Science Policy & Funding News

Obama Science Adviser Warns Against Retreats on Climate, Science

Holdren sees pitfalls for U.S. global leadership in withdrawing from climate accord and says that moving Earth observations out of NASA "is a terrible idea."

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White House science adviser John Holdren can’t predict what the incoming Trump administration will do about science and environmental issues, including climate change, after the inauguration on 20 January, but he says that scientists, environmentalists, and others should be prepared to push back with their concerns.

In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with Eos on Monday, Holdren also defended the Obama administration’s initiatives on climate change and other science efforts, warned against pulling out of the Paris climate accord, and denounced suggestions to move Earth observations out of NASA.

Holdren, who also has directed the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) since his appointment became effective on 20 March 2009, said that he plans to stay in his posts until 20 January to finish projects and ensure a smooth transition. After he leaves, current OSTP deputy chief of staff and assistant director Ted Wackler will be the most senior career official in the office, Holdren noted.

After the Trump administration begins, Holdren said, “we should be prepared in case the next administration doesn’t do what the scientific community and the environmental community and the business community and the local and state government community think is required. Obviously, all of those folks will make their voices heard” if the Trump administration “makes some missteps in this domain.”

“There have been previous administrations that in the course of campaigns to get elected, said they were going to gut regulations, and when it came to trying to do it, they found there was enormous public opposition, and they didn’t follow through,” he said. “But if undesirable things happen, I believe that the community of people who recognize what needs to be done as opposed to what is being done will push back very powerfully. And this is still a democracy, [in which] the voice of the people matters, and I think it will be heard.”

Climate Change Leadership

Trump’s direction on efforts to curb climate change is unclear, Holdren said. Trump has called climate change a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese. However, Trump told the New York Times on 22 November that “there is some connectivity” between human activity and climate change and that he has “an open mind” about withdrawing from the Paris accord, and on 5 December he met with former U.S. vice president Al Gore, an outspoken proponent for action on climate change. Yet on 7 December Trump reportedly selected Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, a climate science skeptic, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

John Holdren testifying at a 2013 congressional hearing.
John Holdren testifying at a 2013 congressional hearing. Credit: Randy Showstack

Holdren said he hopes that the country does not withdraw from the Paris accord. “If the United States were now to back out and say, ‘We’re no longer going to lead,’ the leadership would then fall solely on China’s shoulders,” he said. Last month, Zou Ji, deputy director of China’s National Centre for Climate Change Strategy, told Reuters that if the United States abandons efforts to implement the accord, China’s influence in global climate governance likely would increase.

“I think before anybody considers very seriously changing the U.S. position, they ought to ask themselves, ‘Do we want China to have the sole global leadership in this domain?’” Holdren said. “What are the wider consequences of that? Is that in our national interest?”

Calling himself an optimist, Holdren told Eos that he believes that the weight of evidence about climate change will ultimately influence the Trump administration’s course of action. “The weight of the evidence is enormous” that the climate is changing and that humans are causing it, he said, noting numerous paleoclimate studies and observations.

However, Holdren recognizes that climate change has been politicized. “People have decided whether they like what science is telling us or not based on their preferences politically.” He lamented as “unfortunate” a recent tweet by the House of Representatives’ science committee that links to a widely derided story that scientists say misleadingly casts doubts about climate change. Science “should continue to be a bipartisan issue,” he told Eos in a prior interview, last month.

Economic Arguments

Holdren said that local and state government officials and others around the country see that climate change already is harming their communities and that businesses, too, recognize their responsibility to help find solutions while also seeking economic opportunities in those solutions.

“Addressing the climate change challenge in intelligent ways is good for the economy,” Holdren said, adding that this argument should “sink in across the political spectrum.” Holdren pointed to clean energy jobs and energy efficiency benefits among economic pluses.

“The idea that dealing with climate change is inconsistent with economic growth is being proven wrong. We have been reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States while our economy has been growing,” he said. “The world does not have to choose between environmental sustainability and economic growth. We can have both, and we need to have both.”

Risk to Earth Observations

During the interview, Holdren lambasted a recent comment by former U.S. representative Bob Walker (R-Pa.), a Trump adviser on NASA and space issues, that “Earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission.”

“I think that’s just a terrible idea,” Holdren stated, saying that he is very familiar with the division of responsibilities and the complementary activities conducted by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Department of the Interior with respect to Earth observations. No other single federal agency could successfully take on what NASA does in the development, production, orbiting, and maintenance of Earth observation satellites, Holdren said.

Earth observations have provided data that have contributed to the scientific consensus that the climate is changing, but those observations also are essential for agriculture, forestry, and fisheries and for observing and preparing for storms and other natural hazards, Holdren commented. “There has been some criticism of Earth observation investment over the years by people who equate Earth observations with a particular climate policy agenda. And there is, in fact, no connection. That is, Earth observations are essential to society’s well-being, whether climate is changing or not,” he added.

Putting Science in Its “Rightful Place”

Holdren, who has had the ear of President Barack Obama, said that Obama “has really fulfilled his pledge that he made in his first inaugural address, in 2009, to put science in its ‘rightful place’ in his administration.” Obama has demonstrated his commitment through the caliber of his appointees in science- and technology-related roles; his use of the bully pulpit to promote science; his budget proposals; and his policies on climate, space, energy, and other issues, Holdren asserted.

A White House list issued in June, which Holdren referred to during the interview, outlines many of the Obama administration’s top science, technology, and innovation achievements, including combating climate change; boosting energy efficiency and clean energy production; establishing a comprehensive strategy for the Arctic region, a national strategy for Earth observations, and a national ocean policy; increasing the resilience of U.S. communities to natural hazards; issuing the administration’s 2009 memorandum on scientific integrity; and advancing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

“Lifting our national game in STEM education is one of the most important things we could do for the future of our country,” he said. Not only is it important to nurture talented people and produce a tech-savvy workforce, but also “we have to produce a more science-savvy citizenry if our democracy is to work in an era when more and more of the decisions in front of our elected leaders have significant science and technology content,” Holdren said.

Holdren Calls Budget Boosts Insufficient

Holdren said President Obama’s budget proposals resulted in more than $18 billion for research in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act alone, which he said was the biggest boost for research in the history of the nation’s budgets. However, Holdren cited as his biggest regret that the administration could not increase the research and development budgets as much as it wanted. He blamed fiscal constraints and “unfortunate political divisions” that reflected a lack of understanding about how important the investments in research, development, and innovation are to the future of society.

“There has been pushback against investments in basic research, an inclination to say, ‘Well, every research grant should be justifiable in advance in terms of what its benefit to the economy, or public health, or national security is going to be.’ That throws basic research out with the bathwater,” Holdren said. “Investments in basic research are the seed corn from which all kinds of future applied advances will come that cannot be anticipated at the time the basic research is done.”

Despite the administration’s advances and leadership in dealing with climate change, Holdren said he also regretted the failure during Obama’s first term to get a comprehensive climate change bill through Congress when Democrats had a majority. The president’s 2013 Climate Action Plan “basically is everything that we could figure out constructively that could be done without the Congress.”

Defending OSTP

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who chairs a congressional appropriations subcommittee that oversees OSTP and other science agencies, last month charged that he would be “hard-pressed to identify any tangible, specific accomplishments out of [OSTP].”

However, Holdren countered, “This has been the most productive presidential administration in history for science and technology policy.” He continued, “I just have to assume that Rep. Culberson said what he said off the cuff without a lot of investigation into what OSTP has actually accomplished.”

Although other federal agencies boast a significant amount of scientific expertise, Holdren said that the reason for an OSTP is to give the president and his other top advisers “a source of science and technology advice that is independent of the agenda of any given department [or] agency.” What’s more, “if you didn’t have an OSTP, you wouldn’t have that capacity for coordination and priority-setting from the president,” he added.

The Finish Line

With 6 weeks left for the Obama administration, Holdren said OSTP is determined “to finish as many of the projects that we have had under way as we possibly can by the end of the term.”

Among them is the second installment of the Department of Energy’s Quadrennial Energy Review, which focuses on the U.S. electricity system as a whole, from resource extraction through end use. Also planned is a full report on the nation’s drinking water by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which Holdren cochairs. Last month, PCAST issued the report’s executive summary and recommendations. The U.S. Global Change Research Program also will release sections of its sustained climate assessment, focusing on science and greenhouse gas monitoring, prior to 20 January, Holdren said.

The Transition and Beyond

Holdren noted that he is busy working on a transition document for his successor that details OSTP’s structure, function, activities, and responsibilities. “We are determined to participate in a smooth and effective transition to the next administration,” he said.

Once the transition is done, the next step for Holdren remains uncertain. “The requirements of this job leave me no time to think about what I’m going to do next. And the conflict of interest provisions in White House ethics laws make it difficult to talk with future employers in any serious way.”

After serving in what Holdren called “the pinnacle” of his career, he will “start figuring out what I’m going to do next on January 20th,” he said.

However, Holdren stressed his continued interest in seeing science, technology, and innovation applied—through partnerships between government, civil society, the private sector, and academia—to improving the quality of life for Americans and to addressing global challenges such as climate change, nuclear weapons, and epidemic diseases. Holdren told Eos that he will be watching the administration’s moves “and commenting on the path forward.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Editor’s Note: An AGU petition calls on President-elect Donald Trump to “bring science to the White House” and to make it an immediate priority to appoint a science adviser with a strong scientific background. The petition also urges Trump to work with scientific organizations as he commences the science adviser selection process and “the important task of advancing America’s scientific enterprise.”

Citation: Showstack, R. (2016), Obama science adviser warns against retreats on climate, science, Eos, 97, https://doi.org/10.1029/2016EO064325. Published on 09 December 2016.
© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
  • wd73383

    “… Bring science to the White House.”. Now isn’t that a novelty especially considering the last eight years and the many pseudo-scientists hired by Obama.

    Perhaps the biggest loss for so-called climate science will be the thousands and thousands of jobs by so-called scientists who make a living off government funding by non-stop forecasting of gloom and doom.