From the White House to the Roux Center: A Night With Maggie Thomas

By Andrea Becker ’26
The chief of staff for the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy recently visited Bowdoin to speak about the administration's efforts to shape environmental policy.
Chief of Staff for the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, talks with students about current efforts and hopes for future environmental policy

Chief of Staff for the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy Maggie Thomas with Roux Distinguished Scholar Ayana Johnson.

Addressing an audience of noticeably excited students in the Roux Center Lantern, Maggie Thomas emphasized the importance of shifting the country's approaches and attitudes toward climate policy.

With any policy issue, she said there exists a loose consensus, or “Overton window,” on the range of achievable political projects based on what all sides are willing to support. With the climate crisis in particular, she added, this "window" can be opened wider with precise and effective policy.

Thomas was joined and interviewed by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, the current Roux Distinguished Scholar and a visiting professor at Bowdoin College.

The May 1 event was packed with students and faculty. Attendees listened as Thomas described her days in the White House, specific Biden administration programs, the role of compromise when constructing policy, and hopes for future environmental aims.

A salient aspect of Thomas’ work centers around compromise, she said. From lobbying interests to the challenge of representing a wide range of constituents, environmental lawmaking and advancement is a complex process.

Thomas began by talking about her path to the White House. During the 2019 Democratic presidential primary, she worked on Jay Inslee's campaign. The current governor of Washington state, Inslee placed the climate issue front and center of his platform.

Although Inslee’s campaign failed to gain traction within the Democratic electorate, it was successful in centering climate as a chief issue within the primary, and the campaign produced an extensive body of climate-focused policies, Thomas said.

Following Inslee’s withdrawal from the Democratic primary, Thomas moved to different campaigns, eventually landing on President Joseph Biden's team. 

Biden's platform was shaped by the primary that preceded the general election. “The primary was powerful in setting the stage for the foundation of policy,” she said. She also spoke about the influence of the “climate voter,” whose voting behaviors are driven by environmental issues.

Thomas emphasized that climate change increasingly is “a top issue for hundreds and thousands of people when thinking about who to vote for president." Immediately following his inauguration, Biden established the Office of Climate Policy and spoke of climate change as a chief crisis facing the nation.

In 2021, the Biden administration passed one of the largest investments in climate action in the nation's history. The Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Law allocated $370 billion in funding for climate projects in the United States.

Despite the frequent bitter partisanship that can imperil successful climate policy, Thomas said she believes every administration has a responsibility to represent and protect all Americans. “We have a moral imperative to reduce carbon emissions, and we have to put people and communities at the center of our approach,” she said.

One of Thomas’ main focuses has been establishing the American Climate Corps, which officially launched this spring and seeks to foster the next generation of climate leaders. Through jobs ranging from oyster farming to wildfire prevention and trail maintenance, the program's reach extends across the nation.

Thomas cited Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps as an inspiration for the project, as the new Corps combines service to the nation with employment opportunities for young people. Though she faced initial difficulty funding the project, and rejections from Congress, she remained determined to launch the program, she said, and hopes the Climate Corps will inspire young people to tackle both environmental injustice and climate change.

She reiterated the importance of recognizing climate victories within the Administration while also pushing for more progress. In social posts or administrative memos representing the president, Thomas said she often includes the phrase, “There is so much more to be done.”