Obama’s Political Science Adviser
John Holdren is unlikely to usher in an age of free and open scientific inquiry.


Jonathan H. Adler

Just before the holidays, President-Elect Obama delivered the science community an early Christmas present, naming several prominent scientists to high-profile posts within his administration and pledging a renewed commitment to science. “Promoting science isnt just about providing resources — its about protecting free and open inquiry,” Obama explained in his radio address. In his administration, he pledged, science would not be obstructed or obscured by “politics or ideology.” Yet if ending science politicization is Obama’s goal, he picked the wrong man to be the nation’s top science official.

On December 20, Obama announced he would name John Holdren as the cabinet-level Assistant to the President for Science and Technology. Holdren is the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and worked in the Clinton administration. Though trained as a physicist, Holdren is best known for his work on energy and environmental policy. For the past few decades has been among the nation’s leading purveyors of ecological doom. Of more immediate concern, Holdren has exhibited an extreme intolerance to dissenting scientific and environmental views and a tendency to claim his politics are dictated by science.

Holdren cut his teeth on environmental issues in the 1970s, when he frequently collaborated with notorious doomster Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb in which famously proclaimed “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” In their many collaborations Holdren and Ehrlich made several equivalent, if less quotable, prophecies and called for draconian measures to stave off environmental ruin. He was, in his own words, a “neo-Malthusian.”

In 1971, Holdren and Ehrlich decried humanity’s “rapacious depletion of our fossil fuels” and called for “de-development” of industrialized nations. Writing with Anne Ehrlich in 1973 they called for “A massive campaign . . . to restore a high-quality environment in North America and to de-develop the United States.” To achieve this end, they explained, “Resources and energy must be diverted from frivolous and wasteful uses in overdeveloped countries to filling the genuine needs of underdeveloped countries.”

Additional predictions followed. In 1977, again with the Ehrlichs, Holdren warned that “Civilization is not running out of energy; but it is running out of cheap energy, out of environmental tolerance for disruptive energy technologies, and out of time in which to do something about it.” In this period, Holdren dallied with global cooling fears though he eventually decided global warming was the premier environmental threat.

In 1980, John Holdren participated in the infamous bet between Ehrlich and the late cornucopian economist Julian Simon over natural resource trends. Ehrlich and Holdren believed humanity risked running out of nonrenewable natural resources; Simon disagreed. Based on the understanding that the market price reflects the relative scarcity of a given commodity, Simon offered to bet Ehrlich that a basket of natural resources, chosen by Ehrlich, would decline in price by a date certain. As John Tierney chronicled on his blog (and for the New York Times Magazine), Ehrlich consulted Holdren and another academic for help in selecting a set of resources chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten that would become more scarce, and thus more expensive, over the next ten years. It didn’t help: Ehrlich and Holdren were spectacularly wrong, as the value of all five metals declined. Each had become less scarce, as Simon had predicted. Simon offered another bet, but they declined.

Today Holdren’s predictions are more nuanced, and he is worried more about the effect of industrialization on the global climate system than physical resource depletion — but his remedies for unsustainability are much the same. In his 2007 presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Holdren explained that “the problem is not that the world is running out of energy. It isn’t. But it is running out of cheap and easy oil and gas, and it is running out of environmental capacity to absorb, without intolerable consequences, the impacts of mobilizing these quantities of energy in the ways we have been accustomed to doing it.” In the same speech Holdren reiterated a call for the “universal prohibition” of nuclear weapons and, in the published footnotes to the speech, he praised his sometime co-author Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and mocked the “angry energy” of those who have tried “in vain to refute it.”

Holdren has little patience for those who put forth alternative views. Just ask Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (which I reviewed for NRODT here). Lomborg’s book was a frontal attack on “the Environmental Litany” that proclaims humanity’s lot is ever-worsening. While Lomborg took many environmental concerns seriously, he was unsparing in his critique of activists and others who promoted unfounded fears of ecological catastrophe. This was not a message the mainstream environmental activist community wanted to hear.