Academic journal article UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy

A Rook or a Pawn: The White House Science Advisor in an Age of Climate Confusion

Academic journal article UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy

A Rook or a Pawn: The White House Science Advisor in an Age of Climate Confusion

Article excerpt






In October 1986, at the height of the American AIDS crisis, the Office of the Surgeon General issued the federal government's first major report on the disease. * In direct and sometimes explicit language, the report detailed the nature, symptoms, and causes of AIDS and called for a nationwide educational campaign that included controversial measures such as early childhood sex education and public promotion of condom use. (1) Eighteen months later, in the largest public health mailing in US history, a condensed version of the report titled Understanding AIDS was sent to 107 million American households. (2)

Both versions of the report were personally penned by President Reagan's Surgeon General, the bow-tied and billy goatbearded pediatric surgeon C. Everett Koop. (3) A controversial figure due to his evangelical Christian background and anti-abortion views, (4) Koop had endured a difficult confirmation process to the Surgeon General post after Congressional liberals led by Henry Waxman labeled him an "arch-conservative" and questioned his credentials for the position. (5) But more than any other figure, it was Koop who during the terrifying early years of the AIDS crisis laid the groundwork that led to the Reagan administration's most extensive efforts against the disease, (6) including a major 1987 speech by Reagan to the American Foundation for AIDS Research, (7) the issuing of a 10-point Executive branch plan to protect HIV-positive federal workers against discrimination, and Reagan's signing of an $870 million appropriations bill for AIDS research and education programs. (8)

Koop's actions as Surgeon General forced the Reagan administration to take notice of the devastating epidemic occurring on its watch. This was despite fierce opposition from many powerful figures in the White House, including Reagan's domestic policy advisor Gary Bauer, who for both political and ideological reasons Would have preferred to ignore the AIDS crisis entirely. (9) From outside the White House, Koop also received personal death threats for his forceful actions. (10) Years later, Koop's old foe Henry Waxman had this to say:

   As the nation's doctor, the surgeon general has tremendous
   credibility and influence. Koop used his to fight AIDS ... speaking
   plainly and truthfully when Republicans were discouraged from doing
   so. It could not have been easy for him. By the end of his tenure,
   many conservatives despised him. Some Republicans in Congress even
   boycotted a dinner in his honor because he had done what the rest
   of the Reagan administration refused to do and confronted the AIDS
   problem. That is why Koop is today regarded as the model of what a
   Surgeon General should be.... I was wrong about Koop--and he turned
   out to make one of the most significant contributions in dealing
   with AIDS and the public's health. (11)

Koop's heroic role in the AIDS fight illustrates the profound influence a non-Cabinet Executive branch office can have on controversial public debates. In the context of the climate change debate, one such non-Cabinet office with Koop-like political potential is the Science Advisor to the President. The office of the Science Advisor was created during the Eisenhower administration as a direct reaction to the USSR's launch of the Sputnik satellite and consequent fears that the United States was falling behind in the science and technology ("S&T") Sector. (12) During the Kennedy administration, the Executive branch Office of Science and Technology Policy ("OSTP") was established in order to support and institutionalize the work of the Science Advisor. (13) The Congressional act establishing OSTP directs the Science Advisor to:

   [A]dvise the President and others within the [White House] on the
   effects of science and technology on domestic and international
   affairs[;] . … 
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