John Holdren, the president’s top science adviser, is playing a key role in shaping the Obama administration’s strategy to combat global warming. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Holdren discusses the prospects for achieving key breakthroughs on climate change, both in Congress and at upcoming talks in Copenhagen.
by Elizabeth Kolbert
Six weeks after he was elected, President Obama nominated John Holdren to be his chief science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Many scientists hailed the timing of the nomination — George W. Bush waited almost a year before naming Holdren’s predecessor — and the choice of Holdren, too, was seen as encouraging: He was trained in plasma physics, is the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard, is a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, served as director of the Woods Hole Research Center, and is a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” award.
The New York Times called Holdren’s nomination an affirmation of “Mr. Obama’s commitment to aggressively address the challenges of energy independence and global warming.” Now, Holdren is one of several high-ranking Obama administration officials moving aggressively to combat global warming and to wean the country off fossil fuels. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, conducted by New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert, Holdren talked about the cap-and-trade bill that recently passed the House, the crucial role America and China will play in the upcoming climate negotiations in Copenhagen, and how the administration plans to convert the U.S. “from the laggard that it has been in this domain” into “the leader that the world needs” on global warming.
Yale Environment 360: The issues that are on your plate right now — energy consumption, the environmental consequences of energy consumption — you’ve been thinking about them your whole career. I’m wondering if you could just talk about what you think is the most important thing that the administration could do — on its own — about energy use.
John Holdren: Clearly in the energy domain, both the use side and the supply side are very important. They’re important from the standpoint of environment, from the standpoint of economy, from the standpoint of national/international security. Clearly we have to provide the energy goods and services that people need and that the economy needs.
We need to do that while reducing our dependence on imported oil, which is both expensive and potentially disruptive. We need to do it while sharply reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and that’s from a starting point in which — in the United States — about 88 percent of our primary energy is coming from fossil fuels, whose combustion is putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the biggest driver of global climate change.
And so we’ve got all these criteria that we have to meet at once. When you look at the options for doing that, the cleanest, fastest, cheapest, safest, surest energy supply option continues to be increasing the efficiency of energy end use — more efficient cars, more efficient buildings, more efficient industrial processes, more efficient airplanes. We have gotten more new energy out of energy efficiency improvements in the last 35 years than we’ve gotten out of all supply side expansion put together in the United States. That’s even without trying all that hard. For most of that period, we haven’t had anything that you could call a really coherent set of energy policies supporting increasing energy efficiency. We need... a more coherent set of policies.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, sometimes just called the [economic] stimulus, got huge amounts of investment, not only in R&D, but in actual on-the-ground activities to insulate people’s homes and other aspects of improving end use efficiency. We’ve already had the biggest boost in federal support for innovation in energy supply-and-demand in the history of the country. We have also made permanent research and experimentation tax credits, which adds to the incentive in the private sector to invest in innovation in these domains.
In the comprehensive energy and climate legislation that’s now working its way through the Congress, we have the potential there to get a lot more done, including all the incentives that would come from having a cap-and-trade approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
e360: You’ve said many times that we have basically three options with regard to climate change: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering, and that what’s at issue is what the mix among those three things is going to be. Now we do have finally a piece of legislation that has passed the House at least. I’m wondering if you can just talk about how it does, in terms of that mix.
Holdren: Well, first of all, I want to emphasize that it has long been my position, and it’s the President’s position, that we’re going to have to do a lot of both mitigation and adaptation in order to reduce the amount of suffering that results from climate change in the United States and around the world. I just testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation about the work that we’re doing to increase research and application in the domain of adaptation, because adaptation has been, I think, understudied and underinvested in comparison to mitigation.
e360: One of the concerns has always been that too much emphasis on adaptation is going to give people the impression that we can just adapt to climate change. Is that something that concerns you?
Holdren: I don’t really think that’s a danger anymore. People were quite worried about that five years ago, 10 years ago. It’s plausible that one of the reasons that there wasn’t more discussion about adaptation was some people’s worry that that would lead to complacency about the need to mitigate. I think the current view of the vast majority of people who’ve looked carefully at this is that we need a lot of mitigation and a lot of adaptation. The point being that adaptation gets more difficult, more costly, and less effective the larger the changes in climate to which you’re trying to adapt.
Therefore, we need a lot of mitigation in order to hold the changes in climate to the level that adaptation will be able to cope reasonably effectively with. At the same time, we can’t rely on mitigation alone without adaptation because nothing that we could manage in the mitigation domain can stop and reverse climate change overnight. The timeline in the system — both the climate system itself and the energy system — means that there simply isn’t any possibility of stopping it overnight. So you need both.
e360: One of things that you mentioned in your testimony [before Congress] is that we are in fact seeing a lot of climate impacts that are running ahead of projections. Do you think that that message is getting out?
Holdren: We all talk about the acceleration of climate change in its impacts that we’re observing. One sees the incidence of wildfires going up more rapidly than people expected, the incidence of heat waves and droughts going up more rapidly, sea level is rising more rapidly.
The impacts on the ecological side with pest outbreaks, particularly the forest pests, the loss of huge acreages of spruce and pine across the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, Colorado, definitely linked to climate change because the longer warm season has enabled the pest to get in more generations in a single season than they could before. That, combined with drought and heat stress on the trees, is having effects that no one would have predicted a decade ago.
All of these indicators are moving more rapidly. I think that message is getting through. I don’t hear very much in Washington these days any serious people saying we don’t believe this is a problem. The argument is really about exactly what we should be doing about it, how much we should be investing, what kinds of measures we should put in place.
e360: There’s been a lot of talk that the bill in its current form cannot pass the Senate, that there is going to have to be watering down of the provisions. Does that concern you?
Holdren: Obviously I would like to see, and the President would like to see, a strong bill get through the Senate. I think it’s understood that the Senate is bound to make some modifications, and then those will have to be worked out in conference between the Senate and the House. I’m not sure all the modifications that will get made in the Senate will be in the direction of making it weaker. Some folks in the Senate would like to see it made stronger.
So I think we have to watch how this process unfolds before we judge what the bill is going to look like. I’m very hopeful that we will get a bill, and that it will be, at the very least, a strong start on getting the United States converted from the laggard that it has been in this domain into being the leader that the world needs.
e360: You were recently in China with Todd Stern [Special Envoy for the Secretary of State on Climate Change], and other administration officials. Can you speak a bit about what you heard from the Chinese, and what you think the U.S. can do to persuade countries like China and India to agree to some action that will be politically palatable [at the climate talks] in Copenhagen this fall?
Holdren: In these conversations, a couple of things came through very clearly. One is that the Chinese understand that climate changes is real, they understand it’s already harming China, and they understand that it cannot be solved without China’s participation. There’s absolutely no disagreement on that from the Chinese leadership.
I think it’s particularly significant that the Chinese have understood that climate change is already harming them, that this not a problem just for the future. The monsoons have been changing in China in a pattern that the Chinese climate models themselves attribute to global climate change. That change in monsoon has been accentuating flooding in the south, and drought in the north to the detriment of Chinese food production, with considerable property losses.
So the Chinese are starting from a place now which is quite different than they were, say, five years ago. Which is, that this is a problem that China has to participate in solving, for reasons of China’s own self interest. This isn’t a matter of being an altruist, or being a good citizen globally. Their self interest is in solving this problem. That’s a big change.
The second thing is that I would say the Chinese are already doing far more to try to contribute to the solution than they generally get credit for in the West. The Chinese have made enormous advances in energy end use efficiency in recent years. They are the world leaders, both in the pace of improvement in energy efficiency and the pace of deployment of renewable energy technologies.
In their five-year plan that will end in 2010, they had a target of reducing the energy intensity of the Chinese economy by 20 percent. They’re going to make it, which is an extraordinary rate of improvement in energy efficiency.
The real question is whether the Chinese will agree in Copenhagen to commitments that are seen as sufficiently rigorous and that the U.S. Senate will then agree to consent to ratification of whatever global agreement gets reached in Copenhagen. If the Chinese are not willing to make a formal commitment to continuation of the sort of progress that they’ve been making, then the Senate is likely to say, “Look, the United States is not going to take on these binding commitments if the Chinese are not going to follow.”
Holdren: And there is a bit of a chicken and egg problem there, because the Chinese position, I think quite understandably, is that the United States and the other industrialized nations — having contributed the most to this problem up until now — need to lead. The developing countries then can be expected to follow. The Chinese and other developing countries are also saying, “And by the way, you shouldn’t just lead, but you need to help us follow, because you have more technological resources, more capability, a much higher per capita income. So we want both your leadership, and we want your help.”
I think that it’s going to be very important that the United States make clear, between now and Copenhagen, that we are, in fact, willing to lead and to help.
[Department of Energy] Secretary [Steven] Chu, on his more recent visit to China, reached agreement with the Chinese on joint energy research centers between the two countries, which will be a start on ramping up the cooperation on the ground on improving energy efficiency, and deploying clean energy technologies that I think have the potential to persuade the Chinese that we’re serious about helping, as well as serious about leading.
I think to persuade them we’re serious about leading, the best thing that could happen between now and Copenhagen is that the Senate votes out the energy and climate legislation. The most important thing in terms of showing our willingness to help would be getting some substantial clean energy projects going on the ground that are jointly supported by the two countries. I think both of those things are possible, and then we could have the outcome that I think everybody sensible is hoping for out of Copenhage.
e360: You said that the U.S. has to move from being a laggard to being a leader, and sooner rather than later, if we’re going to act in time. Where would you put us on that curve right now?
Holdren: I think it’s the classic case, where the glass is simultaneously half full and half empty. We’ve got a bill that’s a good start out of the House. It’s not perfect, but no legislation ever is, from any one party’s point of view. If we can get something similar, or maybe even stronger, out of the Senate, that would be fabulous.
We also have a very good start on boosting our investments in energy innovation in the United States. This is demonstrating leadership already, and is being widely applauded around the world. What we need in the next step is more on-the-ground successes in joint projects, particularly with developing countries, starting with China. Again, I think the prospects of getting that are quite good.
e360: How important is it that something come out of Copenhagen in December that can get through the U.S. Senate?
Holdren: Well, I think it’s important that the world move ahead with an agreed approach to addressing this problem. Because I think what the science is telling us is that if we want a good chance of avoiding the worst possible outcomes from climate change, we need the global emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants to level off by about 2020 and be declining sharply after that.
And if that is going to happen, and if you allow for the inevitability that the developing countries are not going to be able to level off and start to decline as quickly as the industrialized countries, you really need the industrialized countries to peak and begin to decline no later than about 2015. That would allow the possibility that the developing countries, as a group, could peak as late as 2025 before they have to start to decline.
And if that is so — and I believe that’s what the science is telling us — then we really have to have in place across the industrialized world the agreements and the measures that are going to enable us to peak no later than 2015 and start to decline. We need those things in place no later than about 2012. And if you want those things to be in place no later than 2012, we really should get it done in Copenhagen. That’s the schedule.
I’m not saying it’s the end of the world if we don’t get it done in Copenhagen, but it becomes harder and harder to get on the sort of trajectory we need to be on to reduce the chance of the worst happening in climate change the longer we delay.
e360: The American Meteorological Society recently called for more research into what’s become known as geoengineering. I know that you felt that some comments you made about this at the beginning of your tenure were misconstrued. Is that a reasonable position that we need to do more research on this?
Holdren: The way that I feel I was misrepresented in an interview I gave early in the administration was the proposition that I was saying the White House is considering geoengineering as a part of our national strategy for dealing with climate change. This was made the centerpiece of an article based on a statement I made in which I said as I scientist, I think we need to look at everything. We need to understand what geoengineering might be — what its costs would be, what its effectiveness would be, what its side effects would be, what its shortcomings would be — because as a scientist, we need to know what the options are.
And I said it is certainly possible that if mitigation measures are not sufficiently successful, that increasingly people will become interested in whether there’s anything we can do to compensate for that by trying to intervene in the earth’s system in a way that offsets the buildup of carbon dioxide and other heat trapping pollutants.
And as a scientific position, I think that remains true, and that is the position that the American Meteorological Society has taken. We’ve got to study this. The National Academy of Sciences has had some symposia on this subject in which people say we have to study it.
The other thing is one needs to understand that, in a sense, we’ve been practicing geoengineering for centuries, inadvertently. I mean that’s why we have this problem. We have engineered the composition of the atmosphere into a state that is overheating the planet.
And the other thing people need to understand is that there’s a very wide variety of approaches. You know the approach called “white roofs” is a geoengineering approach. Make everybody’s roof white instead of black, and then all of our urban areas will reflect a lot of sunlight that would otherwise be absorbed.
And you know we ought to be doing more of that. Some of the other kinds of approaches that were mentioned in some of the articles that appeared following my interview are clearly nuts — you know — putting giant mirrors in space at the point where the sun’s and the earth’s gravity balance in order to deflect sunlight away from the earth. You look at the numbers on that one and it’s nuts.
e360: It’s nuts because it’s impossible, or because it’s inadvisable?
Holdren: Well, I would say number one, it is impossibly expensive. There was an estimate a few years ago presented at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences that said that offsetting a doubling of atmospheric CO2 in this way would cost $1,400 trillion. I think after that number you don’t even have to ask anymore whether it would have unintended side effects, which it well might. Because nobody’s going to do it.
But again, to say that we need to understand what might be proposed in the way of geoengineering is not to say that we’re going to embrace any of these schemes. And indeed, the administration’s position is that our policies on mitigation through reducing emissions and increasing [CO2] uptake by better management of forests and agricultural soil and the measures that we will be taking in terms of adaptation are going to do the job.
But, that doesn’t say on the research side you shouldn’t look at the options that likely will be considered if the things you expect to do the job fall short.
e360: There was a lot of discussion about how the last administration misrepresented and even suppressed a lot of government scientists in the service of a political agenda. And now, we have a new administration and a new science advisor, i.e. you, and we also have a new political agenda. And it seems that the public can take the impression from this, if they want to, that science is inevitably a politicized activity. How do you avoid that sense that the science can be used by whoever wants to?
Holdren: I am charged by the President in my role as Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy with coming up with guidelines for scientific integrity in government. And the intent of having those guidelines — which we’re quite far along on and will be releasing soon — is to provide both the reality and the perception that science is not being misused in pursuit of political agendas in this government. Presumably, if such guidelines can be made a fixture over time, this would carry over to the next administration and other administrations thereafter.
There are a variety of ways to do that, having to do with the freedom that scientists have to discuss their findings without interference from the public relations office. It has to do with the extensive use of peer review to assure that the science that is being put at the service of policy makers is the best science available. And it has to do with the public perception that they are being dealt with honestly by the scientists in this administration, that people are prepared to tell it like it is even when it might be inconvenient.
One of the things that is both important and subtle about this particular matter is that no one should expect that science will determine policy outcomes by itself. Science is often germane and we would not want our policy makers to be making decisions about issues based on faulty science. But at the same time having the best science still doesn’t necessarily specify a particular outcome because economics is going to matter, values are going to matter, preferences are going to matter.
What one wants from science advice to policy makers is that the science is right, that policy makers aren’t making choices on the basis of misconception about science. But people shouldn’t imagine that good science advice is going to take the politics out of policy. It can’t. And that’s a good thing.
This piece originally appeared on Yale Environment 360