Ehrlich’s revenge

Paul Ehrlich was of course the Stanford scientist and doomsayer who predicted early in the late 1960’s that “the population bomb” would soon result in global starvation. Ehrlich then famously made and lost a bet with Julian Simon based on Ehrlich’s predicted scenario of resource scarcity. George Will recalls in his column today on the global warming scare:

Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford scientist and environmental Cassandra who predicted calamitous food shortages by 1990, accepted a bet with economist Julian Simon. When Ehrlich predicted the imminent exhaustion of many nonrenewable natural resources, Simon challenged him: Pick a “basket” of any five such commodities, and I will wager that in a decade the price of the basket will decline, indicating decreased scarcity. Ehrlich picked five metals — chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten — that he predicted would become more expensive. Not only did the price of the basket decline, the price of all five declined.

Will adds a footnote to this history:

An expert Ehrlich consulted in picking the five was John Holdren, who today is President Obama’s science adviser. Credentialed intellectuals, too — actually, especially — illustrate Montaigne’s axiom: “Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know.”

It is a shame that Will leaves the story of Ehrlich’s revenge at that. There is much more to the story. In “Politicizing science,” John Hinderaker wrote about Holdren this past December, also recalling his advisory role in the Simon-Ehrlich wager:

While nowhere near as famous as Ehrlich, Holdren collaborated with him on two books and several articles, and fully shared Ehrlich’s pessimistic theories on the future of the human race. In fact, as John Tierney notes, Ehrlich went to Holdren for advice on which commodities to choose for his losing bet with Simon.

Consistent with these preoccupations, Holdren postures himself today as an expert on “sustainability.” In 1995, he co-authored this article, titled “The Meaning of Sustainability: Biogeophysical Aspects,” with Ehrlich. Since Holdren is listed as the principal author, it sheds significant light on his alleged commitment to the “de-politicization of science.”

Holdren begins by identifying the “ills that development must address.” It’s a pretty plain-vanilla list: poverty, war, oppression of human rights. Next, Holdren purports to identify the “driving forces” behind these ills. This is where we start to get political. First on the list is Ehrlich and Holdren’s old hobbyhorse, “excessive population growth,” which is “a condition now prevailing almost everywhere.” Next comes “maldistribution,” as “between rich and investment poor” and “between military and civilian forms of consumption and investment.” (No one here but us scientists, right?)

This is where Holdren can no longer keep his left-wing politics under wraps. He identifies another “driving force” behind humanity’s ills: “Underlying human frailties: Greed, selfishness, intolerance, and shortsightedness. Which collectively have been elevated by conservative political doctrine and practice (above all in the United States in 1980-92) to the status of a credo.”

There you have it! This is the man upon whom Barack Obama is counting to “ensur[e] that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology.”

Will frames his column with recollection of the hysteria about global cooling peddled by elite opinion in the early 1970’s. Will collects a number of illuminating quotes on the subject from the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor and others. It’s a shame he missed the lament of one of the newsmagazines that we might fail to adopt the obvious remedy of trapping heat by painting the icecaps black.

While Holdren did not have a hand in the global cooling hysteria, in his 1986 book The Machinery of Nature Ehrlich credited Holdren for the proposition that global warming would cause the deaths of a billion people by 2020. Whatever the case — global cooling or global warming — paint it black!

JOHN adds: Holdren’s confirmation hearing was last week. It was basically a love-fest, and Holdren avoided any reference to his hysterical and partisan past. But Senator Vitter played the role of garden party skunk by asking Holdren about some of his embarrassingly radical moments. Holdren’s back-pedaling was amusing:

Dr. Holdren, one of the lines from the president’s inaugural address which I most appreciated was his comment about science and honoring that and not having it overtaken by ideology.

My concern is that as one of his top science advisers, many statements you’ve made in the past don’t meet that task, and so I wanted to explore that.

One is from an 1971 article with Paul Ehrlich, titled “Global Ecology,” in which you predicted that, quote, “some form of eco-catastrophe, if not thermal nuclear war, seems almost certain to overtake us before the end of the century,” close quote. Do you think that was a responsible prediction?

HOLDREN: Well, thank you, Senator, for that — for that question.

First of all, I guess I would say that one of the things I’ve learned in the — in the intervening nearly four decades is that predictions about the future are difficult.

That was a statement, which at least at the age of 26, I had the good sense to hedge by saying, “almost certain.” The trends at the time were not positive, either with respect to the dangers of thermal nuclear war or with respect to ecological dangers of a wide variety of sorts. A lot of things were getting worse. …

VITTER: Given all that context, do you think that was a responsible prediction at the time?

HOLDREN: Senator, I — with respect, I would want to distinguish between predictions and a description of possibilities which we would like to avert. And I think it is responsible to call attention to the dangers that society faces, so we’ll make the investments and make the changes needed to reduce those dangers. [Ed.: What Holdren is saying here is that, like Al Gore, he thinks it’s OK to misrepresent scientific data–“almost certain”–in order to alarm the public into doing what he wants anyway, regardless of the science, i.e., turn control of the economy over to the government.]

VITTER: Well, I would call, quote “seems almost certain,” close quote, a prediction. But that’s just a difference of opinion.

What — specifically, what science was that prediction based on?

HOLDREN: Well, it was based, in the — in the ecological domain, on a lot of science, on the evidence of the accumulation of persistent toxic substances in the body fat of organisms all around the planet, on the rise of the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, of sulfur oxides, of particulate matter, on trace metals accumulating in various parts of the environment in large quantities, the destruction of tropical forests at a great rate…

VITTER: Is all of that dramatically reversed, so that this “almost certainty” has obviously been averted?

HOLDREN: Some of it has reversed, and I’m grateful for that. … We continue to be on a perilous path with respect to climate change, and I think we need to do more work to get that one reversed as well.

VITTER: OK. Another statement in 1986, you predicted that global warming could cause the deaths of 1 billion people by 2020. Would you stick to that statement today?

HOLDREN: Well again, I wouldn’t have called it a prediction then, and I wouldn’t call it a prediction now. I think it is unlikely to happen, but it is…

VITTER: Do you think it could happen?

HOLDREN: I think it could happen. And the way it could happen is climate crosses a tipping point in which a catastrophic degree of climate change has severe impacts on global agriculture. A lot of people…


HOLDREN: …depend on that.

I don’t think it’s likely. I think we should invest effort — considerable effort — to reduce the likelihood further.

VITTER: But you would stick to the statement that it could happen by 2020?

HOLDREN: It could happen.

VITTER: 1 billion by 2020? OK.

HOLDREN: It could.

That’s ridiculous, of course. 2020 is a mere eleven years away, the earth is getting cooler, not warmer, and there is no responsible science that suggests the climate could change–getting either colder or warmer–over the next eleven years so as to kill one-sixth of the world’s population.

VITTER: In 1973, you encouraged a, quote, “decline in fertility to well below replacement,” close quote, in the United States, because, quote, “280 million in 2040 is likely to be too many,” close quote.

What would your number for the right population in the U.S. be today?

HOLDREN: I no longer think it’s productive, Senator, to focus on the optimum population for the United States. I don’t think any of us know what the right answer is.

When I wrote those lines in 1973, I was preoccupied with the fact that many problems the United States faced appeared to be being made more difficult by the rate of population growth that then prevailed. …

VITTER: Well, since we’re at 304 million, I’m certainly heartened that you’re not sticking to the 280 million figure.

But much more recently, namely a couple of weeks ago in response to my written questions, you did say on this matter, quote, “balancing costs and benefits of population growth is a complex business, of course, and reasonable people can disagree about where it comes out.”

I’ll be quite honest with you. I’m not concerned about where you or I might come out, I’m scared to death that you think this is a proper function of government, which is what that sentence clearly implies.

Do you think determining optimal population is a proper role of government?

HOLDREN: No, Senator, I do not. And I did not certainly intend that to be the implication of that sentence. The sentence means only what it says, which is, that people who’ve thought about these matters come out in different places. …

VITTER: Final question: In 2006, obviously pretty recently, in an article, “The War on Hot Air,” you suggested that global sea levels could rise by 13 feet by the end of this century.

And in contrast to that, the IPCC’s 2007 report put their estimate at between 7 and 25 inches. So their top line was 25 inches, about 2 feet.

What explains the disparity?

HOLDREN: … My statement was based on articles in the journals Science and Nature, peer reviewed publications by some of the world’s leading specialists in studying ice, who had concluded that twice in the last 19,000 years, in natural warming periods of similar pace to the warming period that we’re experiencing now, in large part because of human activities [Ed.: It would have been nice to see some follow-up on this admission.], sea level went up by as much as 2 to 5 meters per century.

VITTER: The bottom line: Do you think the better worst-case estimate is 25 inches or 13 feet?

HOLDREN: The newer analyses that have been done since the IPCC report came out, indicate that the upper limit for the year 2100 is probably between 1 and 2 meters, and those are the numbers that I now quote, because they are the latest science.

But for Vitter’s participation, Holdren’s confirmation hearing would have been pretty much worthless.

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