From Gator to a leader of the president’s Green Team
By Diane Chun
Florida-born Carol Browner seems quite comfortable with her new title as Washington’s “climate and energy czar.”
Her role as President Barack Obama’s director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change is newly created, but the 53-year-old Browner brings a lifetime of environmental concern to Obama’s “green team.”
Not only that, but her road to the White House Executive Office Building includes stops in Gainesville at the University of Florida. In a recent interview about her position, Browner applauds the fact that the federal government has an array of agencies, cabinet secretaries and administrators who have clout “that we can bring to bear in terms of creating a green economy, changing how we think about energy, energy security and reducing our energy use.”
“Carol understands that our efforts to create jobs, achieve energy security and combat climate change demand integration among different agencies, cooperation between federal, state and local governments and partnership with the private sector,” Obama said in announcing Browner’s nomination.
Born in Miami in 1955, Browner is the oldest of the three daughters of Michael Browner and Isabella Harty-Hugues. Both are professors at Miami-Dade Community College.
Her parents limited their daughters’ TV time, instead encouraging their children to read and explore their environment.
Browner spent many hours hiking the Everglades, and grew up to love biking, skiing and jogging. She credits her folks with her first lessons in politics and an appreciation for the natural world. She once told the New York Times, “I want my son Zachary to be able to grow up and enjoy the natural wonders of the United States in the same way that I have.”
The 1970s brought Browner to Gainesville, where she earned a degree in English from the University of Florida in 1977 before enrolling in law school. She graduated from UF’s Levin College of Law in 1979.
Jon Mills directs the Center for Governmental Responsibility at the law school. The center was in its infancy when Mills hired Browner as his secretary. She soon moved up to become a researcher for the center.
Even then, Mills says today, he could see that Browner had the focus and drive to achieve that would lead her to great things.
He describes one incident that he and Browner can laugh about today.
He was traveling in Poland, and in those days, Mills said, you had to make arrangements for a long distance call back to the United States “about two days in advance.”
He made a call to the office … collect. Browner had been told never to accept collect calls on the office line. She heard the long-distance operator asking if she’d take a collect call, but promptly said “no” and hung up … to the sound of a strangled groan from Mills at the other end of the line.
“She says now that it was the sound of her career going down the drain,” Mills now jokes.
Browner has maintained ties to UF, including teaching in the Levin College of Law’s study abroad program in Costa Rica in 2002.
Tom Ankersen, who directs the program, recalls Browner’s week-long lecture series on climate change and other ecological “hot topics.”
He also remembers Browner’s willingness to pile into the bed of a small pickup for a long and bumpy ride from the capital city, San Jose, to the rain forests of the Osa Peninsula.
Browner, a long-time bird watcher who has served on the board of the Audubon Society, happily sought out the exotic species of that isolated region of Costa Rica.
Richard Hamann, an associate in law for the Center for Governmental Responsibility also taught in the study abroad program. He has known Browner since her time as secretary of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection.
Hamann applauds Obama’s choice of Browner as his “energy czar.”
“She’s a combination of idealism and pragmatism that can be very effective,” Hamann says. “And clearly, she is committed to protecting the environment.”
Browner knows environmental regulation both from the Washington and state perspective.
Browner has experience balancing between groups that seem to have conflicting
interests — the environment and economics.
As Florida’s Secretary of Environmental Regulation, a post she held from 1991 to 1993, Browner was chief negotiator for the state in a suit to restore the national flow of water to Everglades National Park. The project was the largest ecological restoration effort ever undertaken in the United States. She is also credited with negotiating a landmark agreement with Disney that allowed the company to develop 400 acres of wetlands on their Disney World property in exchange for investing $40 million to preserve and protect more than 8,500 acres of wetlands in Central Florida.
“Browner had a vision of protecting an entire ecosystem,” said Todd W. Mansfield, a senior vice president of Walt Disney Development Company. “She is a very, very long-term thinker.”
As Secretary of Environmental Regulation, Browner led one of the nation’s largest state environmental agencies. For two years, she managed a staff of 1,500 and a budget of $650 million.
As head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency from 1993 to 2001, she oversaw 17,000 employees and was responsible for a budget of $7 billion.
Of EPA critics within the business community, Browner says, “I’ve found business leaders don’t oppose strong environmental programs. What drives them crazy is a lack of certainty. We can change that.”
Her focus in her various environmental positions has always been on preventing pollution rather than on cleaning it up, both critics and supporters say. She has been described as a good listener and a strong negotiator who is willing to compromise when necessary.
She comes to her new office in the Executive Office Building from a position with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s global strategy firm, the Albright Group.
She looks forward to helping direct economic stimulus dollars toward “shovelready” projects to weatherize homes, make schools and federal buildings more energy efficient and stimulate development of wind and solar energy.
“The good news is that there are tremendous opportunities in terms of clean energy and green jobs,” Browner said.