Speaker at UI's upcoming climate conference laments U.S. policy reversals

Speaker at UI's upcoming climate conference laments U.S. policy reversals

Like other climate scientists, John Holdren braced for major change when President Donald Trump was inaugurated in January.

But Holdren, President Barack Obama's chief science and technology adviser, didn't expect it to happen so fast.

"They took down my office's website on the afternoon of inauguration," said Holdren, former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who will speak at the University of Illinois on Monday evening.

"Candidate Trump had made clear his lack of interest in climate change issues, and we didn't have much reason to be optimistic. But what has happened has pretty much exceeded our worst expectations," Holdren said in a phone interview Friday.

What has happened: a pledge to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords, the removal of climate data from the Environmental Protection Agency's website, efforts to roll back federal support for weather observations (used to gather climate data but also to forecast storms), and the appointment of cabinet officers at the Interior and Energy departments, Office of Management and Budget and the EPA who are climate change "deniers" or "weak and badly informed," he said.

"It's hardly surprising that with these folks in the key leadership positions related to environment and climate change that a lot of bad things are happening," he said.

Holdren's talk Monday kicks off a three-day conference on "Building Resilience to Climate Change" by the UI Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment.

His premise is that society has three options to deal with climate changes that scientists say are caused by the buildup of carbon emissions in the atmosphere: mitigation, adaptation and "suffering."

Policies based solely on mitigation — reducing emissions, planting more trees and other steps to curb the pace and the magnitude of climate change — won't be enough, because it's already underway, he said.

Society needs to adapt, or build resilience to, climate change — building sea walls or wetlands to absorb stormwater, for example, or moving hospital generators to the roof from the basement so they don't lose power during floods. Developing crops that are more resistant to heat and drought, as UI researchers are doing. Changing building codes so houses and commercial structures aren't built in areas where they'll be inundated by sea-level rise or flooded over and over during storms.

"You need enough mitigation to avoid a degree of climate change that's completely unmanageable, and you need enough adaptation to deal with the degree of climate change that's unavoidable," Holdren said.

"What's up for grabs is the future mix. What's up to us, in terms of the policies we devise and solutions we implement," is doing enough to minimize suffering, he said.

There has been a fair amount of progress, Holdren said, pointing to steps taken by cities and counties in Florida to prevent storm damage. Florida Power and Light, a major utility in the state, has already invested $4 billion to increase the resilience of its electrical system against powerful storms.

Whether or not you believe that climate change is making storms worse, these investments make sense because many parts of the country are vulnerable to storm damage or floods or other natural disasters, he said.

"As business people who can do arithmetic, they know they need to make these investments. It's a little bit shocking that we haven't been making more investment in this domain all along," he said.

Obama signed executive orders calling for revised flood standards to discourage building in flood zones, and calling on all federal agencies to take climate change into account for every plan, budget and grant program. But Trump reversed those orders.

"The good news is that many states and cities are determined to do the sensible thing whether the federal government is helping or not," he said.

Holdren said there are signs Trump may revisit those decisions after the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and may reconsider his proposal to cut funding for NASA's Earth observation satellites, which provide data that help forecasters pinpoint storms — and save lives, as they did in Houston and Florida.

Cutting off research support for the Earth observations would be particularly damaging, he said, leaving a huge hole in climate data and our understanding of what's happening to the atmosphere, oceans and the planet over time, he said.

Trump has also proposed cutbacks in agricultural programs to make crops and farming practices more climate-resilient, but states and individual farmers are interested in continuing those efforts, he said.

One notable fact about the Paris climate agreement: The U.S. withdrawal won't technically take effect until after the November 2020 presidential election, Holdren said, so "a new president could say, 'We're back in.'"

But in the meantime, a U.S. pledge to provide billions of dollars in assistance to developing countries to mitigate climate change presumably won't be honored, he said, "and that's a big setback to the global effort." The United States is also surrendering its leadership in the shaping of future climate accords, he said.

Holdren remains optimistic Congress will resist some of Trump's proposals, given its pushback on his plan to cut funding for the National Institutes of Health by $6 billion.

"What Trump has proposed is not necessarily destiny if Congress intervenes in sensible ways," he said.

He also said polls show that a sizable majority of Americans believe climate change is real and that "humans have a lot to do with it." Most Americans also supported the Paris agreement, he said.

There's strong political support for action, he said, and that will continue to grow, both because the "symptoms" of climate change are worsening and because the cost of the solutions is falling, with solar energy and wind energy getting cheaper, he said.

"I'm hanging on to my optimism," he said.

Conference call

"Building Resilience to Climate Change," a three-day conference sponsored by the University of Illinois Institute for Sustainability, Energy and the Environment, will feature two dozen speakers and bring together national and international scientists discussing strategies for mitigating and adapting to climate change. The conference starts Monday.

Registration has closed, but information is available at the institute's website at sustainability.illinois.edu.

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CallSaul wrote on September 16, 2017 at 12:09 pm

The Republican party has long been dominated by science deniers and scientific illiterates.

Lately they've gone to yet a further extreme and celebrate not just science denial but now exult in an outright anti science crusade.

It fits with their decades long attacks on higher education. Scientific progress along with insight and understanding based on actual facts and reality tend to make people abandon rightwing reactionary prejudice and ignorance.

So science must not only be denied but openly opposed. Education must be stiffled and stunted. The resulting mass ignorance is they only way they can hope to exert any influence...

CallSaul wrote on September 16, 2017 at 12:09 pm

The Republican party has long been dominated by science deniers and scientific illiterates.

Lately they've gone to yet a further extreme and celebrate not just science denial but now exult in an outright anti science crusade.

It fits with their decades long attacks on higher education. Scientific progress along with insight and understanding based on actual facts and reality tend to make people abandon rightwing reactionary prejudice and ignorance.

So science must not only be denied but openly opposed. Education must be stiffled and stunted. The resulting mass ignorance is they only way they can hope to exert any influence...

Rocky7 wrote on September 16, 2017 at 8:09 pm

In my opinion (not necessarily humble), Dr. Holdren was the worst science advisor to a president in American history.

CallSaul wrote on September 17, 2017 at 10:09 pm

Why do you say that...?