R.I.P. John Hoffman


John Hoffman, “brilliant leader of the EPA team that saved the ozone layer, founder of the hugely successful Energy Star programs, and climate protection pioneer,” in the words of David Doniger, died on September 24 at the too-young age of 62.  I remember the legendary John Hoffman from my early days in Washington, D.C.

Essential reading:  Remembering John Hoffman, Ozone Defender and Climate Protector, by David Doniger at the Natural Resources Defense Council.  Doniger  provides a sophisticated insider’s perspective on Hoffman’s pathbreaking, creative, and essential contributions at EPA from the early 1980s onward in laying the groundwork for connecting scientific assessment to policymaking with the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer, and in initiating and developing the Energy Star programs, the international standard for energy-efficient consumer products through which public-private sector cooperation has produced significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

I met John Hoffman only a few times – the rest was second-hand – but it was evident that this was no ordinary federal manager.  Hoffman was a man on a mission, he thought and acted strategically and entrepreneurially, he was a leader in driving major policy and programmatic initiatives.

In this he was quite different from much what I have seen in my years of working with and observing the federal agencies.   Washington is full of knowledgeable, capable public servants who operate the complex institutional machinery of the federal government, day in and day out.  But few are skillful enough, strong enough, driven enough, and brave enough to take positions that are far ahead of the policy curve, on politically sensitive and controversial issues, become personally associated with them, and actually push the system forward with significant policy and program development.  Not as White House political appointees, but as career managers.  Career feds as a breed are not boat-rockers.  Hoffman was a boat-rocker.

Hoffman charged ahead under less-than-ideal circumstances for proactive environmental policymaking, to say the least – in the Environmental Protection Agency under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush – but he was not deterred and ultimately made a mark on history.

But then, compared with the deteriorated conditions in Washington today, that was a less toxic time for the environmental science-policy relationship.  After years of work by the science and policy communities and opposition by industry interests, Reagan finally signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1987.  After years of political struggle, with support and opposition within both parties, Bush signed the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.  In 1992 he signed the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the foundational climate change treaty, even as the global warming denial machine was gearing up.

In recalling that period, William Reilly, who was the EPA Administrator during 1989-1992 under President Bush, noted:

There were many more initiatives.  At EPA we started a series of voluntary programs that relied upon economic analysis and the good will and cooperation of the private sector, to make lasting progress. We advocated that industry install compact fluorescent light bulbs to save on electricity costs. When John Hoffman of our staff first proposed to me that EPA understood something that industry had missed – how to reduce operating costs in their electric bills – I was skeptical. But it turned out to be true, and we drove the demand for compact fluorescents nationwide.

Reilly, in a 2011 keynote address on “Confronting the Clean Air Rollback” given at the Commemoration of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, contrasted that time with the vitriolic anti-environmental and anti-science politics that characterizes so much of his party today:

[F]or some of the most prominent leaders of the Republican Party science has left the building. It scarcely features. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has published a list of 10 or so “bad” regulations, 7 of them are promulgated or pending EPA rules. Votes by Republican House Members indicate Congressman Cantor leads a united party in his efforts to roll back EPA rules. Public positions of 6 of the 7 Republican candidates for President echo the stridency of the anti-EPA rhetoric characteristic of House Republicans.

The House has voted to block EPA rules limiting toxic pollution from cement plants and commercial and industrial boilers. They have voted to kill the coal ash rule. They have opposed regulating mercury from power plants. They have also famously voted to strip EPA of authority to regulate carbon dioxide and also voted to overturn EPA’s scientific determination that carbon dioxide is a threat to public health.

Science doesn’t feature prominently in these debates. Republicans once were the party of science where environmental policy was concerned. When the Reagan Administration became persuaded that CFCs were destroying upper atmospheric ozone, it led a reluctant Europe to embrace the Montreal Protocol – and the Bush Administration we served made America the first developed country to ratify the Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Credit to John Hoffman for his contributions to those advancements.

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