Well, Someone Got It Right -- Way Back Then

02/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

During the past eight years, the idea that people
with expertise could make reasonable estimates of "what would happen
if" has taken a big hit. The Bush administration, of course, was
particularly bad at foreseeing consequences in places like Iraq -- so
bad that it made light of the whole idea. ("Stuff happens.") But the
failure to foresee the meltdown of the financial system had the
fingerprints of experts from both political parties and several
ideological stripes.

So does anyone ever get it right? Yes,
actually, and in the environmental arena this is particularly true when
thoughtful science is brought to bear. President Obama's newly
appointed science adviser, John Holdren, is an old friend of mine. I
just got a copy of this prediction he made with Peter Gleick 28 years
ago -- way back in 1981. Take a look. It turns out that wars in Iraq,
the emergence of global warming as a crisis, and the fear of weapons of
mass destruction in the hands of terrorists were not only in principal
foreseeable, they were foreseen:

...the most important
environmental liability of oil as an energy source is probably not air
pollution or oil spills but the chance that war will be waged over
access to the world's remaining supplies. The most important
environmental liability of coal is not the occupational toll of mining
or the public toll from coal-transport accidents (the most easily
quantified impacts of coal), or the direct damage to public health from
airborne sulfates (quantifiable in principle, but highly uncertain in
present practice); rather it is the threat of global climate change
posed by accumulating atmospheric carbon dioxide, the consequences of
which (through disrupted agricultural productivity) are potentially
enormous but highly resistant to convincing quantification. The most
important environmental liability of nuclear fission is neither the
routine nor accidental emissions of radioactivity, but the deliberate
misuse of nuclear facilities and materials for acts of terrorism and
war. (American Journal of Public Health, September 1981)

course, what's equally stunning is not that Holdren and Gleick
predicted these dangers more than a quarter of a century ago -- it's
that so many commentators still deny their relevance today.