Holdren at Adaptation Summit: We’re not serious until we put a price on greenhouse gas emissions

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“If we do not accept that climate change is an enormously important dimension of the energy challenge that we face, and larger environmental challenges that we face, we will not put into the legislation that we need, the key ingredient that we need,” Obama science and technology adviser John Holdren said during the Q&A following his remarks to the National Climate Adaptation Summit on May 27. “The President is well aware of that. I certainly expect that there will be, at some point, going forward…a major speech from the President that puts all this together in a very forceful way. And: “Until the US gets serious nationally about climate change – and we’re not serious until we put a price on greenhouse gas emissions – we’re not going to have the international agreement, we’re not going to have the mitigation that we need, and we’re not going to have the support for adaptation.”

Related CSW posts:
Text of remarks by Obama science adviser John Holdren to the National Climate Adaptation Summit (May 28)

Holdren and Lubchenco warn Congress of climate disruption, call for emissions cuts and preparedness (Dec. 5, 09)

Rep. Sensenbrenner projects “fascism” and “fraud” onto scientists, is rebutted at hearing (Dec. 8, 09)

From the question and answer session following prepared remarks to the National Climate Adaptation Summit by John Holdren, the President’s science and technology adviser, Washington, DC, May 27, 2010 —

Q (from Rick Piltz, Climate Science Watch): John, everything you said was great, as usual.  I just have one question about the State of the Union this year, when the President referred to the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change and then the Republicans booed, or whatever that goofy thing they were doing, and the President pivoted so quickly to saying, “But even if you don’t believe the science we can all agree about clean energy –”

Dr. Holdren: – We should be doing a lot of this stuff anyway–

RP:  It seemed to me like he was just tossing 3,000 pages of the IPCC overboard very quickly instead of hanging in there with the science community a little longer. I’m wondering, when will the President really give a speech to the American people that’s about the climate change problem as such?

Dr. Holdren: Let me say two things. First of all it was not the intent in that formulation to throw 3,000 pages of the IPCC work overboard. The President and I certainly agree that the IPCC has performed an enormously valuable service in compiling and summarizing climate science and the options going forward in the way that it has.

This notion that there is a lot that we should do anyway, even if you don’t believe the science, is a kind of two-edged notion because, on the one hand it’s valuable to let these folks know that even if they insist on retaining their skepticism on climate change they should be going along with all this anyway. On the other hand, it’s dangerous because as we in this room know, if we do not accept that climate change is an enormously important dimension of the energy challenge that we face, and larger environmental challenges that we face, we will not put into the legislation that we need, the key ingredient that we need. The President is well aware of that.

I certainly expect that there will be, at some point, going forward, I can’t tell you for certain when that will be, there will be a major speech from the President that puts all this together in a very forceful way. The fact is, it’s true – it’s not enough that I’m out there saying it, that Steve Chu is out there saying it, that Jane Lubchenco’s out there saying it. It’s far, far more powerful when the President is out there saying it, and he will do that.

Again, I talk to him regularly about this, he talks about it to the cabinet. The President understands with crystal clarity what a big deal this is, and it’s not just a matter of the stuff we should do even if we don’t believe in climate change. He believes in it, he understands it, and we’re going to get it done.

Q (Lara Hansen, EcoAdapt): Thank you so much for framing the need for both adaptation and mitigation in parallel. One of the topics that has come up in several of the breakouts over the course of the past few days is the need for government action on mitigation in order to spur people to take adaptation seriously. Without the clear message that this really is a problem that people are engaging on the root cause of, it’s hard to get people to address the effects of it, and although Andy Revkin this morning pointed out the fact that understanding the potential impacts can lead people, and the need for adaptation can lead people, to want to do more on mitigation, I think really having that underlying mitigation piece being taken very seriously and actively at the federal level is important.

This brings me to my question. What hopeful guidance can you give us on where we might be on the way to an international agreement that might make this problem start being solved?

Holdren: Well first of all, the most important single thing that we need to get done in this country, in this domain, is comprehensive energy and climate change legislation that includes a mechanism that puts a significant price on greenhouse gas emissions. Until we get that done, we will not even begin to do enough on the mitigation side, and we will not have the credibility we need, ultimately to forge the sort of international agreement that is required.

Again, just back from Beijing, back from talking to Chinese leaders – They understand this problem is real. They understand that China has to participate in the solution, that it cannot be solved without them. They understand it’s already harming China. But they understandably expect the richest country in the world, the most technologically capable country, the country in the world that has contributed more to cumulative greenhouse gas emissions since the beginning of the industrial revolution than any other, to lead.

Unless and until the US gets serious nationally about climate change – and we’re not serious until we put a price on greenhouse gas emissions – until we do that we’re not going to have the international agreement, we’re not going to have the mitigation that we need, and we’re not going to have the support for adaptation, as your question suggests. It will be a lot easier to get people serious for adaptation when they see that we’re also serious about mitigation.

A video of Dr. Holdren’s full presentation is available as part of the archived webcasts of Summit plenary and keynote speakers. Thanks to Climate Science Watch research associate Rebeka Ryvola for transcribing.

Earlier CSW posts:

May 24: National Climate Adaptation Summit, 25-27 May, 2010 – Washington, DC

January 28: Obama State of the Union evasive and inadequate on climate change and climate science

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