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:
- Gina McCarthy, former Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- Nick Stern of the London School of Economics discussing his career, British politics, and efforts to combat climate change
- Andrei Marcu, founder and executive director of the European Roundtable on Climate Change and Sustainable Transition
- Paul Watkinson, Chair of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
- Jos Delbeke, professor at the European University Institute in Florence and at the KU Leuven in Belgium, and formerly Director-General of the European Commission’s DG Climate Action
- David Keith, professor at Harvard and a leading authority on geoengineering
- Joe Aldy, professor of the practice of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, with considerable experience working on climate change policy issues in the U.S. government
- Scott Barrett, professor of natural resource economics at Columbia University, and an authority on infectious disease policy
- Rebecca Henderson, John and Natty McArthur University Professor at Harvard University, and founding co-director of the Business and Environment Initiative at Harvard Business School.
- Sue Biniaz, who was the lead climate lawyer and a lead climate negotiator for the United States from 1989 until early 2017.
- Richard Schmalensee, the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Management, and Professor of Economics Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Kelley Kizier, Associate Vice President for International Climate at the Environmental Defense Fund.
- David Hone, Chief Climate Change Adviser, Shell International.
- Vicky Bailey, 30 years of experience in corporate and government positions in the energy sector.
- David Victor, professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego.
- Lisa Friedman, reporter on the climate desk at the The New York Times.
- Coral Davenport, who covers energy and environmental policy for The New York Times from Washington.
- Spencer Dale, BP Group Chief Economist.
- Richard Revesz, professor at the NYU School of Law.
- Daniel Esty, Hillhouse Professor of Environment and Law at Yale University.
- William Hogan, Raymond Plank Research Professor of Global Energy Policy at Harvard.
- Jody Freeman, Archibald Cox Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.
- John Graham, Dean Emeritus, Paul O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University
- Gernot Wagner, Clinical Associate Professor at New York University.