Science Policy & Funding News

Obama’s Science Adviser Rails Against Trump’s Climate Policies

John Holdren tells Eos that strong measures still could help avoid the most catastrophic damages from climate change.

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Charging that President Donald Trump “is not listening to scientists,” the man who served as President Barack Obama’s science adviser says that “we are losing time that we cannot afford to lose” in dealing with the growing challenge of climate change.

However, the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, which has pledged to move forward on climate change issues, is one of several key reasons for hope, John Holdren told Eos in an interview following his presentations at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2018 in Washington, D. C., last week.

Holdren served as Obama’s science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 2009 to 2017.

The Urgency of Addressing Climate Change

“The urgency of addressing climate change in a serious way is even greater than most people have recognized,” Holdren told Eos.

“It’s really only the scientists, who have been wallowing in the latest data on what is happening in the world’s climate, who fully grasp the need to take aggressive action to reduce emissions and to build preparedness and resilience on a timescale not of multiple decades but on a timescale of 1 decade,” Holdren said. Scientists and others need to continue to speak up about the urgency of the climate challenge and urge Congress and the federal government to act on the issue, he added. “There is no further margin for delay.”

He pointed to more powerful storms, more torrential downpours and flooding, bigger and more destructive wildfires, drought, heat waves, increased health impacts of a warming world, and the dramatic changes in the Arctic region, which scientists say are indicative of climate change.

Trump’s Motivation?

“It is hard to understand why President Trump takes the position he does, basically saying he doesn’t believe the overwhelming consensus of the knowledgeable scientific community about climate change,” Holden said. “There is a lot of evidence that President Trump is not very interested in facts of any kind.”

Although Obama, for instance, was briefed frequently by Holdren and other top federal science officials about climate change, Trump appears to be taking a different approach. Tim Gallaudet, acting director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a leading federal agency that monitors climate change, said last week that neither he nor any other senior NOAA official has briefed President Trump about climate change or the changes in the Arctic since Trump took office on 20 January 2017.

Holdren said the lack of briefings “is unfortunately not surprising” and “is in sharp contrast to the Obama administration.”

In addition to calling Trump “the most fact-averse president in history,” Holdren said there could be several other reasons why the president has been dismantling climate change initiatives and has promised to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. Holdren said that Trump’s position could be a combination of Republicans’ general aversion to regulations and of the president feeding the enthusiasm of his base support “by rejecting the internationalism, if you will, of the fight to meet the global climate challenge.” Holdren added that Trump “seems determined to erase anything that has Obama’s fingerprints on it.”

Reasons for Hope?

Despite the dire threats posed by climate change and despite the Trump administration’s general inaction on the issue and its emphasis on fossil fuel development, Holdren said he is hopeful that it is not too late to take significant measures to curb the worst potential impacts of climate change.

“I absolutely have hope,” he said. “I think we still have an opportunity, if we will only seize it, to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.”

Holdren said that his hope derives from the public’s awareness about climate change and that there are actions—including reducing emissions, massive increases in energy research and development, and building preparedness and resilience—that could make a difference if those measures are taken.

Another measure that could make a difference, he said, is for Earth scientists to “speak with one voice about the urgency of this challenge and the need for the federal government to lead.”

The New Congress

Holdren, who recently met with many Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives about climate change, said that Democratic control of the House following the recent election will make a difference when the next Congress convenes in January.

“These folks are absolutely determined to move the needle on climate change,” Holdren said. “We are going to see a new era with the new Democratic majority in the House.”

Those reasons for hope about making a difference on climate change fuel Holdren. “It would be insanity, I think, to give up hope at this point in time and say we just have to hunker down and accept catastrophic damages from future climate change,” he said.

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2018), Obama’s science adviser rails against Trump’s climate policies, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO112435. Published on 20 December 2018.
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