CAMBRIDGE MA. – John Holdren, former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, expressed his optimism regarding the Biden Administration’s approach to climate policy in the newest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” a podcast produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program. Listen to the interview here. View the transcript here.
Hosted by Robert N. Stavins, A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy and Economic Development at Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, Environmental Insights is intended to promote public discourse on important issues at the intersection of economics and environmental policy.
Holdren, who is Research Professor and until recently served as Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, spent eight years in the Obama Administration, the longest tenure for a chief White House science advisor in the history of the position. During his time there, the Administration unveiled its ambitious Climate Action Plan, and nearly 200 countries signed onto the Paris Climate Agreement, which established an international framework designed to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. Holdren told Stavins 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 remarked. “We didn't get there, not from lack of interest, but from lack of ability to persuade the Congress to boost those budgets.”
Holdren told Stavins that while his work in Washington was rewarding, it was also very high-pressure.
“It was 24/7/365,” he said. “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 said he gave it a grade of A-minus, 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 said. “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 Stavins asked Holdren what he expects from U.S. climate policy over this decade, Holdren surprisingly predicted 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 remarked. “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.”
Holdren’s interview is the 7th episode during 2021 in the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.
“Environmental Insights is intended to inform and educate listeners about important issues relating to an economic perspective on developments in environmental policy, including the design and implementation of market-based approaches to environmental protection,” said Stavins. “We speak with accomplished Harvard colleagues, other academics, and practitioners who are working on solving some of the most challenging public problems we face.”