Interview with Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in Copenhagen

The Obama Administration officials whose names usually pop up when it comes to issues of climate and energy are Energy Secretary Steven Chu, climate czar Carol Browner, or even President Barack Obama himself. But at the end of the first week at the international climate summit in Copenhagen, it is Gary Locke, Secretary of the Department of Commerce, who is playing the most prominent Administration role.

On Saturday, Dec. 12, Locke toured the technology expo, dubbed Bright Green, that accompanies the meeting. He asked EOS Climate, a South San Francisco company that destroys potent global warming gases (CFCs) from old refrigerators to earn emission reduction credits, how many jobs they have created in the U.S. (Answer: lots.) He marveled at pictures of receding glaciers in the Himalayas. He gave an impromptu speech at the GE Ecomagination booth, hefted a prototype lithium ion car battery with Johnson Controls execs, and praised the overseas Commerce Department staff for helping U.S. companies boost exports. “Fifty eight percent of U.S. companies that export, export to only one country,” Locke told them. “Our top priority is to get them to export to two countries. That could double their volume.”

After the tour, Locke sat down for a quick interview with Business Week:

Q: What are you learning here in Copenhagen?

Locke: I’ve been struck by the great enthusiasm by the business leaders—top CEOs in Europe—for aggressive actions against climate change. My meetings with U.S. companies have also been very impressive. A whole cross section of industry supports strong U.S. legislation.

Q: But don’t we keep hearing from opponents, like the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the GOP leadership, that climate legislation or would be economy-killers that are bad for business?

Locke: I think there has been a shift even at the Chamber of Commerce. When you have the heads of major oil companies saying they support a new energy policy, that is a shift. More and more, I’m hearing from CEOs of small and medium sized companies who want action. They want the US to do something . From a business perspective, they want certainty. They want an energy policy and cannot make investments until they know what the rules are.

We are also seeing a shift in the U.S. Congress, that’s coming because of the voices of business leaders. They see how serious the threat of climate change is to the quality of life, and to their business, and now they see the business opportunities in addressing it.

Q: You seem to be unusual in the Administration in talking about the threats from global warming. Usually, the talk is just about the potential for green jobs and jumpstarting the economy. Are you going off-message?

Locke: “Business can’t survive if subjected to floods or droughts.”