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Washington, D.C., 04/29/2017 © Rob Crandall / Shutterstock

Sacrificing Nature Is Not an Option

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Professor John Holdren, former science adviser to President Barack Obama.

Today, climate change is being talked of as the most defining issue of our time and the biggest threat the human race faces going into the future. The rise of global temperatures, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, decreased snow cover, glacial retreats, rise of sea levels, ocean acidification and extreme weather events ensure that scientists have compelling evidence of rapid climate change. This man-made catastrophe needs to be addressed through concerted supranational efforts aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making global energy consumption more sustainable.

According to NASA, the current global warming trend is particularly significant because most of it is reported to be the product of human activity since the mid-20th century and making progress at an unprecedented rate. The impacts of climate change, which are being underplayed by some governments, are global in scope and unique in scale. Drastic action needs to be taken so that countries are able to adapt to these changes in a timely and effective way before the costs rise to unchecked levels.

Facts about climate change are immensely worrying. As reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the average global temperature increased by 0.85°C between 1880 and 2012. As of 2018, the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, standing at 408 parts per million, is the highest in 3 million years. And 11% of the world’s population is currently vulnerable to the effects of climate change such as droughts, floods and heat waves.

The United States, a developed and industrialized nation, is experiencing the sharp impacts of a warming climate in its own way. With 5% of the world’s population, the US accounts for 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which are approximately 50% higher than the European Union’s and Japan’s. Electricity generation and transportation sectors are the major contributors to these emissions. The National Climate Assessment Report released in November 2018 painted a grim picture of consequences for America as a result of climate change. But US President Donald Trump has called climate change a hoax and pulled the country out of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, scheduled to go into effect from 2020.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to John P. Holdren, former science adviser to President Barack Obama and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 2009 to 2017, about the impacts of global warming on the United States and the government’s strategies to combat climate change.

Kourosh Ziabari: What are some of the most notable environmental challenges facing the United States today, given that it’s a developed nation, the world’s largest economy and second in the world in terms of industrial output?

John Holdren: I’d say the most notable environmental challenges are mitigation of and adaptation to global climate change, which will entail massive changes in the way we meet energy needs, manage agriculture and forests, and design and operate urban and transport infrastructure; preserving the ecological integrity and productivity of the ocean; stemming biodiversity loss; reducing the flows of toxic substances into air, water, and soil; and providing the social and health services needed to reduce unwanted fertility in the US population.

These challenges are strongly interconnected. The population component, which is often neglected in discussions of environmental matters these days, is important because, fundamentally, human impacts on climate and marine and terrestrial ecosystems are equal to the number of people times their average material consumption per person times the amount of environmental impact per unit of material consumption. The last is a function of how good or bad the technologies that provide for material consumption are. But no matter how good they are, they cannot reduce the impact of material consumption to zero.

Inasmuch as the United States and the world are, by many measures, already well beyond sustainable levels of impact on the local, regional and global environmental conditions and processes on which human well-being depends, it should be clear that the chances of getting back to sustainable levels while maintaining adequate levels of material consumption would be enhanced by avoiding at least the part of future population growth attributable to more births than women want.

Ziabari: The United States is the world’s second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, resulting from the burning of fossil fuels. It was one of the only three countries that didn’t sign up to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and its energy policy is widely contested. What’s your take on that?

Holdren: The United States did sign the Kyoto Protocol, but it was never ratified by the US Senate and thus never went into force in this country. That failure was due to the misguided stance of most Republican members of the Senate on climate change, which was due in turn to the combination of an unfortunate degree of politicization of the climate issue, based in part on the idea that accepting the reality of human-caused climate change would mean increased government intrusions into private behavior and harm to the economy from increased energy prices.

Of course, misinformation propagated by fossil-fuel interests — and their heavy contributions to Republican members of Congress — played a significant role in the unwillingness of most Republicans to support responsible action.

Ziabari: Many critics refer to President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement as a politically motivated decision. What do you think were the triggers behind his decisions? What will its impacts be?

Holdren: Much of what President Trump does appears to be motivated by his desire to please his base of supporters on the far right of the American political spectrum. He seems to be impervious to facts and analysis when they are not consistent with his judgment about what will energize his base.

He claimed that sticking with the Paris Agreement would be bad for the US economy, despite the urgings of more than 600 CEOs of US corporations who wrote to him that withdrawing would be bad for the economy. He claimed that the agreement is “unfair” to the United States, although the role the United States played in developing the terms of the agreement ensured that this wasn’t the case. He claimed that the agreement infringes US sovereignty, even though each party was allowed to develop its own emission targets. The two top members of his cabinet, the secretary of state and the secretary of defense, urged him to stay in the agreement for both diplomatic and national security reasons, and he ignored them.

Under the terms of the agreement, the United States cannot actually withdraw until November 2020, and US officials continue to attend the meetings of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention and the working groups on the details of implementing the Paris Agreement. But Trump has done serious immediate damage, nonetheless, by terminating most of the US federal government’s activities in support of the agreement, including nearly all of the measures introduced by the Obama administration to help the United States reach its Paris emission-reduction targets.

A particularly big blow has been his cut-off of most US support for climate change mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. He has also tried to cut large sums out of federal government support for climate change monitoring, climate science and clean energy research and development, although fortunately, Congress has so far rejected many of his proposed cuts in these domains.

And there is some reason for optimism in the America’s Pledge movement, in which more than 20 states, about 500 cities and many hundreds of corporations have declared that “We Are Still In” the Paris Agreement and will do everything possible to help the United States meet its Paris commitments despite Trump’s stance. Still, this cannot entirely offset what may be the biggest cost of the Trump announcement, which is of the US government’s credibility and leadership on the climate change challenge on the global stage.

Ziabari: While the United States advocates nuclear non-proliferation and denuclearization in different regions across the world, is there any justification for it to continue to maintain a stockpile of some 4,000 nuclear weapons?

Holdren: I have long believed that the only plausibly justifiable purpose for possessing nuclear weapons is deterrence of the use or threat of use of such weapons by others who possess them. For that limited purpose, far fewer than the thousands of nuclear weapons the United States now possesses would be enough. The same is true for Russia, which has about the same number.

While it is a great benefit that both the United States and Russia have far fewer nuclear weapons today than they did at the height of the Cold War, if they now reverse the decades-long process of reduction and restart their nuclear arms race, which alas now seems to be a real danger, they will likely increase the danger of nuclear war between them as well as squandering any remaining moral authority they might have to argue for nuclear-weapons restraint elsewhere.

Ziabari: Is air pollution a major concern in the United States? What do you think about the quality of vehicles that are being currently manufactured in the United States? Are they sufficiently environment-friendly, given the growing demands in the car market?

Holdren: Air pollution remains an important concern in the United States, even after emissions and outdoor concentrations of the main pollutants resulting from combustion of fossil fuels have been significantly reduced over the last few decades. In 2017, it was still the case that 100 million Americans lived in places experiencing ground-level ozone concentrations in excess of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), and 38 million lived in places experiencing concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) in excess of the NAAQS.

Perversely, the increased temperatures arising from human-caused global climate change tend to aggravate pollution episodes, offsetting some of the benefit from emission reductions. In addition, bigger and hotter wildfires in our warmed world are sending plumes of soot over hundreds and even thousands of miles, in some cases producing urban concentrations of PM 2.5, exceeding even the levels typically experienced only in the most polluted cities in developing countries.

As for the contributions to air pollution by US vehicles, getting rid of leaded gasoline, developing catalytic converters to reduce nitrogen-oxide emissions and steadily improving fuel economy have all been important in reducing emissions of directly health-damaging pollutants. But climate change is damaging to health through many indirect linkages, and the CO2 emissions that are the single most important driver of human-caused climate change can only be reduced — in the case of vehicles — by improvements in fuel economy or fuel substitutions, such as switching to electric vehicles powered from a reduced-emission electricity grid or using biofuels made from sustainably grown feedstocks.

Improvements in battery technology have helped make hybrid and all-electric vehicles more popular in recent years, but they are still a tiny fraction of vehicles on the road. The US government’s ethanol-from-corn program avoids little, if any, CO2, because so much fossil energy goes into growing and processing the corn. And the pace of improvement in fuel economy is now likely to slow because Trump wants to drastically weaken the standards put in place under Obama.

Ziabari: Do you think the American lifestyle, in terms of the amount of food, energy and electricity consumed, needs to change? The World Wide Fund for Nature noted in a 2014 report that if everybody lived as an average North American does, we would need 3.9 planets to be sustainable. What are your thoughts on that?

Holdren: The United States clearly needs to learn to produce food, fuels and electricity more sustainably; to waste less food; and to use fuels and electricity more efficiently. There are many other measures that could reduce the impact of Americans on their environment, including more sensible land-use planning, biodiversity protection, regulation of toxic discharges, improved public transportation, reducing travel to meetings by substituting video conferences and transitioning to a more healthful as well more environment-sparing diet. Choosing a low-population-growth rather than high-population-growth future would also help.

Calculations of how many planets we’d need to support the world’s population at the North American standard of living are not as persuasive to me as the abundant evidence that today’s average standard of living for today’s population is not being managed without dangerous degradation of the environmental conditions and processes that are no less essential to sustaining human well-being than the economic and technological processes are.

Ziabari: There is a political side to America’s environmental policy. The Democrats and Republican disagree a lot when it comes to how much investment should be done on climate action and the fight against global warming. Pew Research Center data from 2016 shows 23% of the Americans believe the “country has gone too far in its efforts to protect the environment,” while 58% of the Republicans surveyed believe the existing environmental laws and regulations hurt the economy. Is it an advantage of the political system in the United States or a disadvantage?

Holdren: Republican voters have been misled by their leaders and by misinformation campaigns funded by dark money from individuals and corporations that have feasted on the status quo. Even so, I find it encouraging that only 23% of Americans believe we’re doing too much to protect the environment. That 77% think otherwise is more potential political support than can be garnered in this country for almost any other policy proposition. And that only 58% of Republicans think that environmental laws and regulations hurt the economy is also encouraging, given the enormous quantities of money and hot air that have been expended to mislead them — and given that they are a minority of national voters.

Our problem in the United States is not that a majority of the public doesn’t support taking more aggressive action to protect the climate and the rest of the environment — it does. The problem is that a majority of the political party that has, until recently, controlled both houses of Congress does not support such action.

Ziabari: How do you think the United States is doing in terms of preventing disease, promoting health and raising awareness of the major threats to public health through education and organized efforts by the advocacy organizations?

Holdren: Like so many challenges, this one can be accurately described as a glass simultaneously half full and half empty. Health care is reaching more people in the United States; the capacity to diagnose and successfully treat a wide variety of diseases is being advanced at a breathtaking pace by biomedical research, and good information for the public about health threats and remedies is ever more available through many venues. On the empty side, US life expectancy has recently been falling, due in part to substance abuse, suicides, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Immensely beneficial programs for vaccinating kids against terrible diseases are under attack by the misguided and uninformed, and the health impacts of climate change are not recognized by most.

Ziabari: Is the US involved in any efforts to invest in nature-based solutions to respond to its environmental challenges such as reforestation, investing in soil health and coastal ecosystem reforestation?

Holdren: Many such efforts are underway around the United States, a significant proportion of them funded by states, cities and communities. There are very helpful programs, such as the Climate Resilience Toolkit, managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that provides information about best practices and sources of assistance for these efforts.

Ziabari: Reports show that over $80 billion is lost each year due to overfishing and poor management of fisheries around the world, up by $30 billion a decade ago. It’s believed that most countries don’t have the knowledge or tools to fix this problem. What’s your reaction to this figure? How is the US doing in this regard?

Holdren: I don’t know the source of the particular figure you cite and so cannot offer any assessment of its accuracy. But the losses are surely large. And they are surely reducible through better science, better technology and better management. The United States government, under President Obama, at least, was strongly committed both to improving US performance in these regards and to working with other nations to improve theirs. Obama launched the first-ever US National Ocean Policy in July 2010 and appointed and empowered an interagency National Ocean Council to implement it. Secretary Kerry launched a series of international Our Oceans conferences to share best practices in ocean and fisheries management. These efforts are continuing, with the support of international partners and dedicated public servants in the relevant federal agencies.

Ziabari: The world will soon have a population of 9 billion. Is this going to be a future in which nature will be sacrificed in order for people on to have enough food to eat, enough water to use and enough energy and infrastructure to build their lives around? Or is it possible to save nature and ensure a sustainable life for all of the planet’s residents?

Holdren: We are in a race between the growing demands of the human population on the resources of the planet and the growing capabilities of better technology and management to meet those demands in sustainable ways. Sacrificing nature is not an option in this effort. Support from natural conditions and processes is an essential complement to technology in meeting human needs.

Much will depend on whether nations, corporations, civil society and voters provide the needed support for research and development to advance technologies that can deliver well-being for billions in sustainable ways. And society’s future will also depend on developing the will and the wisdom to ensure humanely that there are not too many billions.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.