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Obama’s New Chief of Staff on Climate Change

Denis McDonough has spoken out about the need to help developing countries cope.
January 25, 2013

President Obama says he intends to address climate change. Who he picks to fill key posts will show how serious he is. In picking Denis McDonough to serve as his new chief of staff, he’s picked someone who clearly considers climate change a serious problem (see “Obama Still Needs to Make the Case for Dealing with Climate Change”).

Before working for Obama, McDonough served as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. While there, he argued that the United States—along with other industrialized countries—has an obligation to help poor countries deal with climate-change-related problems and to help them reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. If his writings at the time are any indication, he could push both for market-based policies to address climate change and for funding to help poor countris adapt to climate change as it happens. But it’s not clear he would emphasize clean-energy R&D—his writings seem to emphasize deployment of existing technology.

In a 2007 article, he argued for enacting policies “that offer the most vulnerable communities in the world the support they need to combat the impact of climate change and help them and the rest of the world transition to a low-carbon global economy.” He added, “This is a climate debt the industrialized world owes to these poor nations.”

And he made the case that apart from addressing climate change, reducing the dependence of poor countries on oil could help their economies.

Sudden increases in the price of oil severely stunt economic growth in the developing world, hijacking scarce government resources and causing the prices of local transportation and basic commodities to skyrocket. Diversified energy infrastructures would build economic resilience and put these countries on track to better manage energy-related setbacks to sustainable development. 

He recommended that the U.S. design policies to promote clean-energy technology in poor countries—for example, with programs that allow businesses to offset their emissions by investing in clean-energy projects.

Importantly, he also recommended funding to help poor countries adapt to climate change, noting, as he wrote in 2007, that “even if appropriate measures were taken today to reduce global emissions by 80 percent by 2050, current atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases are already such that the next 50 years of climate change cannot be averted.”

McDonough has also argued (in another article) for cooperation with China on clean-energy development.

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