October 3, 2009

Chief mad scientist alert! again

Holdren’s Ice Age Tidal Wave
By John Tierney

As a long-time student of John P. Holdren’s gloomy visions of the future, like his warnings about global famines and resource shortages, I can’t resist passing along another one that has just been dug up. This one was made in 1971, long before Dr. Holdren came President Obama’s science adviser, in an essay just unearthed by zombietime (a blog that has been republishing excerpts of his past writings). In the 1971 essay, “Overpopulation and the Potential for Ecocide,” Dr. Holdren and his co-author, the ecologist Paul Ehrlich, warned of a coming ice age.

They certainly weren’t the only scientists in the 1970s to warn of a coming ice age, but I can’t think of any others who were so creative in their catastrophizing. Although they noted that the greenhouse effect from rising emissions of carbon dioxide emissions could cause future warming of the planet, they concluded from the mid-century cooling trend that the consequences of human activities (like industrial soot, dust from farms, jet exhaust, urbanization and deforestation) were more likely to first cause an ice age. Dr. Holdren and Dr. Ehrlich wrote:

The effects of a new ice age on agriculture and the supportability of large human populations scarcely need elaboration here. Even more dramatic results are possible, however; for instance, a sudden outward slumping in the Antarctic ice cap, induced by added weight, could generate a tidal wave of proportions unprecedented in recorded history.

But that would just be the beginning. Dr. Holdren and Dr. Ehrlich continued:

If man survives the comparatively short-term threat of making the planet too cold, there is every indication he is quite capable of making it too warm not long thereafter. For the remaining major means of interference with the global heat balance is the release of energy from fossil and nuclear fuels. As pointed out previously, all this energy is ultimately degraded to heat. What are today scattered local effects of its disposition will in time, with the continued growth of population and energy consumption, give way to global warming. … Again, the exact form such consequences might take is unknown; the melting of the ice caps with a concomitant 150-foot increase in sea level might be one of them.

I confess that I don’t quite understand Dr. Holdren’s particular 1971 vision of global warming — why would nuclear fuels be contributing to it? — but let’s not get bogged down in details. What interests me are not the disaster specifics but rather Dr. Holdren’s tendency to foresee worst-case situations that require new public policies. (In the 1970s, he and Dr. Ehrlich discussed controlling population by giving sweeping powers to a new “Planetary Regime.”) I’ve previously written about criticism that a climate-change report from the White House and federal agencies exaggerates the threat of natural disasters. Does Dr. Holdren have a worst-case bias in his interpretation of data?


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