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Joseph Romm

Joseph Romm

Posted: December 19, 2008 07:22 PM

Obama's Strongest Message on Climate Yet

holdren.jpgScience magazine is reported Thursday that "Strong indications are that President-elect Barack Obama has picked physicist John Holdren to be the president's science adviser."

I have known Holdren for over a decade and have discussed energy/climate issues with him many times. He 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. You can see a video of an excellent talk he gave here (along with talks by Chu and me). For a more recent BBC interview, see "The Climate Quote of the Week".

I would say that if Holdren is named (on Saturday), it is an even stronger signal than the terrific choice of Steven Chu for Energy Secretary that Obama is dead serious about the strongest possible action on global warming. After all, the science adviser works out of the White House and oversees science and technology funding, analysis, and messaging for all federal agencies.

Holdren ain't in the "do something but not enough to avoid catastrophe" crowd that the NYT's Andy Revkin keeps on touting (see here and here). In fact, Revkin quoted him last year as an anti-moderate:

Some experts, though, argue that moderation in a message is likely to be misread as satisfaction with the pace of change.
John P. Holdren, an energy and environment expert at Harvard and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, defended the more strident calls for limits on carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. "I am one of those who believes that any reasonably comprehensive and up-to-date look at the evidence makes clear that civilization has already generated dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system," Dr. Holdren said. "What keeps me going is my belief that there is still a chance of avoiding catastrophe."
As I've said many times, the more you know about both climate and energy, the less moderate you are. Economists, who know little about either, can be found in Revkin's murky middle, but not serious climate scientists, and especially not ones who understand as much about energy as Holdren. Holdren has said many times that we must choose between serious mitigation or serious misery -- geo-engineering isn't the answer:
"The 'geo-engineering' approaches considered so far appear to be afflicted with some combination of high costs, low leverage, and a high likelihood of serious side effects."
It is true that the science adviser has not been a particularly powerful player in recent Administrations, but Obama has already articulated his desire to elevate the importance of science and technology in his administration. As PEBO said of his choice of Chu, "His appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science." Another crucial role for the science adviser is to help educate the public on climate science and solutions. As Holdren says, it is too late to prevent dangerous human-caused warming. But after eight years Bush spreading disinformation and muzzling scientists, putting Holdren in charge of the "bully pulpit of science" is just what the nation and the planet need if we are to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic warming. Kudos to Barack Obama for another terrific choice. Here is the rest of today's Science piece:
A top adviser to the Obama campaign and international expert on energy and climate, Holdren would bolster Obama's team in those areas. Both are crowded portfolios. Obama has already created a new position to coordinate energy issues in the White House staffed by well-connected Carole Browner, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and nominated a Nobel-prize winning physicist, Steve Chu, to head the Department of Energy. That could complicate how the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which Holdren will run, will manage energy and environmental policy. "OSTP will have to be redefined in relation to these other centers of formulating policy," says current White House science adviser Jack Marburger.

Holdren had been planning to attend a staff meeting this morning with colleagues at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where he heads the technology and science program. But instead, he flew today to Chicago to meet with the transition team and prepare for the announcement; initial plans are to release the official news of the appointment on a weekly radio program that Obama records and will be broadcast on Saturday. The transition office declined to comment.

Holdren is well known for his work on energy, climate change, and nuclear proliferation. Trained in fluid dynamics and plasma physics, Holdren branched out into policy early in his career. He has led the Woods Hole Research Center for the past 3 years and served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes Science) in 2006.