Climate and the President's Science Advisor
Presidential Science Advisor John P. Holdren (Photo: Lawrence Livermore Laboratory)
President Obama’s science advisor John Holdren joins host Steve Curwood to discuss the National Climate Assessment draft report and what to expect from the United States at the international climate talks in Paris next year.
¬¬CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. In honor of the Earth Day season we turn to one of the most environmentally-conscious member of President Obama’s White House senior team, science advisor John Holdren. As America’s top scientist, Holdren has been instrumental in marshalling federal resources to understand and address climate disruption, and helping to establish a climate assessment program. I asked him about President Obama’s climate action plan which he helped to develop.
HOLDREN: Well, there are three components to the President's Climate action plan, and the first one is reducing carbon pollution in the United States. The second component is improving preparedness for and resilience against the kinds of climate changes that we’re not longer able to avoid. That is, providing the kinds of information to communities, to businesses, to individuals that will enable them to better prepare for and respond to climate change. The third component of the action plan is to increase our engagement with other countries in order to get their collaboration in a global approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as a global approach to increasing preparedness.
CURWOOD: Let’s talk about sea level. The National Climate Assessment draft report talks of a range of eight inches to six feet as the biggest range the report gives of sea level rise over the next century, and, of course, some of our biggest cities are on the coast - New York, Boston, Miami, New Orleans. What should those cities be doing now to prepare for rising seas, and how can the federal government help?
HOLDEN: Well, rising sea level is a problem for a number of reasons, and one in particular, is the extra damage done by storm surges on top of a rising sea level. We saw that already in the case of [Superstorm] Sandy. The ways that we can prepare: one, we need to understand where the vulnerability is going to be in terms of coastal flooding. We launched the first installment of our climate data initiative just a few weeks ago, basically providing datasets for decision-makers all around our coasts to know what’s coming. One of the things we would expect is that planners and developers would take note and would not construct new housing or new commercial space or other infrastructure in the areas that are most at risk of coastal flooding. Another thing we can do is invest in the protection of natural barriers - sand dunes, mangroves, wetlands of a variety of kinds - that help protect against storm surges when they occur.
CURWOOD: The National Climate Assessment also talks about thresholds, tipping points and surprises. What might be some examples? I know recently you issued a report about methane.
HOLDEN: Well, one of the concerns about methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas, is that large quantities of methane are stored under the tundra, under the permafrost, and large quantities of methane in a form called methane clathrates or methane hydrates under shallow coastal seas. And there has been a concern that in a warming world, a very substantial quantity of methane might be released relatively rapidly. It’s one of many tipping points that are looked at in terms of the potential for unpleasant surprises.
Another tipping point would be if the warming of the southern oceans and other aspects of global climate change were to destabilize the west Antarctic ice sheet. That ice sheet contains the equivalent of about five meters of sea level rise, and so another tipping point that is at least talked about is the possibility that we can destabilize the ice sheet and encounter a much larger rate of sea level rise than is currently projected.
CURWOOD: So 2015 is going to be an important year for climate talks. The international community gets together in Paris. A new agreement will have to be adopted by all parties. As the President’s science advisor, what kind of preparations are you making for these negotiations?
HOLDEN: Well, we’re obviously having a lot of conversations among the President’s senior advisors in the White House and bringing in the relevant members in the Cabinet. All of these folks are sitting around tables and working out what the United States position should be going into the Paris talks, and, of course, we’re working very hard to make sure that the United States stays on track to meet the goal the President already announced of reducing US greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent from their 2005 levels by 2020. Because after all, we’re going to be talking about targets going forward after the year 2020, and we better demonstrate that we can meet the early term targets in order to have the credibility to propose and push forward a longer term and more ambitious targets.
CURWOOD: What would the agreement coming out of Paris have to look like to avert the worst affects of climate change in your opinion?
HOLDEN: The world really needs to be on a declining trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions after 2025. If greenhouse gas emissions are still growing post 2025. It is very unlikely that the world would be able to avoid exceeding the target of two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels that was agreed by the G-20 in 2009, and indeed, if we’re still growing after 2025, it will be a challenge even to stop at three degrees Celsius. Those numbers may sound small, but it’s important to remember that the Earth’s average surface temperature is a little bit like the temperature of the body. It’s really like an index of the state of the underlying system. If your body temperature went up three degrees Celsius, you’d know that you were having a serious problem, and similarly the world in terms of its whole climate system will be having a serious problem if we go to three degrees Celsius or more.
CURWOOD: Now the White House recently announced that it will again delay a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline which would bring the tar sands oil from Canada through the US to Gulf Coast refineries. This on the basis of litigation over the proposed route. What’s your opinion of the Keystone project and how does it fit into our need to reduce emissions.
HOLDEN: As the President’s science advisor, I reserve my opinion on controversial matters of that sort for the President.
CURWOOD: As the President’s science advisor, what concerns you most about our ecological systems? What keeps you up at night?
HOLDEN: Well, I would say the thing that keeps me up at night the most is the climate change issue, and the reason for that is that climate is the envelope within which all other environmental conditions and processes have to function. And if we distort that envelope enough as we are well on our way to doing, we imperil the functioning of all the other environmental conditions and processes on which human well-being depends. We’re going to change the distribution of species, both the ones we love and the ones we hate. We’re going to change the productivity of ecosystems. We’re going to change the chemistry of the ocean in ways that could imperil ocean fish production. So almost no matter what environmental problem you’re interested in, you better be interested in addressing the climate change challenge, and that’s why it has such a priority in the Obama administration.
CURWOOD: John Holdren is assistant to President Barack Obama and director of the Office of Science Technology Policy at the White House. Thanks so much for taking the time today.
HOLDEN: My pleasure. Thank you, Steve.
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