Obama’s energy secretary


in Economics, Politics, Science, The environment

President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for energy secretary seems impressive: Nobel laureate Steven Chu. He is an experimental physicist, so he will be able to separate scientifically accurate information from bunk. He is also an advocate of alternative and renewable energy.

Since 2004, he was the head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and concentrated his efforts on climate change. Hopefully, the choice reflects a commitment to addressing climate change, despite all the immediate clamour and apparent urgency of economic policy-making.

On an odd side note, about two thirds of the budget of the US Department of Energy is spent on nuclear weapons research and maintenance.

{ 83 comments… read them below or add one }

J. December 11, 2008 at 12:40 pm

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R.K. December 11, 2008 at 4:35 pm

Seeing a scientist appointed is encouraging, following the anti-science philosophy of the Bush administration (and Republicans generally).

That being said, there is reason to be concerned about putting someone with limited management experience in this kind of role.

Tristan December 11, 2008 at 7:29 pm

Are you still taking Obama seriously? Even after all these hacks he’s appointed to deal with the economy, and Clinton, not to mention Biden being a pro-Iraq nut.

I think it’s pretty clear his rhetoric was just a farce.

Milan December 11, 2008 at 7:34 pm

In general, I think his cabinet picks have been impressive and cause for optimism.

He is showing himself to be a pragmatist willing to surround himself with intelligent people, even when they do not fully agree with him.

The contrast with the Bush administration policy of putting loyalty above competence is stark.

. December 11, 2008 at 7:45 pm

Jumping the gun

Dec 4th 2008
From The Economist print edition
Barack Obama’s first 100 days have already begun

Tristan December 11, 2008 at 11:20 pm

Chomsky on Obama’s cabinet selections:


Milan December 11, 2008 at 11:35 pm

Chomsky’s objection is neither surprising nor interesting.

The test of the Obama team will be how capable they prove in office.

Chomsky December 12, 2008 at 1:26 am

I’m neither surprising nor interesting.

Josh December 12, 2008 at 3:17 am

“two thirds of the budget of the US Department of Energy is spent on nuclear weapons research and maintenance”

Why do you find this “odd”?

In what ways do you disagree with Chomsky’s unsurprising objection?

Fetzer December 12, 2008 at 7:39 am

Chomsky is crazy, he thinks 911 wasn’t an inside job.

ToryC December 12, 2008 at 10:35 am

For Obama to accomplish anything, he will need to maintain the confidence of Congress and the American public. Doing that requires appointing people generally seen as competent, and not getting obsessively hung up on ideology.

The kind of Presidency Chomsky would want would never achieve anything, because it would almost immediately lose popular and political support.

Excluding everyone who supported the Iraq war from cabinet would sharply limit the president-elect’s options. After all, one of the most unusual things about Obama is that he opposed the war.

Calling Larry Summers and Tim Geithner ‘hacks’ demonstrates a lack of awareness about how much respect these men command in economic circles. Summers was a Harvard professor and Treasury Secretary under Clinton. Geithner is a respected cental banker.

Milan December 12, 2008 at 10:47 am


I find it odd both that a civilian agency would be in charge of nuclear weapons and odd that it dominates their budget so much. Given the reality of climate change – as well as concerns about energy security – focusing on nuclear weapons seems to be bad prioritization.

While I can see some value in having a non-military organization being in charge of nuclear weapons, I don’t think this is an example of that. The military has the weapons and the information required to use them. The DOE is focused on research, development, and construction.

. December 12, 2008 at 12:32 pm

Transition talk: How dreamy is the new team?
Obama’s green administration picks signal major shifts in policy
Posted by Kate Sheppard at 8:36 PM on 11 Dec 2008

“Obama’s green team hasn’t yet been made official (and probably won’t be until next week), but his rumored choices are eliciting passionate reactions nonetheless. Enviros, for the most part, are pleased with the picks, while business-oriented interests are offering more guarded reviews.

Everyone agreed, however, that the expected nominees — Lisa Jackson to head the U.S. EPA, Steven Chu as energy secretary, Nancy Sutley as chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, and Carol Browner as the so-called “energy czar” — herald major changes in federal policy.”

“It’s pretty clear that President-elect Obama’s picks represent a 180-degree change in terms of what direction they’re going to be heading on critical issues facing the country,” said Anna Aurilio, director of the D.C. office of Environment America. “We’re thrilled that he has picked people who are absolutely heading in the right direction, believe that global warming is a problem, believe that clean energy can solve it, and absolutely believe in the economic-recovery effect of these solutions,” she continued.”

Tristan December 12, 2008 at 12:55 pm

What is ideology?

. December 12, 2008 at 1:03 pm

An ideology is a set of beliefs, aims and ideas, especially in politics. An ideology can be thought of as a comprehensive vision, as a way of looking at things (compare Weltanschauung), as in common sense (see Ideology in everyday society below) and several philosophical tendencies (see Political ideologies), or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to all members of this society. The main purpose behind an ideology is to offer change in society through a normative thought process. Ideologies are systems of abstract thought (as opposed to mere ideation) applied to public matters and thus make this concept central to politics. Implicitly every political tendency entails an ideology whether or not it is propounded as an explicit system of thought.

Zizek December 12, 2008 at 3:03 pm

Ideology is it still works even if you don’t believe in it!

Milan December 12, 2008 at 3:12 pm

Such illustrious commenters on this thread! Though that last comment wasn’t very comprehensible…

What specifically about Obama’s “rhetoric was just a farce?” I think he was very clear about seeking bipartisan solutions, which necessarily involves working with people who you don’t entirely agree with.

His platform was spelled out in great detail before the election and, to me at least, the team he is appointing is consistent with putting that platform into practice.

Josh December 12, 2008 at 4:26 pm

Fair enough. I wouldn’t have used the word “odd” though.

Tristan December 13, 2008 at 1:37 am

Of course, what was I thinking, the bailout is wonderful. The best way to protect the middle class is by destroying the currency. Wait…

Zizek December 13, 2008 at 1:39 am

To explain my meaning of ideology, begin at 3:30 –


Mark December 13, 2008 at 9:08 am

For some insight into what Steven Chu might actually do, this lecture he gave in 2007 is interesting:

Listening to that, I hear someone who knows these issues deeply, and I expect real change from the last eight years.

Milan December 13, 2008 at 11:46 am


You seem to be getting further and further away from your initial point.

Once again, what specifically about Obama’s “rhetoric was just a farce?”

Why do you think it likely that Obama’s economic team will ‘destroy the currency?’

And how do you respond to the points made above about needing the confidence of Congress to get anything done as president?

The Currency December 13, 2008 at 9:44 pm


Twisp & Catsby December 13, 2008 at 10:08 pm
Milan December 13, 2008 at 10:34 pm


Responding to specific points in the Chomsky video:

1) Joe Biden was “one of the strongest supporters of the war in Iraq in the Senate.” He is also a “Washington insider” who “rarely deviates from the popular vote.”

It is understandable that Obama chose someone who would be seen to balance out his ticket as VP. In particular, Biden was seen as someone who had Washington and foreign policy experience.

A lot of Democrats supported the war in Iraq. While doing so was probably a lapse of judgment, it was a fairly common one.

2) Biden opposed a change in the law on bankruptcy.

The video doesn’t provide enough information for me to comment intelligently on this. I don’t know how the proposed rules were designed, or the political circumstances surrounding the vote.

If you care to look up the legislation in question, feel free.

3) Choosing Biden was “a conscious attempt to show contempt for the base of people who were voting for Obama.”

This is, all told, a pretty dumb thing to say. To begin with, nobody trying to win the presidency would choose to show contempt for their supporters. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that they could do so and win.

Clearly, on election night, Biden wasn’t seen as a contemptuous choice. He was definitely a better choice than Sarah Palin.

4) Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel voted for the Iraq War (in the form of the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution) and is a Washington insider.

See section one, above.

5) Emanuel got funding from banks and hedge funds, and was himself an investment banker.

Neither of these is a slight, in and of itself. All Washington politicians get funding from one industry or another. That is just how the American political system works. Similarly, unless you can point out some incidence of wrongdoing, the fact that Emanuel worked as an investment banker isn’t a substantial criticism.

Slate published an article making the case that Emanuel was a good choice.

6) Obama’s economic appointees played a role in causing the financial crisis

The points made previously about appointing people who are perceived as competent and create confidence within the markets and the public are relevant here.

The American economic system has emerged in a manner influenced by each successive administration. Naturally, people who served in previous administrations played a role in that. If you have some more specific accusations about errors people on Obama’s team made, we could discuss them.

7) “Selecting them is like selecting Osama bin Laden to run the war on terror”

This is another statement that suggests that Chomsky is more concerned with expressing his anger than with making meaningful comments. Saying “person X was part of a previous administration that crafted policies that later contributed to a largely unexpected financial crisis” is massively different from saying “person X planned, organized, and funded an intentional terrorist act.”

8) Vague assertions that unnamed members of the Obama team have been involved in financial fraud

If this can be demonstrated with evidence, it may be very relevant. As for the idea that the financial crises was caused by a few individuals acting in bad faith, Tristan said this earlier:

Isn’t “increase regulation, fix the risk models that caused malinvestment” the entirely normal, average response to the credit crisis? “Blaming” the crisis on “bad people” is so obviously reactionary and useless that I don’t think it counts as a real response.

Those aren’t quite the terms I would use to describe Chomsky’s attitudes, but I think the statement is basically correct.

9) On Obama’s website, Iraq and Afghanistan “don’t even appear”

They may not have when Chomsky said this, but they are definitely there now: Iraq, Afghanistan.

In short, I stand by my original assertion that Chomsky’s views are unsurprising and uninteresting.

Josh December 14, 2008 at 4:17 am

The Obama site says : “They will increase our troop levels in Afghanistan, press our allies in NATO to do the same…”

Do you think this is a good idea? Do you think this means that they will “press” Canada to increase our troop levels in Afghanistan?

Milan December 14, 2008 at 1:12 pm

1) It’s tough to say. It’s not clear that any NATO escalation can prevent the ultimate return of the Taliban to power. The critical issue will probably be whether the next US administration can convince the Pakistani government and military to cooperate with them effectively.

2) Almost certainly, the Obama administration will ask Canada to extend and perhaps enlarge its deployment.

Milan December 14, 2008 at 1:19 pm

Previous posts on Afghanistan:

I have friends who understand the Afghan situation much better than I do. In general, they seem to agree that it is important to be there, but they are not very optimistic about the future of that state.

Milan December 14, 2008 at 1:24 pm

From recent posts on Taylor Owen’s site:

On Afghanistan, Patrick Travers and I have an article in the International Journal called Between Metaphor and Strategy: Canada’s Integrated Approach to Peacebuilding. (PDF) It looks at some of the pretty challenging shifts that are underway in the Canadian mission, and what they might mean for the evolving practice of peacebuilding more broadly. It is the first paper in what will be a larger project over the next year.

Afghanistan Op-ed

Toronto Star Oped: 2011 is a date, not a goal

3D Peacebuilding in Afghanistan

On the Timeliness of Timelines

Oped in Toronto Star: From Kandahar to Carnegie

Oped in Embassy Magazine

Quick thoughts on ‘The Unexpected War’

Milan December 14, 2008 at 1:26 pm
Tristan December 15, 2008 at 1:51 am

Was I hearing things when I thought I heard Obama going on and on about how he wanted to end the power of lobyists?

“All Washington politicians get funding from one industry or another. That is just how the American political system works.”

Milan December 15, 2008 at 8:34 am

Admittedly, claiming to end the power of lobbyists is an old tactic among those hoping to present themselve as reforming candidates.

The system can be tweaked – as with the McCain sponsored campaign financing legislation – but the Supreme Court’s interpretation of political financing as protected ‘speech’ makes it impossible to eliminate.

Josh December 16, 2008 at 2:34 am

You believe that a “lapse of judgement” is somehow more forgivable if it is a common one?

Milan December 16, 2008 at 8:52 am

Not necessarily, but it makes it harder to find someone who hasn’t made it.

In any case, I think the Biden pick was an attempt to broaden Obama’s base of support. It wasn’t any kind of after-the-fact endorsement of the Iraq war.

Despite the enormous enthusiasm for Obama among his supporters, we should remember that this was a close-fought election (astonishing as that is, after eight years of incompetent Republican power). In order to make change, you need to gain and maintain power first.

. December 16, 2008 at 10:56 am

Where Are You, Angry Left? Part Two
By Greg Sargent – December 11, 2008, 2:12PM

Still more poll numbers have just been released suggesting that the supposed “angry left” isn’t so angry about Obama’s transition choices after all.

The new Pew poll finds that 89% of Democrats approve of Obama’s cabinet choices, versus only four percent who disapprove.

. December 16, 2008 at 11:37 am

Team Obama

SIR – I read your gushing endorsement of the academics chosen by Barack Obama to lead his economic team with some amusement (“Off to work they go”, November 29th). I remember the debacle of Long-Term Capital Management a decade ago. In the late 1990s the hedge fund’s collapse sent ripples throughout the financial world similar to those we are witnessing today, yet it was overseen by the brilliant economic team of Myron Scholes and Robert Merton, who earlier shared a Nobel prize in economics.

It is not the least bit surprising that academic economists would be pleased at the selection of an academic economic team. Academics of all persuasions are where they are today because they believe they know better than anyone else how things should work. Whether many are capable of actually making the world work is quite another issue. The difficulties we face now are not academic; they are real public-policy problems.

Robert Earley

SIR – The notion that the office of secretary of state has sometimes been offered to losers of presidential elections as a consolation prize misses an important point (Lexington, November 29th). The position of secretary of state was the gateway to the White House for Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. And Adams wasn’t consoling Henry Clay when he gave him the job; he was hoping it would be a step towards the presidency for the Kentuckian. Barack Obama might reflect that the ambitious Clay spent four years pursuing his own advantage, angling to become president. He failed and so did the Adams administration.

The idea of the office as a “consolation prize” really applies only to William Seward and William Jennings Bryan. Like Mr Obama, Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson were reformers with little Washington experience who selected established party heroes as secretary of state. Seward was a success and Bryan a flop, but it was the end of the line for both. The position hasn’t been such a good career move since the 1850s, when James Buchanan became possibly the least successful president ever.

Since then, even for such prominent statesmen as Charles Evans Hughes, George Marshall, John Foster Dulles, Henry Kissinger, and Colin Powell, the State Department has been a capstone, not a stepping stone. Is Hillary Clinton prepared to do the job in that light?

Andrew Browning
Portland, Oregon

. December 17, 2008 at 11:59 am

Top five reasons Chu is a great energy pick
No. 1: ‘It’s not guaranteed we have a solution for coal’
Posted by Joseph Romm

Tristan December 17, 2008 at 11:58 pm

“3) Choosing Biden was “a conscious attempt to show contempt for the base of people who were voting for Obama.”

This is, all told, a pretty dumb thing to say. To begin with, nobody trying to win the presidency would choose to show contempt for their supporters. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that they could do so and win.

Clearly, on election night, Biden wasn’t seen as a contemptuous choice. He was definitely a better choice than Sarah Palin.”

This is a pretty depressing example of taking a sensible yet insidious remark out of context, in order to make it appear groundless. What Chomsky actually said was not

“a conscious attempt to show contempt for the base of people who were voting for Obama.”


“a conscious attempt to show contempt for the base of people who were voting for Obama as an anti-war candidate”.

The last few words are important – of course not everyone, or maybe even the larger part, of Obama’s base was anti-war. However, insofar as there were staunch anti-war groups organization for Obama, appointing someone who was staunchly pro-Iraq, and who voted for Bush’s pseudo declaration of war might not have been the candidate they were hoping for. If I’d been part of this group, I can imagine I might have been deeply insulted – can’t you?

Milan December 18, 2008 at 9:07 am


I can see why staunchly anti-war supporters might have been unhappy with the Biden choice.

That being said, my two main points stand. It wasn’t a ‘conscious attempt’ to show contempt for anyone. It was a strategy to win the election, as well as a decision to select someone appropriate in the event Obama won the presidency but was impeached, incapacitated, or killed.

Secondly, it clearly wasn’t too insulting, all told, since Obama won anyway. Perhaps he might have won by a larger share if he had chosen someone else.

In any case, it doesn’t seem like strong evidence that Obama’s rhetoric was empty. It certainly isn’t evidence of him being disappointing after being elected, since he chose Biden well before.

Tristan December 18, 2008 at 1:20 pm

Chomsky wasn’t arguing that Biden was an unpopular choice, or a choice that was offensive to most of Obama’s base. Rather, he said it shows contempt to the part of his base which was organizing around Obama as a strong anti-war candidate. If Obama was the strong anti-war candidate they believed (perhaps entirely naively) him to be, he would not have selected a vice president who was hawkish.

I’m a bit worried about the way you’ve been using the term “ideology”. It seems to me the way ideology is being used in the liberal media is to refer to any set of beliefs which is not the mainstream set. So, if you believe that we need to have a gold standard because the fiat money system is unstable, that’s ideology. Or, if you think that America’s empire can’t be sustained and they need a non-military-interventionist foreign policy, that’s ideology. Or, if you think the U.S. needs much more “socialist style” (that term seems pure red-baiting to me) redistribution of weath, then you are ideological.

What is the non-ideological point of view? Certainly it isn’t to simply not have any points of view at all. Although, it might be to have points of view which can change at the maximal rate while maintaining the semblance of internal consistency, without ever appearing to be adhering to any logical consistency which is other than the prevailing one at this moment in time.

If you notice how Zizek uses the notion of ideology, it is a bit more interesting (and more in line with what Marx meant when he invented the term and used as a technical scientific notion). Ideology, originally meant a system of belief which made the real world, which was awful, appear as acceptable and just. So, it is not so much a set of beliefs about how things should be, but a set of beliefs which alters our interpretation of how things are (and by that, how to change things – what we “ought do” is a derivative referent of ideology, whereas what things are is the primary referent).

Milan December 18, 2008 at 1:27 pm

If Obama was the strong anti-war candidate they believed (perhaps entirely naively) him to be, he would not have selected a vice president who was hawkish.

Obama stressed many times that he wasn’t ‘anti war’ overall, he was opposed to ‘stupid’ wars, especially Iraq.

Certainly, he has very clearly explained his willingness to use force against Iran if necessary.

If people voted for him because they thought he was a pacifist, they can’t have been paying much attention. Genuine American pacifists probably haven’t ever had a candidate who they could vote for with an entirely clear conscience and who also had a decent shot at winning.

The bulk of the American populace remains pro-war (at least, in some circumstances) but has come to believe the Iraq war was a mistake. That shift from near-automatic post 9/11 support of the Bush administration is a major reason for which Obama won.

Milan December 18, 2008 at 1:31 pm

I haven’t used the word ‘ideology’ in this discussion so far.

If I was using the term ideology, I wouldn’t use it to “refer to any set of beliefs which is not the mainstream set.”

The ‘mainstream’ is, almost by definition, a set of popular ideological views.

I appreciate the fact that Obama is willing to select advisors and appoint people who differ in their ideological perspectives and the conclusions they have reached about the meaning of things and what ought to be done. I think that is a welcome departure from the Bush administration (which probably valued personal loyalty more than ideological cohesion, anyhow).

Ideology, originally meant a system of belief which made the real world, which was awful, appear as acceptable and just.

Lots of ideologies hold the world to be profoundly unjust. Look at lots of Marxist and feminist perspectives. Look also at the more critical theories of international relations, which focus on hegemony and oppression.

Tristan December 18, 2008 at 3:15 pm

So, if it did show contempt for the organizers supporting Obama as an anti-war candidate, was it an “unconscious attempt” to do so? What does conscious mean in this situation? Are we asking whether he did in fact know that the action would show contempt, or that he ought to have been able to predict, in other words, he ought to have known?

You say it’s clear it wasn’t too insulting. How is this at all clear? He won the election anyway? What proportion of his base was organizing for an anti-war candidate? It might have been quite small, and therefore even if they had not voted, it would have had little effect. Furthermore, many of them probably would have voted for Obama even if Obama seemed only less pro-war than Mccain. Just because someone is insulted, even deeply, doesn’t mean that they will change their vote – people seem to vote in the way they believe will be most effective. If people really did simply vote for the candidate that best represented their beliefs, then there would be dozens of candidates vying for the presidency, not 2.

Milan December 18, 2008 at 3:42 pm

As I said above, it is overly simplistic to call Obama an ‘anti-war’ candidate.

As for the contempt issue, the fact that Obama has anti-Iraq supporters doesn’t create any obligation on his part to honour their wishes in all circumstances. Just because he opposed the war, it doesn’t mean he has any special affiliation with others who did. If they expected him to toe their line forever, they were being foolish.

All I mean by “too insulting” is sufficiently ‘insulting’ to cause him any real problems. Barring the occassional complaint from Chomsky and company, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of that.

Incidentally, is this the only of Chomsky’s points you find at all defensible now?

. December 18, 2008 at 3:59 pm

Obama Names Three to Top Economic Posts

Published: December 18, 2008

Pledging to create “a 21st century regulatory framework” to protect against future financial crises, President-elect Barack Obama on Thursday nominated three veteran financial regulators to top economic positions in his administration.

“We will crack down on this culture of greed and scheming that has led us to this day of reckoning,” Mr. Obama said in announcing the appointments at a news conference in Chicago. “We have been asleep at the switch.”

Tristan December 18, 2008 at 6:36 pm

All of the points seem defensible. Your claim that this is “just how politics works” as a defense for Obama picking insiders who take money from lobbyists is very strange, especially given how much of Obama’s rhetoric was against the existing way Washington works concerning lobbying, and a desire to change it. Are we suppose to still believe that Obama is going to get rid of lobbyists? I don’t know what we are suppose to think.

Magictofu December 18, 2008 at 8:56 pm

Wikipedia is not always the best source of information but it might be a good place to start if you want to argue bout ideology:

The way I understand the term is as an abstract set of self-reinforcing ideas and normative views aimed at making sense of an otherwise fairly chaotic world while providing direction for political action.

As for Obama’s pick, I think we should ask ourselves who else he could have selected given that he still need to lead a country deeply divided on so many issues… and not divided between the left and the further left.

Tristan December 18, 2008 at 10:59 pm

“an abstract set of self-reinforcing ideas and normative views aimed at making sense of an otherwise fairly chaotic world while providing direction for political action.”

Ok, by this definition then, is it possible not to have an “ideology”?

Josh December 19, 2008 at 6:07 am

The majority of American’s are pro-war? Last time I checked they weren’t too happy about their little war.

Magictofu December 19, 2008 at 7:21 am

Tristan, impossible. But I’m open to alternative definitions.

Milan December 19, 2008 at 9:06 am

The majority of American’s are pro-war? Last time I checked they weren’t too happy about their little war.


As I said, they are unhappy with how the Iraq war has gone. That being said, do they still have ‘Support our troops’ bumper stickers? Do they still go to air shows and watch warplanes flying around? Will they still rally around the president in the event of another war?

Also, do they still have an obsession with military service when electing their leaders?

Calling them ‘pro-war’ might be a bit harsh, but they are definitely not anti-war, despite all the current uncertainty about Iraq.

. December 19, 2008 at 9:10 am

“I don’t oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other arm-chair, weekend warriors in this Administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.”

–Delivered on Wednesday, October 2, 2002 by Barack Obama, Illinois State Senator, at the first high-profile Chicago anti-Iraq war rally (organized by Chicagoans Against War in Iraq) at noon in Federal Plaza in Chicago, Illinois; at the same day and hour that President Bush and Congress announced their agreement on the joint resolution authorizing the Iraq War, but over a week before it was passed by either body of Congress.

tristan December 19, 2008 at 10:31 am

“Tristan, impossible. But I’m open to alternative definitions.”

Does no one care what’s implicit in the way we use language? Do people here honestly think words just mean what they choose they mean, even if they choose that they mean that after they’ve been using the words?

I sometimes wish I’d lived in a more rigorous century.

. December 19, 2008 at 11:15 am

Obama’s strongest message on climate yet: John Holdren to be named Science Adviser

Science magazine is reporting today that “Strong indications are that President-elect Barack Obama has picked physicist John Holdren to be the president’s science adviser.”

I have known Holdren for over a decade and have discussed energy/climate issues with him many times. He probably has more combined expertise on both climate science and clean energy technology than any other person who could plausibly have been named science adviser. You can see a video of an excellent talk he gave here (along with talks by Chu and me). For a more recent BBC interview, see “The Climate Quote of the Week“.

I would say that if Holdren is named (on Saturday), it is an even stronger signal than the terrific choice of Steven Chu for Energy Secretary that Obama is dead serious about the strongest possible action on global warming. After all, the science adviser works out of the White House and oversees science and technology funding, analysis, and messaging for all federal agencies.

. December 19, 2008 at 11:16 am

“I am one of those who believes that any reasonably comprehensive and up-to-date look at the evidence makes clear that civilization has already generated dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system,” Dr. Holdren said. “What keeps me going is my belief that there is still a chance of avoiding catastrophe.”

-John P. Holdren

Magictofu December 19, 2008 at 4:59 pm

“Does no one care what’s implicit in the way we use language? Do people here honestly think words just mean what they choose they mean, even if they choose that they mean that after they’ve been using the words? I sometimes wish I’d lived in a more rigorous century.”

Tristan, acknowledging that ideology is everywhere does not mean that talking about it is meaningless. There are degrees to which people adopt ideologies and this is what matters. Someone who isolate herself from other ideological point of views is almost probably going to develop her own dogmatic views of the world. But someone who seeks challenges from a variety of other ideological point of view is almost probably going to accept more easily the relativity of her own perceptions. I’d rather see world leaders fall under the later category, even if that means they might chose to listen to people I honestly disagree with.

Tristan December 19, 2008 at 5:10 pm

“But someone who seeks challenges from a variety of other ideological point of view is almost probably going to accept more easily the relativity of her own perceptions.”

How is seeking challenges from other ideological points of view not itself an ideological point of view? If “ideology” means something, it would seem it has to obtain in some cases, and not obtain in others.

Magictofu December 20, 2008 at 8:39 am

I’m not sure I am following you Tristan.

Tristan December 20, 2008 at 5:47 pm

If a word is meaningful, it should probably obtain in some cases and not others.

Show how there exists a “non ideological” point of view.

Milan December 20, 2008 at 6:04 pm

I don’t think Obama’s statements to date have been comprehensive enough to constitute an ideology.

If anything, he has promised policies that derive from different ideological traditions than those of the last administration (a stronger welfare state, multilateral diplomacy, etc).

Tristan December 20, 2008 at 9:35 pm

Why is it not “ideological” to combine policies from various other “ideological” traditions?

If “ideology” just means

“an abstract set of self-reinforcing ideas and normative views aimed at making sense of an otherwise fairly chaotic world while providing direction for political action.”

Then how isn’t the notion that you should include policies from both parties not this kind of self-reinforcing abstract idea? We could call it “tolerance” or “inclusivity” or “bridge building”, and it just shows up to us as another ideology.

What is different about Obama’s approach that makes it not a self-referential set of ideas that help make sense of the political system? How is “Change” not exactly the empty-term which can mean anything that Obama’s own ideology circulates around?

Milan December 20, 2008 at 10:38 pm

I never said Obama was non-ideological.

All I care about is whether he makes things better. We will see if he achieves that.

Magictofu December 21, 2008 at 12:11 am

I think I understand your point Tristan and I do believe everyone eventually develop her own ideology and that include what someone could call “tolerancism” or “inclusivitism”… which would arguably be derived from values that I personally find quite important when dealing with a variety of points of views and ideologies. You could be cynical and say that what I am saying is ideological and all I could answer to this is that you are completely right.

Tristan December 21, 2008 at 1:30 am

“All I care about is whether he makes things better. ”

Is it possible to evaluate what count as better or worse consequences outside a point of view that is less comprehensive that what was above defined as an “ideology”?

Milan December 21, 2008 at 12:05 pm

I think this discussion of ideology is too abstract to be useful.

There is generally a pretty clear idea of what success would mean for Obama: things like a withdrawal from Iraq that doesn’t induce massive bloodshed, effective reform of the American health system, the management of the financial crisis, the creation of a carbon price in the US, and improving America’s foreign relations.

Most ideologies see all those things are laudable goals (though they may differ on preferred means for achieving them). It seems more useful to discuss the possibility of progress on concrete issues than to muddle around with fuzzy ideas about abstract terms.

Tristan December 21, 2008 at 2:52 pm

If you want to use the word ideology, and it seems that you do, you need to mean something by it. And, if you don’t mean something specific, then it’s unclear what meaning it has when you say it. So, either mean something by the term, or don’t employ it. I was never looking for an “abstract discussion”, I was looking for “what do you mean when you say X” discussion. Is it abstract to say what we mean when we use certain notions? It seems nothing could be more concrete.

Milan December 21, 2008 at 4:27 pm

I didn’t bring up ideology, and I don’t think it is terribly important here. I see no reason to discuss it further.

The real issue under discussion here is whether Obama’s cabinet appointments are in keeping with his electoral promises.

Tristan December 21, 2008 at 6:19 pm

“Doing that requires appointing people generally seen as competent, and not getting obsessively hung up on ideology.”
-Tory C (earlier in the comment stream)

You are right, ToryC brought up ideology. It might not be important, but people say thing like this all the time, it’s meant to be something attractive about Obama, that he isn’t “ideological”. However, it seems that the difference between ideology and non-ideology is poorly defined. This does seem like a problem in general for political discourse.

Milan December 21, 2008 at 11:29 pm

I agree that Obama is ideological. A politician with no ideology would be nothing more than a cynical populist or opportunist.

I also see value in him making cabinet appointments where the appointee has a perspective that differs from his.

In the end, the test of this strategy will be the degree to which Obama (a) is able to achieve the things he promised when campaigning and (b) is able to respond to unforeseen events that occur during his administration.

. December 22, 2008 at 10:58 am

Climate experts get key US posts

US President-elect Barack Obama has nominated two leading global warming specialists for key science posts in his administration.

Harvard physicist John Holdren will be Mr Obama’s scientific adviser while marine biologist Jane Lubchenco will head the US oceanic research body.

. December 22, 2008 at 11:11 am

Obama declares end to Dark Ages: “It’s time we once again put science at the top of our agenda”

“Today, more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation. It’s time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology.”

. December 22, 2008 at 11:43 am

A well-stocked cabinet

Dec 22nd 2008 | NEW YORK
From Economist.com
Barack Obama has chosen a team of heavyweights

“With the influx of talent, Mr Obama resembles John Kennedy, who inspired many to service. But the “best and the brightest”, as David Halberstam, a well-regarded journalist, ironically titled Kennedy’s crew, failed in several ways, especially in Vietnam. Mr Obama’s team will inherit tough times; a competent crew will be the least that he needs. The trouble is that pulling in so many big names may, in time, produce rivalries that Mr Obama will have difficulty reconciling.”

. January 19, 2009 at 10:28 am

Clueless hack tapped to be Obama’s Transport Czar

By Cory Doctorow on politics

In case you haven’t been following the news, LaHood is a conservative Illinois Republican with little transportation expertise and almost no administrative experience, who has earned a LCV lifetime voting score on critical environmental issues of 27 percent, and who maintains deep financial connections to the very industries he’s now supposed to regulate. He may be no worse than most of those who’ve lead the Department of Transportation, but his appointment is a profoundly uninspiring vote for business as usual at a time when we need change, and an strong indication that the administration doesn’t get that energy policy, technological innovation, urban planning, environmental sustainability and transportation are all bound up together, and no solution to our problems can be had without tackling them all together.

LaHood’s appointment is so disappointing to transportation advocates who’ve been waiting eight years for change, that they’re boiling with indignant disbelief, branding him “an unbelievably disastrous pick,” “Status quo we can believe in” and “same.gov” (a dig at the Obama transition site, change.gov). As one insider summed it up: “It’s a real read-it-and-weep moment.”

LaHood supporters point out that the president-elect promised to appoint Republicans, and LaHood is trusted by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Obama had to throw Republicans a bone somewhere, they argue: why not Transportation?

Because given the crises we face, the U.S. Department of Transportation is not a minor agency. This year it had a $58 billion budget and employed almost 60,000 people. What’s more, the Secretary of Transportation will guide the spending of vast amounts of stimulus spending, oversee the auto industry bailout and be responsible for a raft of critical policy decisions that will dictate the shape of our cities and the choices we have for getting around for decades — and thus indirectly our energy policies as well, since transportation is where much of our energy use goes. In fact, in an era of climate change, energy crisis and economic distress, Transportation may be one of the most important posts in the president’s cabinet.

Tristan January 19, 2009 at 10:41 am

Hmm, after this hack transport pick, are we still all “so hopeful” about Obama?

The whole thing has the air to me of just being a horribly bad joke. People going to the inauguration tommorow are going to so badly regret it in 2 or 3 years.

Milan January 19, 2009 at 10:47 am


It seems like you are going out of your way to be cynical.

It’s possible the account above is correct and this appointment is a mistake. It takes a fair bit of wilful pessimism to extrapolate from that to the idea that the Obama administration will be a huge disappointment.

It seems akin to Fox News “War on Christmas” stories, where they are so keen to push a particular narrative, they jump on any example as conclusive proof.

. January 19, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Chu’s Final Breakthrough Before Taking Office

By kdawson on chewing-up-the-scenery

“While preparing for the job of US Secretary of Energy in the incoming Obama administration (and being director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a Nobel Prize winner to boot), Steven Chu has somehow found time to make a major breakthrough in the world of atom interferometry. One measure of an interferometer’s sensitivity is the area that its arms enclose. Chu and colleagues have found a way to increase this area by a factor of 2,500 by canceling out the noise introduced by lasers, which work as beam splitters sending atoms down different arms (abstract).”

. January 21, 2009 at 11:45 am

“If Obama were in front of you right now, what would you say?

I would tell him he has the unique opportunity of saving a large part of the human species and several others, because unless the U.S. takes the lead, I’m afraid we will not get an adequate global response. In absence of that, there will obviously be climate change that will go unmitigated. And we’re pretty close to the stage where impacts start to turn very serious and very negative.”

Rajendra Pachauri

. January 27, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Wellinghoff to a good start
Obama names clean-energy proponent as acting head of FERC
Posted by Kate Sheppard at 1:45 PM on 27 Jan 2009

With so much news in Washington this week, we almost forgot to mention big news at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). On Friday, President Obama appointed Jon Wellinghoff to be the acting chairman of the agency, where he will oversee interstate electric transmission, gas transportation, and opening wholesale markets to renewables.

. January 28, 2009 at 12:24 pm

Betrayed by Obama

Jan 22nd 2009
From The Economist print edition
Some of the new president’s most ardent supporters already feel let down

“It has been only two-and-a-half months since Mr Obama was elected, but his “Yes, We Can” coalition is already fraying at the edges. In his appointments and pronouncements, Mr Obama keeps hinting that he is neither as radical nor as pure as his progressive supporters dared to hope. Anti-war activists, who rallied round him in the Democratic primaries because he was the only top-tier candidate to have opposed the Iraq war from the outset, now see worrying signs that their hero is a closet hawk. On the stump, he used to say things like: “I will bring this war to an end in 2009. So don’t be confused.” Now he says it might take a bit longer. To make matters worse, he has kept George Bush’s defence secretary, Robert Gates, in his job. “Not a single member of Obama’s foreign-policy [and] national-security team opposed the war,” fumes Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of the Nation, a lefty magazine, adding that Mr Gates is “a terrible pick”.”

. February 5, 2009 at 11:33 am

U.S. Energy Secretary: Calif. Farms in Peril Over Warming
2009-02-04 07:14am

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Wednesday California could lose all its agriculture by the end of the century, and that a number of its cities are also in peril due to worsening global warming.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Chu said the state’s award-winning vineyards, as well its farms, could be wiped out in the starkest warning yet from the Obama administration.

Chu, a Nobel-prize winning physicist, echoed the White House’s grave concerns about global warming, and detailed the steps the administration would take in the future to combat the problem.

He said the West and Midwest – and in particular California, his home state – all face water shortages in the coming years, the paper reported.

. February 9, 2009 at 10:30 am

What are the prospects for climate legislation in the House?

“Obama isn’t going to see a climate bill on his desk this year… Obama certainly isn’t going to devote a lot of time and political effort to raising the issue’s profile in the next three months… So why push such an important and difficult vote before the ground has been laid for it, when you will be operating with one hand tied behind your back”

Obama can get a better climate bill in 2010. Here’s how.

. February 16, 2009 at 11:34 pm

Obama on science (YouTube)

. May 25, 2009 at 10:00 am

US CO2 goals ‘to be compromised’
By Roger Harrabin
Environment analyst, BBC News

US Energy Secretary Steven Chu says the US will not be able to cut greenhouse emissions as much as it should due to domestic political opposition.

Prof Chu told BBC News he feared the world might be heading towards a tipping point on climate change.

This meant the US had to cut emissions urgently – even if compromises were needed to get new laws approved.

Environmentalists said Prof Chu, a Nobel physicist, should be guided by science not politics.

The American political system is in the throes of a fierce battle over climate policy. President Barack Obama says he wants cuts in greenhouse gases but has left it to Congress to make the political running.

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