Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Max Holmes, Woodwell Climate Research Center

Note from Dr. Kathy Kretman, Director, Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership, McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University:

In 2014, Dr. Max Holmes, then Senior Scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center, attended our Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program. I was excited that a scientist was interested in learning about nonprofit management. Since then, the need for climate change science and policy action has become more urgent, and Woodwell has grown significantly, most recently receiving $41 million for a six-year program, permafrost pathways, funded through the TED Audacious Project. Today, Max serves as the President and CEO at Woodwell, while Dr. Phil Duffy, Woodwell’s President, is on leave from the Center, serving as the Climate Adviser in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House.

Kathy: Woodwell Climate Research Center is named for its founder, Dr. George Woodwell. What was his vision for how science should influence policy? How has that carried through into the Center’s work today?

Max: George Woodwell is a remarkable character. He’s in his mid-90s now and going as strong as ever. He’s got an incredible passion for science and making sure that science isn’t something that resides in the ivory tower—that scientific publications aren’t things that only other scientists read, but that get out there and pull the lever to influence policy and make a difference. The focus of Woodwell Climate Research Center, the focus of George Woodwell really from the start, is on environmental and climate change issues. When you’re working on this crisis, and what is an emergency now, it’s not enough only to do the science. We’ve got to work equally hard on the solution to try to slam the brakes on climate change and change the direction that we’re going. 

Kathy: You’ve been at Woodwell Climate for more than fifteen years, served as Deputy Director for several years, and are now President. What drew you to the Center?

Max: I finished my Ph.D. in Arizona in 1995, and I got a job as a postdoctoral scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory here in Woods Hole (MA) right after that and stayed for ten years. It’s an absolutely magnificent place with fantastic scientists doing really important work. But I’ll admit I always looked up the road at Woodwell Climate Research Center with some envy because they had this increased emphasis on really connecting the science to policy impact. So, when I got the chance to move up the road to Woodwell, I jumped on it. That’s what brought me here. That’s what keeps me here.

Kathy:  Max, I was excited when I saw your application for our Georgetown University Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program because we rarely see scientists interested in nonprofit governance. Why did you want to attend? How have you applied what you learned about nonprofits to Woodwell?   

Max: Woodwell had gone through a strategic planning process that involved David Williamson [Certificate Program Instructor]. I remember him mentioning his connection to the program. At the time, I was getting more involved in leadership at Woodwell in different capacities, and I recognized my limitations in that area. It is interesting how scientists go through this long formal training to become scientists, but then when we start to become leaders in scientific organizations, we don’t have any training in that space. And I recognize there are probably people who know more about this than I do, and maybe I can learn something from them. When I looked into the Certificate Program, I thought this was a great opportunity to hear from experts in the nonprofit field.

I didn’t know what I was getting myself into at the time. I didn’t know how the Nonprofit Certificate Program would apply to my life, but I imagined it would, which certainly has been the case. Every day, I use the things I learned in the Certificate Program in the job that I do now. I apply those things to all the different aspects of what it takes to be a leader in a nonprofit organization, whether it’s a scientific organization or otherwise. I also keep in touch with several of the faculty members from the program and often seek their advice on how to address particular problems that I do not know the answers to. They’ve been wonderful resources over these several years since I was there. Kathy, as a member of Woodwell’s President’s Council, your contribution has been invaluable.  

Kathy: The fact that the Biden administration is calling scientists to work on climate policy is a dramatic shift from the last administration. How much has the environment you’re operating in changed? 

Max: There’s certainly more acceptance, more open doors at the Federal level, but we work at lots of different levels. We work internationally. We work with the US government when we can. We work at the state level, we work locally, we work with businesses. So, yes, it’s certainly been day and night in terms of our connections with the executive branch of our Federal government, but that’s just part of what we do. Dr. Phil Duffy’s current role at the White House is an incredible vote of confidence for our work and an indicator of how the Administration is approaching the problem. If you go back to the Obama administration, John Holdren, who was the President of Woodwell at that time, was also a senior advisor at the White House. I will say, it certainly has been gratifying to see the increased willingness to engage at the Federal level over the past couple of years.

Kathy: Can you tell us a bit more about Woodwell’s new project, what it is and the significance? 

Max: The $41 million, six-year Permafrost Pathways Project is part of the TED Audacious Project, and as the name Audacious suggests, these are big, bold, ambitious projects that are hugely competitive. This is, by far, the biggest award we have received in the history of the Woodwell Climate Research Center. Permafrost is perennially frozen ground in the Arctic, and it’s important from the climate change perspective because it contains vast amounts of ancient carbon locked up in the frozen ground. As the Earth warms, the Arctic warms even more. Some of that carbon in permafrost is released and goes back to the atmosphere as greenhouse gasses that cause more warming, more permafrost thaw, etc. We are trying to get a handle on the science of that by figuring out where and how quickly the permafrost is thawing and how fast its carbon will be released, and then connect that with policy.

We have really important partners in the project, one being the Arctic Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. We are working with them to connect the science to international policy and pull the levers to get the right strategies enacted. The goal is to ensure global climate policymakers are thinking about the carbon release from permafrost as they set their targets. We’re also working with the Alaska Institute for Justice. It’s an organization that focuses on human rights issues facing Native Alaskans. Permafrost thaw has deep ramifications for people living in the Arctic. If your home is built on permafrost, you have a good foundation until it thaws, and then things fall apart. Coastlines are eroding. Villages are having to move. We’re working with these Indigenous communities so that their voices are heard, and together we can figure out how they can manage and adapt to climate change. It’s a super-ambitious six-year project that requires hiring lots of scientists, communications people, and administrative people to help manage this project. So, yes, very exciting days ahead for Woodwell Climate Research Center.

Kathy: As a scientist, tell us the unvarnished truth: how bad is the situation? And is all the momentum you described earlier enough to meet the challenge? 

Max: It’s a dire situation. We are already seeing the impacts of climate change affecting millions of people worldwide, and it’s only going to worsen as long as we’re adding carbon to the atmosphere. What keeps me going is imagining the best-case scenario for my future and my children’s future. We’re still going to face more challenges than we’re facing right now. But, it’s a world that I can imagine living in. And what we’ve done so far is not nearly enough. Somehow the political will needs to be mustered to get serious about this. We’re not there yet. We’re not even close to there yet. I’m not sure what it will take to get us there, but that’s what we are trying to figure out. We try to reduce the scientific uncertainty, so there are fewer and fewer questions about what the science says will happen. We’ve done a really good job at that. The biggest uncertainty in projecting what the future holds is figuring out what we as a society, as people, as citizens, as voters, will do.

I sometimes distinguish between being optimistic and being hopeful. I can’t say right now that I’m optimistic because we haven’t done it so far. Am I hopeful? Yes, I am most definitely hopeful. We know what the solutions are. We know it needs to be done. We just have to do it. The longer we put it off, the harder it gets to solve. You’ve often heard we have ten years to solve this thing and we’ve listened to that for the last 30 years. But there’s never a point where it’s too late to act because there’s always going to be a big gap between the best-case and worst-case scenario. The future looks better the sooner we start tracking along with the best-case scenario. So far, we’ve been tracking along with business as usual, which is the worst-case scenario. We’ve got to flip that switch. The sooner we do it, the easier it will be and the less expensive it will be. It would have been vastly easier if we had done this ten years ago or 20 years ago, or 30 years ago. It’s always going to be the time to do it. So, we must act now.

Kathy: How should individuals be thinking about climate change? What should we be doing about it?

Max: Vote, and I say that in a nonpartisan way. It’s incredibly unfortunate that action on climate change has become a partisan issue. It needs to be a political issue. We need policy. We need politicians. There can be different views on what action should be taken to solve the climate problem. Different political parties might legitimately have different approaches. That’s fine. That’s the conversation we should be having. Climate change is real; it’s not a hoax. We need political solutions to it. So, vote. And I don’t care if you’re an ultra-liberal Democrat or ultra-conservative Republican. I would hope you would go to your preferred political candidates and say, what’s your plan for climate change? And I hope we get to that point soon because we’re not there right now. 

Another thing is to talk with people. Talk to your neighbors, don’t argue with them because you’re never going to convince anybody by arguing with them. Tell them what you know. Tell them you’re worried about climate change.  Tell them you’re trying to figure out what to do about it. Tell them you’re thinking about your kids and your grandkids. Talk about love. Talk about emotional things in your heart and what we can do to get together and protect the things we love. There are also small individual actions like thinking about your carbon footprint. Those things are really important, and they can send good messages and set good examples for others, so do those things. But voting is a big one.