Obama’s Science Advisor Speaks Out on Biden’s Climate Policy

John Holdren, former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, expresses his optimism regarding the Biden Administration’s approach to climate change policy in the latest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” a podcast produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.

You can hear our complete conversation in the podcast here.  

In these podcasts, I converse with very well-informed people from academia, government, industry, and NGOs.  John Holdren fits very well in this group, with significant experience in academia, government, and the NGO world.

            John Holdren is a Research Professor, and until recently was the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard.  He took an extended leave of absence from Harvard, from January 2009 to January 2017 to serve in the Obama administration as the President’s Science Advisor and as Director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, and was the longest-serving Science Advisor to the President in the history of the position.  Before coming to Harvard, he was a long-time faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley, where he co-founded the Energy Resources Group.

During his time as the President’s Science Advisor, the Obama Administration unveiled its ambitious Climate Action Plan (June 2013), and in 2015, nearly 200 countries signed onto the Paris Climate Agreement.  In our conversation, John Holdren tells me that those were two of the high points during his time in Washington. 

“The biggest low point I would say is that we were not able to get the budget increases for research and development that President Obama had committed himself to at the very beginning of his administration,” Holdren remarks. “We didn’t get there, not from lack of interest, but from lack of ability to persuade the Congress to boost those budgets.”

While his work in Washington was rewarding, it was also very high-pressure:

“It was 24/7/365,” he says. “When you’re what is called a commissioned officer of the president, you are on duty all the time. You can never be out of touch. You can’t go anywhere without having a way for the White House to reach you immediately if the president wants you, and there is such a continuing flow of issues that need your immediate attention.”

Assessing the Biden Administration’s early efforts to shape climate policy, Holdren says he would give it a grade of A-, complimenting the President’s selection of respected officials for key positions, including Secretary of State Tony Blinken, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy, Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Eric Lander, and Deputy Director for Climate and Environment in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Jane Lubchenco.

“[President] Biden has put together just a superb team. I think it’s by far the strongest team on climate change that’s ever been assembled in a government,” Holdren says. “And when asked what’s the most important thing in achieving success in science and technology policy in government, or indeed any other domain of government activity, I always answer the single most important thing is people. The single most important thing is having an absolutely top-flight team in terms of relevant competencies and their ability and willingness to work seamlessly together. That is what President Biden has put in place.”

When I ask Holdren what he expects from U.S. climate policy over this decade, Holdren surprisingly predicts that the United States will institute a significant carbon tax by 2024.

“It will happen for a couple of reasons, one of which is that the impacts of climate change are now so conspicuous that it is becoming impossible for people to, with any credibility at all, deny that this is an immense challenge to well-being on the planet,” he remarks. “People are coming to understand in larger and larger numbers that this is a challenge that society must rise to meet. And I think the deniers and the wafflers are in retreat. And that’s one of the reasons I think we will get at least quite a lot of what we need in the next few years.”

My complete conversation with John Holdren is the 25th episode in the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.