03/19/2009 02:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fourteen Years Is a Long Winter

Washington, D.C. -- That's how long it's been since I've had energizing, affirmative conversations about solving America's environmental challenges with policy makers here. Even during the Clinton administration, after Newt Gingrich pulled off his Congressional coup the tone and mood became constrained and defensive -- the politics of limits, not solutions.

Well, it was sunny, breezy and gently spring-like in D.C. this week -- both outside and in the corridors of the government. Startlingly contrasting conversations with two Cabinet secretaries -- Energy's Steve Chu and Agriculture's Tom Vilsack -- had in common the freshness of this new and long-awaited season. Previous energy secretaries, whatever their resumes or aspirations, have ended up presiding over the Department of Kilotons, bogged down in the management morass of the nation's troubled, toxic, and tangled nuclear-weapons complex. Bill Richardson, for example, as secretary, had the distasteful task of flying to Paducah, Kentucky, to admit to former employees of the department's weapons-manufacturing facilities that their government had poisoned them and then lied about it.

But Steve Chu seems inclined to create a Department of "Negawatts" -- Amory Lovins's term for energy productivity, efficiency, and conservation -- the cheapest and safest of all forms of energy. Our conversation begins with his describing a house whose retrofit he recently witnessed in Wisconsin -- 1,000 square feet with a $4,000 utility bill. The home was so leaky that the owner said she couldn't eat breakfast in her own kitchen in the winter because of the drafts, and its air exchange ratio, the measure of leaks in a building, sounded more like a tent than a solid structure. But Chu understands that while retrofitting one house is easy, getting to scale is hard -- the stimulus bill, he points out, will help us with low-income housing and public buildings, but we need to use this experience to build the systems, supply chains, and capacity to get at the much larger middle-class home owner's market. (For example, it makes no sense to do one home in a block at a time, bringing in the blowers and audit equipment, the glazier's truck, and the insulation crew. Instead, how do we do entire neighborhoods at a time?)

Our discussion was, in the best sense of the word, wonky -- detailed and genial, with Chu's sparkling but unassuming intellect approaching energy productivity playfully -- not a quality I associate with this part of the government.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was much more the high-concept political strategist. He laid out his department's focus: small farmers who produce fruits and vegetables, often for farmer's markets; the big growers, "production agriculture"; and the medium-sized family farms that characterize the secretary's home state of Iowa. He's determined to use a sustainability ethic driven by the climate crisis as a central strategy to support and reform all three. And he's bold. Production agriculture he says, "Is part of the problem, and it can and needs to be part of the solution.... This department will help wean big growers from fossil fuels." What's the key to the future of the small, fruit-and-vegetable sustainability farmers? "Improve the American diet. Encourage Americans to eat more of what these small farmers grow." And the key for reviving the most economically stressed segment, the integrated family farm? "They need new crops, like cellulosic and advanced biofuels; they need to manage their woodlots and soils to sequester CO2, become carbon farmers. We need to pay them for the public goods, like clean water, that they produce."

Wherever I go this week, it's clear that Washington, this spring, is about climate. It's at the top of the agenda of House Speaker Pelosi's staff; it's what the White House political operatives I meet with want support for; and, at the board meeting of the Blue-Green Alliance, it's a core strategy of four of the biggest labor unions (the Steelworkers, Laborers, SEIU, and Communications Workers) for reviving the American economy and bringing back manufacturing jobs.

Yes, the challenges are tough and the science is daunting. The old economy of coal and oil is pushing back hard. No, Detroit still doesn't get it, and politics as usual will break out over and over again in Congress. But if you compare where we are today with the mood, the conversation, and the possibilities two years back -- in some ways it's hard to believe that this is the same city.

Spring is like that.