As President-elect Barack Obama announced on Monday his choices for top officials to tackle global warming, the challenges they face were highlighted by the lack of progress at climate talks that ended last week.
Representatives of nearly 200 nations met in Poland to work on a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that limited emissions of global-warming gases. Little headway was made, and talks ended Saturday.
On Monday, Obama vowed to try to change that.
"America will lead not just at the negotiating table — we will lead, as we always have, through innovation and discovery," he said at a news conference in which he announced picks for energy and environmental posts.
The nominees are:
• Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, for Energy secretary.
• Lisa Jackson, who headed New Jersey's environmental agency, for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief.
• Nancy Sutley, Los Angeles' deputy mayor for environment, to be chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
• Carol Browner, President Clinton's EPA chief, to coordinate climate and energy issues across the government.
"What the world does in the coming decade will have enormous consequences that will last for centuries," said Chu, who runs the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Expectations are high, both in the U.S. and around the world. At the climate talks, participants had studied the speech Obama gave to state officials just after Election Day about the need to act on global warming, said Robert Stavins, a Harvard University economist who attended the meeting.
Many nations want the United States to "play a leadership role" in early 2009, Stavins said. "It's not a lot of time for the new administration to come up to speed." Adding urgency, nearly 200 nations will meet a year from now to write a new global warming treaty. Before those talks, Obama's advisers must work out how ambitious the treaty should be.
Clinton signed the 1997 treaty, but the Senate did not ratify it.
The timing of the next session poses another challenge: For credibility's sake, the United States wants to take domestic action on global warming before the talks, said Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank.
Obama has said he wants to cut emissions of the gases that cause global warming — which are produced by the burning of coal and gasoline — by 80% by 2050.
To do so, Obama will need Congress to pass a law. Democrats control both houses of Congress, but there is division within the Democratic Party over how to tackle climate change.
"Congress is by no means in agreement," said Jonathan Pershing of the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank. "Getting 60 votes will be hard," referring to the number of senators needed to stop opponents from tying up legislation.
The circumstances are the best they've been for passing legislation, said Steve Cochran of the Environmental Defense Fund, but the economic downturn makes the situation dicey.
"It is very difficult to effect change when people are scared," he said.
In a related appointment, the Associated Press reported that Obama will tap Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., this week to be his Interior secretary. The wire service cited an unnamed Democratic source who asked for anonymity to avoid pre-empting Obama's announcement.