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White House Wonders if Climate Will Be Hostage to Politics

SAN FRANCISCO – A key White House official expressed some optimism that the Obama administration and the new Congress can work together on science and technology issues, though he's not holding his breath where climate-change policy is concerned.

In a lecture here yesterday (Dec. 13), John Holdren, director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that both Republicans and Democrats should want to prioritize science and technology, for the good of the country.

"Science, technology and innovation are not fundamentally partisan issues," Holdren told a roomful of geologists, physicists and climate scientists at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

In the talk, Holdren stressed the importance of science and technology to national and global prosperity and security. And he argued that the Obama administration has made advancing the country's scientific potential a key priority.

"Science, technology and innovation have never been so prominent in any administration," he said.

In 2009-2010, Holdren added, federal funding for scientific research was the highest it's ever been. However, this funding may get slashed when the 112th Congress convenes in January.

More than 100 freshman Republicans were elected in the 2010 midterms. The party retook the House, gaining 63 seats. They now hold 242 seats in the chamber, compared to 193 for the Democrats.

The GOP's 2010 agenda pledges to cut discretionary non-military funding to 2008 levels. That would reduce the funds President Obama requested for non-military federal scientific research and development in 2011 by more than 12 percent, from $65.9 billion to $57.8 billion.

Holdren said that he held some hope that such cuts aren't a done deal. However, he was less optimistic about the ability of the two parties to work together to fight climate change.

The Obama administration will continue to push for action on climate change, he added. The White House will promote recognition that the problem is real and that early action is preferable to a wait-and-see approach, for both economic and environmental reasons.

Holdren further said that Republican resistance to action on climate change seemed to be motivated primarily by partisanship, especially since so many Republicans opposed a comprehensive bill that would have tried to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by putting a price on carbon.

"I'm very surprised, actually, that so many Republicans, who seem to be in favor of free-market approaches in other domains, did not seem to be willing to embrace one in this domain," Holdren told reporters after the talk yesterday. "But again, I think that has to do perhaps with the increasingly partisan character of our politics, where people decide to be for or against something on the basis of who else is for it, and not on the basis of whether it makes sense from the standpoint of their own principles."

Holdren said he was disappointed that comprehensive legislation did not get passed. He added that regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — which last year determined that greenhouse gases threaten Americans' health and welfare — may be in the cards now.

"We do expect that EPA will be moving to regulate greenhouse gases," Holdren told the scientists.

Mike Wall is a senior writer for, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow him on twitter @MichaelDWall.

Mike Wall
Michael was a science writer for the Idaho National Laboratory and has been an intern at, The Salinas Californian newspaper, and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. He has also worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz.