By Emma Hutchinson '17
On Tuesday night, we were honored to host Dr. John Holdren as the speaker for the 5th Annual Stephen H. Schneider Memorial Lecture in CEMEX Auditorium. Dr. Holdren is one of the nation’s most accomplished science figures, having worked in academia on science, technology, and the environment before moving into government positions. Most recently, he served as Chief Science and Technology Advisor from 2009 to 2017 under President Obama, the longest term in the history of the position. With the change in administration, he has now returned to his professorship at Harvard University.
Dr. Holdren began his talk by placing science and technology in perspective with government, giving the audience a taste of his vantage point inside the Obama Administration. Federal government is the biggest supporter of R&D for science, and policy for science includes budgeting and making rules regarding private sector R&D funding. And this support applies vice versa as well: “Science and technology are essential to meeting every challenge that we face in this country and in the world,” he said, “and they’re also important as a fundamental characteristic of human nature, that we revel in discovery, we revel in invention and expanded understanding.”
On his specific role in the White House, Dr. Holdren described the position as a coordinator between different governmental departments and agencies on science and technology issues. He emphasized the importance of having someone with a “responsibility of distilling and interpreting for the president” what he or she would need to know to make sound decisions: “You’ve got to have a person responsible for ensuring that the president and the heads of the other White House offices have the insights from science and technology that might be germane to the policy issues that are on their plates.”
In his inauguration speech, President Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place,” and he began by appointing exceptionally qualified scientists to head numerous federal agencies and upgrading Dr. Holdren’s position to “Assistant to the President,” which his predecessor under George W. Bush did not have. This specific title made it possible for Dr. Holdren to send memos and make appointments with the president, greatly increasing his access and priority within the Administration. The Office of Science and Technology policy tripled its staff, and President Obama invited more scientists than sports teams to the White House. Dr. Holdren told the audience several anecdotes of President Obama meeting with science fair winners, delaying his other appointments so he could meet every science teacher in attendance, and firing a marshmallow canyon, “to the great dismay of the Secret Service.”
President Obama also placed early emphasis on improving STEM education and access to science. Dr. Holdren recounted Obama saying that “You’re not going to win with half your team on the bench; we have to do better at inspiring, engaging, teaching, and mentoring for these groups that have historically been underrepresented.”
Dr. Holdren then listed many of the major environmental accomplishments during the Age of Obama, including the first interagency task force for climate adaptation, the Climate Action Plan, the US-China Agreement, and making the Paris Agreement possible. He also mentioned the acceleration of U.S. leadership on renewable energy – during Obama’s tenure, we increased American wind power by a factor of 3.5, and solar power by a factor of 30.
In the spirit of Dr. Stephen Schneider, the namesake of this annual lecture, Dr. Holdren then gave an update on the state of the climate change problem. Dr. Schneider was a beloved professor, mentor, and friend at Stanford, and one of the best climate scientists and science communicators of his time. Dr. Holdren knew Dr. Schneider for many decades up until his death in 2010. Dr. Schneider’s widow, Dr. Terry Root, was also in attendance at the lecture.
Dr. Holdren informed the audience that global emissions have been flat for the last few years, but that CO2 concentrations are still rising. 2014, 2015, and 2016 all shattered temperature records, and we can already see the results of climate change in impacts like drought, wildfire, heat waves, and coral bleaching. “One of the questions that occupied Steve Schneider is how we know when we’ve gotten to the point where anthropogenic interference in the climate system is dangerous,” Dr. Holdren said. “We are way past dangerous today. The evidence is clear…the question is not can we avoid dangerous; it is can we avoid catastrophic.”
In his last section of the talk, Dr. Holdren predicted what Trump might do around science and technology policy. Trump’s policy agenda is a “prescription for deep cuts in every aspect of discretionary spending other than defense and infrastructure,” he said. “Sustaining support under the likely budget cuts is going to be very, very hard.” Dr. Holdren acknowledged that Trump’s plan are likely a “catastrophe for climate science” and that it is difficult to feel hopeful at this time in history: “Make no bones about it, we have a big challenge ahead of us. The light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train.”
But Dr. Holdren quickly turned to a more optimistic and hopeful tone, encouraging the audience to keep moving forward: “Don’t be discouraged or intimidated. Scientists and technologists should keep doing their work and communicating their findings and the implications for policy. I know that’s what Steve Schneider would be saying if he were here today.”
Dr. Holdren said that the federal government would likely move backward on these issues, so that means that it is the responsibility of civil society, academia, and state and local governments to step up and make progress on climate change, scientific discovery, and environmental justice issues. He encouraged everyone to dedicate some of their time to engaging in the political process, and also spoke about the important role of communication: “We all need to get better at telling stories…We have to learn to bring climate change to where people live and work.”
To conclude his talk, Dr. Holdren turned his attention to the students in the room: “Students’ voices can be as loud as anybody’s…If our young people become energized and engaged and active, they’re going to be an immensely powerful force.”
We are immensely grateful to Dr. Holdren for his comprehensive and engaging talk, to Dr. Terry Root, Meghan Shea and Ashley Jowell for organizing the lecture, to all of the student volunteers and planners, and to Dr. Stephen Schneider, whose memory continues to inspire us all.
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