Tom Vilsack, Climate, and Agriculture: The Opportunity

Climate and Agriculture: It’s not what progressives can get from Tom Vilsack; it’s what Tom Vilsack can get from progressives.

A few days ago I posted an excerpt from a Council on Foreign Relations study group report on climate, which was chaired by incoming Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. My conclusion was that there was promise, but that we still don’t know which way Vilsack will go, especially because like most reports this could be read in different ways.

First, Gristmill today has an excellent essay by a progressive Iowa food policy advocate about her experience with Vilsack. Bottom line: Vilsack is not a progressive, but he is intelligent, sympathetic, open-minded, fair, and willing to listen.

This shouldn’t be surprising, and it opens up opportunities. Policy advocates work within a political context, and administrations create policy space and opportunities in which they can operate. See, e.g., the Kennedy Administration and civil rights. We’ve gotten used to a Cheney model for 8 years, where the base is in control. But we shouldn’t expect it.

Important fact in the essay: Vilsack was the first Democratic Iowa Governor in forty years. That certainly tells us a lot about the policy space in which he operated.

Second, I received a nice response from Michael Levi, the Director of CFR’s Energy Security and Climate Change Program, fleshing out some background, although he emphasizes that this is his take and not an official Council interpretation:

The group was generally against biofuel tariffs, but wanted to make sure it wasn’t promoting steps that would lead to net greenhouse gas emission increases. As you know, there have been several serious studies that claim greater demand for biofuels — which cutting tariffs would induce — would do just that, because of emissions from land use change. The relationship is hard to pin down precisely, because it’s indirect: land used for pasture can be converted to biofuels, and forests can then get cut down to create new land for pasture.

That led to the package-deal suggestion. We didn’t have a grand UN deal in mind (we favored a good UN deal but we skeptical one can be had any time soon) nor did we advocate developing country caps (we actually warned against seeking them). We did imagine, for example, a side deal where tariffs were lowered and Brazil committed to take certain steps to stem deforestation. We wanted to leave things open, though, to creative diplomacy that might find other deals that worked and moved things forward.

At the same time, we were aware that some use the land-use argument as a cover for a much more base protectionist stance. Hence the statement that standards for biofuels should apply equally to domestic and to foreign biofuels. The recommendation that such standards be harmonized wasn’t a condition — it was a separate recommendation. The task force recommendations would stand unchanged even if standards couldn’t be harmonized.

On “conventional” corn-based ethanol: Conventional corn ethanol is the stuff that’s commercial today. It obviously has real problems. But cellulosic ethanol can potentially be made from corn stover, the cornstalks and other material that’s left in the field after the actual ears of corn have been harvested. It has the potential (in theory) to be a low-lifecycle-emissions fuel source that doesn’t displace food production. We wanted to make sure that didn’t get swept into our statement, since it’s far from a mature technology.

That certainly makes things clearer: the question is how much Vilsack will fight for these things. Or perhaps how advocates will be able to get him to fight for these things.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.