President’s likely new top aide was early advocate for fighting climate change

Source: John McArdle, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2013

President Obama’s decision to devote time in his second inaugural address Monday to address climate change came as a surprise to many in the energy and environmental community, but maybe it shouldn’t have been such a shock.

An early indication that the Obama White House was going to take a tough stance on global warming in the president’s second term may have come last week, when word began to circulate that the president intends to appoint Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough as his next chief of staff.

While the White House has yet to officially confirm that McDonough is Obama’s choice to be his next top staffer, it’s been widely reported since last week that McDonough’s appointment is more a matter of when than if.

The challenges facing new action by Obama to lower carbon emissions in his second term are clear. The president will have to overcome not only opposition from congressional Republicans but a plate of policy objectives that is already quickly filling up with issues like gun violence, immigration and economic issues, from debt and deficit reduction to the ongoing economic recovery.

But with McDonough as Obama’s right hand, those who are worried about climate change could rest assured that one of their own would have the president’s ear.

Before joining the administration, McDonough, an expert on national security, worked at the liberal Center for American Progress, where he served as a senior fellow. While he was at CAP in 2006 and 2007, McDonough co-authored or contributed to several pieces on the importance of fighting climate change.

In 2006, McDonough was part of CAP’s National Security Task Force on Energy, which put together the organization’s national strategy on energy security in the 21st century. Former U.S. EPA Administrator Carol Browner, who would become Obama’s top energy and climate adviser for the first part of his first term, was also on the task force.

That document declared the George W. Bush administration to be “an obstacle to international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” and called for the United States to “immediately re-engage in international climate change negotiations and provide the leadership needed to reach a global, binding climate agreement.”

In 2007, McDonough co-wrote an item for CAP titled “Balancing Our Climate Debt” in which he and co-author Rebecca Schultz argued that the overwhelming environmental costs of climate change are hitting the countries that are least responsible for the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and that have the least resources available to deal with the consequences.

McDonough and Schultz called for the transfer of clean energy technology and assistance to the developing world to help incorporate clean energy into national economic development strategies.

“The United States clearly has the leadership capacity and policymaking prowess to help the world’s least developed nations weather the costly consequences of climate change in the coming 50 years,” they wrote. “But the United States must change course in international negotiations and begin working with the other members of the G8 to move beyond the current stalemate. Every lost opportunity to build cohesion around international efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions is dire; only a concerted, global approach will be sufficient to address this problem.”

In another 2007 piece on China and clean energy technology, McDonough and co-author Peter Ogden warned that the global market for green technologies is not waiting for the United States.

“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 towards 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.”

Since joining the administration, McDonough has become one of Obama’s closest foreign policy advisers. He was even in the room with Obama on the night that U.S. special forces raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in May of 2011.

In one of his earliest efforts for the president, McDonough represented then-Senator Obama in a May 2007 forum hosted by the Brookings Institution. At that event, he said global warming would be an issue that would take top billing in an Obama administration, including the funding of renewable energy projects through the Export-Import Bank (E&ENews PM, May 24, 2007).

“If I had to put a word on it for Senator Obama’s efforts on energy and climate, it would have to be ‘urgency,’” McDonough said at that event. “I think that he recognizes very clearly that this is an urgent problem that we’ve now lost far too much time in addressing. … He will make this a principal assignment that’s handled … from the White House itself that will allow a multifaceted domestic energy conservation efficiency effort, coupled with a very aggressive international diplomatic effort.”

Before working at CAP, McDonough worked on Capitol Hill as legislative director for then-Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) and as foreign policy adviser to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). His foreign policy experience also includes work with the German Parliament, or Bundestag, as a fellow with the Robert Bosch Foundation and as a professional staff member for the Democrats on the House International Relations Committee.

McDonough is expected to replace Jack Lew as White House chief of staff assuming Lew is confirmed by the Senate to be the new secretary of the Treasury.