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 UP CLOSE

BY BERYL LIEFF BENDERLY

IN THE HOT SEAT

Obama’s science adviser brings strong credentials and equally strong views.


UP CLOSE: John Holdren once warned 
of an “eco-catastrophe” by the year 2000. WASHINGTON – Barack Obama’s pick as chief science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy seems to many in the scientific and engineering communities a perfect choice to make good on the president’s inaugural pledge to “restore science to its rightful place” after the Bush years. Physicist John P. Holdren, who both directs the Woods Hole Research Center and holds Harvard chairs in environmental policy and earth and planetary sciences, has a reputation as a top-flight researcher, a capable communicator, and a skilled practitioner of academic politics.

But Holdren’s dramatic warnings about climate disruption and calls for nuclear arms reduction stand to turn the “rightful place” into something of a hot seat. Accompanying a long list of honors — among them past presidency of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a MacArthur “genius” prize, and membership in both the National Academies of Science and of Engineering — is an equally long record of pronouncements, in forums from peer-reviewed journals to an April 2008 David Letterman show, that critics deride as alarmist.

Educated at MIT and Stanford in aeronautics/astronautics (fluid dynamics) and theoretical plasma physics, Holdren assumes a role with “two major strands,” as he puts it: strengthening scientific and technological research, development, education, and training for the benefit of society; and bringing scientific and technological insight to bear on a range of policies – from the economy and health to space and defense.

At his February 12 Senate confirmation hearing, Holdren indicated he would resist pressure to trim spending on research and development – particularly on space – and push for improved use of technology in K-12 and university education, both to produce scientists, engineers, and mathematicians and to upgrade the workforce. He said “we dare not neglect” forests and oceans, air and water quality, and toxic substances in soil and foods. And he cited arms control as “an important element in our national security portfolio.” In the past, Holdren has called for sharp cuts in nuclear forces and a policy of "no first use" of nuclear weapons under any circumstances.

But when Holdren called climate change “the most demanding of all environmental challenges,” he touched upon the debate surrounding his appointment. Joseph Romm, a climate expert and former Clinton administration official, says Holdren “probably has more combined expertise on both climate science and clean-energy technology than any other person who could plausibly have been named science adviser.”

Yet detractors dub Holdren a “global warming true believer” (Investor's Business Daily) given to “gloomy neo-Malthusian warnings” (New York Times online columnist John Tierney) and ridicule some of his past prognostications. These include a calculation that a billion people could die from famine by 2020, something Holdren now says is “unlikely,” and a 1980 wager – proven wrong – that global resource scarcity would boost prices of five commodities within a decade. At Holdren’s Senate hearing, Louisiana Republican David Vitter reminded the nominee of his 1971 alert about "some form of eco-catastrophe, if not thermonuclear war,” before the end of the 20th century, asking, “Do you think that was a responsible prediction?” Holdren countered that he had shown “the good sense to hedge” that such an event was “almost certain.” But looking at “downside possibilities” has value, he said, in serving “to motivate people to change direction.”

To Romm, the very intensity of Holdren’s climate message indicates his scientific seriousness: “Real climate scientists” — among whom he counts Holdren — “are the most alarmed of any group, which ought to tell people something.”

For his part, Holdren sought to assure senators that the advice he gives Obama and Congress will be “as objective and accurate as the state of the relevant fields permits, regardless of the political implications.” Reaching the right climate policy, he predicted, will be “a long slog.” But as he told Letterman, “If I weren’t optimistic, I’d be out fishing, Dave, and not here talking with you.”

Beryl Lieff Benderly is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

 

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