Among the Intellectualoids

The Doomsday Bias

The Senate looks set to confirm a failed prophet of the apocalypse as Obama's science advisor.

By and 2.25.09

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In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama took a dig at his backward predecessor by promising to "restore science to its rightful place" in America. So why, days before he was sworn in, did Obama choose a failed prophet of the apocalypse to become his most influential scientist?

Obama nominated Dr. John P. Holdren, the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, for chief White House Science Advisor. The Science Advisor's job is to give impartial scientific analysis to the President on major federal policies.

Holdren's particular brand of science is infected by what we can only call a doomsday bias. Over the past 40 years, he has warned of population-growth induced "ecocide," "global cooling," global warming due to heat dissipation from power plants, nuclear Armageddon, and -- this week -- "climate disruption" caused by increased concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases.

Since most of Holdren's really outlandish predictions were made during the 1970s and '80s, we thought we'd hear the man out. Unfortunately, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Holdren only reinforced our worst fears.

He started out great. Early on in his testimony, Holdren said that science policy-makers should consider the continuum of scientific opinion, and then seek the "center of gravity." Unfortunately, that good sense didn't last long. He went on to advocate for positions on the outermost fringe of scientific opinion.

Holdren warned that climate change is "accelerating." This is an unfortunate untruth that is often repeated by those folks convinced that the world needs to halt economic growth to save the planet. (Come to think of it, Holdren did once claim that the "only one rational path" would be the "simultaneous de-development of the overdeveloped countries and semi-development of the underdeveloped countries." Try saying that ten times fast.)

That's certainly not what the preeminent body of climate scientists is saying. According to the 21 models used in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) mid-range greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, a constant rate of global warming is projected through the 21st century. So Holdren's statement on accelerating climate change hardly represents the “center of gravity” of scientific opinion.

Holdren was asked whether he still believed his 2006 assertion that climate disruption could cause sea levels to rise 13 feet by the end of the century, given that the IPCC, in its latest Assessment Report, suggests that the number is more like 13 inches.

Our Dr. of Doom would not back down. Instead of admitting that 13 feet of surging sea levels was way outside of reasonable scientific opinion, Holdren insisted that his dire warnings were based on peer reviewed science. He then went on to suggest a revised worst-case scenario of only 6 feet.

Finally, Holdren was pressed by Louisiana Senator David Vitter about his 1986 claim that global warming could cause 1 billion deaths by 2020. Holdren at first dissembled, suggesting that his earlier comment was a “description of possibilities," rather than a "prediction." The senator wouldn't let it slide, so Holdren dug in. He said "it is still a possibility" that climate change would kill 1 billion people by 2020.

Of all Holdren's stupid misstatements -- and there are quite a few -- this is his stupidest. To take 1 billion human lives by 2020, climate disruption would have to take twice as many lives as were lost during World War II, each year, for the next 10 years.

Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) declared, "We are very lucky," because Holdren "is what you hope for in government." Apparently Holdren's 40-year record of outlandish scientific assertions and consistently wrong predictions is just what the U.S. government has been looking for.

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About the Author

William Yeatman is an energy policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.