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Trump’s Energy R&D Policies Ignore the Long-Term Impact of Innovation

President Obama’s former chief science advisor says the Trump administration’s promise to slash funding for energy research is short-sighted.
November 7, 2017
Justin Saglio

While Harvard University professor John Holdren was advising the White House, he helped shape many of America’s major climate commitments. He honed the Clean Power Plan and orchestrated the nation’s involvement in the Paris climate pact. But since Donald Trump was elected to office, a string of executive orders have sought to roll back those initiatives.

Speaking at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference Tuesday, Holdren pointed out that some of the most troubling of Trump’s changes are those relating to federal research funding. As part of the Paris climate agreement, President Obama and 19 other world leaders vowed to double investment in clean-energy research. Trump has said that he’ll halve government investment in energy R&D.

Holdren warned that such funding cuts stand to hurt many advances that will be crucial to our clean-energy future. In particular, he pointed to carbon capture and storage, clean biofuels for air travel, and modern nuclear reactors as promising technologies that are all currently a long way from commercial realization, and might never make it if they don’t receive funding over the coming years.

And that, he says, is short-sighted. “We tend to overestimate what innovation can do for us in the short run, and underestimate what it can do for us in the long run,” Holdren said. “If we spend 3 percent of global world product on protecting ourselves from the much larger economic damages of climate change, the money doesn't disappear down a black hole.” On the contrary, it creates jobs, reduces air pollution, and provides other societal benefits.

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