Holdren’s First Interviews

Obama’s new science advisor causes a media stir

President Barack Obama’s new science advisor, physicist John Holdren, met the press this week, with mixed results for the ensuing journalism.

Holdren gave his first media interviews since being confirmed at the end of March, starting with the Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein, to whom he expressed support for studying geo-engineering projects to combat global warming. This might include shooting sulfur particles into the upper atmosphere to screen sunlight or developing large carbon-absorbing “trees.” Most experts view such projects as extreme solutions to climate change, and critics worry that geo-engineering is risky and/or unfeasible. So it wasn’t surprising that Borenstein’s piece caused a stir within the blogosphere. It even prompted a response from Holdren himself, who circulated a letter complaining that the AP story gave the impression that White House is “giving serious consideration to geo-engineering – which it isn’t.”

As the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit rightly points out, however, “Other than the misleading headline on the AP’s story, The Tracker cannot see a great deal of difference between what Borenstein said Holdren said, and what Holdren later said he actually was talking about … The AP’s story leaves no impression, at least on these eyes, that any [geo-engineering] ideas are considered to be preferable options [to reducing greenhouse gas emissions], or even a plan B, nor that they are fleshed out to any degree. Borenstein zeroed in on one brief part of the interview as most interesting to him. That’s what reporters do. The news judgment looks okay from here. But others may see things differently.”

Petit then offers an excellent round-up of those other voices, scolding some for overplaying Holdren’s statements, others for being needlessly cynical about them, and still others for not crediting Borenstein for the original legwork. A few pieces, such a good post by Brandon Keim at Wired—which admitted to finding sense in Holdren’s remarks despite initial misgivings—received more favorable mentions.

At the end of his summary, Petit includes links to Holdren’s other interviews with The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle. The Chronicle’s take is disappointingly bland and doesn’t go much farther than reporting that Holdren is adamantly committed to addressing climate change, which the press has known for a very long time.

The Post’s piece is quite important on the other hand, reporting that President Obama might be “flexible” about a 100-percent auction for carbon emission permits under a cap-and-trade scheme. Obama and environmentalists have long supported charging industries for these permits rather giving them away for free. A cap-and-trade bill recently released in the House of Representatives faces significant political opposition, however, which is putting pressure on its authors and the president to make some concessions in order to get it passed.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Bright Green Blog rightly worried that Holdren’s other climate-related statements “overshadowed” this piece of news. Indeed, considerations about geo-engineering are much less pressing than deliberations about an effective cap-and-trade scheme. A cursory Google search will show that there has already been plenty of debate about the merits of auctioning permits versus allocating them. But, as The New Republic’s Brad Plumer pointed out in one reaction to the Post’s interview with Holdren, “[T]his is one design aspect of cap-and-trade that needs to be eyed closely.”

With advisers such Holdren, reporters can at least expect the Obama administration to be more forthcoming than its predecessor about it’s thought and decision-making processes. As this week’s interviews demonstrate, however, when it comes to climate action, there are still plenty details to be sorted out.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.