The past eight years have been marked by alternating feckless inactivity and outright hostility toward the environment. The Bush administration was one in which an agency charged with managing and conserving federally owned land had no qualms about getting in bed — at times quite literally — with energy companies. (See number 5 on our list.)
But, at long last, the good guys are back in charge. And it still sometimes seems too good to be true. Imagine! Intelligent and competent public servants who will take their jobs seriously, and who will use science and common sense to help protect the long-term health of the planet and all who live on it.
On Monday, President-elect Barack Obama announced the officials he's tapped to begin reversing the environmental damage wrought by the Bushies. According to several environmental groups, the picks are inspired.
"Overall, we're delighted — we're thinking of them as a 'green dream team,' " says Tiernan Sittenfeld, legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters.
"It's like a new day," says Michael Oko, federal media director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's really a breath of fresh air — pardon the pun — to have some of these appointments. Obama is really showing that he's looking to change direction."
Few cabinet positions demonstrate that more than energy secretary pick STEVEN CHU, a Nobel Prize–wining physics professor at UC Berkeley, who's long advocated — some might say agitated for — alternative energies, such as solar power and biofuels, to be brought to the fore to combat global warming.
"Having a scientist heading up the Department of Energy is very important," says Sittenfeld, "since the Bush administration has clearly not respected the science and made it too much about the politics."
"He's very impressive as a scientist and a researcher," says Jack Clarke, director of public policy and government relations at the Massachusetts Audubon Society. "And [as for] pushing government to look at alternative sources of energy, we're going to need that aggressive nature at Energy."
Similarly, Obama's pick to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), LISA JACKSON — who previously was commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, where she worked (not entirely without controversy) to scrub that state clean of its infamous hazardous waste — is "an excellent choice," says Oko. "She's got a lot of experience, and has the ability to push and take real actions on the issues that are important to the environmental community."
Even better, "she'll certainly be working with a good team of folks," says Clarke. That team will include Clinton-era EPA chief CAROL BROWNER, who's been picked to serve as White House coordinator of energy, climate, and environmental policy — a newly created position that's being referred to as "energy czar."
"Just truly a perfect choice," Sittenfeld calls her. "She's ideally suited for the job, given her range of experiences, and is really a terrific choice to make sure that Obama's vision of bringing about a clean-energy future and reducing global warming becomes a reality."
Creating this "energy czar" position proves that "global warming and the environment are at the top of [Obama's] agenda," says Oko, who notes that Browner "has the personality that's going to be required to work among different agencies and really be a leader, bringing groups together to help put into action what Obama has indicated are these big priorities for him." (And, not for nothing, Browner raises the hackles of such conservatives as columnist Michelle Malkin — who calls her a "neon green radical" — which can be only a good sign.)
Rounding out the environmental team is NANCY SUTLEY, who's slated to chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Sutley, who has spent most of her career in California and boasts an impressive rûsumû — she has extensive experience dealing with such crises as water shortages and rolling blackouts — is well-positioned to respond to the unique challenges of the 21st century. She "has a long-time record of really being a leader on environment and clean energy," says Sittenfeld. "So, again, yet another great choice. Not to sound like a broken record, but we're feeling very positive."
As of press time, one position that hadn't been officially announced is that of interior secretary. But it was presumed that the nominee would be Colorado senator KEN SALAZAR, a centrist Democrat who, before being elected to the Senate — where he serves on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee — was director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, where he earned high marks for land conservation. While a disappointment to some environmentalists (who were widely seen to favor another much-bruited candidate, Arizona representative Raúl Grijalva), Salazar nonetheless maintains an 84 percent lifetime average on the League of Conservation Voters' environmental scorecard.
"There's going to be a lot of work to do in all these agencies to turn back the legacy of the Bush administration, and a lot of these last-minute actions he's been putting through," says Oko. "People are really going to have to roll up their sleeves."
In the meantime, it's hard not to get a bit giddy at the prospect of a progressive administration working in earnest to help mend this battered planet. "We're pinching ourselves, and reminding ourselves that there's a whole new world ahead of us," says Sittenfeld. "Obviously there are incredible challenges. But we're confident that President-elect Obama and this fabulous new team are going to make tremendous progress."