White House science adviser discusses next two years

Just over a month after the midterm elections, President Obama’s science adviser took the podium in San Francisco at the American Geophysical Union meeting. John Holdren, a physicist and climate scientist, said the White House is making strides in improving the nation’s science and technology policies. Later that week, Holdren’s Office of Science and Technology Policy released long-overdue federal guidelines for scientific integrity. Science News contributing editor Alexandra Witze excerpted his comments from a lecture and later press briefing at the AGU meeting.

There has been a fair amount of talk about congressional hearings looking into climate science. I personally will welcome such hearings.

How do you respond to criticism that the federal government was slow to request and use outside expertise after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?
In the first few days of the spill, I made a number of calls to leaders of major marine science organizations in the country to see what resources and insights and scientific capabilities they could bring to bear. Within the first few days, the White House was convening meetings. Very quickly task forces were set up that reached out into the academic community and the private sector community.

It was a huge challenge. I’m not saying we got everything right at every moment. Certainly there were disagreements about priorities, about approaches, about specific resources. That’s inevitable in any problem of this scale and complexity and with a wide variety of different people. But overall, this actually was handled remarkably well given the magnitude of the mess and its complexity.

How will the White House go about working with the new, more Republican Congress on science issues?
It will be a big challenge working with the new Congress, whose composition is obviously somewhat less favorable to Democrats than the last one. My view is that science, technology and innovation are not fundamentally partisan issues. My hope is therefore we will be able to keep much of this out of the domain of poisonous partisan politics and get quite a lot done. But only time will tell.

There has been a fair amount of talk about congressional hearings looking into climate science. I personally will welcome such hearings because I think what they will reveal is that the science of climate change is robust, that the core conclusions of climate science are sound — namely that the climate is changing in ways that are unusual against the backdrop of natural variability and that humans are responsible for a large part of that. A variety of forms of harm, in a variety of places, are already associated with climate change, and we know that that harm will grow unless and until we significantly reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases and other heat-trapping substances. Any set of hearings into the climate science issue are simply going to underscore the reality of those propositions. I think most policy makers will eventually reach the conclusion that betting on mainstream science being wrong is gambling with the public’s welfare against very long odds.

There will be other discussions with the Congress that will be less contentious, because investments in science and technology accelerate the pace of innovation that we need to maintain economic competitiveness, to increase American exports and to create high-quality jobs. That should not be the slightest bit controversial across party lines.

How does the administration intend to move ahead with the control of greenhouse gas emissions?
Investments that we make in clean energy, in more efficient energy systems, in a smart grid are all investments that are valuable, important and productive even if you don’t believe that climate is changing and we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

There are a lot of executive authorities that can be used without the Congress to tackle pieces of the problem. We already saw in the first two years of the Obama administration an agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation to issue the first set of combined … tailpipe standards that address greenhouse gas emissions as well as fuel economy and conventional pollutants. We have an interagency task force on adaptation now in the executive branch. That’s something I think is unlikely to be challenged … because measures you take to increase resilience against storms, shoreline erosion, floods, droughts, heat waves — these are things that one should be interested in doing even if you don’t believe climate is changing. There is enough that we can do without legislation. I think we can get on the emissions trajectory that would ultimately take us to President Obama’s goals for 2020 in the next two years.