Obama pick for science signals new view on global warming

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 19, 2008 

John Holdren in 2007.

KEITH SRAKOCIC / AP

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama's choice of John P. Holdren as his science adviser sends a strong signal that Obama sees global warming as an urgent problem and wants bold suggestions for action.

The Harvard University environmental policy professor has argued that the world already is experiencing dangerous climate change as a result of fossil fuel combustion. He's said there's still time to avert catastrophe, but only with a strong and rapid global effort.

At a recent talk in Washington, Holdren boiled it down to this:

"Without energy there is no economy. Without climate there is no environment. Without economy and environment there's no material well-being, there's no civil society, there's no personal or national or international security. And the problem is that the way we've been getting the energy our economies need is wrecking the climate that our environment needs. That is the essence of the problem."

He said at the time that he hoped that the next administration would "really break its spear on the question of can we get a sensible climate policy with the Congress and the public behind it" in time to go to the final round of negotiations on a new international treaty late next year "and finally have a voice that is respected by other countries."

Harvard issued a news release Friday saying that Obama is expected to announce Holdren's appointment Saturday. The science adviser heads the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President.

Holdren has gone to China half a dozen times a year since 1984 to meet with Chinese climate and energy officials. Tsinghua University, one of China's most prestigious schools, named him this year as a three-year nonresident guest professor.

Holdren has said he thinks that if the United States leads with emission reduction requirements, China and the rest of the world will follow, because their countries already are suffering from water and agricultural problems.

Holdren has also said that scientists need to get better at explaining what's happening with more urgency. The term "global warming" could be part of the problem, he argued, because it implies something uniform, gradual and benign, and it's none of those.

"It is rapid compared to the capacity of ecosystems to adjust and, alas, rapid compared to our capacity as a society to adjust," he said.

"We should be calling it global climatic disruption."

Holdren is a professor of environmental policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and the director of the science, technology and public policy program at the school's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He also is the director of the Woods Hole Research Station.

He earned Master of Science and Ph.D. degrees in aerospace engineering and plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University. He's a specialist in nuclear arms control and nonproliferation as well as global climate change and energy policy.

"John is the very model of a policy-relevant scientist," Belfer Center Director Graham Allison said in a statement Friday. "He has a deep understanding of the dynamics of science and technology as drivers of the challenges society faces — from climate disruption to nuclear danger — and new opportunities for feasible solutions."

ON THE WEB

Harvard's news release about Holdren

A speech by Holdren, "Meeting the Climate-Change Challenge," given in Washington on Jan. 17

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