SPG Blog Post #2:

Interview with Dr. Donald J. Wuebbles: Biden Administration and Science Policy

Marya Ornelas with the Science Policy Group at the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) conducted an interview with Dr. Donald J. Wuebbles on March 25, 2021 to discuss his opinions on the new presidential administration led by President Joe Biden. Dr. Wuebbles has a unique background to discuss this topic with us, since he has worked with the previous presidential administration led by former President Barack Obama with Joe Biden as his Vice President.

Dr. Wuebbles began his work in science and policy after graduating from UIUC in his first job at NOAA. At NOAA, Dr. Wuebbles worked on a project addressing supersonic aircrafts’ effects on the ozone layer and on climate change where his research introduced him to the world of policy. Since then, Dr. Wuebbles worked for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and returned to UIUC in 1994 as a professor in atmospheric sciences and is the department head after receiving his PhD from University of California – Davis, along the way. Throughout his entire career, however, he always continued working on his interest in climate change policy on national and international levels: the most influential of his policy research contributions include developing metrics for policy makers to measure ozone depletion, global climate change, and more.

In early 2015, Dr. Wuebbles received a phone call from Dr. John P. Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for former President Obama. The White House needed Dr. Wuebbles’s expertise immediately. With coordination between UIUC, the White House, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), Dr. Wuebbles was able to get on a plane and dive straight into work only a few weeks after receiving the call to service. Dr. Wuebbles was appointed the presidential administration’s climate science advisor, remaining extremely active until the conclusion of former President Obama’s presidency. This work included overseeing the fourth national climate assessment and contributions to former President Obama’s national climate plan proposal. When meeting the former President Obama, however, Dr. Wuebbles was remembered by him as “the person who kept writing memos about all that is going wrong in the world as a result of the changing climate.”

A significant highlight during Dr. Wuebbles’s time in the White House occurred on the night of August 28, 2015, three days before the Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience (GLACIER) Conference: an international Arctic conference in Anchorage, Alaska discussing the importance of the Arctic and the globe. On that Friday night, Dr. Wuebbles was called by a White House assistant to review the speech that the President was expected to give at the conference. Finding many scientific errors and fictitious climate statements, Dr. Wuebbles edited the speech for content and returned a copy to the assistant in the very early hours of the following morning, expecting a presidential speech writer to edit the document further. However, at the conference, Dr. Wuebbles was surprised to hear former President Obama’s speech exactly how he delivered it, having him recognize his own voice in the President. That is the moment Dr. Wuebbles was able to see a direct impact of his work for the world around him.


Ms. Ornelas: How will science policy change in this new administration?

Dr. Wuebbles: If you look at science in the general sense, the respect for science is back again. I have testified many times, both to Republicans and Democrats, and all have understood the importance of science in the development of meaningful policy. For 4 years, not to say it was an absolute pause for science, but it has for most areas slowed down. For cyber security and artificial intelligence, scientific advancement sped up: for climate change, it seemed as though we as a community were threatened. The respect for science is back in the Biden Administration. It is important to the science community and helps push technology and actions for the public good forward.

Ms. Ornelas: What scientific focus do you see President Biden’s administration having? Do you think climate change will be his main focus?

Dr. Wuebbles: I think there are several different aspects in science that will be pushed forward in the Biden administration. During the Obama administration, Biden did a lot of work towards cancer research. Biden will probably push strongly forward with advancements in medicine and infrastructure, along with climate change. As Sir David King has said, “climate change is not the biggest challenge of our time, it’s the biggest challenge of all time.”  Climate change is difficult for humanity to address since we have not experienced this before; this includes not fully understanding how our ecosystems will react. Climate change is not just temperature change, but rising sea levels and the increase in intensity and frequency of natural disasters. The cost of responding to climate change is much greater than the cost of proactively fighting against climate change. We need to mitigate and adapt to decrease suffering.

Ms. Ornelas: What changes do you wish to see moving forward?

Dr. Wuebbles: We need to reduce emissions. Most of the increase of greenhouse gases are from the burning of fossil fuels; therefore, we need to stop burning fossil fuels or deal with emissions by not allowing them to get into the atmosphere. The first option is easier: we need to continue developing the technology, but we are almost there. Companies using solar can possibly have a return on investment of less than a year, whereas individual homeowners can have a return on investment of a few years. Solar, though, is not available everywhere, and places need to have battery backup system. Hopefully, we are close to achieving that. We also need to adapt to the impacts we cannot avoid.

Ms. Ornelas: What sorts of policies can we as a nation introduce to lower our overall carbon footprint?

Dr. Wuebbles: The best thing to do is have incentives for having personal or community systems of green energy. Democrats and Republicans both support some sort of measures that propose more wind and solar energy production. We need to address having a less centralized system focused on individual power plants, and more on a distributive system, like we have at the university, that can transfer power supplies to wherever it is needed. There has been and continues to be too much money going into fossil fuels, so some politicians are reluctant to change.

Ms. Ornelas: What sorts of policies should we consider advocating for in the next four years?

Dr. Wuebbles: I know from past studies that science investment from the government has potentially a three times greater return on investment when it comes to scientific research, so it makes sense to put money into science. The money comes back in a large way. A real concern is the whole idea that Republicans are going to say no to anything that the Democrats say, and vis versa. Politicians need to benefit the country and not their party. I do not know how we are going to get out of this cycle, but we must. This is the problem with the executive order, a new president can easily overturn what a previous president has done. We are now trying to regrow the things that Trump has destroyed. How federal governmental agencies are run and the process of appointing who is going to lead them is also an issue. We need to all be talking to our representatives in congress, tell them that they need to do the right things, and addressing climate change is the right thing to do for humanity. This is an extremely important issue that matters to everyone.

Ms. Ornelas: Question from the audience, do you know of any bills specifically that we should be following and supporting?

Dr. Wuebbles: I do not know the details of bills, but I do know that I have done a paper with Dr. Roy Wehrle, a University of Illinois – Springfield economist, last year where we proposed a carbon tax in which the money collected goes directly back to the people through a dividend with the purpose of not having a substantial impact on poorer communities. Senator Durbin introduced legislation that is similar with what we proposed in our paper. Representatives and Senators are proposing different climate change addressing legislation utilizing different tactics and are battling it out internally over which option is the best. I have given speeches to Senators and Congressmen on both sides, and they all say that they understand the issues I bring forward: even if some would not admit it in public due to fear of reprisal from their political party. Many politicians are more worried about their political agendas than they are about the issue of climate change. I do not know where all the different bills will go, I am hoping that Senator Durbin’s bill will be pushed through, but I do not know. Other Representatives are pushing for initiatives that do not approve of the carbon tax and want to use other methods. I do not care, that does not bother me, but there needs to be a transition and there needs to be something limiting carbon emissions and promotes alternative energy sources.

Audience Member: With your more global view of the problem, with the need for government intervention do you think it is more a problem with technology or policy? Could current technology alone solve the problem?

Dr. Wuebbles: We do not have all the answers with our current technology, but we have most. We need to get all countries to follow through with what they agreed to, but also give an incentive to continue to make more great steps forward. Some countries are more prepared to do it than others. China has made great investments in purchasing and developing wind and solar energy technologies, but others like India and Saudi Arabia, for example, are not making much progress at all. It would be in Saudi Arabia’s best interest to care because climate change could essentially destroy their country. Power of negotiation needs to be used by us because it is a global problem.