Remembering Jim Mahoney: the NAPAP years.


(This is the second part of a two-part tribute to James R. Mahoney)[1]

James R. Mahoney is possibly best remembered by most (younger) readers of this blog as a former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Deputy Administrator of NOAA under President George W. Bush. He served in this role from 2002-2006 and during that same period also served as director of the U.S. government’s cross-agency climate change science program. In this capacity he worked closely with President Bush’s science advisor, Dr. John H. Marburger III. The two handled the geosciences portfolio in general and the climate change issue in particular with distinction during a difficult and contentious political period (so unlike the decorum that characterizes the public discussion of these subjects today?). History is likely to judge kindly the contributions of the two men; both died too early.

But what many of those same readers may not recall is that the Assistant Secretary role represented Jim’s second stint as a senior federal executive. The first saw Jim as the Director of the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program, from roughly the end of 1987 through early 1991. During those years, Jim was in his fullest physical vigor, bringing his great intellect and energy to bear on one of the defining environmental-science-and-policy challenges of the period. He worked literally night and day for over three years. In the end, he achieved an extraordinary triumph, but he never really received the national acknowledgment or gratitude due him. What’s more, the physical strain of this period set into motion or contributed to health problems that would bedevil him the rest of his life.

Here are some of the details.

When Jim took over NAPAP, the ten-year program had already been underway for seven years, and was in total disarray. NAPAP had never been anyone’s favorite from the beginning. Environmentalists and Canadians were among the most outspoken, saying that the science of acid rain was in fact already settled. Burning fossil fuels was the problem. Emissions from power plants and industrial smokestacks included sulfates and nitrates that were acid precursors. The acid was removed from the air by rain and snow, and by so-called dry deposition. It fouled lakes, rivers, and soils, damaging ecosystems on regional scales. It posed direct and indirect risks to public health. What else was there to know? It was time for action – for massive investment in scrubbers and other cleanup measures. Energy interests – particularly coal – pushed back: The threat was overblown. Human beings were only small contributors compared with natural phenomena. Environmental regulation would damage the economy and cost jobs.

(Sound familiar? It should; this was basically the climate-change discussion in microcosm.)

NAPAP thus drew criticism from both sides. It was either a blatant U.S. attempt to delay needed action, or that first step down a slippery slope toward oppressive government intrusion.

By 1987, the program had already seen off several previous leaders. Jim’s immediate predecessor had come in from private industry in 1985, at the moment when the NAPAP mid-term report was due to Congress. What’s more, that report was complete and ready to submit. But the new director announced it to be unacceptable in its existing form. He ordered it reworked, and delayed its submission for two years – until the fall of 1987[2]. He then slapped on a personally-written executive summary that he didn’t bother to clear with the agencies, submitted the report to Congress, and held a couple of press conferences to share his personal views. As a final touch he announced that he was stepping down in order to get married, and decamped to Hawaii. Washington (that portion that cared) was in an uproar. The Congress, the participating agencies, the Canadians and the environmentalists were furious. The scientists were holding their heads in their hands. The mood in the NAPAP Program Office was despondent. Though multi-agency, NAPAP was administratively housed in NOAA. NOAA leadership began a hurried search for a successor, zeroing in on lesser lights because the toxic context made the position demonstrably unattractive, even untenable.

Enter Jim Mahoney, who let it be known he would be available for the job if asked.

End of search. It had never occurred to anyone across DoE, NOAA, EPA and the other NAPAP participants that someone of Jim’s stature would have an interest. Took some time (another story in itself, as is the case with virtually all senior government hires), but he was eventually brought on board at NOAA.

Some notable aspects of his tenure/leadership over the next few years:

Jim was offered a permanent position. “No thanks. I’d like a three-year term appointment.” Really? Who asks for that, given all the uncertainties in life and delays characteristic of government process? He was first asked, then advised, to request an extension of the program, given there was only a scant two years remaining to accomplish what looked to be a good five years of work. Congress would clearly allow this, given the state of progress to date. “No thanks. It’s important to finish it on schedule.”

Jim then said, “before we can identify, choose among policy options, we first need a comprehensive, peer-reviewed state of the science.” In two years? Yeah, right. “Oh, and to be credible, we need scientific oversight.” Sure, Jim, sure.

Jim first sought feedback from the National Academy of Sciences. But the NAS/National Research Council had given long-unheeded advice throughout NAPAP’s earlier history. Understandably, they chose to wash their hands of any further engagement. So Jim established his own oversight review board. (That never works, right? Always looks like a whitewash from the outside.) But Jim used his reputation to attract and establish an oversight board whose credentials were above reproach. It was chaired by Milton Russell, former chair of CEQ. Members included Ellis Cowling, one of the scientists who had first called for the establishment of NAPAP; Chauncey Starr, then a dean at Stanford University; Bill Nierenberg, a distinguished Scripps oceanographer; Tom Malone, a world-famed meteorologist; John Bailar, a public health expert; John Tukey, arguably the greatest statistician who ever lived; Kenneth Arrow, a Nobel-winning economist; and others. They met several times face-to-face and had a profound effect on the last years of the program[3].

Jim and his NAPAP staff (housed in the Jackson-Square brownstone where CEQ is headquartered today) then pulled off a succession of heroics. Within two years, they mounted a week-long State of the Science conference bringing together hundreds of investigators from around the world who summarized their work for the past decade. The output was published in 1990 in four massive peer-reviewed hard-bound volumes (each numbering into the hundreds of pages), that occupy about a foot of space on the bookshelves of anyone lucky enough to have a set. In scale and complexity it rivaled the IPCC reports to come, though devoted to a subject of smaller scope.

Throughout, Jim worked incessantly, convening and briefing the agencies, and building executive-branch consensus for the NAPAP policymaker recommendations, which would quickly follow. He and his staff developed artful language that triangulated the diametrically opposed views of environmentalists and the coal sector, and pointed toward the cap-and-trade policies ultimately adopted by Congress.

NAPAP’s reward? Criticism from all sides. (Hardly a surprise – remember, the program showed many similarities to the IPCC process and in some ways served as a model for it.) Some of the condemnation came in the form of claims that NAPAP had issued its final report only in early 1991, some months too late to meet its goal of informing the Clean Air Act reauthorization of 1990: therefore the program and its leaders should be considered failures. However, in reality Jim and other NAPAP leaders had been in regular contact with Senator Moynihan and other leaders from both parties on Capitol Hill throughout. Lawmakers were thus aware of the findings even though the agency vetting process was still grinding its slow way to final approval and release, and shaped the Clean Air Act reauthorization to fit. By any practical, outcomes-oriented measure the program should be considered a success for the policy process and for Jim Mahoney personally.

Having delivered on every promise he’d made to the Bush Administration, the Congress, and the world, Jim returned to the private sector. Senior NAPAP staffers, having been toughened physically and intellectually by the past several years, and buoyed by their extraordinary accomplishment, found themselves in high demand across the public and private sector, and went their separate ways. IPCC would claim very little, if any connection to NAPAP, but it’s there in the IPCC DNA.

Thanks, Jim, for thinking forward – and for being the change you wanted to see in the world. You made a difference.


[1] I’d very much hoped to complete this more quickly… but perhaps appropriate to post on the weekend of Jim’s memorial service in Boston.

[2] Are you like me? Are you lacking “the brazen gene?” When I was in college, I wouldn’t dream of being a day late with a class term paper. Where do you get the daring (is that even the right word? Would disrespect be better) to stiff Congress for two years with regard to a legislative mandate?

[3] Incidentally, the stature of the ORB and its standing relative to the program it was reviewing stood in some contrast to the NAS/NRC analyses of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which was just standing up at the same time. The USGCRP committees early on consisted of scientists at a stage in their careers where they would likely be dependent on the program’s fortunes for years to come.

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