Oh Ye of Little Faith
By Charles Badger
On March 3, Carol Browner granted a half hour interview with Apollon following her convocation. “The nation that leads in green jobs will be the leader of the 21st Century,” she declared in her speech before the student population. In wide-ranging remarks, she cited everything from melting polar ice caps to U.S. military’s transportation cost in Afghanistan to “knowing your neighbors” as reasons to support the United States’ transition to a cleaner and more sustainable future.
Browner’s official title is Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change. She could credibly lay claim to the title of America’s most important living environmentalist. Browner is more widely known by her popular title—the President’s “Climate Czar,” or “Czarina,” and has been crowned “The Queen of Clean Air” by TIME magazine.1 Both the official and popular monikers belie Browner’s import. Of her influence in the White House Mother Jones editorialized “on climate and energy matters, no one had the president's ear more than Carol Browner.”
Browner handles an auditorium of restless undergraduates like a teacher—“Stay with me,” she chided restless students as backpacks rustled in the closing minutes of her presentation. Browner controls the crowd with accessible and impassioned speechmaking. She pounds her fist on the podium for emphasis, pauses for dramatic effect, and listens intently to student questions after delivering her remarks. In an interview with Apollon, Browner answers policy-specific questions. Her responses are delivered in the language of environmental legislation, mixing alphabet soup bureaucrat-ism—“BTUs”, “CFCs”, “C.A.F.E.,” “parts per million,” etc.—with Rock-the-Vote motivational revivalism, entreating Bereans to “dream big” and serve humanity.
The title of her talk was “The Courage Not To Look Away”; and she probably used the word “courage” at least a half dozen times. With a stridency, bordering on Pollyannaism, she brushed off criticism that the technology isn’t there to support environmental reform or that various proposals would cost too much money or too many jobs. To this end and because she picked up the vector each question quite early, she didn’t mind cutting questioners off to drive home points: “we can make it profitable for electric companies to sell efficiency,” she insisted. When quoted statistics on the scarcity of alternative energies she refuted the underlying pessimism voiced by some members of the audience. Browner assured the unconvinced by repeatedly stating that “the technology will come,” if only we set the goal. “One thing that is completely dependable about us as a people is that we always make things better and better,” she said citing improvements in cars, refrigerators and other goods due to government regulation.
Of particular note is that when Browner described what she like least about having to drive in Florida it wasn’t the CO2 emissions that her car emitted; instead, she cited driving meant “I didn’t know my neighbors.” She gave an impassioned critique of the current designed American lifestyle, denouncing “six-lane highways,” “strip malls,” cities without “sidewalks,” where Americans commute from suburb to city straight “into the garage, without ever knowing our neighbors.” Her critique was contrasted with her move to Washington, D.C. where she was able to walk to her job—highlighting not the lack of CO2, but knowing neighbors and forming “community, a village.”
Browner’s insistence, therefore, that environmentalism is good for jobs and good for the Afghan war effort both seemed forced. Undoubtedly both appeals were written into her prepared remarks, which underwent White House vetting. These sections were read from her script as if she were ticking off “must-cover” talking points. By contrast, when freed from the script she veers to issues which she cares deeply about, such as preserving the Everglades in her home state of Florida, child asthma, sidewalks, and “knowing your neighbors.” For these reasons, Browner’s personal brand of environmentalism seems decidedly anthropocentric. It’s no wonder, then, when asked by one student about mountain top removal strip mining she gave an opaque answer about the hazards of coal-mining and energy extraction generally, reverting to her more familiar expertise of the BP Deep Horizon disaster. Her response was thoroughly underwhelming to an audience of Berea College students in an institution where “I Love Mountain Day” is annual celebration, and where the cult of personality often trumps the call to pragmatic policy. Browner’s human-centered environmentalism seems unlikely to place her among the ranks of the more ardent “mountains for mountains” sake activists. When asked about the White House position on diversifying U.S. energy sources through construction of nuclear power plants, Browner re-asserted that all sources of energy are on the table and much has been accomplished in terms of safety and equitable distribution of facilities across race and class. Some student environmentalists present at the day’s lecture were less than impressed, citing issues of disposal and maintenance.
Consequently, Browner’s environmentalism seems not quite as radical as some would like it to be. Yet, by advocating not just efficiency, but conservation and community, she seems still too radical for Washington. You will hear scant denunciations of strip malls and commuter culture in her boss’s speeches on the environment. For Obama every argument which broaches fixing the problem of the environment is cloaked in the mantra of the post-recession: jobs, jobs, jobs. Browner has been constrained both by her proverbial “czar” (Obama) and the scope of authority he gave her. Browner told Newsweek in 2009 that “the only problem is that there were no czarinas without czars in history. It was all courtesy of their husbands.”2 Browner’s position in the Obama administration never had independent policy-making authority, only to synergize the work of other departments.
Apollon asked her how she manages to facilitate action across various departments. The answer she gave us was “to listen.” Five minutes with Browner illustrates that’s a role she enjoys less than persuading others about issues that feed her conservationist passions. Her mission is to win converts, not to suffer the company of nonbelievers. She told us she used to keep track of the exact number of members of Congress who “still deny the science on global climate change.” But she has stopped keeping the list; and noted the number grew a lot larger with the recent 2010 midterm election. We can be reasonably safe in inferring some causal connection between this latter supposition and the former: despite her efforts, passion and tireless work, the ranks of her opponents only grow. The challenges to accomplishing the goals for which Obama appointed her —passing a comprehensive energy bill through Congress—seems more remote than ever. She is equally dismissive of those who doubt her methods as those who debate her on the science. In the midst of a national mood against government, she extolled its virtues and insisted that government mandates are the best way to achieve environmental goals.
Browner’s departure from politics cannot come a moment too soon; because she seems never to have really entered politics so much as tolerated it. She is a “Go Big or Go Home” personality in a politics where the ethos is “politics is the art of the possible.” She returns now to the world of activism to shape the possible, rather than be constrained by it. Along the way, Browner paid Berea a visit; and in so doing, illustrated the diversity of the modern environmental movement.
Romero, Frances. “Energy Czar: Carol Browner.” TIME. 15 December 2008. <http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1866567,00.html>
Hirsch, Michael. “The Lioness In Spring” Newsweek. 4 April 2009. <http://www.newsweek.com/2009/04/03/thelioness-in-spring.html>