President-elect Barack Obama has selected two of the nation's most prominent scientific advocates for a vigorous response to climate change to serve in his administration's top ranks, according to sources, sending the strongest signal yet that he will reverse Bush administration policies on energy and global warming.
The appointments of Harvard University physicist John Holdren as presidential science adviser and Oregon State University marine biologist Jane Lubchenco as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which will be announced tomorrow, dismayed conservatives but heartened environmentalists and researchers.
Like Energy Secretary-designate Steven Chu, who directs the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Holdren and Lubchenco have argued repeatedly for a mandatory limit on greenhouse gas emissions to avert catastrophic climate change. In 2007, as chairman of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Holdren oversaw approval of the board's first statement on global warming, which said: "It is time to muster the political will for concerted action."
In October, Lubchenco told the Associated Press that she believed public attitudes on climate change were shifting, adding: "The Bush administration has not been respectful of the science. But I think that's not true of Republicans in general. I know it's not."
'A sea of change'
The Bush administration's political appointees have edited government documents to delete scientific findings and to block scientists' recommendations on issues involving climate change, endangered species, contaminants in drinking water and air pollution.
"The Bush administration has been the most remarkably anti-science administration that I've seen in my adult lifetime," Nobel laureate David Baltimore, former president of the California Institute of Technology, said in an interview. "And I do think that there will be a sea change in the Obama administration with the respect shown for the findings of science as well as the process of science."
But Bush's science adviser, John H. Marburger III, challenged that assessment. "There are stupid and foolish things that have been perpetrated by employees of the federal government in the executive branch, but it doesn't mean that the president is anti-science," he said. "The president is getting blamed for every little thing that happens that people don't like in the administration."
Marburger added that because of the president's opposition to federal funding of embryonic stem cell research and mandatory curbs on greenhouse gas emissions: "It was easy [for opponents] to infer that he was negative toward science. . . . The president respects science; he likes science."
Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, predicted that Obama's latest nominees would work with a Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and a Commerce Secretary Bill Richardson to change how government addresses global warming.
"You can see the elements coming together," Meyer said. "It means you've got people in key places across the administration that get the urgency of the climate issue and get the need for aggressive policy to move climate solutions forward, both in the U.S. and internationally."
But Holdren's reported selection inspired no joy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market advocacy group that denounces global warming "alarmists" and opposes many environmental laws. Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at CEI, said, "I think he's a very bad choice. His views are extreme, they're not based in fact, and he's a ranter."
Of the overall Obama team, Ebell said, "They will pursue an anti-energy agenda that is designed to constrict energy supplies and raise energy prices."
Lubchenco did not draw the same level of criticism from conservative groups as Holdren yesterday, but she represents just as radical a departure for NOAA, which oversees marine issues as well as much of the government's climate work. While NOAA has traditionally favored commercial fishing interests in policy disputes, Lubchenco has consistently called for conservation measures to safeguard ocean ecosystems in the face of industry opposition.
Playing more active roles
Joshua S. Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment group, said NOAA officials have too often set aside scientific considerations when deciding how much fish to extract from the sea. "For too many years, politics has played a greater role in fisheries management than science," he said. "This appointment carries with it the hope that this may soon change."
Holdren and Lubchenco have pushed other scientists to play a more active policy role. Holdren has attended international climate talks and helped coordinate a statement on the subject from scientific academies around the world. Lubchenco founded the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program to train mid-career scientists how to participate in public policy debates.
Andrew Rosenberg, who was deputy director of NOAA's Marine Fisheries Service under President Bill Clinton and is professor of natural resources and the environment at the University of New Hampshire, said that by selecting Lubchenco — someone who is a respected researcher and an active player in national policy discussions — "it's saying that science agencies have a role in policy."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.