SAN FRANCISCO—Challenges such as poverty, climate change and nuclear proliferation pose global risks that require scientists and engineers to join with political and business leaders in a concerted search for solutions, AAAS President John P. Holdren said Thursday.
In his Presidential Address at the AAAS Annual Meeting, Holdren described a world poised at an unprecedented moment of decision: Without swift and urgent action, he said, the problems could spiral toward disastrous, permanent changes for all of life on Earth.
Holdren's address was a sweeping review of evidence which, taken together, shows a planet under profound stress. He said that one of the central problems, and the most complex, is ending the reliance on fossil fuels that is damaging and destabilizing the Earth's ecosystem.
"Reliable and affordable energy is essential for meeting basic human needs and fueling economic growth," he said. "But many of the most difficult and dangerous environmental problems at every level of economic development arise from the harvesting, transport, processing, and conversion of energy."
To address the gathering challenges, he said that world leaders would have to work on a range of fronts—economic, diplomatic and technological. He urged scientists and engineers to get personally involved in developing solutions, and he drew a standing ovation when he called on them to "tithe" 10% of their time to "to working to increase the benefits of science and technology for the human condition and to decrease the liabilities."
You can view his Power Point presentation here.
Holdren's hour-long talk—"Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being"—was delivered on the first night of the 2007 Annual Meeting. The meeting has brought an estimated 10,000 scientists, journalists, members of the public and others together for five days of symposia, lectures and briefings spanning the fields of S&T. This year, however, the focus is on the interactions of people and the global environment.
Holdren is director of The Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts and the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard University. Trained in engineering and plasma physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, Holdren co-founded the graduate program in energy and resources at the University of California-Berkeley in 1973 after stints at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Caltech.
His work has focused on energy technology and policy, global environmental change, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In December 1995 he delivered the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance lecture on behalf of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.
On Monday, 19 February, he will become chairman of the AAAS board, succeeding Dr. Gilbert S. Omenn, professor of Internal Medicine, Human Genetics, and Public Health at the University of Michigan. In introductory remark before Holdren's address, Omenn called him "one of the most remarkable people...of our time" at bridging science and policy for the public good.
Holdren opened the Annual Meeting Thursday morning with a breakfast for nearly 100 journalists from around the world. He told the reporters that he is "much encouraged" by the growing involvement of business leaders in addressing climate change; he cited the recent statement signed by major corporate leaders and environmental groups calling for the swift enactment of strong national legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But he expressed concern about the "pathetically small" amount worldwide of public and private investment in energy research and development. And when asked about the policies of the Bush administration, he said: "We have seen some tendencies toward fact-averse governance."
Holdren elaborated on such themes Thursday night, noting with frustration that the U.S. Department of Energy's investment in energy research and development today is less than half of what it was 30 years ago. Meanwhile, the federal government has moved to reduce funding for climate change research in the past four years.
In his address, he identified four key S&T challenges for achieving sustainable well-being:
But he offered compelling evidence that the world is not making sufficient progress on any of those challenges.
For example, he said, efforts to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals have been uneven, at best. Child mortality levels show improvement, but remain "really appalling." And he described the United States as the "second stingiest" among nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in providing assistance as a percentage of gross domestic product. [Only Italy ranks lower, he said.]
On environmental and climate issues, Holdren stressed that the emergency is not looming in the future, but is having a palpable impact now.
"Climate change is not a problem for our children and our grandchildren—it is a problem for us," he said. "It's already causing harm."
2005 was the hottest year on record, he said. The 13 hottest years on record all have occurred since 1990. 23 out of the 24 hottest years have occurred since 1980. The sort of heat wave that killed 35,000 people in Europe in the summer of 2003 is expected to become normal by 2050.
By 2100, he said, some projections say global temperatures could rival those of the Eocene epoch some 35 million years ago, a time of dramatic global warming that caused dramatic disruptions—waves of extinction—in Earth's ecosystem. He quoted a colleague who envisioned "crocodiles off of Greenland and palm trees in Wyoming."
But the warming temperatures don't simply make the weather warmer—they destabilize the weather and generate more extremes, Holdren said. Some areas are getting wetter; others are experiencing unusual long-term droughts. Cyclones are becoming more powerful. Between 1950 and 2000, the number of major floods and wildfires has increased dramatically in almost every region of the world.
Holdren suggested that addressing such challenges effectively to improve the overall well-being of humanity will require a radical reconfiguration of policy and economies—and daily life—on a global scale. World leaders would have to cooperate as never before. Such cooperation would have to yield new commitments and strategies to resolve the crushing poverty that affects perhaps 2 billion people. And, he said, a cap on carbon emissions or a "carbon tax" to encourage use of alternative fuels is "desperately" needed.
Against such a backdrop, the threat of nuclear war or terrorism presents a further risk of global destabilization and a threat toward sustainable well-being, Holdren said.
Prohibition of nuclear weapons "is not only a practical but a legal and moral necessity," he said. There would be challenges and risks in a world where nuclear weapons had been eliminated, he acknowledged, "but they would be far smaller than the dangers of a world in which nuclear weapons are permitted and thus, inevitably, widespread."
In both his morning briefing with reporters and his presidential address in the evening, Holdren said solutions must be pursued across a range of channels—economics, science, medicine, technology, and education. And those strategies must be applied to a range of related problems—providing clean water and medical care, reducing carbon emissions, checking deforestation and improving public understanding of actions that can address the challenges at hand.
To address climate change, there could be "geo-engineering" projects to help cool the atmosphere or to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, he said, though they would likely require enormous investment. But he cautioned against expectations that a single technological solution such as nuclear fusion would emerge to solve energy and climate problems.
"Belief in technological miracles," he told reporters, "is generally a mistake."
Edward W. Lempinen
16 February 2007