight years has made a huge difference in public attitudes and that Americans are more willing than ever to work for energy independence. In a recent interview with U.S. News, Browner discussed Obama's "green" objectives and how his agenda might play out in 2009 and beyond. Excerpts:

How committed are Americans to improving energy conservation, and how will the economic stimulus package move the nation toward that goal?

The president made very clear during his campaign that he wanted to create a new energy future for the people of this country, one that was based on domestic sources, renewables, efficiencies—that he wanted to address the challenge of climate change, and that the stimulus really represents, I think, a very significant down payment toward those commitments. What's changed in the country since you were last in government?

I think the American people have a better understanding of why we need an energy transformation. That may be the experiences of, whether it was oil prices that are not predictable or reliable, the impact on their own pocketbook. People understand that we can't continue to think about energy in the way we did in the past. It was sort of, you know, available without a lot of thought. And most Americans now know that as we look toward an economic recovery, an important part of that is going to be an energy transformation. Are people more optimistic that this can be done?

I think there's also this great belief that we can do better, that [with] American innovation, American ingenuity, we really can build wind farms and power our cities with clean energy, with homegrown, American, renewable energy. We look around the world, and we see these things starting to happen in other parts of the world, and I think for many Americans the question becomes, why not here? And what President Obama is saying [is], absolutely here, that we can do this. What are some of these examples from around the world?

You see the pictures of the wind farms in Europe, the stories about, you know, our battery technology is being imported, that the thin film that's used for solar is exported, that the global demand is greater than our domestic demand—and those are all things we can fix. The stimulus will be an important part of making that change. How much have attitudes shifted on climate change?

I think, first of all, that the science has just become incredibly clear—that the impacts are real, they will be real, and that we need to do something. There are businesses that quite frankly see an opportunity, recognize that if you have requirements in terms of reducing greenhouse gases, that their innovations, their ingenuity are going to allow them to capture some opportunities in the marketplace. That's a change. There's a long history of the government making decisions and creating opportunities for businesses, and I think you've got a growing number of businesses in this arena that understand that. Were there elements in the administration's "green" agenda and in the stimulus package that Obama has been particularly insistent on?

Yes, the smart grid. If we're going to double renewables—it's taken us 35 years to get as many renewables as we have today—if we're going to double that in the near term, part of what we have to be thinking about is how we're going to move those renewables to where the people are, and a smart grid is a piece of that. What is the genesis of President Obama's thinking on this?

He talked about it during the campaign, and I think what we've been able to do in the stimulus is really fill that out. So, as I said, it's bigger, better, smarter. Bigger means we need the new high-voltage lines for renewables. Better means we need to take our existing lines and upgrade them. And then, smarter: We need to make sure that we're really moving electricity in the smartest way and using the most cost-effective electricity at the right time of day. Eventually, we can get to a system where an electric company will be able to hold back some of the power so that maybe your air conditioner won't operate at its peak, you'll still be able to cool your house, but that'll be a savings to the consumer. And so [we will be] giving people and companies a role in the management of how we use electricity.