Part 1: John Holdren Senate testimony on climate change science and policy

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In July 30 Senate testimony on the relationship between climate research, assessment, and policymaking, President Obama’s science and technology adviser John Holdren presented the kind of articulate, rational, mainstream perspective that we have been accustumed to hearing from him for many years.  The reality of his views and actions gives the lie to the cynical and paranoid attempt to vilify him currently circulating in some of the right-wing online media and blogs.

See Part 2: John Holdren Senate testimony on new directions for climate research and information service

And our earlier posts:
Video link and key quotes from White House briefing on Global Climate Change Impacts report (posted on June 17)

Holdren and Lubchenco sail through Senate confirmation hearing with flying colors (posted on Feb. 13)

Getting to know John Holdren, Part 2:  A compendium of CSW posts 2006-2009 (posted on Jan. 22)

Dr. Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), testified before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee at a hearing on “Climate Services: Solutions from Commerce to Communities. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke also testified.  Written testimony and an archived webcast of the hearing is posted on the Committee’s website.

Dr. Holdren’s written testimony contains this hopeful note:

When we do all that we ought to do in the way of both mitigation and adaptation, we will benefit not only by avoiding the worst damages from climate change, but also by reducing our overdependence on petroleum, continuing to improve air quality in our cities, preserving our forests as havens for biodiversity and sources of sustainable livelihoods, reducing our vulnerability to the extreme weather events that occur from time to time even when climate is not changing overall, and generating new businesses, new jobs, and new growth in the course of getting it all done.

His testimony concisely summarizes some of what we “ought to do.”  But in order to “do all that we ought to do,” it will first be necessary to defeat decisively the opposition to rational action that now characterizes a substantial portion of Congress, their backers among interests that oppose a strong climate policy, public officials at all levels of government who have barely begun to come to grips with the reality of planning in terms of climate disruption—and the global warming denial machine, which continues to churn out propaganda and a rapid clip. The wingnuts in the blogosphere, such as those who have been seeking to mis-characterize Dr. Holdren’s intellectual positions and motives, may always be with us, but they appear to be impervious to reality-based discussion in any case and hopefully the toxic game they are playing can be kept successfully marginalized. 

In his 11-page written testimony Dr. Holdren began by framing the state of scientific understanding of the implications of human-driven climate disruption for U.S. policymaking with more straight talk than we got for eight years under the Bush administration and Dr. Holdren’s predecessor at OSTP.  And on the inevitability of climate change impacts and the need for adaptation to attempt to reduce vulnerability and enhance resilience, Holdren went beyond what the President himself has thus far been willing to say to the public:

Investments in climate science over the past several decades have contributed to greatly increasing understanding of global climate change, including its attribution mainly to human influences….

We now know that climate is changing all across the globe. The air and the oceans are warming, mountain glaciers are disappearing, sea ice is shrinking, permafrost is thawing, the great land ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica are showing signs of instability, 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 destroyed by pest outbreaks linked to warming; alterations in patterns of rainfall on which agriculture depends; and coastal property increasingly at risk from the surging seas. All of these kinds of impacts are being experienced here in the United States as well as elsewhere, as extensively documented in a report of the U.S. Global Change Research program on Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States that was released with the endorsement of OSTP and NOAA last month….

Unfortunately, it is simply not practical to reduce heat-trapping emissions rapidly enough to halt overnight the build-up of the offending substances in the atmosphere, both because of the inertia in our energy infrastructure and in agricultural and forestry practices and because of the long residence times in the atmosphere of many of the greenhouse gases. Even if the atmospheric concentrations of all of the relevant substances could be stabilized instantaneously, the average surface temperature of the Earth would continue to slowly climb for decades, with accompanying changes in associated climatic phenomena such as rainfall patterns and temperature extremes, because of long lag time needed for the oceans to reach equilibrium with these atmospheric conditions.

This circumstance underlines the need to invest, in parallel with efforts to reduce emissions and increase uptake of the main heat-trapping gases and particles, in adaptation to the changes in climate that can no longer be avoided – e.g., breeding heat- and drought-resistant crop strains, bolstering defenses against tropical diseases, improving the efficiency of water use, managing ecosystems to improve their resilience, and management of coastal zones with sea-level rise in mind. As noted by the USGCRP Global Climate Change Impacts report, informed choices about adaptation will need to be made at many scales of human activity, from an individual farmer switching to growing a different crop variety better suited to warmer or drier conditions, to a company relocating key business centers away from coastal areas vulnerable to sea-level rise and hurricanes, to a community altering its zoning and building codes to place fewer structures in harm’s way and making buildings less vulnerable to damage from floods, fires, and other extreme events.

It remains to be seen how successfully Dr. Holdren and the administration will be in building these considerations into the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a National Climate Service, and a national climate change adaptation and preparedness strategy.  He addressed some of those matters in his testimony, which will be the subject of Part 2 of this post.

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