AAAS President John Holdren urges action on climate change, energy system, and sustainability


In his February 15 Presidential Address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being,” Harvard Prof. John Holdren called on scientists and engineers to get personally involved in developing solutions and suggested that fundamental changes on a global scale are needed. In talking with reporters he reflected our concerns in noting the Bush administration’s “tendencies toward fact-averse governance” and cutback in support for climate change research in the past four years.

Since we first worked with him in 1991 on a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on technologies and strategies for addressing global warming, we have admired Dr. Holdren for his ideas and for his citizen-scientist ability to communicate—something we need more of from the science community. 

From a AAAS news release:

AAAS President John P. Holdren Urges Swift Action to Build a Sustainable Future

SAN FRANCISCO—Challenges such as poverty, climate change and nuclear proliferation pose global threats that require scientists and engineers to join with political and business leaders in a concerted search for solutions, AAAS President John P. Holdren said Thursday.

In his Presidential Address at the AAAS Annual Meeting, Holdren described a world poised at an unprecedented moment of decision: Without swift and urgent action, he said, the problems could spiral toward disastrous, permanent changes for all of life on Earth.

Holdren’s address was a sweeping review of evidence which, taken together, shows a planet under profound stress. He said that one of the central problems, and the most complex, is ending the reliance on fossil fuels that is damaging and destabilizing the Earths ecosystem.

“Reliable and affordable energy is essential for meeting basic human needs and fueling economic growth,” he said. “But many of the most difficult and dangerous environmental problems at every level of economic development arise from the harvesting, transport, processing, and conversion of energy.”

To address the gathering challenges, he said that world leaders would have to work on a range of fronts—economic, diplomatic and technological. He urged scientists and engineers to get personally involved in developing solutions, and he drew a standing ovation when he called on them to “tithe” 10% of their time “to working to increase the benefits of science and technology for the human condition and to decrease the liabilities.”

Holdren’s hour-long talk—“Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being—was delivered on the first night of the 2007 Annual Meeting. The meeting has brought an estimated 10,000 scientists, journalists, members of the public and others together for five days of symposia, lectures and briefings spanning the fields of S&T. This year, however, the focus is on the interactions of people and the global environment.

On climate science and policy:

Holdren opened the Annual Meeting Thursday morning with a breakfast for nearly 100 journalists from around the world. He told the reporters that he is “much encouraged” by the growing involvement of business leaders in addressing climate change; he cited the recent statement signed by major corporate leaders and environmental groups calling for the swift enactment of strong national legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But he expressed concern about the “pathetically small” amount worldwide of public and private investment in energy research and development. And when asked about the policies of the Bush administration, he said: “We have seen some tendencies toward fact-averse governance.”…

Meanwhile, the federal government has moved to reduce funding for climate change research in the past four years….

On environmental and climate issues, Holdren stressed that the emergency is not looming in the future, but is having a palpable impact now.

“Climate change is not a problem for our children and our grandchildren—it is a problem for us,” he said. “It’s already causing harm.”…

By 2100, he said, some projections say global temperatures could rival those of the Eocene epoch some 35 million years ago, a time of dramatic global warming that caused dramatic disruptions—waves of extinction—in Earth’s ecosystem. He quoted a colleague who envisioned “crocodiles off of Greenland and palm trees in Wyoming.”

But the warming temperatures don’t simply make the weather warmer—they destabilize the weather and generate more extremes, Holdren said. Some areas are getting wetter; others are experiencing unusual long-term droughts. Cyclones are becoming more powerful. Between 1950 and 2000, the number of major floods and wildfires has increased dramatically in almost every region of the world.

Holdren suggested that addressing such challenges effectively to improve the overall well-being of humanity will require a radical reconfiguration of policy and economies—and daily life—on a global scale. World leaders would have to cooperate as never before. Such cooperation would have to yield new commitments and strategies to resolve the crushing poverty that affects perhaps 2 billion people. And, he said, a cap on carbon emissions or a “carbon tax” to encourage use of alternative fuels is “desperately needed.”…

On Dr. Holdren:

Holdren is director of The Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts and the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard University. Trained in engineering and plasma physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, Holdren co-founded the graduate program in energy and resources at the University of California-Berkeley in 1973 after stints at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Caltech.

His work has focused on energy technology and policy, global environmental 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. In December 1995 he delivered the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance lecture on behalf of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

On Monday, 19 February, he will become chairman of the AAAS board, succeeding Dr. Gilbert S. Omenn, professor of Internal Medicine, Human Genetics, and Public Health at the University of Michigan. In introductory remark before Holdren’s address, Omenn called him “one of the most remarkable people of our time” at bridging science and policy for the public good.

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