Politics & Policy

Obama’s Political Science Adviser

John Holdren is unlikely to usher in an age of free and open scientific inquiry.

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.

#ad#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.


After Lomborg’s book was published, and received substantial (and positive) attention, Scientific American organized an attack on Lomborg in the form of four essays by noted scientists with sterling environmentalist bona fides. Holdren was tasked to assess Lomborg’s energy chapter –less than 20 pages of a 500-plus-page book — and he was unrelenting. The episode was not Scientific American’s finest hour, and Holdren’s contribution was particularly regrettable. Holdren failed to identify any meaningful errors in Lomborg’s work, yet misrepresented his argument and lambasted him in the strongest terms. He also failed to disclose he was among those Lomborg critiqued by name in his book.

Holdren is equally intolerant of those who dispute his views on climate change. Holdren believes the media attention given climate skeptics is a “menace . . . insofar as this delays the development of the political consensus that will be needed before society embraces remedies that are commensurate with the magnitude of the climate-change challenge.” According to Holdren, “the science of climate change” dictates urgent action, and contrary views are “dangerous.” Science tells us what to do, so there is nothing to debate.

#ad#The strongest defense of Holdren has come from liberal science writer Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science. Some of Holdren’s critics don’t like his support for steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, as Mooney notes, Holdren’s position in this regard is the same as the president he would serve, so it is hardly a disqualification for the job. Indeed, it would have been quite a surprise had Obama picked a climate-policy expert who did not agree with the policies he advocated during the campaign. But Holdren’s climate policy views are not the issue. Rather it’s his tendency to blur the lines between science and policy in pursuit of his agenda.

On this latter point Mooney quotes Holdren saying “I don’t think there are very many scientists naive enough to think that science should always determine outcomes, but you shouldn’t defend outcomes by distorting the science.” That’s hardly reassuring. Nobody believes that “science should always determine outcomes,” and there’s plenty of reason to believe that on climate change, as in other areas, Holdren mistakes (or ignores) the line where science ends and policy begins. This worldview is a leading source of science politicization. For if policy is to be dictated by scientific conclusions, controlling the science is the only way to control policy.

The left regularly complained the Bush administration was “anti-science.” Not only did the administration show little interest in scientific questions, it marginalized the role of scientific analysis in contested policy disputes and distorted scientific conclusions for political and ideological reasons. Some of these complaints were warranted, such as when an unqualified political appointee at NASA scrubbed discussions of the Big Bang on the agency’s website or when administration officials hyped a scientifically dubious link between abortion and cancer. Yet many other complaints were overstated or completely off target.

Many of the administration’s critics had their own politicized view of science. In their view, certain policy positions — such as opposition to stem-cell research or to strict limits on greenhouse-gas emissions — were necessarily “anti-science” because many (or perhaps even most) scientists disagreed with the Bush administration’s position. What these critics ignored was that their real disagreement with the Bush administration was over policy rather than science. Whether to reduce greenhouse gases by 80 percent or some other figure over the next several decades is a complex policy question for which science can inform, but not dictate, the answer.

Many who decried the alleged politicization of science celebrated Obama’s election. The new president would both elevate and insulate the role of science in the policy-making process. Whereas the Bush administration allegedly silenced scientific perspectives they did not want to hear, a President Obama would ensure scientific analysis informs relevant policy decisions.

No doubt Obama had the “Bush is anti-science” meme in mind when he explained that his commitment to science means “ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology” and “listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient — especially when it’s inconvenient.” Yet the underlying causes of science politicization are far deeper than who sits in the Oval Office. Even so, President-Elect Obama’s choice of John Holdren for his primary science adviser suggests political misuse and abuse of science will continue in the Obama administration, pledges to respect science notwithstanding.

NRO contributing editor Jonathan H. Adler is professor of law and director of the Center for Business Law & Regulation at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

Jonathan H. Adler is the Johan Verhiej Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

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