The Multi-State Working Group and the ABA Committee on Climate Change, Sustainability and Ecosystems were hosted by Sonnenschein on Nov. 8, 2008, in Chicago. Howard Learner, an environmental adviser to the Obama campaign, was the keynote speaker, and his remarks were of great interest for those in the climate change and decarbonization industries.
Mr. Learner is the CEO and executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), based in Chicago. As introduced by his long-time acquaintance, Sonnenschein partner Jeff Fort, the ELPC has demonstrated strong leadership in environmental issues over two decades in the Midwest. While some may complain that ELPC is an advocacy group, others complain that it is too pragmatic. Fort pointed out that the reputation enjoyed by ELPC, under Mr. Learner's leadership, has been one of moving environmental policy issues forward while demonstrating an understanding of the practicalities involved in that progress.
The balance of this article is a summary of some observations on the key priorities of the incoming administration.
The key organizing principle will be adding layers of activities in order to reach the environmental goals needed for climate protection. Reduction of emissions where feasible is clearly the first choice. Mr. Learner suggests that energy efficiency measures in government buildings, schools and other public buildings will be a key priority. Simple measures such as merely using CFL bulbs to replace incandescent bulbs could reduce energy consumption by 2-3 percent globally. Mr. Learner also cited the relative inefficiency of existing commercial and residential buildings as a great opportunity - simply replacing home heating systems could increase energy efficiency by 20 percent. Thus, conservation will be a key initiative in the new administration.
A second initiative may focus on using the government support for automobile manufactures and other entities to drive energy improvements. The Obama administration is on record as supporting a million hybrid vehicles by 2015. With the Big Three automakers seeking government support, much of that support will likely be tied to the Big Three taking measures to improve the supply chain energy efficiency and gaining technological advantage on hybrid and related technologies.
A third action may be to provide better signals on tax incentives for alternative energy technologies. Here, Mr. Learner spoke not just about the benefits of wind or solar, but the manufacturing jobs needed to produce the components for these technologies and developing the new technologies themselves. Mr. Learner cited the benefits to Midwestern jobs and manufacturing areas by having a clearer demand structure for wind and solar technologies. He is in favor of making Chicago and the U.S. the center of "green technology." Mr. Learner views green technology as the "next oil" and wondered whether the U.S. will "import or export" green technology. Mr. Learner's Chicago roots are indicative that he favors making green technology an engine for U.S. manufacturing and intellectual property.
Mr. Learner noted the difficulties faced because of the country's current economic challenges, and the "carbon constrained" conditions we face. He emphasized the scientific consensus that action on climate change is needed quickly. He commented on the convergence around environmental issues, energy issues and national security. He pointed out that Gen. James Jones, as national security adviser, favors energy independence, and the incoming EPA administrator will recognize the environmental needs. He also notes that the country's economic and energy needs will require a different look. In short, he suggests that these issues will be the prism through which policy issues will be decided.
Lastly, Mr. Learner commented on the different perspective that President-elect Obama will bring. The last president from an urban background was Warren Harding, almost a century ago. Mr. Learner predicts Obama will be more attuned to urban mass transit, smart grids on a local distribution level, and other issues that are more apparent to a city experience, rather than a suburban or rural background. He projects the benefits of more mass transit and rail passenger support to be forthcoming from the new administration.