Text of remarks by Obama science adviser John Holdren to the National Climate Adaptation Summit


“Mitigation alone won’t work, because the climate is already changing, we’re already experiencing impacts….A mitigation only strategy would be insanity,” President Obama’s science and technology adviser John Holdren said in his remarks to the National Climate Adaptation Summit conference in Washington, DC, on May 27.  “Changes in climate are already harming human well-being…. The harm is likely to grow to far larger levels if we fail to take aggressive action in this country and in concert with other nations on both mitigation and adaptation.” See Details for full text.

The text here has been shortened somewhat from Dr. Holdren’s oral statement and very lightly copyedited, but contains all essential science and policy content.  A video of his 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.

Remarks by the Honorable John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President, to the National Climate Adaptation Summit conference, Washington, DC, May 27, 2010 —

…I think this turnout – folks from around the country, converging for two days in Washington – is an impressive show of your readiness, indeed your eagerness, to move ahead with developing and implementing the agenda on climate change adaptation that we all know is needed.

[On core climate science conclusions]

I want to start with a few observations essentially about the context into which our adaptation considerations fit—about what the core conclusions of climate change science have been, and remain, about where we are, what’s happening, and what it is we need to do. I think there are four such conclusions.

The first, of course, is that global climate is changing. On average it’s warming at a rate that’s highly unusual against the background of natural variation that has always characterized the earth’s climate. It’s warming, on the average, but with the warming come changes in all of the elements of climate and all the phenomena related to it. That means rain and snow, atmospheric circulation, ocean currents, storms, all changing in their spatial patterns, in their magnitudes, and, very importantly, changing in their timing.

The second core conclusion is that the main cause of these unusual changes in climate is human activity, above all the combustion of fossil fuels and secondarily tropical deforestation and other land use change. The evidence for the dominance of the human role in what we are experiencing is powerful and I think it should be persuasive to anybody not blinded by wishful thinking who looks at that evidence carefully.

The third point is that these changes in climate are already harming human well-being. This is not just a problem for our children and grandchildren, it’s a problem for us now. We’re seeing more and bigger floods in regions prone to flooding, we’re seeing more and bigger droughts in regions prone to those. We’re seeing worse wildfires; more powerful storms; worse outbreaks of forest pests like the pine bark beetle and the spruce budworm; more coral bleaching events; increased coastal erosion; damage to structures and roads from thawing permafrost in the far north, and a lot more.

The fourth point is that the harm is likely to grow to far larger levels if we fail to take aggressive action in this country and in concert with other nations on both mitigation and adaptation.

Those conclusions from climate change science are robust. Nothing in the emails hacked from East Anglia University servers, nothing in the lapses in the IPCCs review process—which, by the way, have been few in number, and minor in importance—nothing in any of that comes close to calling into question the core findings that I have just tersely summarized.

I can assure you that that is president Obama’s view, it is my view, it is Secretary [of Energy] Chu’s view, Secretary [of Interior] Salazar’s view, NOAA administrator Lubchenco’s view, EPA administrator Jackson’s view, [White House Council on Environmental Quality] Chair Sutley’s view, [White House] Energy and Climate coordinator Browner’s view.  It is the administration’s view, and accordingly, the administration remains committed to getting comprehensive energy and climate legislation through the Congress this year.

[Role of adaptation in climate strategy]

Now, having said that, by way of context, let me turn to the role of adaptation in our climate change strategy. The fact is, that facing the climate change adaptation challenge, as I characterized it briefly a moment ago, we only have three options. One is mitigation, the steps we take to reduce the pace and magnitude of the changes in climate that our activities cause. The second is adaptation, the measures we take to reduce the harm that results from climate change that we do not avoid, and the third option is suffering. It’s really that simple: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering.

We’re already doing some of each. We’re already mitigating, we’re already adapting, and as I’ve noted, we’re already suffering. The question – the issue that’s up for grabs – is what the mix going forward is going to be among mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. If our aim is to minimize suffering, as it should be, as it must be, we’re going to have to maximize both mitigation and adaptation.

Mitigation alone won’t work, because the climate is already changing, we’re already experiencing impacts.  Nothing we can do in the mitigation domain can stop it overnight, so a mitigation only strategy would be insanity.

Adaptation alone won’t work, because adaptation gets more difficult, and more expensive, the larger are the changes in climate to which we are trying to adapt. If you live on an island that is one meter above sea level and the sea level goes up two meters, adaptation is no longer the question. You’re dealing with evacuation. Clearly what we need is enough mitigation to limit changes in climate to a level with which adaptation can largely cope.

A phrase that we used as the subtitle of a report on climate change and sustainable development that Rosina and I and a number of others here were involved in for the Secretary General of the UN a few years ago… the subtitle was Avoiding the Unmanageable and Managing the Unavoidable. Equal emphasis given to mitigation – avoiding the unmanageable, and adaptation – managing the unavoidable. I think that was probably the first international report to give equal emphasis to adaptation along with mitigation.

I think fortunately that’s a trend that is now well-ensconced in the community of scholars and practitioners and policymakers grappling with the climate change challenge. The IPCC, in planning its next assessment, has drastically ramped up the attention that will be given to adaptation. The National Academy of Sciences, in its recent set of three reports released just about a week ago – there’s one on the science, there’s one on mitigation, and there’s one on adaptation.  There are another couple coming on communication/policy making and one pulling the whole thing together. But again, the emphasis on adaptation is going to be equal – is equal – to that on mitigation.  That is as it should be.  And this will be the case as well as we’re planning for the focus and the organization of the US Global Change Research Program going forward, which I know others here have talked about. Again there is a large increase in the amount of attention that will be given to adaptation.

[On leadership and the USGCRP]

I understand that, among other topics, there has been a good deal of discussion at this meeting about the importance of leadership and continuity in leadership as we address these issues going forward….This is the sort of issue that is sometimes difficult to get traction on in an administration that is necessarily pre-occupied with a whole variety of shorter-term issues. When I first came into this job one of my principle deputies Tom Khalil said correctly that our biggest challenge is going to be figuring out how to avoid the urgent crowding out the important. That remains a danger and I think it’s one that we have to struggle with in the adaptation domain. Adaptation is extremely important, but in the face of Iran, North Korea, Gulf oil spills, and so on, it is sometimes difficult to sustain the amount of attention on an important, long-term issue like adaptation, that one would like.

Nonetheless we’re getting there. When the president signed his Executive Order on sustainability last October, he laid a foundation for a national adaptation strategy. We set up an interagency Adaptation Task Force that is co-chaired by OSTP, CEQ, and NOAA. We have provided, I think, considerable impetus to focusing on adaptation and adaptation science, both through repeated testimony that I have given to a number of committees of the Congress, and through a boost in the budget to the [US Global Change Research Program], which is up 20 % in the president’s FY 2011 budget request and will have a very substantial focus on adaptation in it.

We’ve asked Tim Killeen, the associate director for Geosciences at [the National Science Foundation], to chair the USGCRP’s strategic planning process. He and a team that will be formed to join him in that will be developing the strategic plan for the next 10 years that will embrace the science of responses with adaptation at the center of it, as well as the foundations of the physical climate system.

I think it’s also been announced here that Tom Karl from NOAA will be taking over the chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Global Change Research under the National Science and Technology Council.  As I think most people here know, the National Science and Technology Council is nominally chaired by the president is in practice chaired by me. Its four major subdivisions are chaired by the associate directors of OSTP. Shere Abbott is chairing the Environment and Natural Resources Committee under the NSTC, and in that context the Subcommittee on Global Change Research will be chaired by Tom Karl.

We are delighted that Tom and Tim agreed to take on these important responsibilities in addition to the large other responsibilities that they both have. I want assure them both that I am not unaware of the magnitude of the burden that we’re imposing on them. You have my thanks as well as Shere’s, and when I tell the president about what you’re doing, I’m sure you’ll have his as well.

[On communication]

As we move forward, we’re going to be putting a lot of other pieces in place for the sort of coherent and comprehensive approach to this issue that again, we all know we require. Communication as well as leadership is a crucial issue.

There have been concerns that the administration is not working hard enough to communicate about this issue. I’d like to assure you that I give three or four speeches a week around the country and most recently around the world – I gave a couple of talks in Beijing about this topic – and I speak out forcefully, as I have here, on what our fundamental understandings are, on the point that they remain robust, notwithstanding what some have accurately called a crisis of manufactured doubt. Steve Chu talks about this all the time. Jane Lubchenco talks about it all the time. Shere gives speeches and talks about this.

We are out there trying and one of the problems we have – and I think you all know about tis – is that the media often prefer reporting hearsay to reporting the conclusions of mainstream science on this particular matter. They seem to think that mainstream science is old news and it’s the people shooting at it are more newsworthy, and I think that is unfortunate.

I think, by the way, that in the communication domain we would do a lot better if we stopped calling this problem global warming. Global warming implies something that is uniform around the world, that is gradual, that is mainly about temperature. It sort of implies that it might be good for you. What could be the matter of a little warming among friends? The fact is, as the people in this room know, it is highly non-uniform, it is not gradual at all, it’s rapid, and compared to the capacities of human societies and ecosystems to adjust it is not good for us, certainly. While a few people in a few places may benefit temporarily from changes in climate we’re experiencing, overall and increasingly as we go forward into the remainder of this century, the impacts, or global climate disruption as I would prefer to call it, are going to be overwhelmingly negative.

I think we have to be clear about that. We have to be clear that the average surface temperature is just a proxy for the state of the climate system, just as the temperature of your body is a proxy for the state of your body. If your body temperature goes up by two degrees celsius, you know you have a problem. Everybody should understand that if the Earth’s temperature goes up two degrees celsius, the Earth has a problem.

We have to get better at talking about this. I would note that the president, even with all the other issues he had to discuss in his State of the Union message referred to the overwhelming scientific evidence about global climate change. He got some boos and moans from one area of the house. I told him afterwards I thought that was a badge of honor.


Stakeholder engagement is crucial….It is about the folks at every level, who are out there in the trenches doing the work that will have to be done in order to get the degree of intelligent, comprehensive, sensitive adaptation to climate change that we’re going to need – getting that done. At the local level, at the regional level, at the state level, at the national level, and of course, ultimately though a variety of forms of international cooperation, we have to get this done around the world, both on the mitigation side and on the adaptation side.

I think we are at a turning point on this issue. I think we are going to turn it around, both in the perception of the public, in the perception of policymakers at every level, and we’re going to get on with it. We’re going to get on with the mitigation we need to do and we’re going to get on with the adaptation we need to do. I am incredibly grateful, as is the president, to the folks in this room, for your commitment, to working on this enormous challenge.

Related CSW posts:

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



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