Politics: Will the Departure of White House Climate Czar Carol Browner Make a Difference?

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Carol Browner. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty

As Politico first reported last night, Carol Browner will be stepping down from her post as White House climate and energy czar. Browner, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator in the Clinton Administration, was a key member of the “Green Dream Team” of cabinet appointees and White House aides who accompanied President Obama into office two years ago, and a strong voice for the environment inside a West Wing that was usually dominated by centrists like former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. From her perch in the White House, Browner helped push for climate and energy legislation in Congress—and since cap-and-trade failed, for lots of reasons, greens are worried that Browner’s exit could signal the West Wing’s surrender on climate. As Mike Allen and Darren Samuelsohn report:

Even so, some of Obama’s allies on and off Capitol Hill who two years ago considered Browner the leader of a dream team on their issues said they were concerned about the latest shakeup on the eve of a State of the Union where the president is expected to move to the center.

“This does strike me as a quiet kill, so to speak,” said a House Democratic aide who works on energy and environmental issues, including the 2009 cap-and-trade bill. “If there were a sacrificial lamb, it could have been on health care, financial issues, on a whole number of other things. But it’s the climate czar that’s going down.

“I don’t know the exact circumstances of it, but the circumstantial evidence, I think the timing is frankly fairly frightening,” the staffer added.

How big a difference will Browner’s departure make? There are some clues in that quote. While the Obama Administration obviously had a bumpy first two years, leading to that shellacking in the midterm elections, the White House managed to push through both health care and financial reform legislation. Though cap-and-trade legislation passed the House in a close vote in 2009, it never came up for a vote in the Senate, where the need for 60 votes and the resistance of conservative Democrats (not to mention just about every Republican) proved an insurmountable barrier. Now with the Republicans in firm control of the House and the Democratic majority even weaker in the Senate, it’s virtually impossible to imagine new climate and energy legislation going through the Congress. If anything is likely to be done, it will almost certainly come through the EPA, which has begun the controversial process of regulating greenhouse gas emissions, perhaps along with smaller initiatives from the Department of Energy (DOE). If Browner’s job chiefly was to liaise with Congress on climate and energy, it’s not clear she’d have much of a portfolio left.

That doesn’t mean her departure is meaningless. Early on in 2009, Browner scored a victory when she presided over successful negotiations with the auto industry to vastly improve fuel efficiency requirements, and she was also front and center for the Administration’s response to the BP oil spill, which was better than many critics gave it credit for. (I remember speaking to Browner in the early days of the spill, and she was able to make the clear connection between the disaster and America’s oil addiction—though that relationship was lost as the spill dragged on.) Symbolism matters in the White House—the appointment of Browner and other heavyweights like DOE Secretary Steven Chu in 2009 was viewed by greens as evidence that Obama was really going to make climate and energy a priority. (There’s a reason TIME made them all Heroes of the Environment in 2009.) But even if it’s possible that ambitious climate legislation was doomed from the start, it’s tough to make the argument that this issue was high enough on the agenda for President Obama. Greens are already feeling left out—Browner’s departure will likely only deepen that sense, especially with pro-business figures like new chief of staff William Daley on the rise in the West Wing.

Practically, though, the battle lines had already moved. The real fight for climate, energy and the environment will be between the EPA and Republicans in the House, who seem dedicated to making agency administrator Lisa Jackson’s life as miserable as possible. You can expect Jackson, a New Orleans native tempered in the unfriendly fields of New Jersey state politics, to play tough. Just since the beginning of 2011, the EPA has continued with the process of greenhouse gas regulations (though they remain limited), and made a controversial decision to deny a permit for a mountaintop removal mine. The question is whether the White House and President Obama will stand behind her. (So far it looks like they will, with the Department of Justice making the defense of greenhouse gas regulations a top priority.) That should matter more to greens than whether we see another White House climate czar.