Revenge of the nerds

Barack Obama sent greens - and progressives in general - an early Christmas present today, rounding out his already-impressive environmental team by appointing two highly qualified scientists with impeccable climate-advocacy pedigrees to key positions in his administration. Harvard physicist John Holdren will be Obama’s science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, while Oregon State marine biologist Jane Lubchenco will head up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Both appointees are serious, well-regarded scientists; both are past presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; both are also recipients of MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants. Their appointment tells us that Obama is serious about reversing the lamentable dumbing down of government that’s taken place under George Bush, that he’s serious about restoring the primacy of science in federal policy-making, and that he’s deeply serious about taking on climate change.

As Joe Romm notes, John Holdren, who will have broad responsibility for overseeing sci-tech funding, analysis and messaging across the federal government, has been an outspoken critic of go-slow approaches to tackling global warming, and a major advocate of investment in clean energy technologies. He recently compared our current situation to "being in a car with bad brakes driving toward a cliff in the fog," but says he believes there’s still time to avert catastrophe - pretty much the precise combination of optimism and realism we need from the White House.

Jane Lubchenco is similarly convinced of the need for climate action; she’s also a strong advocate of marine conservation and the need to allow global fish stocks to recover from decades of exploitation. That could signal a major shift in focus at the NOAA, which traditionally has favored commercial interests above the concerns of conservationists; either way, it’s another welcome sign that Obama intends to run a pro-science, reality-based administration.

Perhaps the best news of all is that both Holdren and Lubchenco are not just top-notch scientists; they’re dedicated communicators, who’ve made it their goal to express complex scientific ideas in ways that laypeople - and even politicians - can understand. Their selection signals not just Obama’s determination to use science to shape policy, but also his determination to use it to communicate and persuade voters and lawmakers, in a bid to turn the existing scientific consensus about climate change into a political consensus about the need for action. That won’t be an easy task, but it’s an essential one.