Getting to know Dr. John Holdren, Part 1: Remarks in 1997 on global climatic disruption

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Text of Presidential Science Adviser-designee John Holdren’s remarks and Q&A at a 1997 press conference to release a Scientists’ Statement on Global Climatic Disruption:  Holdren and NOAA Administrator-designee Jane Lubchenco were among six initial signers.  As US public and political leaders begin to catch up with what Holdren has been saying, imagine if we’d had a White House that reflected this thinking during the past eight years, and consider what has been lost.

Post by Anne Polansky and Rick Piltz, with grateful acknowledgement to Nick Sundt.

Nearly a dozen years ago, in the spring of 1997, the Ecological Society of America and Ozone Action collaborated to collect over 2500 signatures of scientists representing a variety of disciplines endorsing the Scientists’ Statement on Global Climatic Disruption. Among the six initial signatories were John P. Holdren and Jane Lubchenco. President-Elect Obama on 20 December 2008 named Holdren as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White
House Office of Science and Technology Policy; and Lubchenco as his Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The statement was officially unveiled on June 18, 1997 in a press conference in Washington, DC, featuring Holdren and two other prominent scientists engaged in research crucial to furthering our understanding of global warming:

  • George M. Woodwell, president and director of the Woods Hole Research Center (he is now director emeritus and senior scientist), and
  • William H. Schlesinger, James B. Duke Professor, Duke University, North Carolina (he is now president of the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY)

John Holdren had just left the University of California at Berkeley the year before, where for 23 years he co-led the Energy and Resources Group, to become the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy, and the Director of the Program in Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.  His remarks and responses to questions at the press conference were transcribed and published in a now-defunct newsletter, Global Change, published by the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security. 

The transcription and photo, below, were provided by the newsletter’s editor, Nick Sundt, a graduate of the Energy and Resources Group under Holdren. Sundt later headed communications for the USGCRP/Climate Change Science Program Office and is now communications manager for the Climate Change Program at the World Wildlife Fund.  The editor’s note explains that the questions were rephrased for clarification but all statements attributed to Holdren are exact quotes.


Photo by Nick Sundt
John P. Holdren

Holdren: I think that global climate change caused by human activity and above all by fossil fuel combustion is both the most dangerous and the most intractable environmental problem that civilization faces. It is the most dangerous because climate creates the envelope of environmental conditions within which all other environmental conditions and processes that operate in support of human well-being have to be able to function. And messing with that envelope of climatic conditions messes with the capacity of the environment to do everything that it does for us.

We are talking about the potential for disruptions, reductions in the productivity of farms and forests and fisheries, we are talking about increases in the frequency and intensity of destructive storms, we are talking about changes in the geographic distribution of disease organisms, we are talking about rises in sea level imperiling coastal property, we are talking about losses in biodiversity and a lot more.

The problem is the most intractable one in the whole array of environmental problems, because its fundamental causes are so deeply embedded in our way of life. Seventy-five percent of all of the energy used on this planet comes from fossil fuels, the combustion of which is releasing the vast quantities of carbon dioxide that has produced the bulk of these climatic changes that we are talking about and will continue to produced them, because as Dr. [William H.] Schlesinger has pointed out, the lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere is very long. In the US, 85% of our energy supply comes from fossil fuels.

The investment in the world energy system, mostly a fossil fueled energy system, is about $10 trillion at replacement cost. If you had to build it all over today, it would cost $10 trillion. The average lifetime of these energy facilities is 30-40 years. Those numbers mean that you cannot change that system rapidly. You cannot transform it 20 years from now overnight, if you suddenly decide that the consequences of climate change have become completely intolerable.

We understand the basics of climate change. You often hear about the uncertainties. There are uncertainties about the details, the timing and the intensity, and the geographic distribution of the effects. But there is really no serious doubt that continuing to mess with the composition of the atmosphere as we have will have exceedingly disruptive consequences.

And that is one of the reasons why this statement is headed "climatic disruption." Simply to talk about global warming does not do justice to what is going on because the average warming conceals large changes in patterns and extremes of hot and cold, wet and dry, the tracks of storms and so on and so forth. We really need to understand this as disruption that we are talking about. Even the term "global climate change" which better describes the variety of things going on, does not adequately express that we are messing up this system on which our wellbeing depends.

The probability that the consequences will be intolerable is high. Each day that we delay, we dig ourselves a deeper hole that we have to climb out of. It is terribly important that we get on with this job.

Because of the time lags that are built into the geochemistry of the problem as Dr Schlesinger has described and the time lags that are built into our capacity to respond by changing the nature of our energy system, it is absolutely essential that we get on with the job, starting now, to try to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, even in the absence of complete certainty about what all the consequences of not doing that would be. The probability that the consequences will be intolerable is high. Each day that we delay, we dig ourselves a deeper hole that we have to climb out of. It is terribly important that we get on with this job.

And I should add finally … that I think the economic consequences of the sorts of responses we are talking about often are overrated. Dr [George M.] Woodwell has already pointed to the statement signed by more than two thousand economists, including six Nobel laureates, in which they pointed out that many of the measures that one would undertake to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions will save money on net. That is they will require investments, but against those investments we must count the cost of the energy that you did not have to use because you improved the efficiency of end-use in your energy system.

You have to count the reduction and dependence on oil imports. And of course you have to count the other environmental benefits that go along with reducing the use of the most environmentally disruptive fossil fuels, that is the reductions in air pollution, the reductions in water pollutions, the reductions in acid rain that would go along with the kind of transformation of our energy system and our energy efficiency that we are talking about here.

There will be some costs, there will be some investments, but there will be terrific gains. We are not talking about destroying the economy in order to deal with this problem. But are potentially talking about destroying the environment if we don’t deal with it.

Question: The Scientists’ Statement does not endorse any specific targets and/or timetables. Do you endorse any specific target — say a call to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 10% below 1990 levels in 2010?

Holdren: … It is particularly easy and timely to do that, because in the last few days, two new reports have been released by two groups addressing just that question. Yesterday there was released a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the NRDC, the Tellus Institute, the ACEEE and one or two others, that looked at the specific measures that one could undertake to try to reduce by the year 2010 carbon dioxide emissions in the US to 10% below their 1990 level.

There is nothing sacred about that number, but the interesting result is that their analysis showed — which included the use of some quite sophisticated economic models as well as addressing the specific energy technologies that would be used to bring this about — indicated that you could meet that goal and much deeper reductions by the year 2030, which they also looked at, you could meet that goal and make money, net. And create jobs, net, compared to the business as usual scenario where you try to do nothing different than what we are doing now.

In the last few days, there was also released a study of the same question by a consortium of National Laboratories — the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, the Argonne Lab, the Battelle PNL and again one or two others. Their conclusion, while no identical was similar. They concluded that you could reach 1990 levels again in 2010 at a gross investment amounting to $20/ton of carbon averted, which in terms of the amount of emissions that would have to be averted to meet that target is a sum in the range of $10 billion/year, a very small sum in relation to the overall level of economic activity and not counted against that sum in the analysis are the environmental gains and the savings in energy that one does not have to purchase in order to meet that target.

So the two studies are fairly similar. So I think it would be respectable, defensible and appropriate if the administration would set a target for 2010 of reductions of 10% below the 1990 level. It would be something of a challenge to get there, but not impossible, and it would enable us to hold onto the leadership role we have played up until now in the world community on this issue.

I think everyone should be clear that we are talking in the longer term about even deeper reductions.

But I think everyone should be clear that we are talking in the longer term about even deeper reductions. You are not finished in 2010 if in 2010 you get to 10% below the 1990 level. Ultimately, to stabilize the atmospheric concentration of CO2 at twice its pre-industrial levels, we would have to cut today’s emissions worldwide by at least 50%, and to stabilize the concentration anywhere near where it is today, you would have to cut fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions a factor of more like 5 or 6 fold. So it is a very big challenge in the longer term.

Question: The Congress will have to ratify any major change in the Climate Convention, pass any necessary legislation, and approve funding. How can Congress be convinced?

Holdren: I think it is important to present this to Congress in ways that relate to the ways that Congress thinks about problems facing this society. Congress passes every year with scarcely a hiccup a defense bill amounting typically to $250 billion/year which in a sense is an insurance policy to protect the interests of the public of the US against contingencies in the military arena, which have relatively low probability. We spend $40 billion out of the $250 billion on military research and development, which is an attempt to ensure that the technical capabilities of our weapons systems do not put us at a disadvantage in the next century.

We should be willing to spend a respectable amount of money to buy insurance against another set of contingencies that threaten the wellbeing of the public of the United States, the contingencies that are associated with climate change, which are in fact much more probable than the contingencies against which most of the defense expenditures are made. And if you make the comparison now on how much money we are spending on this, simply take energy R & D. Expenditures on energy research and development in the United States today, the sum of expenditures on advanced fossil fuel technologies, renewables, energy end-use efficiency, nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, the sum is less than $2 billion/year — more than 20 times less than the military R & D expenditures.

And yet I would argue and I believe the Congress ultimately will understand that society’s wellbeing is more imperiled by the likelihood that our energy options in the next century will be inadequate than by the likelihood that our weapons systems will be inadequate. I think you can make this case in terms that the Congress will understand.

Question: When the 2000 economists signed their statement, Pat Michaels (University of Virginia) responded by saying that there were many more economists who did not sign the statement. He’ll probably say something similar about this statement. How do people who are not familiar with the issue weigh what you are saying against what Pat Michaels and others are saying? Why should this statement be given greater weight?

Holdren: You raise Nick [Sundt, Editor, Global Change], a problem that is a very fundamental one. How are they supposed to react to disagreements among experts? It is difficult. Part of the answer, I think, is that the public has to try to make judgments about whether the arguments make sense. Whether they hang together, whether they are persuasive.

A second thing is if you try to look in detail at what the respectable bodies are saying that spent the most time addressing this issue and have done it in a way that has been subjected to peer review. You have to ask what has Dr Michaels written that has been subjected to peer review lately? Against it is the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which had an immensely elaborate and demanding review process. Against it are numerous reports of National Academy of Sciences committees studying this question, again subjected to immensely demanding review processes.

I think that basically we need to work on the education of the public on these matters, so they both know something about how science is done, how science and public policy interactions are treated, what kinds of reports are credible and for what reasons, based particularly on the review processes to which they are subjected and on the diversity of the kinds of people who associate themselves with the results.

But we also have to work, I believe on environmental science education in particular, so that people can be better equipped to make their own judgments about what makes sense.

Question: The environmental community has been militantly opposed nuclear power. Do you think they should change their attitudes in light of this problem? Do you think nuclear power could contribute to the solution of this problem?

Holdren: … I think that many people inside and outside the environmental community are concluding that nuclear energy needs another look. In the US, nuclear energy has been on the back burner for a long time. Even though we have today more nuclear power plants operating and more nuclear electricity generated than any other country in the world, we haven’t — as you know — ordered any new reactors since the 1970s.

And the reasons for that are not simply the opposition of environmentalists, they are partly the economics of nuclear energy, which has proven more costly than expected, while other things have proven to be cheaper than expected. More particularly, there is hardly an energy source of any sort that can compete today for electricity generation with natural gas. And if nuclear energy is to come back in this country or any other place that has natural gas, either nuclear energy would have to get a great deal cheaper, which seems unlikely, or natural gas would have to get considerably more expensive.

The latter is actually a good idea. That is, if we embodied in the price of fossil fuels, a tax proportional to their carbon content, as a way of internalizing part of the social costs of burning those fuels, the relative economics would change and nuclear energy as well as a variety of renewable energy resources would begin to be more attractive."

Nuclear energy, to be attractive, will also have to successfully address a couple of other issues. One of them is the radioactive waste in a way that is both technically sound and convincing to the public. And third is operation of nuclear energy systems in a way that adequately protect against the danger of the leakage of nuclear-weapon usable materials out of the civilian energy system and into the hands of people who might want to use them for those purposes.

My personal view is that those problems are all soluble and that we should be investing far more effort than we are investing now to trying to determine whether we can make nuclear energy a viable, expandable energy option again. Because we might need it. We might not. It might turn out that an array of renewable energy technologies will emerge with economic and other characteristics that make them so attractive that you won’t have to exercise that nuclear option. But my personal view is that nobody’s crystal ball is clear enough to determine whether or not that would be true. And if we were prudent, we would be investing serious R & D resources in trying to address the problems that have made nuclear energy such a difficult case.

We are not doing it now. The US government research on nuclear energy technology has all but vanished in the Federal R & D budget.

Question: One of the reasons it has vanished of course has been the militant opposition of environmental groups in this country. Do you think that should change?

Holdren: Actually, it is partially changing. I think you are correct that there are some people who are so fundamentally opposed to nuclear energy that they do not believe it should be reconsidered and that all of the efforts should be put into end-use efficiency and renewables and in improvements in fossil fuel technologies. It doesn’t happen to be my view.

I spend a certain amount of my time talking to environmental groups about this as well as to other groups. And I express the view that a prudent energy strategy would involve trying to make all of the options achieve their highest potential and then see after you have done that how they look one against the other in terms of economics, environment, safety, political risks and so on.

I think — again my personal opinion — that it is possible that we would find that nuclear energy would look good enough to play a substantial role. It is also possible that its problems would prove harder to solve than I anticipate and that renewables problems would prove easier to solve and that you would not use it. But I think it is important not to oversimplify the reasons for nuclear energy’s predicaments in this country.

It is not just what you call the militant environmentalists. The militant electric utilities are not interested today in buying nuclear power plants, and they are more uninterested in it not because of the opposition of environmentalists but because the costs are not attractive.

Question: Can you rate the administration’s performance on the climate issue since Rio? Has the administration demonstrated leadership?

Holdren: … I am a member of the President’s committee of advisers on science technology. And we meet with the Vice President from time to time to discuss this matter among others and I think you all know the Vice President in particular is very well informed about these matters. He has caused the President to become quite well informed about them. I think they are both committed to the notion that we have talked about here today: that this is both a very important environmental problem and a very difficult one in terms of the challenges it poses to the government and the citizenry to respond. I personally would have preferred if this problem had received more attention in the first term of the Clinton administration.

I believe it will receive more in the second term, partly because of the pressures on the US which must take specific positions in relation to the Kyoto meeting and other international meetings where this matter is being discussed. And also I hope because the President may find it somewhat easier to address an issue of this complexity and difficulty in his second term than he found it in the first.

I hope that is what is going to happen. But we have to wait to see. certainly his committee of advisers on science and technology has recommended to him — and gave it in a letter that became public in January — that one of the highest priorities for the second term in the science and technology policy area should be review of US energy research and development strategy with a particular eye on the environmental challenges that our energy system faces.

And as it happens I’ve been asked to lead that review, and I am chairing the PCAST [President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology] panel [of Experts on Energy Research and Development] of 21 members that will report to the President at the beginning of October on what we need to do in our energy R & D strategy to be responsive to this question. And since the President asked for that report [PCAST Study of the Nation’s Energy R&D Portfolio], and asked for it in very forceful language, I have some personal reason to hope that this question will be getting increased attention.

Question: What is your response to Congressional challenges to the adequacy of science and opposition of the legislators to relatively strong policy initiatives?

Holdren: Let me make a blunter statement about this … I think, and I said this in a PCAST meeting with the President last week, it is clear that we have in our country … a "know nothing, do nothing" faction, a faction which on almost every issue that entails the possibility of change, says "we don’t know anything and we must not do anything."

We don’t know everything about this subject but we know a lot. And what we know suggests that the downside risks of failing to deal with it are very large.

My view is that it is generally true that the people in that faction don’t know anything, but they are wrong in asserting that nobody else knows anything and that we shouldn’t do anything. We don’t know everything about this subject but we know a lot. And what we know suggests that the downside risks of failing to deal with it are very large. There is a significant probability of serious damage to our economy, to the public health to the functioning of ecosystems and to a whole lot of other things if we fail adequately to address this problem.

The costs of addressing are rather modest by almost any standard you can set. And the great majority of the economic models that have been applied to investigating this question show that. The question that is before the Congress, the administration and the public is: … In the face of very large downside risks from failing to address this problem, and very modest costs of addressing it — is it prudent to do nothing? I don’t think you need to be a rocket scientist or a Nobel laureate economist to answer that question.

Excerpts from the Scientists’ Statement on Global Climatic Disruption

We are scientists who are familiar with the causes and effects of the climatic disruption summarized recently by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). We endorse those reports and observe that the further accumulation of greenhouse gases commits the earth irreversibly to further warming and to further destabilization of global climate. The risks associated with such changes justify preventive action through reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases. As the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States must take leadership by fulfilling its commitment to reductions in its emissions.

Global climatic disruption is under way. The IPCC concluded that global mean surface air temperature has increased by between 0.54 and 1.08 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 100 years and anticipates a further continuing rise of 1.8 to 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit during the next century. Sea-level has risen on average 4-6 inches during the past 100 years and is expected to rise another 6 inches to 3 feet by 2100. Warmer temperatures cause an amplified hydrological cycle with increased precipitation and flooding in some regions and more severe aridity in other areas. The warming is expanding the geographical ranges of malaria and dengue fever and can be expected to open large new areas to human diseases and plant and animal pests. Effects of the disruption of climate are sufficiently complicated for us to assume that there will be effects not now anticipated.

Our familiarity with the scale, severity, and costs to human welfare of the disruptions that the climatic changes threaten leads us to introduce this note of urgency and to call for early domestic action to reduce U.S. emissions.

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