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At MIT, Holdren Issues Call for Action on Climate Disruption

Presidential science advisor John P. Holdren delivers the David J. Rose Lecture in Nuclear Technology at MIT.
Photo by Stuart Darsch

At MIT, Holdren Issues Call for Action on Climate Disruption

News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

October 29, 2010

Author: James F. Smith, Former Communications Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Energy Technology Innovation Policy; Managing the Atom; Science, Technology, and Public Policy


John P. Holdren, President Obama's chief science and technology advisor, draws a grim picture of our world at the end of this century if we fail to start slashing greenhouse gas emissions that are ravaging the global climate: Summers will be dangerously hotter, slashing wheat crop yields in India by more than 60 percent and African corn crops by over 40 percent. And sea levels could rise as much as six feet by 2100, gobbling up chunks of coastal land.

It's not just a worry for the distant future, Holdren said in a speech at MIT on October 25.  The impact of climate disruption is already serious, causing floods, wildfires, and drought. The hottest 15 years on record have all occurred since 1990, with 2005 the warmest and 2009 second.

Holdren is on leave from Harvard University, where he was director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy program at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is currently serving as assistant to the president for science and technology and director of the president's Office of Science and Technology Policy.

In the 2010 David J. Rose Lecture at MIT's Wong Auditorium, Holdren issued a call to action, arguing for an integrated package of initiatives to protect the environment and achieve energy security. But he acknowledged that political obstacles are blocking agreement in Washington on how to move forward.

Here are links to Holdren's detailed slide presentation, to see an excellent MIT news article, and to watch the video of Holdren's lecture.

Holdren identified two central challenges:

 —Reducing dependence on oil for transportation, since more than three-fourths of carbon emissions come from burning fossil fuels, and vehicles produce about 40 percent of that carbon dioxide, (roughly equal to the emissions from coal-burning power plants).

 —Generating enough new sources of affordable clean energy to allow people around the world to achieve prosperity without worsening global warming by overdependence on fossil fuels.

He offered sober statistics on current trends: For one, global oil consumption is forecast to surge from 82 million barrels per day in 2008 to 120 million barrels per day by 2030. At current rates of growth, total energy consumption will rise 60 percent and electricity use by 75 percent as soon as 2030.

But he warned that mitigating climate change will need drastic changes — and that none alone will be sufficient. Rather, a coordinated set of measures will be needed to cut energy use in buildings, make cars more efficient, capture and store carbon from power plants, and build more nuclear power plants, wind turbines, and other alternatives to coal-fired plants.

Holdren sketched an array of steps the Obama Administration is taking to push forward on these fronts, including major investments in research and development and $80 billion worth of clean-energy projects in the "stimulus" program.

On nuclear power, he sketched the potential for a sharply increased role for nuclear plants but also assessed the risks in disposing of or storing spent fuel and protecting against proliferation.


For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

Smith, James F. "At MIT, Holdren Issues Call for Action on Climate Disruption." News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, October 29, 2010.

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