Interview: The White House’s Science Guy

  • Holdren was previously the Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. (Photo courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences)

President Obama’s Science and Technology advisor is John P. Holdren. He is the “science guy” in the White House. Lester Graham talked to him about science and climate change. Here’s an excerpt of that conversation:

Transcript

Graham: Different polls have shown the general public is becoming increasingly skeptical about whether climate change is real and whether burning fossil fuels is contributing to it, ignoring that the bulk of science says climate change is solid and if anything indicates that climate change is happening faster than first predicted. What can be done about that?

Holdren: Well I think scientists have to get better at telling the story about what we know about climate change and what that knowledge is based on. In other words, what we know and how we know it. Willingness to get out there and slug it out in the arena of public debate and dispute is not universal in the scientific community, and we have to live with that, but scientists who’ve been willing to do that have done a service. It’s unfortunate that they occasionally get castigated for speaking their minds freely and candidly in public, but that’s part of being, in a sense, a public scientist—of working on scientific issues that have major ramifications for public policy and being willing to talk about it.

Graham: President Barack Obama promised to protect scientific research from politics. He wanted guidelines in four months from taking office. We recently reported it’s been more than a year now, and still, no guidelines. The Union of Concerned Scientists says the president should finish explicit written policies on things like protecting scientists who become whistle-blowers. When we did the story, we contacted your office, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and we didn’t get any comment. Would you care to comment about that now?

Holdren: Sure, when the president issued his memorandum on scientific integrity on march 9th of last year, he actually enunciated at that time a set of principles, and those principles are already a solid basis for ensuring scientific integrity. What has not been forthcoming yet from my office, and for that I take responsibility, is a set of more detailed recommendations about how to proceed in some of the difficult questions that come up. Like the need of an agency to be sure that it is relying on the best peer-reviewed science, and the desire of every scientist in the agency to be able to express his or her own opinion. There are real tensions there. That has proven to be a more difficult task than I or the president realized at the time he issued the deadline for completing those, and the result is we missed a deadline, but we will be coming out soon with those additional guidelines.

Graham: How soon?

Holdren: I would guess in the next couple of months.

Graham: On energy policy, environmentalists are disappointed the Obama administration is encouraging the idea of clean coal technology, and a new generation of nuclear power. I’m not saying you’re not spending more on solar and wind, but I’m asking why not take all those dollars from clean coal technology and nuclear, and put it all into these green renewable that the environmentalists like.

Holdren: I think we need a diversity of options for addressing the energy challenges we face. You never want to put all of your eggs in one, or only a few, baskets. Today in this country we get 50% of our electricity by burning coal, we’re going to continue to do that for some time to come. It is, therefore, appropriate and necessary that we improve the technologies with which we burn coal in order to substantially reduce the environmental harm that comes from that. We get 20% of our electricity in this country from nuclear energy, and it’s one of the ways that we can get electricity without emitting greenhouse gases. There is no free lunch; that doesn’t mean we should do nothing, we should be working to improve all of these technologies, and then use the mix that makes the best sense in terms of all of the relevant characteristics—the economic ones, the environmental ones, the social ones.

Graham: John P Holdren is President Obama’s science and technology adviser, and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Thanks for the time.

Holdren: Thanks very much.

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No Paperless Office Yet

  • For five years, the environmentalist group Greenpeace held protests against the Kimberly Clark Corporation, maker of Kleenex tissues, for cutting Canada’s Boreal Forest and other forests around the world for its products. (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons)

When the computer-age took
off in the 1990s, lots of
people thought we’d use a
lot less paper. But that
hasn’t happened. Julie Grant
reports on why environmentalists
are so concerned about all
the paper we’re still using
in our offices and homes:

Transcript

When the computer-age took
off in the 1990s, lots of
people thought we’d use a
lot less paper. But that
hasn’t happened. Julie Grant
reports on why environmentalists
are so concerned about all
the paper we’re still using
in our offices and homes:

Allen Hershkowitz knew that the computer revolution wasn’t going to lead to a paper-less society. He’s been a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the NRDC, since people first started using email.

“Very early on, even at NRDC, we started to see people printing out documents that would otherwise have been retyped or emails that shouldn’t have been printed out.”

Hershkowitz says Americans use 7-times more paper than the average person on the planet. And computer printouts are just the beginning. Packaging, cigarettes, tissues and toilet paper – Hershkowitz has seen firsthand the devastation the demand for all that paper it’s causing.

“Ancient forests, forests that have existed way before Christ and Moses and Mohammed, for 10,000 years, are being cut down for toilet paper. A product we use for 2-3 seconds. This does not make sense.”

Hershkowitz says this deforestation causes more global warming pollution than all the trucks, buses, planes and ships in the world combined. He scoffs at products like 3-ply toilet paper, and compares using them to driving a gas-guzzling Hummer.

In Europe and Asia, much more of the toilet paper is made from recycled paper. Americans get beat up in the international press for allowing their delicate buttocks to devastate the world’s forests.

For five years, the environmentalist group Greenpeace held protests against the Kimberly Clark Corporation, maker of Kleenex tissues, for cutting Canada’s Boreal Forest and other forests around the world for its products. Greenpeace’s campaign against Kimberly Clark took late night political comedian Stephen Colbert by surprise.

Colbert: “Now for starters, who knew toilet paper came from trees? I always assumed it came from cartoon bears.”

Greenpeace recently ended their protests. Kimberly Clark agreed that by next year 40% of the fiber in their tissue products would come from recycled paper. But while environmentalists support this concession, it does not please Mr. Colbert.

Colbert: “Have you seen recycled toilet paper? Environmentalists, I swear, if you take away my plush toilet paper, I’m just going to use the next softest thing – spotted owls.”

Most paper makers aren’t opposed to using recycled material in their products. Dan Sandoval is an editor at the publication Recycling Today. He says most cardboard boxes and newspapers are already made from recycled paper.

And that recycled toilet tissue? He says that’s usually made from old office paper. The stuff we use for printing and writing. But a lot of times office waste is all thrown together – and isn’t clean enough to be recycled into something new.

“You know, when you’re collecting it all together here, you’re going to get some telephone books, some post-it notes and things like that that people are throwing together. Plastic windowed envelopes. Some of that stuff is like, it’s kind of iffy on that. So you get more material, but the quality goes down.”

Sandoval says that means the paper mills have to invest in a lot more cleaning equipment. And some times it costs more than just cutting down trees. Still, he says the trend for companies around the world is toward more recycled content. Environmentalists want paper companies to move faster.

And they say consumers also need to do their part. In the office, they want people to print less, and at home, they’re asking people to stop buying toilet paper that’s 3 layers thick.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

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Trying to Speed Up Green Tech

  • The US Patent Office is working through 25,000 green tech patents. (Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

It takes time for green technology
to develop. The US Patent office
has one idea to speed things up,
but Shawn Allee reports
that probably won’t solve the problem:

Transcript

It takes time for green technology
to develop. The US Patent office
has one idea to speed things up,
but Shawn Allee reports
that probably won’t solve the problem:

The US Patent Office is working through 25,000 green tech patents for things like better solar panels.

The office wants to give preferential treatment to 3,000 green tech patent applications. That could save a year of waiting time for approval.

But not everyone thinks a Patent Office backlog is the problem.

Stuart Soffer is a patent analyst in Silicon Valley. He says green tech just takes time and money.

“It really takes an investment, infrastructure and R and D. We can make a little wind mill that will generate power in your back yard, but scaling that to power cities is a different problem.”

Soffer says sometimes, patent delays are companies’ fault, not the government’s. So, speeding things up at the Patent Office might not get green tech in the marketplace any faster.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

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Postal Service Delivers Data

  • The Postal Service is getting no stimulus money for making its federal buildings more energy efficient. It’s all going to be done with the revenue it makes when you buy a postage stamp. (Photo courtesy of the US Postal Service)

The US Postal Service is the first
government agency to report how much
of the greenhouse gases it emits.
Five-point-three metric tons a year.
Lester Graham reports on how it plans
to reduce its emissions:

Transcript

The US Postal Service is the first
government agency to report how much
of the greenhouse gases it emits.
Five-point-three metric tons a year.
Lester Graham reports on how it plans
to reduce its emissions:

The post office goal is to reduce emissions 20% by the year 2020.

Sam Pulcrano is the Vice President of Sustainability at the Postal Service. He says, over the next six years, they’ll cut fuel consumption by 20% and energy use by 30%. They’re already doing energy audits of the 500 largest postal facilities.

“And where it makes business sense, we’re replacing things like roofs, the HVAC systems, replacing windows with more energy efficient windows and lighting with high-efficiency lighting.”

Graham: “There’s been some consideration of eliminating Saturday delivery. Is that figured into your calculations on reducing greenhouse gases?”

“It will if and when Congress gives us the ability to do so.”

The Postal Service is getting no stimulus money for making its federal buildings more energy efficient. It’s all going to be done with the revenue it makes when you buy a postage stamp.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

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The CIA Is Watching Climate Change

  • Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park. The top photo was taken in 1940, the bottom in 2006. (Photo courtesy of the USGS)

The Central Intelligence Agency will
keep an eye on climate change. Lester
Graham reports the spy agency plans to
open a climate change office this month:

Transcript

The Central Intelligence Agency will
keep an eye on climate change. Lester
Graham reports the spy agency plans to
open a climate change office this month:

The CIA is still choosing staff for the climate change office.

A spokesperson for the agency, Marie Harf, declined to be recorded. In an email she stated, “Examining the impact that the effects of climate change can have on political and social stability overseas is certainly part of the Agency’s mandate.”

There’s concern that climate change will cause expanding deserts and rising sea levels. That could lead to huge population migrations in search of water and food, threatening world stability.


In a statement, U.S. Senator John Barrasso calls a CIA climate change office “misguided.” Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, asks whether CIA staff will be taken off monitoring terrorists to watching polar ice caps. The Senator says other agencies can monitor climate change and share data with the CIA.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

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Senator Exposes Smoking Gun?

  • Senator John A. Barrasso from Wyoming (Photo courtesy of the United States Congress)

Conservative bloggers, radio talk show hosts, and even Republican leaders are making a big deal about a White House memo. Lester Graham reports the White House seems surprised by the furor:

Transcript

Conservative bloggers, radio talk show hosts, and even Republican leaders are making a big deal about a White House memo. Lester Graham reports the White House seems surprised by the furor:

During a hearing Republican Senator John Barrasso waved around a memo he said was proof the Obama administration was moving ahead with the regulation of global warming gases without having the science to back it up.

“It’s here, nine pages. This is a smoking gun, saying that your findings are political not scientifica (sic) — not scientific.”

The memo was part of a larger document from the White House Office of Management and Budget.

It’s routine to get opinions about potential regulations from different agencies.

We called the Office of Management and Budget repeatedly, asking which agency wrote the unsigned memo. No one would go on tape, but instead referred us to their blog – which basically said: this opinion is not a big deal; the EPA is operating under the law, and the science backs up any potential regulation of greenhouse gases.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

Related Links

How Green Is the LEED Label?

  • LEED buildings get points for green things like bike racks and good energy use, but it doesn’t actually enforce energy efficiency (Photo by Lester Graham)

The biggest energy users in America are not cars and trucks – they’re buildings. Buildings use about 40% of the nation’s energy. In 2000, the US Green Building Council introduced a program that certifies “green” buildings. It’s called LEED. That stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. A new version of the LEED standards is being released today, April 27. But Samara Freemark reports some critics see serious flaws in the LEED program:

Transcript

The biggest energy users in America are not cars and trucks – they’re buildings. Buildings use about 40% of the nation’s energy. In 2000, the US Green Building Council introduced a program that certifies “green” buildings. It’s called LEED. That stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. A new version of the LEED standards is being released today, April 27. But Samara Freemark reports some critics see serious flaws in the LEED program:

Before LEED came around in 2000, developers didn’t really spend a lot of time worrying about whether their buildings were green. They were designing and constructing buildings they could market. Green just wasn’t a priority.

“It was always the last thing on the agenda for the staff meeting, because nobody really understood what success looked like.”

Brendan Owens is a LEED spokesman. He says the people who came up with LEED wanted to change the culture of building in America. Make building ‘green’ marketable.

And they realized that to do that, they’d have to define what a green building looked like.

So they created a checklist. Install solar panels and you get points. Bike racks: more points. Get a green roof – somewhere you can grow plants — add some points.

Enough points and the developer gets a LEED certification. Certified buildings get a plaque. Developers get the PR boost that comes from building green. The public gets a more sustainable building. That’s the idea, anyway.

The program really caught on. More than 10,000 projects are currently going through the LEED process. And universities, municipalities, even the federal government are writing the standards into their own codes.

But critics say the system might be spreading too fast.

“The people who are writing the LEED Standards are in effect writing our country’s most important laws.”

That’s Henry Gifford. He’s a building engineer in NYC. He’s also one of LEED’s most outspoken critics.

Gifford says it’s possible to earn LEED certification – and cash in on the PR benefits of being green – without actually fixing a building’s biggest environmental problem.

“The 3 most important things to make a building environmentally friendly, are energy use, energy use, energy use. All the other things in the LEED checklist, which I think are wisely chosen and very important, they pale in comparison to the energy use.”

The LEED checklist does give points for good energy use- a lot of them, actually. But it doesn’t enforce energy efficiency.

Instead, developers win points by predicting their buildings will perform well. Developers do have to submit energy use data once their building is up and running. But if the building turns out not to save any energy? Brendan Owens says…

“What we do, is we notify the building that they’re not performing up to their potential.”

But no one’s coming around to unscrew that accreditation plaque. The building gets to keeps its certification.

On average LEED buildings seem to do better than others on energy use. But there are plenty of LEED-certified buildings that do use more energy than comparable non-certified ones.

Gifford says that’s unacceptable. No energy hogs, no matter how many bike racks or green roofs they have – should be allowed to call themselves green.

“It’s a scandal to have any underperforming building win or retain a rating for being green. I’m sorry. Every building labeled as green should have very good energy performance. Until we get there, we’re making believe.”

LEED doesn’t claim that certified buildings are perfect. Instead, Brendan Owens says the standard is meant to provide a holistic measure of greenness.

“I’ve heard LEED certified buildings described as sustainable. And there are a few, but the lions share of those projects haven’t achieved it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the rating system is flawed. It just means that people are misunderstanding what it’s about.”

In other words, people are reading more into certification than they should. Critics like Henry Gifford worry that will lead to complacency when it comes to truly greening buildings.

For The Environment Report, I’m Samara Freemark.

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Environment and the Obama White House

  • Those at the inauguration are hopeful for change with the Obama administration (Photo courtesy of the Obama transition team)

People from across the nation and around the world are gathering in the U.S. capital for the inaguration of President Barack Obama. Among them are people who are hopeful an Obama presidency will be better for the environment. Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

People from across the nation and around the world are gathering in the U.S. capital for the inaguration of President Barack Obama. Among them are people who are hopeful an Obama presidency will be better for the environment. Lester Graham reports:

The inauguration of Barack Obama finds people who’ve traveled to Washington DC hopeful.

On the mall, between the capitol building and the Lincoln Memorial, people we interviewed mentioned they’re hopeful for the economy, they’re hopeful for peace.

Jeff Dickson of Finland, Minnesota was an environmental scientist for 25 years. He’s hopeful for the environment.

“I finally found a president who I think is capable of taking this country into a period of environmental responsibility instead of degradation.”

And many people are hoping President Obama finds a way to pursue environmentally friendly alternative energy and conservation in a way that will get us out of the recession and into, what many are calling, the green economy.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

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Interview: Making Our Food Safer

  • The Government Accountability Office identified food safety as one of the major issues for the new administration to address (Photo by Ken Hammond, courtesy of the USDA)

As President Obama starts looking at

priorities, he or his staff will

have to take a look at the “Urgent

Issues” identified by the Government

Accountability Office. There’s a list

of 13 Urgent Issues, ranging from the

wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the

oversight of financial institutions and

markets. Food safety is also on that list.

The Environment Report’s Lester Graham

spoke with Lisa Shames. She’s with the

GAO. She says food safety issues such

as the current recall of peanut butter

contaminated by salmonella are becoming

a real concern:

Transcript

As President Obama starts looking at

priorities, he or his staff will

have to take a look at the “Urgent

Issues” identified by the Government

Accountability Office. There’s a list

of 13 Urgent Issues, ranging from the

wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the

oversight of financial institutions and

markets. Food safety is also on that list.

The Environment Report’s Lester Graham

spoke with Lisa Shames. She’s with the

GAO. She says food safety issues such

as the current recall of peanut butter

contaminated by salmonella are becoming

a real concern:

Lisa Shames: I think we’re all becoming more aware of how globalized our food
supply is. More and more is being imported. And, we’re also keenly aware of
the publicity that the recent outbreaks have had. Two and a half years ago, it
started with spinach, and, most recently with peanut butter. And, in between,
we’ve become aware of ingredients that may have become part of the food
supply, such as the melamine in pet food, and, most recently, in milk products.
And, we’re also facing the risk that federal dollars are not being spent as
efficiently and effectively as possible.
Lester Graham: Well, I guess I understand that, but I’m more concerned about
whether I can buy food at the supermarket or at other places and be sure that it’s
safe.

Shames: Well, let me say at the outset that, overall, our food supply is generally
safe. But there are challenges, because the demographics are such that we’re
going to be more susceptible to food-borne outbreaks. The population is getting
older, pregnant women are more vulnerable to these food-borne outbreaks, as
well as those who have immune deficiencies.

Graham: Now, a GAO report that I read indicated there are a lot of government
agencies duplicating efforts, and, in some cases, there are gaps in food
inspection. How did we end up with such a hodge-podge of efforts on something
as important as food safety?

Shames: The food safety structure has evolved piece-meal. And, what has
happened is that the Department of Agriculture is responsible for meat, and
poultry, and processed eggs, and the Food and Drug Administration is
responsible for seafood and fresh produce. Even that now has become a little
more fragmented, in that the oversight of catfish is now the responsibility of the
Agriculture Department. So, it’s a system that has many players involved, and
there really is no formal mechanism for them to work in a more coordinated and
efficient manner.

Graham: We also get some conflicting messages from agencies. Recently, the
Food and Drug Administration proposed that women who are pregnant or could
become pregnant eat more fish, while the Environmental Protection Agency
advises that those same women eat less fish because of contaminates such as
mercury. Why is there so much confusion?

Shames: Well, part of it is that there’s no convening mechanism for these
agencies to talk with each other. For example, a number of years ago, there was
a food safety council that was in place. We’ve also found that a government-
wide plan could also ensure that the goals of these agencies are complementary,
as well as the data that they collect, and the information they disseminate is
consistent and minimizes any confusion on the public’s part.

Graham: Are we talking about a sort of food czar?

Shames: Well, that is a possibility. We feel that agencies at least have to sit
around the table. And that really is one of our key recommendations to the
Congress and to the new administration. We’ve also asked for re-examination of
the food laws to make sure that they are consistent and uniform, as well as risk-
based. And that way we can target the scarce federal dollars where they’re
needed the most.

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Epa Fines Go Unpaid

  • A Government Accountability Office report finds the EPA doesn't actually collect a lot of their fines (Photo by Lester Graham)

A government report reveals that some
polluters do the crime, but don’t pay the fine.
Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

A government report reveals that some
polluters do the crime, but don’t pay the fine.
Lester Graham reports:

The Environmental Protection Agency issues a lot of press releases that announce
big fines against companies that have been caught polluting. But, a Government
Accountability Office report finds the EPA doesn’t actually collect a lot of those fines.
It still reports them as penalties against polluters.

Matt Madia is with the government watchdog group OMB Watch.

“First of all, EPA is not doing a good job collecting the fines that they do assess. And
across the board under the Bush administration there just simply hasn’t been a big
emphasis on enforcement. The second thing is that the public is really kept in the
dark about what EPA is doing.”

That’s because an EPA official says the public should not be told whether
the agency actually collects the fines, even though the agency is quick to announce
when it levies fines.

For The Environment Report, this is Lester Graham.

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