In The House

What do you get when you mix four White House cabinet members, a slew of campaign-workers-turned-staffers, and 120 or so young climate activists? Something to tell your grandkids about.

I had the privilege of attending the White House’s Clean Energy Economy Forum yesterday. The name doesn’t quite reveal the nature of the event. Most of the people in the invite-only audience were under 30 and a few hadn’t reached drinking age. It was a peace offering of sorts from President Obama’s top advisers to young leaders in the environmental movement, many of whom were rapidly turning on the administration for seemingly not making energy policy a priority.

More specifically, the meeting was spurred by a “demand” (I hate that word, but it seemed to work here) from the Energy Action Coalition, an amalgam of 50 youth-oriented environmental groups. The EAC launched It’s Game Time, Obama to insist that the President meet with young people to discuss climate change and attend the U.N. Climate Change Summit this month in Copenhagen. There has been little movement on climate change since the House passed a controversial energy bill in June, and Obama was fairly silent on the issue until the last two weeks. That also spurred EAC executive director Jessy Tolkan took to the Huffington Post to assail Obama the president and Obama the candidate for wearing two different faces on energy policy.

The White House was livid. So livid that they invited everyone over to talk it out.

Wait a second. Are we talking about government being responsive to the people? Could the administration care what critics have to say? Does it actually want to have an open dialogue with activist groups? Is this really happening?

I can tell you as an eye witness that it is, at least on the surface. And after spending three and a half hours at this potentially historic meeting, I’m fairly convinced it goes beyond rhetoric. The administration appears to be making an earnest attempt to reclaim young Americans – particularly socially and environmentally conscious young Americans – as a core base of support.

The meeting kicked off with Jon Carson, the architect of candidate Obama’s field campaign and now the White House Council on Environmental Quality's chief of staff, who suggested that the gathering's purpose was to “help you be partners with us.” What sounded like a sales pitch was quickly followed with substance.

Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu, a Nobel Laureate scientist profiled in Rolling Stone earlier this year, was the first cabinet member to speak. He called sustainable energy policy a “pathway toward great economic opportunity” and shared the encouraging news that China appears ready to shift the base of its energy production from dirty coal to methods that will reduce carbon emissions.

He compared China's thinking to Wayne Gretzky’s explanation for his hockey prowess: “I skate where the puck is going to be, not where it’s been.”

America, Chu then said, is still chasing the puck. “The U.S. is playing catch up. What I’m saying is that the world is going to pass us by if we don’t take this opportunity.”

He then made an impassioned plea for energy efficiency alongside policies that will mandate a reduction in carbon emissions – forcing big companies to invest in research and development of energy alternatives and to re-think putting dollars into outdated fossil-fuel infrastructure. A pragmatist, he explained that solar energy currently costs $4-$5 per watt and that it will need to come down to $1-$2 for the market shift on its own.

He then broke with audience sentiment and defended nuclear and “clean coal." Chu explained that major industrial countries are sitting on 75% of the world’s coal reserves and that it’s not realistic to believe these energy-starved nations will just let it sit in the ground. So technology that takes out 80-90% percent of carbon emissions from coal is a more viable strategy to tackle climate change than trying to completely eliminate coal as a power source.

Makes sense to me. Then again, I would have believed him at that point had Chu said the best way to save the planet is to dismember puppies. He is clearly one of the more brilliant people on the planet; and the fact that he – as opposed to some industry lackey – is our energy secretary should help us sleep a little better at night. He went on to explain that if we don’t change our ways, there's a 40-50% chance the world will heat up by four to five degrees centigrade. The last ice age, he compared, came when the world was just six degrees colder than it is now.

Chu’s talk was followed by addresses from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson (a sharp, funny woman) and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. They took questions from the audience without deflection or defensiveness. When one young activist asked if the EPA would deny some 79 pending permits for mountaintop-removal mining, Jackson replied, “I’m proud to say we’re looking at them, which is a big change” (a dig at the Bush administration implying it rubber-stamped such applications). “I’m not going to blow smoke at you and say we’re going to deny them. We’re going to do our job.”

One audience member called on the administration to launch a bold national green jobs and sustainability initiative, akin to the Apollo mission or World War II domestic mobilization. Chu’s response: “I couldn’t agree with you more.” He and the other cabinet members called on the audience to fight for these things. “Be persistent in your advocacy,” Jackson said.

A cynic might view that as empty pep talk, but I didn’t see it that way. My read was that the administration is longing for allies and needs more political capital to fulfill its agenda. The meeting wasn’t a PR play – press turnout was light at best – but more like a behind-the-scenes tactical move.

Obama never would have gotten beyond the Iowa primary without young voters. And climate change is an issue that youth, more than any other voting bloc, holds dear ("sustainability & climate change" has edged out "health-care reform" as the top issue of concern in HeadCount’s ongoing What’s Your Issue? survey). After a difficult first year in office, Obama operatives are looking for allies wherever they can be found. If they can’t hold on to environmentalists and young people, who do they have left?

The final hour of the meeting was spent in breakout sessions with middle-level executive-branch staffers. That’s where I really started to drink the Kool-Aid and feel like I was getting an eyewitness view of democracy functioning as it should. Myself and about a dozen attendees sat down with Brandon Hurlbut, the deputy chief of staff to Energy Secretary Chu. He explained he quit his law job in spring 2007 to work on the Obama campaign in New Hampshire and joined the Department of Energy after the election. He shared some of what they're working toward, such as an energy-efficiency rating system for homes realtors can use to increase property values. “I didn’t quit my job and come here to not get things done,” he said off-handedly at one point.

Hurlbut also probed each of us for ideas while furiously taking notes. One woman suggested that the executive branch meet regularly with a youth advisory board. He nodded approval. Another put forth the idea of promoting specific examples of young people getting jobs through the green sector. He asked her to send names. He listened attentively to an activist from West Virginia who explained some of the specific problems caused by coal extraction in the state. It made me realize that even at the highest levels of government, people are not superheroes. They don’t know everything, and they don’t have some magic system for gathering knowledge. They read. They listen to experts. They hear out advocates. What was different here was that most of the people in the room operated outside of the political power structure and weren’t old enough to remember James Watt or Three Mile Island. There was also a humility on both sides that was the mirror image of the tone of discourse we tend to associate with politics and government.

A student activist from the University of Colorado noted a disparity in efficiency regulations between owned and rented homes in Boulder. Hurlbut asked her what the solution might be. “We put together a proposal,” said the college senior. “Will you send it to me?” replied the Deputy Chief of Staff.

It took a while for that to sink in. The walls between government and citizens were breaking down right before my eyes.