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Obama's Green Mission

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Noah Sachs wants to paint the White House blue and green in 2008. As an environment and energy policy adviser for Sen. Barack Obama, the University of Richmond law professor helps shape the campaign's platform and message.

The environment has mostly remained in the background, but bloggers and activists have questioned Obama's allegiance to the coal industry in his home state of Illinois, his support for clean coal and his vote for the White House-backed 2005 energy bill -- criticized by many as little more than a broad subsidy package for energy companies. (Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain both voted against it.)

Sachs stresses that he speaks for himself here, and not on behalf of the campaign, sharing his views on how global warming affects the election, ice-skating and asthma.



Style: How'd you get the gig with Obama?

Noah Sachs: I had a contact on the campaign and I asked to do it. And I had done a similar thing for Kerry and Edwards in 2004. … Barack, I think, is a great candidate on environmental issues. … He's done a lot of work on renewable energy and helped pass a law [when he was in the Illinois Legislature] that said that a certain percentage of all Illinois' electricity has to come from renewable sources. He's been a big champion of raising fuel-economy standards and helped on the bill that just passed last year at the federal level.

He did something really courageous I think on energy issues, which is he gave this big environmental speech in 2007 at the Detroit Economic Forum — this was last May — where he talked about the need to raise fuel-economy standards and he talked a lot about climate change. That would have been an easy speech to give, let's say, before an environmental group, but he went right in front of the automakers and he said we need to do things differently.



Now, another thing that's part of his record is he voted for that energy bill in 2005.

Um, yeah.



What do you think about that bill?

There were some good things in it and some bad things. That was when he was first in the Senate, so I think I'll leave it at that.



Is there such thing as clean coal?

[Laughs] You're going to put me on the spot here on this one. At present, no. When people say clean coal, what they're usually talking about is a way to capture the carbon emission that comes from burning coal. … [But] once you've captured the carbon emissions, then what are you going to do with them?

Scientists are looking at things like injecting the carbon into deep underground caverns and trying to keep it there for hundreds of years, or to bury it under the ocean somehow. I still think we're at least a decade or two away from that, at least doing it on a massive scale.



Does the energy bill from 2005 control the discussion about environmental policy right now?

No, I don't think so. I think what's driving the conversation now is climate change, and I think it's by far the biggest environmental issue we've got. I expect that within two or three years we'll have a brand-new federal law on climate change, so most of the conversation I'm hearing out of D.C. is about what that bill should look like. … Should there be a cap-and-trade system, should there be new carbon taxes, should there be new money for energy research and development?

And then separate from that, you have the whole international debate about what's going to be the next treaty after the Kyoto Protocol [the international treaty agreed to in 1997 to reduce greenhouse emissions globally], which expires in 2012, and what's the United States' role going to be in that.

We haven't heard a lot about it in the primary. Do you think it's going to be a big general-election issue?

The thing about the general [election] is that John McCain has also been the leading Republican champion of a cap-and-trade system for climate change, so that's part of the reason why I'm so convinced that we will see a new federal climate change statute in the next two or three years.



How has your advisory position climate-changed since the Samantha Powers upset? [Powers was a foreign policy adviser to the Obama campaign who called Hillary Clinton a "monster" in front of foreign press and resigned after making that comment.]

I don't want to get into that. The news media was all over that and she paid a price for it.



Is there a policy discussion around how to solve urban environmental problems?

The choice of how you use land … drives all of the other environmental issues. So far, we've made the choice to go for sprawl. Around Richmond you can see it sprawling west, but also the fastest-growing counties are places like Caroline County, Hanover County, King and Queen County. There's a huge childhood asthma problem in [Richmond] and other major cities. When you have soot and smog and particulates being emitted into the air, I think that's a direct contributor.



What's your feeling about how much time is left on the clock?

I was talking to some old-timers in Richmond, people who had been here 50, 60 years, and they said that they used to skate on the lake that we have here on campus at University of Richmond. And to me that's just unbelievable. That lake is not even close to freezing now in the winter. I think that's climate change. … We've only got a few years left to solve this.



What kind of car do you drive?

[Laughs] I drive a Honda Accord. S





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