Interview: Daniel Weiss On Climate Change And What Happens Next

This morning, Lisa Jackson was sworn in as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Not three hours later, President Obama ordered her to reconsider a waiver requested by California to require that automakers meet tight emissions standards by 2011.  Later in the day, Todd Stern was sworn in as the administration's envoy on climate change. And administration officials promised swift action on Obama's Green Energy and climate change agenda, no small task because Congress is quite busy. To get perspective on what Obama did today, and what he might do in the future, and what Congress will say, I spoke with Daniel J. Weiss, the director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress. Weiss consults regularly with Obama advisers.  Here's an edited transcript.

Me: How significant, in the realm of actions that the President can take, were today's actions?

Weiss: Today's action was very significant. It continues the emphasis that President Obama has put on clean energy and reduce oil dependence since he took office on Jan. 20. The stimulus package has close to 90 billion dollars in spending on clean energy over the next two years.  Today's action will increase fuel economy and lead automakers to build the gas-sipping cars of the future. President Obama has done more in one week to foster clean energy and energy independence than George Bush did in 8 years.

Is the Obama administration certain that the auto industry , given all of their other troubles, can make the deadline?

The auto industry has never seen a deadline that they couldn't meet. ... Once standards are set, they turn it over to their engineers, and find a way to do it faster and cheaper than what their lobbyists said.  The auto companies do not like the California waivers. But, their plans indicate they will probably come close to meeting the standards based on what they'll do in their reconstruction plan. ...  One question for Obama and the Congress is, are they going to allow the bridge loans that [the automakers] reiceved or the future bridge loans that they're going to seek -- are they going to be allowed to use any of that money to challenge the waivers in court?

That was part of the round of debate...

Pelosi had it in her bill..

And it was dropped from the Senate.

Right. I think it's going to come back because the next round is not legislative.

How does today's actions effect the other states seeking waivers?

It is important to note that other states have to adopt the California program in toto, so that you will have two standards: one for California and these 18 other states, and one for everywhere else. What that means is that half the market will have these cars with these standards and hopefully, the auto companies will just make all the cars that clean. This has the potential to drive much less global-warming-polluting cars much more quickly than would otherwise occur.

What other steps can the president take unilaterally?  You've talked about an "endangerment finding," which is something that a lot of climate scientists have been pushing for....

We hope that EPA administration Jackson will re-examine the endangerment finding that [ex-EPA administrator] Steven Johnson failed to make and will make it promptly rather than slowly.

Realistically, given the challenging economy and Congress being extremely busy, do you think it is likely that there will be significant progress made towards writing legislation for a cap and trade system this year?

Yes. Chairman Waxman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee says he intends to have a bill out of committee by Memorial Day.  Whether or not that deadline is met, that's the target.  .... When Speaker Pelosi did the same thing in '07, it was done by the fourth of July.  So, that means they're going to be going on a fast track.