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Hold Off Attacking Holdren

Appointment Has Riled Climate Deniers

John Holdren SOURCE: AP President-elect Obama’s pick for White House science adviser, John Holdren, has received numerous barbs from critics of progressive climate policy. Unfortunately, the attacks are a distraction from the real problems facing the planet.

These are supposed to be “bipartisan” times—times for coming together to solve real, massive problems, and for leaving behind the nasty politics of the past. So you would think when president-elect Obama named a distinguished scientist with expertise in climate, energy, and arms control to be his presidential science adviser, that tone would continue.

Science, Cultured

Contributing editor Chris Mooney

Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture from Los Angeles, California. He is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.” (Photo:

You would be wrong.

Junk science jihadist.” “Ecofascist.” These are some things right wing sites have to say about Harvard physicist John Holdren, who will head up a newly reinvigorated White House science office under Obama. Such noises from the ideological extremes, a kind of last hurrah for the conservative war on science, won’t have much influence. But when we move closer to the political center and read editorials in Investor’s Business Daily and the Rocky Mountain News also criticizing Holdren and his approach to science policy, it becomes apparent that there’s still a lot of denial out there about the reality of our massive climate/energy problem. Mountainous evidence aside, accepted scientific findings about the frightening sensitivity of our climate system remain difficult for many people to swallow.

Investor’s Business Daily, for instance, calls Holdren (and NOAA administrator nominee Jane Lubchenco, also a distinguished scientist) a “global warming true believer.” Well, actually, he’s a renowned scientist who served, in 2006, as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the leading member organization for this nation’s scientific community and the largest general scientific society in the world—not a post usually handed to “true believers” in anything other than the scientific method. Granted, Investor’s Business Daily thinks it’s actually cooling, not warming, globally. Perhaps it’s also telling readers to buy and hold coal and auto stocks for long term gains.

The Rocky Mountain News, meanwhile, suggests Holdren “lacks the temperament to be a fair arbiter when disputes arise about the economic and social trade-offs of environmental policies.” For instance, the paper charges that Holdren supports drastic reductions of greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050—precisely the position supported by the incoming president, though the paper doesn’t mention this, thereby making Holdren’s stance sound far more extreme than it actually is. The Rocky Mountain News further charges that while this would result in “big-time increases in energy costs,” Holdren “has never suggested that those higher costs should be offset by lowering taxes elsewhere.” Well, I don’t know if Holdren himself has suggested it or not, but I would fully expect to see provisions to protect average citizens from rising energy prices included in any cap-and-trade greenhouse gas regime supported by the Obama administration (such protections could come through tax cuts or direct checks from the government the so-called “cap-and-dividend” approach). And I sincerely doubt Holdren would have a problem with that.

Perhaps it is becoming apparent that there’s plenty of misinformation, and incomplete or just plain biased thinking, to be found in these attacks on Holdren, and on the policies that he and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will be tasked with implementing. Many of the circulating critiques seem inspired by blog sources, most prominently a a post written just after the announcement of Holdren’s appointment by New York Times science contrarian John Tierney, who made much hay of a ten-year bet Holdren made in 1980 (along with Paul Ehrlich) about natural resource scarcity with the libertarian economist Julian Simon, and lost; and an August post by University of Colorado political scientist Roger Pielke, Jr. (written before Holdren’s appointment), which critiqued a Holdren oped about human-caused global warming and those who continue to deny or reject its existence.

Because such critiques, once launched, tend to be repeated and circulate widely, I want to spend a bit more time answering some of them. But let me first disclose that I have met Holdren on several occasions, interviewed him, spoken with him, and always been very impressed by him. I also gave a talk in 2005 at the Woods Hole Research Center, where Holdren serves as director (a post he will presumably step down from to go to Washington).

An Ancient Bet. First, who cares what John Holdren and Paul Ehrlich bet about the price of chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten in 1980, or whether they won? It’s 2008. I’ve never talked to Holdren about the bet, but I’m sure he learned something from it. Pick any scientist with a long, influential career and you’ll find something he or she has at one point or another been incorrect about. Or if you can’t find it, be worried.

Use of the Term “Denier.” Holdren’s aforementioned op-ed, published in the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune, is strongly worded about the problem of global warming “skepticism” or “denial”—and rightly so. It prompted a large volume of response, and Holdren has, in turn, answered his critics. It’s important to note that the op-ed wasn’t written when he was a representative of the president, and I would imagine that his language might not be as strong in the future. But in any event, I want to defend his, and anyone’s, right to use the term “denier” in a global warming context, something The Rocky Mountain News (among others) objects to. I am continually baffled by attempts to rule a perfectly good word out of bounds under the strange pretense that any use of it implies some type of connection with the phenomenon of Holocaust denial, which is the central complaint that global warming “skeptics” tend to make.

“Denier” is defined in the dictionary as meaning “one who denies.” You will note that there are no Holocaust references. The verb “deny” means (among other things) “to refuse to recognize or acknowledge; disown; disavow; repudiate.” It does not specifically refer to the Holocaust either. Perhaps that’s because the word is massively older: As notes of the etymology (relying on the online etymology dictionary):

c.1300, from O.Fr. denier, from L. denegare, from de- “away” + negare “refuse, say ‘no,’ ” from Old L. nec “not,” from Italic base *nek-”not,” from PIE base *ne- “no, not” (see un-).

Why should we not properly use this time honored word? In particular, the idea that calling someone a “global warming denier” is an implicit comparison with Holocaust denial is absurd. When one uses words like “denier,” “denial,” and “deny,” there is no necessary reference to one particular species of the broader phenomenon, and thus no more invocation of Holocaust denial than of those who denied Christ or those who are in denial about their crumbling marriages. Global warming deniers do not have the power to redefine words that long preceded them, and that will long outlive them.

The Difference Between Science and Policy. Many of the anti-Holdren commentators want you to think he’s just as bad a politicizer of science as the Bush administration has been. Here the critics rely strongly on Pielke, Jr., who in his post quotes Holdren stating the following—“the science of climate change is telling us that we need to get going”—and so proceeds to characterize Holdren as someone who thinks that information gleaned from science “compels political outcomes.” Or as Pielke puts it elsewhere in his post: “The notion that science tells us what to do leads Holdren to appeal to authority to suggest that not only are his scientific views correct, but because his scientific views are correct, then so too are his political views.”

I don’t know where this is coming from. But I do know that I interviewed Holdren for my book The Republican War on Science, and quoted him on this very question: Does the information gleaned from science—e.g., greenhouse gases are causing global warming—necessarily compel a particular political solution—e.g., a cap and trade bill? Here’s Holdren, from page 23 of my book: “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.” I like much of Roger Pielke, Jr.’s work, and relied on it heavily in my second book Storm World, but I just don’t get the above criticism. Obviously Holdren is not such a naif about the relationship between science and policy—how could he be? Obviously he knows, just as everyone does, that economic, political, and other considerations weigh very heavily on policymaking, which is rarely or never driven solely by scientific information (and nor should it be). Indeed, the quotation of Holdren above came from a part of our interview in which he was getting a very elementary distinction that we all recognize out of the way, so that our conversation could then proceed to discussing matters of actual interest.

I would very much like to have used this column to explain to you what John Holdren actually knows, and thinks, about climate, and about energy—two of the most massive intertwined issues of our time, and one upon which he’s a consummate expert. Alas, these various attacks prevent that; but I’m still glad to join the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s Joe Romm, Tim Lambert, and others in answering them.

The nature of politics in the United States may be changing for the better, but there are also a lot of old habits that die hard.

Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

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