John Holdren’s Minor Geoengineering Gaffe

April 10, 2009 | Roger Pielke, Jr.,

Cross-posted from Prometheus: the Science Policy Blog

Earlier this week John Holdren gave his first interview to the AP's Seth Borenstein, a reporter who has a track record of vigorous support for action on climate change and as a determined opponent of the Bush Administration. It is thus no surprise that Borenstein got the first interview. What is a surprise is how Borenstein was so quickly blamed by Holdren for somehow misrepresenting his comments. This flap, a tempest in a teapot really, illustrates some of the challenges faced by the science advisor -- is he part of the Administration or not?

Here are the details. AP reported the following about Holdren's characterization of geoengineering in the White House:

At first, Holdren characterized the potential need to technologically tinker with the climate as just his personal view. However, he went on to say he has raised it in administration discussions.

"We're talking about all these issues in the White House," Holdren said. "There's a very vigorous process going on of discussing all the options for addressing the energy climate challenge."

Holdren said discussions include Cabinet officials and heads of sub-Cabinet level agencies, such as NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Any reasonable person would come to the conclusion that if the science advisor, Cabinet and sub-Cabinet level officials from agencies including NASA and EPA are talking about geoengineering, then it would be perfectly fair to say that the Obama Administration is considering geoengineering.

After the AP article was published, Holdren sent out a clarifying email, reported by Andy Revkin of the NYT, explaining his dissatisfaction with the AP story.

I also made clear that this was my personal view, not Administration policy. Asked whether I had mentioned geo-engineering in any White House discussions, though, I said that I had. This is NOT the same thing as saying the White House is giving serious consideration to geo-engineering - which it isn't -- and I am disappointed that the headline and the text of the article suggest otherwise.

Holdren was either "forward on his skis" (to paraphrase Colin Powell in a similar situation), and did not admit to it, or he does not realize that Cabinet-level discussions of a policy option qualifies as "serious consideration." Either way, Borenstein's reporting seems perfectly fair to what Holdren said.

In addition, to further clarify Holdren's spokesperson, Rick Weiss sent out an email to Eli Kintisch at Science also trying to clarify Holdren's statements, in which he wrote:

There was nothing in Dr. Holdren's comments to the AP to suggest that the administration is actively pursuing or even currently envisioning a geo-engineering approach.

Weiss' clarification clearly contradicts Holdren's statement made in the context of discussing geoengineering that:

"There's a very vigorous process going on of discussing all the options for addressing the energy climate challenge."

Apparently the Obama Administration is not discussing all the options for addressing the energy climate challenge.

What this minor flap reinforces is that the science advisor is a part of the Obama Administration, and as part of that political team, speaks for that Administration, and represents the political agenda of the Administration. By contrast, the science advisor does not represent "science" to the Administration. This was likely a lesson well understood by the time each of the previous two advisors were appointed, as John Marburger (Bush) and Neal Lane (Clinton) each already had worked as political appointees. It does not matter if Holdren's comments on geoengineering are his personal views or not. As a high-level political appointee in the White House, he speaks for the Obama Administration, and will always be received as such. If he has views that differ from official policy, it is necessary for him to distinguish those views as being at odds with official government policy, otherwise, his views will be easily (mis)interpreted as representing government policy. Somehow, I don't think think that this minor gaffe will be the last.