University of Vermont

University Communications

Interview: Lynn Scarlett

Lynn Scarlett hikes in the Grand Canyon, looks for birds in the swamps of Namibia, and thinks a lot about energy policy. She spent five years as George W. Bush’s deputy secretary at the Department of the Interior where she chaired a climate change task force. She'll share her thoughts on smart energy Sept. 15 at UVM. (Photo courtesy of

Regardless of the hopes of many environmentalists, Lynn Scarlett doesn’t anticipate that any federal climate change legislation will pass for at least five years -- probably longer.

But she does think that a lot can happen in the marketplace and laboratory to address global warming. And she sees regional innovations -- like Vermont’s push for “smart grid” electricity delivery -- as a key trend.

Lynn Scarlett will deliver the 2011 Aiken Lecture, “Smart Energy: Science, Technology and Politics,” at the University of Vermont’s Ira Allen Chapel at 5 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011.

The event is free and open to the public.

Lynn Scarlett is an avid hiker, birder, and conservationist -- and she was a top official under President George W. Bush, helping to lead the Department of the Interior’s pushback against what she saw as overreaching environmental regulations.

An expert on climate change and large-scale land conservation -- she served as president of the libertarian Reason Foundation and has long made a vigorous case for market-based approaches to many environmental challenges. Scarlett is currently a senior visiting scholar at Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C.

UVM Today spoke with Lynn Scarlett a few days before Hurricane Irene hit land. We reached her by cell phone in South Africa and wanted to hear what she had to say about the future of energy, climate change, and what kinds of birds she was spotting.

UVM Today: The title of your talk is “smart energy.” What is smart energy?

Lynn Scarlett: Usually when people use the term smart energy, they mean new technologies. For example, smart appliances that have metering and are designed for maximum efficiency. But I use the term more broadly to include how we build our city landscapes and use bioengineering to lower our energy needs. I not only include efficient technologies, but also strategies in business that drive toward energy conservation.

Here in Vermont there is a lot of planning around the so-called “smart grid,” which will include sophisticated meters for household electricity and other efforts to make the electrical grid more responsive and efficient. How does the “smart grid” fit into “smart energy”?

The smart grid is part of this bigger picture. The challenge is getting from here to there with the smart grid because there are significant costs. In a state like Vermont, which is relatively small, the ability to move to a smart grid in the near-term is feasible. It’s going to be a long time in some larger states, but ultimately we need to go in that direction. That is part of the smart energy direction.

When you think about moving in that direction, what policy changes and market incentives do you think are most likely to succeed?

In the last decade, energy policy in the United States has been largely driven by a combination of subsidies and credits for clean energy and other mechanisms to drive investment in certain directions. It has also been through the EPA, through programs like Energy Star, trying to push household appliances and other technologies in the direction of efficiency.

We’re in a whole different political environment now where every dollar is being scrutinized. And there has always been concern -- even prior to our current tight budget situation -- that the federal government engages in what some people call “picking the winners”: this energy or that energy is the good one and we’re going to invest in it. I think you’re going to see greater scrutiny on that front as the federal government looks to tighten its belt.

There has been some expectation that climate legislation would drive us away from fossil fuels, and would change, more quickly, the portfolio of energy sources that the nation uses. I don’t see that on the horizon in any time nearer than five or six years.

So where does that leave us? I think we’re going see much more market-driven innovation, where the bottom line is more of driver than federal policy. And I think you’re going to see, at the local level, some significant sustainability efforts that are going to drive some energy decision-making in the nation -- including transportation, better buildings, and more extensive use of tree canopies and green spaces -- toward lower energy use.

Do you think that your projected five- to six-year timeline toward federal climate legislation is cause for concern? Would you like to see something come along faster?

Let me clarify: when I use that five- to six-year timeframe that is the absolute earliest. I honestly don’t expect major climate change legislation in that time horizon, but it is at least conceivable that there might be a significant enough shift to drive major climate legislation by then.

When I was at the U.S. Department of the Interior, I chaired the climate change taskforce for the department. We looked at both climate change adaptation and mitigation. The accumulation of greenhouse gases are a problem; they are contributing to climate change and the effects of that climate change are significant.

But there is plenty of room to discuss just exactly what the response should look like. Does that look like a tax on emissions as was proposed in 2009 and 2010? Or might it take the form of incentivizing clean energy investments? There is plenty of room for debate along the spectrum of policy about just where the nation ought to land. But I do think the nation ought to take the problem seriously, including at the federal level -- and think about how we can drive those greenhouse emissions down.

You have made a name for yourself as a strong voice for free-market approaches. Now that you’re out of the government, have you shifted in your thinking?

I have always recognized that to make environmental improvements one has to incentivize a nation of environmental stewards.

Energy choices are not matters that can be simply dictated in Washington. I’ve been a long-time champion of clear pricing. For example, one of the things that’s attractive about smart metering is that it gives people a much better sense of what they use their energy for -- and therefore gives them information so that they as individuals can respond differently.

Another example: energy performance contracts. In the old days, a developer would build a building, and it was the tenant that pays the price for the energy costs of that building. Increasingly, some states are incentivizing contracts to say that if the developer puts in energy-saving designs and technologies and materials -- then the savings that the tenant gets will rebate back to the developer over some period of time -- or variations on that theme.

We’ve got to look at those places where the marketplace is motivating action because it’s then when the action becomes really widespread and not simply in isolated pockets or in episodic moments when the government is investing in, say, clean technologies with subsidies. The problem with that approach is that the subsidies come and go -- and that ultimately is not going to yield a sustainable future.

It’s been all over the newspapers that the writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben was arrested outside the White House protesting a proposed new pipeline from the Canadian tar sands down to the United States. He’s been saying that we should be using civil disobedience to change people’s orientation toward where our fuel comes from. What do you think of McKibben’s action? And what do you think about where our future energy should come from? What will it take to shift to renewable energy?

You’ve got a bunch of questions packed in there! Certainly Bill McKibben can make his choices about how he wants to communicate. We have a long history in this country of civil disobedience and certainly there are moments when civil disobedience does bring attention to critical issues, and he is part of that tradition.

The larger energy picture is complicated. I have not seen any projections looking forward twenty, thirty years in which fossil fuels do not play a significant role. The ability of solar, wind, biomass and other non-fossil fuels to meet the needs of the nation in anything like a near- or mid-term time frame is a real stretch.

So, are we going to continue to need fossil fuels? I think the question realistically is not whether they’ll be part of the mix, it’s how can we continue to access those resources in a way that has as little impact as possible -- and we have a lot of homework to do there.

Certainly on the shale-gas front -- with the fracking processes -- there are a lot of questions about water quality and other impacts. Those sorts of things need a serious look rather than simply pressing forward without the appropriate safeguards, and then later trying to undo or fix what went wrong. The same goes for siting infrastructure whether it’s transmission lines or pipelines or off-shore energy development.

The Interior Department, of course, experienced the horrendous offshore oil spill last year -- and that incident and others are wake-up calls that, yes, there are risks to these activities, and, yes, there are impacts. We can’t simply do without energy and we can’t do without fossil-fuel energy, at least in the near term, but we do need to do better. That means if we’re contemplating new energy sources and major pipelines, such as the one Bill McKibben is protesting, we need to take a real look at what those impacts are, whether that is worth the impacts and worth the investment -- or whether there are alternatives.

You have spent a lot time thinking about large-scale environmental policy ideas, green technology, about global climate change. How do balance that kind of work with a personal connection to nature? What takes you outside?

As we speak, I’m in Africa, birdwatching! I’m an avid hiker and birder; being out in these great grand places is what makes my heart sing. Today we saw a species that is only found in the rocks high above Cape Town, the cape rock-jumper. The other day we saw the blue crane, which is beautiful, not unlike our sand hill crane in the United States. We’ve also seen something called the malachite sunbird, which is an iridescent green, something like a hummingbird, except with a big long tail. Magnificent.

The discourse of American environmentalism occurs at extremes: an ecstatic delight in the natural world -- beloved birds! -- and a despair about declining ecosystems and extinguishing species. What do you see as the story of the future?

I have always been an optimist -- an optimist about the imagination of people when confronted with problems to try to solve them. And when confronted with environmental impacts to do something about them.

On the other hand, my time at the Interior Department -- it manages 507 million acres of the United States and manages off-shore leases for oil, and lands for on-shore energy access -- was sobering. It made me realize just how difficult it is to balance human needs and at the same time try to lighten our environmental footprint.

There are a lot of forces pulling multiple directions. It’s one reason that I think we sometimes need those folks that protest and are shrill voices. Even though, ultimately, that shrillness isn’t what’s going to solve problems, it can certainly draw attention to it. It is engineers and biologists -- who are problem-solvers, working with communities -- that ultimately end up figuring out how to provide the balance to let us pursue our livelihoods, and yet at the same time, not rape and pillage the landscape.