They Said It
Feb 14, 2009
“…global warming could cause the deaths of one billion people by 2020…”

John Holdren, Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Nomination for Director White House Office of Science and Technology

Senate Commerce Committee February 12, 2009

Vitter: Dr. Holdren, one of the lines in 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 advisors, that many statements you’ve made in the past don’t meet that test, and so I wanted to explore that. One is from 1971, an article with Paul Ehrlich, titled Global Ecology, in which you predicted that, “some form of eco-catastrophe, if not thermonuclear war, seems almost certain to overtake us before the end of the century.” Do you think that was a responsible prediction?
Holdren: Well, thank you, Senator, for that..., um..., for that question. First of all, I guess I would say that one of the things I’ve learned 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, ah..., were not positive, either with respect to the dangers of thermonuclear war or with respect to ecological dangers of a variety of sorts. A lot of things were getting worse. I would argue that the motivation for looking at the downside possibilities - the possibilities that can go wrong if things continue in a bad direction is to motivate people to change direction. That was my intention at the time. In many respects there were changes in direction which reduced the possibility of nuclear war through arms control agreements and there were changes in direction in national and international policy with respect to environmental problems, including a good many laws passed by this Congress.
Vitter: Given all that context, do you think that was a responsible prediction at the time?
Holdren: Senator, with respect, I would want to distinguish between predictions and, ahh, description of possibilities which we would like to avert. I think it is responsible to call attention to the dangers that society faces, so we’ll make the investments and make the changes to reduce those dangers.
Vitter: Well, I will call “seems almost certain” 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 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, on the destruction of tropical forests at a great rate…
Vitter (interrupting): Is all of that dramatically reversed since this “almost certainty” has obviously been averted?
Holdren: Some of it has reversed, and I’m grateful for that. And, again, I think that it’s been reversed in part because of sensible laws passed by the United States Congress and signed by various Presidents. Some of it has not reversed. 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.
OK. Another statement. In 1986, you predicted that global warming could cause the deaths of one billion people by 2020. Would you stick to that statement today?
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 (interrupting): 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 depend on that…
Vitter (interrupting): So you would stick to that statement?
Holdren: I don’t think it’s likely. I think we should invest effort - considerable effort - to reduce the likelihood further.
Vitter: So you would stick to the statement that it could happen?
Holdren: It could happen, and ...
Vitter (interrupting): One billion by 2020?
Holdren: It could.
Vitter: In 1973, you encouraged “a decline in fertility to well below replacement” in the United States because “280 million in 2040 is likely to be too many.” What would your number for the right population in the US 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. I think everyone who studies these matters understands that population growth brings some benefits and some liabilities. It’s a tough question to determine which will prevail in a given time period. But I think the key thing today is that we need to work to improve the conditions all of our citizens face economically, environmentally, and in other respects. And we need to aim for something that I have been calling for years ‘sustainable prosperity’.
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 your response to my written questions, you did say on this matter, “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 ya. I’m not concerned 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. 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 have thought about these matters come out in different places. I think the proper role of government is to develop and deploy the policies with respect to economy, environment, security, that will ensure the well being of the citizens we have. I also believe that many of those policies will have the effect, and have had the effect in the past, of lowering birth rates. Because when you provide health care for women, opportunities for women, education, people tend to have smaller families on average. And it ends up being easier to solve some of our other problems when that occurs.

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