Profile: John Holdren
Here is the man who famously said: “Without energy, there is no economy. Without climate, there is no environment. Without economy and environment, there is no material well-being, no civil society, no personal or national security. The overriding problem associated with these realities, of course, is that the world has long been getting most of the energy its economies need from fossil fuels whose emissions are imperiling the climate that its environment needs.” President Obama’s science advisor John Holdren confirms in an upcoming Science article that “the science of climate change is robust, that the core conclusions of climate science are sound — namely that the climate is changing in ways that are unusual against the backdrop of natural variability and that humans are responsible for a large part of that”.
Preview of article by John Holdren in Science News (15 January 2011):
“There has been a fair amount of talk about congressional hearings looking into climate science. I personally will welcome such hearings.”
Just over a month after the midterm elections, President Obama’s science adviser took the podium in San Francisco at the American Geophysical Union meeting. John Holdren, a physicist and climate scientist, said the White House is making strides in improving the nation’s science and technology policies. Later that week, Holdren’s Office of Science and Technology Policy released long-overdue federal guidelines for scientific integrity.
Science News contributing editor Alexandra Witze excerpted his comments from a lecture and later press briefing at the AGU meeting.
How do you respond to criticism that the federal government was slow to request and use outside expertise after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?
In the first few days of the spill, I made a number of calls to leaders of major marine science organizations in the country to see what resources and insights and scientific capabilities they could bring to bear. Within the first few days, the White House was convening meetings. Very quickly task forces were set up that reached out into the academic community and the private sector community.
It was a huge challenge. I’m not saying we got everything right at every moment. Certainly there were disagreements about priorities, about approaches, about specific resources. That’s inevitable in any problem of this scale and complexity and with a wide variety of different people. But overall, this actually was handled remarkably well given the magnitude of the mess and its complexity.
How will the White House go about working with the new, more Republican Congress on science issues?
It will be a big challenge working with the new Congress, whose composition is obviously somewhat less favorable to Democrats than the last one. My view is that science, technology and innovation are not fundamentally partisan issues. My hope is therefore we will be able to keep much of this out of the domain of poisonous partisan politics and get quite a lot done. But only time will tell.
There has been a fair amount of talk about congressional hearings looking into climate science. I personally will welcome such hearings because I think what they will reveal is that the science of climate change is robust, that the core conclusions of climate science are sound — namely that the climate is changing in ways that are unusual against the backdrop of natural variability and that humans are responsible for a large part of that. A variety of forms of harm, in a variety of places, are already associated with climate change, and we know that that harm will grow unless and until we significantly reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases and other heat-trapping substances. Any set of hearings into the climate science issue are simply going to underscore the reality of those propositions. I think most policy makers will eventually reach the conclusion that betting on mainstream science being wrong is gambling with the public’s welfare against very long odds.
There will be other discussions with the Congress that will be less contentious, because investments in science and technology accelerate the pace of innovation that we need to maintain economic competitiveness, to increase American exports and to create high-quality jobs. That should not be the slightest bit controversial across party lines.
How does the administration intend to move ahead with the control of greenhouse gas emissions?
Investments that we make in clean energy, in more efficient energy systems, in a smart grid are all investments that are valuable, important and productive even if you don’t believe that climate is changing and we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
There are a lot of executive authorities that can be used without the Congress to tackle pieces of the problem. We already saw in the first two years of the Obama administration an agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation to issue the first set of combined … tailpipe standards that address greenhouse gas emissions as well as fuel economy and conventional pollutants. We have an interagency task force on adaptation now in the executive branch. That’s something I think is unlikely to be challenged … because measures you take to increase resilience against storms, shoreline erosion, floods, droughts, heat waves — these are things that one should be interested in doing even if you don’t believe climate is changing. There is enough that we can do without legislation. I think we can get on the emissions trajectory that would ultimately take us to President Obama’s goals for 2020 in the next two years.
Dr. John P. Holdren is Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Prior to joining the Obama administration Dr. Holdren was Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and Director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, as well as professor in Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Director of the independent, nonprofit Woods Hole Research Center. From 1973 to 1996 he was on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, where he co-founded and co-led the interdisciplinary graduate-degree program in energy and resources.
Dr. Holdren holds advanced degrees in aerospace engineering and theoretical plasma physics from MIT and Stanford and is highly regarded for his work on energy technology and policy, global climate change, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as foreign member of the Royal Society of London. A former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, his awards include a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship, the John Heinz Prize in Public Policy, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, and the Volvo Environment Prize. He served from 1991 until 2005 as a member of the MacArthur Foundation’s board of trustees.
During the Clinton administration Dr. Holdren served as a member of PCAST through both terms and in that capacity chaired studies requested by President Clinton on preventing theft of nuclear materials, disposition of surplus weapon plutonium, the prospects of fusion energy, U.S. energy R&D strategy, and international cooperation on energy-technology innovation. In December 1995 he gave the acceptance lecture for the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, an international organization of scientists and public figures in which he held leadership positions from 1982 to 1997.
We reproduce an excerpt from a paper by John Holdren published in the journal “Innovations” in the Fall 2009 issue.
“Energy for Change: Introduction to the Special Issue on Energy & Climate Change”, Journal Article, Innovations, volume 4, issue 4, pages 3-11, Fall 2009
“Without energy, there is no economy. Without climate, there is no environment. Without economy and environment, there is no material well-being, no civil society, no personal or national security. The overriding problem associated with these realities, of course, is that the world has long been getting most of the energy its economies need from fossil fuels whose emissions are imperiling the climate that its environment needs.
Compounding that predicament are emissions from land-use change—above all, deforestation in the developing countries of the tropics. Like society’s choices about energy supply and use, this process has been driven by powerful economic and political forces insufficiently moderated by understanding or consideration of the environmental component of societal well-being.
This is no longer a hypothetical or distant issue. It is real and it is upon us. The climate is changing markedly nearly everywhere. The air and the oceans are warming, mountain glaciers are disappearing, permafrost is thawing, sea ice is shrinking, the great land ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica are slipping, and sea level is rising. And the consequences for human well-being are already being felt: more heat waves, floods, droughts, and wildfires; tropical diseases reaching into the temperate zones; vast areas of forest being destroyed by pest outbreaks linked to warming; hurricanes and typhoons of greater power; and coastal property increasingly at risk from the surging seas.
All this is happening faster than was expected. Sea level is rising at twice the average rate for the 20th century. The volume of sea ice in the Arctic (its area times its average thickness), which reaches a seasonal minimum every September, appears to have been smaller in September 2008 than in any year of the last 30—the period in which we’ve been able to estimate this variable. In that same 30 years, the average area annually burned by wildfires in the western United States has quadrupled.
Nor is the primary cause of these changes any longer in serious doubt. The primary cause is the emission of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants from our factories, homes, offices, vehicles, and power plants, and from land clearing. We also know that failure to curb these emissions will bring far bigger impacts from global climate change than those experienced so far. Drastic changes in weather patterns, sharp drops in the productivity of farms and ocean fisheries, a dramatic acceleration of species extinctions, and inundation of low-lying areas by rising sea level are among the possible outcomes.
But we also know what we can and must do to avoid the worst of these possibilities. We must work together—East and West and North and South—to transform our technologies for supplying and using energy from polluting and wasteful to clean and efficient. We must create new incentives and agreements to accelerate this transformation, and to bring deforestation and other destructive land-use practices to a halt around the world. And we must invest in adaptation efforts to reduce our vulnerability to the degree of climate change that can no longer be avoided.
We can do this together. And when we do, we will benefit not only by avoiding the worst damage from climate change, but also by reducing our perilous overdependence on petroleum, alleviating the air pollution that afflicts our cities, preserving our forests as havens for biodiversity and sources of sustainable livelihoods, and unleashing a new wave of technological innovation—generating new businesses, new jobs, and new growth in the course of creating the clean and efficient energy systems of the future.
The key question we now need to heed about what the science of climate change is telling us is how much progress we need to make with these measures,and how quickly, to have a good chance of avoiding climate changes more extreme than our adaptation efforts will be able to manage. And the science is increasingly clear in pointing to the conclusion that it will be essential to hold the global average temperature increase to no more than two degrees Celsius if we are to keep climate change to a manageable level.
It is likewise clear that if we are to have a good chance of meeting this goal, global emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants must level off by about 2020 and decline thereafter to something like 50 percent of the current levels by 2050, with continuing declines after that. Allowing for the larger historical responsibility and much higher current per capita emissions of the industrialized countries and for the development trajectories and aspirations of the developing ones, the most likely way to achieve this goal would be for the industrialized world to level off its emissions by 2015 and reduce them thereafter to around 20 percent of current levels by 2050, with the developing countries following after a lag of about a decade, leveling off their emissions by about 2025 and reducing them after that.
These are targets that we can meet. As the content of this special issue of Innovations illustrates, the solutions to our climate challenge aren’t just “out there,” they are right here—before your eyes, in your hands. Climate solutions are in California, which thirty years ago charted a course toward energy efficiency that other states are only now beginning to follow. They are in Brazil, which generates 50% of the fuel used in its cars from home-grown sugarcane. They are in New Hampshire, where a company started by a former nuclear engineer is working to develop the carbon capture and storage technologies that will be essential for a cleaner coal future. They are in Hawaii, where plug-in electric vehicles are quietly becoming a reality. And they are in Arkansas, where the world’s biggest company—Walmart—is establishing standards for energy use and carbon reductions that will apply not only to its global operations but to its entire supply chain.
These and the other innovations described in this special issue are not isolated anecdotes. Nor are they elements of any single grand plan. They are simply a few of the many pathways to progress created every day by citizens, by the businesses that serve them, and by the governments that represent them. Such pathways derive from another other type of energy vital to addressing our climate challenges: the creative energy of people who, through ingenuity, partnerships, and collaborations, are able to cut through complexity to arrive at practical solutions. We can ask for no better guides than they to lead us toward the prosperous and secure future to which we all aspire….”