Over the last few days, I've gotten a steady stream of messages about the UK's creation last week of a Department of Energy and Climate Change. In the government's own words,
The department will bring together much of the Climate Change Group, previously housed within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), with the Energy Group from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR)
It's good news, I think, though not being a close enough observer of British ministerial politics, I can't tell if it's as good a piece of news as some of you seem to think it is. Certainly Ed Miliband, the new Department's Secretary, is no slouch, but rather a serious economist with real political clout (and a brother, David Miliband, who used to be environment secretary and is now the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs -- I highly recommend this MP3 of his recent LSE speech on environment and foreign policy). As the BBC reports,
It has been a longstanding criticism from environmentalists that the UK's energy policy and climate change brief had been divided between different departments. The Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), set up by Tony Blair to act as the prime ministerial environmental advisory body, saw the formation of the new department as a step in the right direction.
Which brings us, in this election year, around to American politics.
What might be the American equivalent to the British move? Cabinet status within an administration is generally thought necessary to drive forward real change, and previous attempts have been made to raise the director of the Environmental Protection Agency to the level of a cabinet secretary. Those attempts failed.
But even having a Secretary of the Environment would not solve the Federal government's institutional impediments to sustainability. The Secretaries of Energy, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, Commerce and the Interior all have direct oversight over agencies and bodies which make critical sustainability decisions.
One possible answer would be to build a new role, and place within it many of the critical functions for sustainability: control over all energy research, including the National Laboratories, the Energy Information Administration, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Federal Railroad and Transit Administrations, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the United States Forest Service; as well as all of Interior's major roles, like the EPA, the Bureau of Land Management, the United States Geological Survey, and the National Park Service.
In effect, you'd be making a cabinet-level sustainability czar. Called, just for the sake of argument, Secretary for Climate, Energy and Environment.
Now, clearly, given the Byzantine politics of the bureaucracies and constituencies involved, such an idea is a pipe dream. But it does point to the kind of restructured thinking that seriously tackling the crises we face will take.
Well, given that they conjured the Department of Homeland Security out of thin air, coming up with a climate secretary should be just as possible.