News Story

May 26, 2017
Environment@Harvard

A Harvard Homecoming

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John Holdren is the Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School; Co-Director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy in the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; and Professor of Environmental Science and Policy in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. From January 2009 to January 2017, he was President Obama’s Science Advisor and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), as well as Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), on which HUCE Director Dan Schrag also served. What follows is an edited excerpt of their conversation.

Dan Schrag: John, welcome back. What is it like to be back at Harvard after eight years away?  

John Holdren: Well, it’s terrific to be back and to see a lot of my former colleagues, who are still here. I enjoyed being here for the 13 years I spent on the Harvard faculty before going to Washington, and I’m enjoying being back. I had a wonderful time in Washington—but I’m glad I’m not there now.

Schrag: Washington has certainly changed in the last three months. You arrived in Washington at a unique time in history, following the financial crisis and the opportunities that it offered in terms of investment in energy and other areas. You had an opportunity to work incredibly closely with the President for all eight years on environmental issues, and while the environment seemed to be very high up on his agenda from the beginning, his messaging on it seemed to get louder and clearer over time. Was this the same perspective from the inside?

Holdren: I would say, first of all—since you mentioned the economic crisis and the fact that every crisis in a sense provides also some opportunity—that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was one of the first things that we got done in the Obama Administration, had $80 billion dollars in it for clean and efficient energy. I think that’s the biggest increase in government support for clean energy in the history of the country. And a lot of good was done with that money.     

Secondly, although a lot of people say that President Obama didn’t get really interested in the energy and climate change challenge until the second term, that’s actually not right. What happened initially was, of course, the Waxman-Markey bill, which would have produced a cap-and-trade approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. It passed the House, but never got a vote in the Senate.

Schrag: And it was Carol Browner’s main focus for the first couple years.  

Holdren: It was! And Carol Browner was the head of the Office of Energy and Climate Change in the White House. It was the first time that had been a separate office there, headed by an Assistant to the President. That in itself underscored the priority the President was putting on energy and climate change.   

But after Waxman-Markey failed and the 2010 midterm elections changed the composition of the Congress, it became apparent that most of what we would be able to get done in the energy and climate space would have to be done with executive authority, rather than with the help of the Congress.

And what we were able to do included the first ever combined CO2/fuel-economy standards for light-duty vehicles, the extension of those to heavy-duty vehicles, a whole raft of new efficiency standards for buildings and appliances; and the first-ever interagency task force on climate change, adaptation, preparedness and resilience.  There was actually a lot done on energy and climate in the first term!

Of course, one of the reasons that it receded somewhat from the evident public priority list was the fact that health care, and the struggle over health care reform, took so much of the oxygen out of the room. You know, an administration can fight only so many really major battles at one time.  

But the President never lost his personal interest in and priority on the energy and climate challenge. We talked about it a lot in private. Throughout the first term, there was something called “The Green Cabinet,” which included the Cabinet secretaries with responsibilities related to energy and environment, as well as, within the White House, Carol Browner, me, and Nancy Sutley, the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. It included Energy Secretary Steve Chu, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke.  

Because of the importance of the issue and the President’s interest in it, people kept trying to add themselves. Pretty soon it was half the cabinet that met frequently, as well as periodically with the President. 

So there was never any real lag in the President’s interest and determination, but it really was not until the second term that we were able to develop the more comprehensive approach represented in the President’s Climate Action Plan, which he rolled out in June 2013 on a very hot day at Georgetown University in an outdoor presentation. I still have a photograph of the President giving the speech and wiping the sweat off his brow in the middle of his remarks.

Schrag: I’ve heard President Obama credit you with continuing to make climate change present in policy discussions. He credits you with bringing new observations, new information, new studies to him on a regular basis.

Holdren: Well, I did, although in fairness he’s a little too generous, in that he was already thoroughly committed to the proposition that the energy-climate challenge is going to prove to be one of the great challenges of the 21st century, and that it was going to require a major effort by the United States and other countries to address. I didn’t have to persuade him of that in my role as a science advisor, but what I did do, as you note, and as he noted, is I kept him abreast of developments in climate science, including, of course, the ongoing observations of how the climate is changing and what the impacts are. 

There is, as you know, a tendency of climate change contrarians to say, “Well, the models aren’t reliable, so we don’t know anything.” And, of course, the models are not perfect—although they have been getting better and better. But a lot of what we know is based on observations and measurements, including—again, in your own domain—palaeoclimatological measurements that enable us to understand how different the current situa

tion is from the fluctuations and changes in climate that have occurred over the millennia.

And what I did is continuously provide the President with summaries and analyses of the latest observations, including paleo observations and current observations, and the ways in which these meshed with what basic physical science analyses and models were telling us about what the effects of the measured increases in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are predicted to be.

And one of the things I think that the contrarians prefer to ignore is the multiple lines of evidence that have converged to produce the current understanding of what’s happening in the climate, and what’s likely to happen going forward.

The President being, as you know, something of a science wonk, was extremely interested in these details, and he would ask very intelligent questions about them, and then he would come back and he would use facts from these briefings I had provided to him in his wider conversations, and he always got it right!

Schrag: It was clear that this was somebody who really was curious, and truly took an interest in the details. In the past, the science advisor, the person in your role, is really the only trained scientist in the room with the President and the Cabinet. How important was it to have other people like Steve Chu, or Ernie Moniz, or Jane Lubchenco, or Lisa Jackson, with a chemical engineering degree, or Gina McCarthy, with a public health degree?  

Holdren: Well, it was very helpful. Again, this President was extraordinary in many respects, including his successful effort to recruit science and technology talent into government. And the first tranche of appointments, including his appointments to PCAST, which included you, had five Nobel laureates in science and some 25 members of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine—really extraordinary!

And one of the great pleasures, besides having such a science-savvy President, was that so many of the people populating the relevant positions—the Energy Secretary, the EPA Administrator, the NOAA Administrator, the NIH Director, the NSF Director, the heads of the institutes in the NIH—knew each other already. Most of us had been colleagues in one way or another for decades. It was just an amazing team.  

I suspect that there were fewer territorial battles in this administration than typical in past administrations, where different departments and agencies are in competition over who is talking to the President and who really owns a particular subject matter. Those kinds of struggles are almost inevitable at any level of policy, but they were very rare in this administration because there was not only a long set of relationships that had already existed among the key folks in science and technology and the administration, but a lot of mutual respect.

Schrag: It helps a lot. One of the things that I noticed, just being on PCAST, was how much the President empowered us, and also, frankly, was able to get a group of mostly very busy, overcommitted people to work extraordinarily hard.

Holdren: People were working their tails off, but they were happy to do it. Because, again, they knew they were working for a President who was going to pay attention to the results, and who was going to embrace the best ideas that emerged. I think we probably had the most engaged and productive PCAST in history. All of these folks had very demanding day jobs.  The only PCAST member of course, who doesn’t have a day job outside of government is the President’s science advisor, but all the rest of you were incredibly generous with your time, producing 39 reports that the President requested from PCAST on a huge range of topics. And again, all of this was made possible and was enabled by the fact that we had a President who understood how and why science and technology and innovation matter to all the other aspects of his agenda.

Schrag: And actually was receptive to our recommendations.

Holdren: One of the stories that I like to tell about the President is there has been this very long-standing rule of thumb in the White House that you never give the President of the United States a memo longer than two single-spaced pages on anything. The notion is: presidents just don’t have the time to read a lot of long, detailed memos.

So the first memo that I sent to President Obama in the first week of his administration was two pages long, and it came back handwritten comment across the top: “Where’s the rest?”

And in fact he typically read the memos that went to the President not just from me, but from his other advisors in the White House. They were typically five, six, seven, eight single-space pages long.  And in the morning after receiving them in his briefing book the evening before, he always knew what was in them—all of it. In fact, he would typically open a meeting with his advisors by saying, “Well, I read the memo. Let me see if I got this right.” And without any notes in front of him he would produce a summary and synthesis of the memo that’s better than the memo [laughter]. 

And then he’d say typically, “Well, I’m just an amateur on this topic, but I do have a question.” And we, his advisors, came to call this the “Colombo Question,” remembering the TV series where the late Peter Falk played Detective Columbo, who always had “just one more question,” and it was the one that nailed the perp to the wall. The President was amazing at penetrating these six, seven, eight single-spaced page memos. My record was 13-and-a-half single-space pages for a memo to the President.

Schrag: And the Chief of Staff let you get away with it!

Holdren: Well, and in fact there were occasional conversations about this. It was actually the Staff Secretary who was most appalled by the length of these memos. The Staff Secretary is the person in the White House who controls the paper flow to the President. And he or she is invariably a very capable person who looks at these memos and comes back and says, “You don’t need eight pages for this. You could have said this in five, rewrite it.” Or, “This is too opaque. Nobody can figure out what you mean.”

So I had a big argument with the Staff Secretary over my 13.5-page memo, and finally prevailed. I said, “Look, I know the President. I know what he wants to know about this issue, I know what he needs to know about this issue. Please don’t make me cut it.”

So the Staff Secretary let it through. And the next day the President was telling everybody he ran into in the West Wing what a fabulous memo he had gotten from OSTP on this topic [laughter]. 

Schrag: What a pleasure. A literate President, wow.

Holdren: A literate President, and one who actually wants to understand the details. He really wants to understand, and so he wants to be provided with the depth that he thinks he needs. And that just made the job a delight.

Schrag: So now let’s fast forward. So here we are leaving the White House with the kind of intensity that you had for eight years, the regular access to the President, and more importantly, the regular engagement on dozens of everyday issues that were vitally important to this country, not just on the environment, but all aspects of science and technology. But given that withdrawal, do you sometimes feel like you’re missing a limb or two?  

Holdren: [Laughter.] You know, everybody who leaves the White House in these positions observes afterwards that there’s a withdrawal issue, and that it’s harder than one thinks. I don’t think I would have found that to be so true, except for the characteristics of the Administration that has followed. They seem at best to be uninterested in science and technology. And as a result, most of the top positions in science and technology have not been filled at all [as of May 2017].  

There is no OSTP Director, and none of the four Associate Directors of OSTP, which are Senate confirmed positions, have been named. There is no NOAA Administrator, no NASA Administrator, no Director of the US Geological Survey. Most of the assistant secretary and under secretary positions that deal with science and technology are also vacant.

And the partial proposed budget for 2018 that the White House released in March reflects the absence of advice on the Federal government’s role in science and technology. 

As a result, I’ve spent a fair amount of my time since leaving the government writing op-eds and doing interviews and giving speeches about what that role is and why it’s a terrible mistake not to have scientists and engineers in government to help get it right. 

Schrag: I think many of us have been trying to find a silver lining, or at least say that things may not be quite as dark as they seem in terms of it being more difficult to undo some of the EPA regulations, or that maybe the Trump administration will not be as hostile as the rhetoric sounds, or that Congress will protect the various science budgets that relate to earth science and climate.

But the reality is that the lack of momentum—the lack of support from on high is pretty profound. What do you think about that?

Holdren: Well, it is pretty profound, and one sees this right up to the present with the EPA removing web pages that were simply informational, like the pages that explain that emissions from fossil-fuel burning and from land-use change are changing the climate. It has taken down even such innocuous pages as how consumers can improve the energy efficiency of their residences. We’ve had a Director of the Office of Management and Budget who has said publicly, “We’re not going to spend any more money on climate change.  We think it’s a waste of your—that is, the taxpayers’—money.”

That same OMB Director has said, “It’s not clear to me why the government needs to support research and development at all.”  President Trump has said, when criticized about all the vacant positions: “Well, I’m not sure we need to fill all those positions. I don’t know what all those people do.” I’m sure it’s true that he doesn’t know what all those people do, but that’s not a reason to fail to fill those positions. The government is not going to be able to function effectively as the government that the people expect.

The people expect their government to protect the safety of their water supply. They expect the government to be limiting the amount of toxic air pollutants that they have to breathe. And without these positions filled, the government is not going to do that —[especially] at the EPA, where the overall cut proposed for fiscal year 2018 in the Trump White House partial budget is 31%. And the cut for the EPA’s R&D in that budget is about 50%.

I said for attribution, in an interview that was printed by the AP, that this is beginning to look like a know-nothing trifecta; people who don’t know anything are proud of not knowing anything, and who don’t want anyone else to know anything. And the not wanting anyone else to know anything is evident in taking these websites down, and in going after the budgets that support the sources of data and insight about environmental change. And again, not to restrict it to climate change, it appears that the Trump administration also wants to roll back the administration’s initiatives with respect to the oceans. As you well know, President Obama announced the first ever National Ocean policy in July of 2010—created a National Ocean Council to implement it, focused among many other things, on using integrated coastal and marine planning to support the multiple uses of the ocean and coastline while protecting these resources for posterity.

Schrag: As well as creating some national monument areas.

Holdren: He expanded immensely the marine national monuments, and so far it looks like the Trump administration would like to roll those back. President Obama put substantial amounts of our offshore territorial waters off limits to oil drilling, I think for very good reasons. He put a big chunk of the Arctic waters off limits, in part because there is no reason to believe that a major spill in oil operations in the Arctic could be successfully managed.

Schrag: And by the way, you can just ask Shell about their experience.

Holdren: Exactly. So you have a situation where the administration seems intent on rolling back much of what President Obama and his team accomplished—not just with respect to climate change, but with respect to the emissions and the new source performance standards for coal-burning power plants, with respect to mountaintop removal coal mining, with respect to protection of wilderness. I don’t think they’re going to be able to do it all. I think they’re going to be hung up in the courts on a lot of this. It’s not clear they have the authority to roll back all of the things that they’re trying to roll back.  

One of the more perverse examples of what the Trump administration is trying to do is their attempt to reverse Obama’s executive orders on climate change preparedness, resilience, and adaptation. The kinds of things Obama did in this domain—flood-risk standards, wildfire-risk management, and so on—are things that would make sense even if climate change weren’t making these kinds of risks bigger than they used to be.

Schrag: Sure. Being prepared for disaster is just a good thing.

Holdren: Being prepared for floods, being prepared for wildfires, being prepared for droughts…these are win-win strategies. They are things that would make sense to do even if the climate were not changing.

Schrag: So here we are back at Harvard now as Harvard faculty, and I think we’re probably all scratching our heads and saying, “What do we do with this energy, with this commitment? How do we proceed to continue to further the issues that we think are so important? Especially climate preparedness, climate and energy—but all of the other related issues. Can I just probe your thoughts on how do you keep the fight going?”

Holdren: Well, I think there are a lot of ways to keep it going. I think that the whole science community, not just the climate science community or the environmental science community, has to speak up for the importance of science, technology, and innovation in our society; for the importance of the symbiosis we’ve had between the academic sector, the private sector, the public sector, and civil society.

In virtually every area of priority in the Obama administration, we tried to move the needle through partnerships. And we were quite successful at it. That was true in the climate area, where we had the American Business Acts on Climate consortium with a large number of the most important corporations in the country stepping up and saying, “Here’s what we’re going to do to reduce our emissions. Here’s what we’re going to get done in the next X years. Here’s why it’s important for society to work together to do this.”  

We had those kinds of partnerships in the advanced-manufacturing domain, we had them in the health initiatives, the Precision Medicine Initiative, the Brain Initiative and so on. That community, involving all of those sectors, now has to stand up and explain that our well-being rests both on a healthy economy and on a healthy environment, that you need to nurture both, and that it’s possible with modern technology to nurture both. It is possible to have the reliable and affordable energy that society needs obtained in ways that are not wrecking the climate.   

I’m not sure explanations to President Trump will do a lot of good, but I think we have to rely on the Congress now to rein in some of the more extreme tendencies that have become apparent in the Trump administration. We’ve got to bring some Republican members of Congress along.  I think there are quite a few Republican members of Congress who are persuadable; particularly, again, since this is not inherently—and should not be—a partisan issue.

Schrag: And it’s perfectly appropriate to have arguments about strategy, about regulation versus fiscal policy.  

Holdren: Right—the argument shouldn’t be about whether we need to protect the environment, but about how to protect the environment and the economy at the same time. The whole notion that anything done to protect the environment is a job killer is a fundamentally bankrupt notion.

Schrag: You and I are here at the Kennedy School, where you’re going to be teaching students, many of whom are going to go off to positions in public service. Long ago, when I first arrived at Harvard, you inspired me in my interest in public service, and so what do you think about how to pass that experience along to the generations of students you’re going to see in this next phase of your career?

Holdren: Well, you know, even in the last phase, when I was at Harvard for the 13 years preceding going into the Obama administration, I was teaching science and technology policy and environmental science for policy. Now, with the last eight years under my belt, I have a new perspective, and I have some new experiences and some new insights to draw on.  

Just to give you one example of what I’m going to be doing: before I went into the administration, I taught a course called, “Introduction to Science and Technology Policy.” And that was taken by a relatively small group of Kennedy School students and others drawn from other departments around the campus who were really interested in science and technology policy per se.

And now, in place of that course, I’m going to teach “Science and Technology in Domestic and Foreign Policy.” It’s going to focus on how science and technology are relevant across all these policy domains, and how students that are planning to go into any of them need to know something about how science and technology influence their policy space, how policies relating to science and technology feed back into the tools that they will have available to make progress in their space.   

Schrag: I suspect that we’re going to have a lot of students from our own graduate consortium, which brings together students from across the University, interested in taking this course.

Holdren: The other thing I’m going to do is continue to speak out publicly and continue to write op-ed pieces, and continue to do interviews that, basically, try to propagate and underscore the idea that science and technology matter to all of society.

That this is not just a matter of scientists and technologists wanting to be left alone and do their own thing; if we slash the government’s support for science and technology, and slash the government’s use of insights on science and technology in its own decision making, all of society will be the loser. And that’s a message I think that we all need to take on board.

This interview originally appeared in Environment@Harvard: Volume 9, Issue 1

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