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Political Warming


Interviewed by Russell Fortmeyer and edited by Rebecca Ward

Dr. Joseph J. Romm served as principal deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy from 1995 to 1998, and as acting assistant secretary in 1997. Romm is currently a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress and is the executive director and founder of another nonprofit, the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions. GreenSource met up with this zealous global-warming expert in Chicago at the November 2007 GreenBuild conference to discuss the political climate surrounding the green-building sector and climate-change issues. 

Dr. Joseph J. Romm
Photo courtesy Joseph Romm
Dr. Joseph J. Romm
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GreenSource: There seems to be a number of competing threads in different government agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE), that don’t always appear to be striving for any coherent policy toward energy-efficiency standards.

Joseph Romm: This administration does not make green things particularly climate-related things a high priority. During the Clinton administration it took a lot of effort for the DOE and EPA to work together, but at least we were all trying to green-up things. I think now there is less of a collaborative spirit because people are not that interested in the mission of green buildings and clean energy not that there aren’t some good people out there making an effort, but they are just swimming upstream. The green-building movement has thrived in spite of this administration, but if you look at the energy-climate plans of some presidential candidates, they are very aggressive in promoting energy efficiency in buildings. I think the next presidential election is going to be a big determinate.

GS: Can you comment on the apparent overlap between EPA and DOE programs?

JR: It is not unusual for the EPA to launch an initiative focused on energy. During Bush’s father’s administration, the EPA was just the backwater, so they started these great marketing programs that created some tension with the DOE, particularly as it had been scaled back under Regan and Bush to do research and development. People there didn’t believe the government should get involved in the marketplace. The EPA came up with an idea to do marketing, and they have a lot of credibility with the public. When Clinton came in, we spent a lot of time trying to make it more collaborative because it was very competitive. There is no point in the DOE reinventing successful EPA programs.

GS: What do you think it will take to create a political climate where green-building initiatives become a priority?

JR: I think if we get a progressive elected, we will see this is going to be one of the highest priorities; if it is a conservative, then I do not think we are going to see as much progress. If you want to solve the problem of global warming, it has to be done with government leading the way. The private sector is going to have to be a part of it, but if there is no price for CO2 , if you don’t rewrite the utility regulations, energy efficiency is going to be at a competitive disadvantage.

GS: Do you think we have reached the point where the next president could institute something like a sustainability czar who could look at this issue from a really broad perspective?

JR: I think it has got to be critical. The only way to avoid catastrophic global warming is a massive worldwide peace-scale effort. We all know you can make a building green, but it takes a lot of effort. By 2050 every one of the buildings in the country is going to have to be LEED Platinum. We have to cut CO2 emissions by 80 percent in this country. What is extraordinary today has to be ordinary by 2050, and that can only happen if government is working on all cylinders. There is no way that you can look at the country at the federal level and say that we are serious about global warming.

GS: When you are at GreenBuild, you get into this bubble where you feel like everybody in the country understands the urgency of global warming, yet the sustainable building community is such a distinct minority. Do you ever get discouraged?

JR: When you spend all your time inside the Beltway it seems like no one gets global warming at all, but seeing there are people doing serious work is heartening. I do not think any of the green sectors in the economy have seen a wave of greening as much as the building sector. Some sectors have really had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to this, but the U.S. Green Building Council and LEED are really taking off. It’s great to come to a conference like this and see people who are actually talking about these things and doing net-zero energy buildings. I think the European companies get this more than U.S. companies, but the whole point of my book (Hell and High Water, 2007) is, if you want to solve the problem of global warming, government has to lead the way.

GS: What are you working on now?

JR: I advise companies on going green, but now I’m sort of a journalist. I spend most of my time as a member of the media blogging (www.climateprogress.org). I think it is a very good medium for disseminating useful information to people who are interested. My main goal now is to communicate how one should think about climate science, climate politics, and climate solutions. I still don’t think most people really get the scale of the global warming problem, or the scale of the solution. I try to inform my readers that the problem is not easy, but it is solvable.

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This article appeared in the January 2008 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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