Given the Bush administration’s reputation for failing to lead the fight against climate change, does the White House’s eco policy chief, James Connaughton, have any last-minute regrets? Actually he does, though they’re more a matter of managing PR than actual policy moves. At a talk he gave to a room full of venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road Wednesday night, Connaughton admitted that the way the administration handled the rejection of the Kyoto protocol might not have been the best approach.
Don’t get all giddy just yet, though. Connaughton didn’t say the U.S. should have signed the agreement, he merely acknowledged that the administration’s hell-no consensus rubbed people the wrong way. Connaughton said he was in a swearing-in period during that time so his hands were tied. He went on to say that the move was “in the past,” and that the administration has spent the last several years working on progressive energy policies like the Energy Bill, the CAFE standards and the Farm Bill. “I wish it (the legislation) would have happened faster,” Connaughton said, but that’s just how long policy takes, he suggested in his comments.
The Bush administration’s terrible PR regarding climate change was one of several points that the room easily agreed on. Another was that climate change is an urgent matter and needs immediate attention — a sentiment that Connaughton began his talk with, prompting surprise by not only us but moderator John Denniston, a partner at Kleiner Perkins.
Connaughton and the VC community also agreed that current federal funding for energy transformation is inadequate. Denniston said that when he talks to university professors, they tell him the cupboards are basically bare when it comes to energy innovation and R&D. In response, Connaughton admitted the allocated funding is “way short,” but said that’s because funding is being ramped up from an extremely low level. “This is the new thing again,” and combined with funding from the Energy Bill, the administration has been ramping up funding aggressively, he argued.
But when he was questioned about specific energy policies up for debate this year, Connaughton was notably vague. When he was asked if there will be an extended investment tax credit (ITC), for example, all he would say was “possibly.” And when he was asked if the U.S. should have a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax, he notably took the middle ground with his answer of “hybrid solution.” Seems like the eco chief actually has learned something from the early moves of his administration: Manage your PR well.
Photo courtesy of EPA.