Did the President's Nominee for Science Advisor Say He Thinks A Billion People Are Gonna Die?

No. But that's apparently not enough to keep some people from making the claim.

There's a story that's making the rounds on some right wing blogs that John Holdren said, at his confirmation hearing, that he thinks that 1 billion people will die as a result of global warming by 2020. So far, that claim has been made at The National Review Online by Chris Horner:

Just got this e-mail from someone up on the Hill, regarding John "Clearly NOT the 'Science' Guy" Holdren's confirmation hearing as (of all things) chief science advisor to the president). I do think it's fair to say we told you so on this one. Possibly Gore turned the job down?

[Louisiana senator David] Vitter got Holdren to admit (three times) that he thinks 1 billion people will die from Global Warming by 2020. Also hammered him on the population control issues. It was beautiful!

A second article, also by Chris Horner, has been posted on a blog at the American Spectator's website:

Well, old habits die hard. The email I received noted that Louisiana Senator David Vitter had a difficult time simply rolling over for the notion that this guy should stroll into regular access to the president without having to remind everyone, for the record, of just what a Moonbat he really is. Per my correspondent:

Vitter got Holdren to admit (three times) that he thinks 1 billion people will die from Global Warming by 2020.

That's right, one beeellion bodies! Imagine if the recent cooling trend weren't projected even by alarmists to continue until then (by the way, what's "global warming" without the "warming"?). I mean, that's already as many people as Americans who will lose their jobs in two months if we don't immediately pass the Porculus bill, by Nancy Pelosi's math.

One of the commenters on one of yesterday's posts seems to share Mr. Horner's perspective.

That's the view of what happened from fantasyland. Here in realityville, what happened is a bit less dramatic. Vitter asked Dr. Holdren about a statement that Dr. Holdren made back in 1986, where Dr. Holdren said that global warming could cause the deaths of 1 billion people by 2020. The key word in that sentence is "could." Just in case you are as unfamiliar with the English language as Mr. Horner's source appears to be, allow me to point out that "could" is not in fact a synonym for "will".

Dr. Holdren responded by saying that he thought that was unlikely to happen. For the comprehension impaired, which apparently includes both Mr. Horner and his hearing room confidant, that means that he doesn't actually think that's going to happen.

Vitter interrupted him, saying, "do you think it could happen?" Dr. Holdren said that he though it could happen. Vitter interrupted him again, saying, "so you would stick to that statement?" Dr. Holdren replied that he didn't think it was likely. Vitter repeated his question again, and Dr. Holdren agreed that it could. Vitter clarified by asking, "one billion by 2020?" and Dr. Holdren responded by saying, "It could."

At the end of his questioning, immediately after being chastized by the chair for already being well over his allotted time, Mr. Vitter returned to the topic, asking yet again if Dr. Holdren thought that 1 billion deaths was still a possibility. Dr. Holdren agreed that it is in fact possible.

Examining the actual sequence of questions I outlined demonstrates several things very clearly. It shows us that Dr. Holdren did not actually say that he thinks that 1 billion people will die due to climate change in the next 12 years. It also shows us that Horner's source is not only functionally illiterate, but also apparently innumerate - Dr. Holdren did not admit three times that he thought 1 billion were going to die, but he did say four different times that he thought 1 billion people could die. Finally, this sequence of questions, the remainder of his questions for Dr. Holdren, and what can best be described as an enormous volume of additional evidence all demonstrate that Senator Vitter is, in fact, a complete tool.

Oh, almost forgot. It shows that Chris Horner is at least as much of a tool as the Senator from Louisiana.

If you're interested, I've put a full transcript of Senator Vitter's question period below the fold.



Dr. Holdren, one of the lines in the President's Inaugural Address which I most appreciated was his comment about science, and honoring that, and not having it overtaken by ideology. My concern is that as one of his top science advisors, that many statements you've made in the past don't meet that test, and so I wanted to explore that. One is from 1971, an article with Paul Ehrlich, titled Global Ecology, in which you predicted that, "some form of eco-catastrophe, if not thermonuclear war, seems almost certain to overtake us before the end of the century." Do you think that was a responsible prediction?


Well, thank you, Senator, for that..., um..., for that question. First of all, I guess I would say that one of the things I've learned in the intervening nearly four decades is that predictions about the future are difficult. That was a statement which at least, at the age of 26, I had the good sense to hedge by saying "almost certain". The trends at the time were not, ah..., were not positive, either with respect to the dangers of thermonuclear war or with respect to ecological dangers of a variety of sorts. A lot of things were getting worse. I would argue that the motivation for looking at the downside possibilities - the possibilities that can go wrong if things continue in a bad direction is to motivate people to change direction. That was my intention at the time. In many respects there were changes in direction which reduced the possibility of nuclear war through arms control agreements and there were changes in direction in national and international policy with respect to environmental problems, including a good many laws passed by this Congress.


Given all that context, do you think that was a responsible prediction at the time?


Senator, with respect, I would want to distinguish between predictions and, ahh, description of possibilities which we would like to avert. I think it is responsible to call attention to the dangers that society faces, so we'll make the investments and make the changes to reduce those dangers.


Well, I will call "seems almost certain" a prediction, but that's just a difference of opinion. What, specifically, what science was that prediction based on?


Well, it was based in the ecological domain on a lot of science, on the evidence of the accumulation of persistent toxic substances in the body fat of organisms all around the planet, on the rise of the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, of sulfur oxides, of particulate matter, on trace metals accumulating in various parts of the environment in large quantities, on the destruction of tropical forests at a great rate...

Vitter (interrupting):

Is all of that dramatically reversed since this "almost certainty" has obviously been averted?


Some of it has reversed, and I'm grateful for that. And, again, I think that it's been reversed in part because of sensible laws passed by the United States Congress and signed by various Presidents. Some of it has not reversed. We continue to be on a perilous path with respect to climate change, and I think we need to do more work to get that one reversed as well.


OK. Another statement. In 1986, you predicted that global warming could cause the deaths of one billion people by 2020. Would you stick to that statement today?


Well, again, I wouldn't have called it a prediction then, and I wouldn't call it a prediction now. I think it is unlikely to happen, but it is ...

Vitter (interrupting):

Do you think it could happen?


I think it could happen, and the way it could happen is climate crosses a tipping point in which a catastrophic degree of climate change has severe impacts on global agriculture. A lot of people depend on that...

Vitter (interrupting):

So you would stick to that statement?


I don't think it's likely. I think we should invest effort - considerable effort - to reduce the likelihood further.


So you would stick to the statement that it could happen?


It could happen, and ...

Vitter (interrupting):

One billion by 2020?


It could.


In 1973, you encouraged "a decline in fertility to well below replacement" in the United States because "280 million in 2040 is likely to be too many." What would your number for the right population in the US be today?"


I no longer think it's productive, Senator, to focus on the optimum population for the United States. I don't think any of us know what the right answer is. When I wrote those lines in 1973, I was preoccupied with the fact that many problems the United States faced appeared to be being made more difficult by the rate of population growth that then prevailed. I think everyone who studies these matters understands that population growth brings some benefits and some liabilities. It's a tough question to determine which will prevail in a given time period. But I think the key thing today is that we need to work to improve the conditions all of our citizens face economically, environmentally, and in other respects. And we need to aim for something that I have been calling for years 'sustainable prosperity'.


Well, since we're at 304 million, I'm certainly heartened that you're not sticking to the 280 million figure. But, much more recently, namely a couple of weeks ago, in your response to my written questions, you did say on this matter, "balancing costs and benefits of population growth is a complex business, of course, and reasonable people can disagree about where it comes out." I'll be quite honest with ya. I'm not concerned where you or I might come out. I'm scared to death that you think this is a proper function of government, which is what that sentence clearly implies. You think determining optimal population is a proper role of government?


No, Senator, I do not. And I did not, certainly, intend that to be the implication of that sentence. The sentence means only what it says, which is that people who have thought about these matters come out in different places. I think the proper role of government is to develop and deploy the policies with respect to economy, environment, security, that will ensure the well being of the citizens we have. I also believe that many of those policies will have the effect, and have had the effect in the past, of lowering birth rates. Because when you provide health care for women, opportunities for women, education, people tend to have smaller families on average. And it ends up being easier to solve some of our other problems when that occurs.


Final question. In 2006, obviously pretty recently, in an article, "The War on Hot Air," you suggested that global sea levels could rise 13 feet by the end of this century. Now, in contrast to that, the IPCC's 2007 report put their estimate at between 7 and 25 inches. So their top line was 25 inches - about two feet. What explains the disparity? Why is the IPCC 600% off in their top level assessment?


The disparity, Senator, is that the IPCC chose not to include in that numerical estimate the mechanisms by which the great ice sheets on Antarctica and Greenland could disintegrate very rapidly in a warming world. What they considered is the effect of...

Vitter (interrupting, and inaudible):


No, I don't say it was a mistake. It says so in the report. In the IPCC's report, it says we're not going to include those rapid mechanisms because our models are not yet good enough to represent them quantitatively in terms of how much they could do by a particular year. My statement was based on articles in the journals Science and Nature, peer-reviewed publications by some of the world's leading specialists in studying ice, who had concluded that twice in the last 19,000 years, in natural warming periods of similar pace to the warming period that we're experiencing now in part because of human activities, the sea level went up by as much as 2 to 5 meters per century. And that was not an article I wrote, that was an interview in which I was quoted, and I had mentioned that research which had indicated that those high rates were possible. And the IPCC did not refute that, it simply said, our models cannot represent the phenomena that did that, so we're going to produce an estimate that only includes some...

Vitter (who had been trying to interrupt for some time):

So, bottom line, do you think that the better worse case estimate is 25 inches or 13 feet?


The newer analyses that have been done since the IPCC report came out indicate that the upper limit for the year 2100 is probably between 1 and 2 meters, and those are the numbers that I now quote, because they are the latest science.


So you would no longer quote 13 feet?

(In background, another member is trying to get the chair's attention,)


I would no longer quote 13 feet, because newer science indicates that the upper limit is only about six and a half feet.


But going back to my first question...

Chairman Rockefeller, interrupting, as another member continues to try to get his attention)

Senator, you've had almost ten minutes.


Just a final follow-up. You would say - I think you did - that 1 billion people lost by 2020 is still a possibility?


It is still a possibility, and one we should work energetically to avoid.


Thank you, Mr. Chariman.


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But surely, Vitter COULD be a really cool dude, right? And he COULD be within reason?

Holdren replied sucessively to the same question with
- I think it is unlikely to happen
- I think it could happen
- I don't think it's likely
- It could happen

What the hell did he mean ?

The two statements don't conflict with each other. He thinks that enormous fatalities as a result of climate change is not likely to occur, but there's still a chance that it could.

Improbable, but not impossible, in other words.

The fact that he thinks it possible (even ever so slightly)that about a quarter of the world's population might die due to global warming in the next twelve years is remarkable. I'm not sure that this makes him a "moonbat", it certainly means he has no business as a science advisor - science fiction perhaps. Science is a method of inquiry, making up wild catastrophic predictions, which has been Dr. Holdren's bread and butter for decades, is something else entirely.

As a rarely breached rule of thumb, if you can determine a scientist's political leanings a) they are liberal b) it's junk science. The reason for this is simple, real scientists tend to be very inward focused on their area of inquiry, and they work on specific issues, which rarely have public policy implications, their politics don't matter. When someone starts focusing outward toward public policy, their science follows their politics, no exceptions.

Unfortunately, Dr. Holdren has a long history of trying to influence public policy through catastrophic predictions. Fortunately, he's never been right.

By HoosierHawk (not verified) on 13 Feb 2009 #permalink

@ HoosierHawk(#4)
From the CIA World Fact Book, the world population is 6,706,993,152 (July 2008 est.)
1 billion is nowhere near "about a quarter" of that.

From the rest of your statement, I have to assume that when Orac called Vitter and Horner tool, you took it as a challenge.

"Science is a method of inquiry, making up wild catastrophic predictions, which has been Dr. Holdren's bread and butter for decades, is something else entirely."

This wasn't a prediction.

If I say that 'a meteor could impact the Earth in the next few months' am I making a prediction?
No. Especially not if I further clarify that I believe 'it's unlikely but possible' as Holdren did.

The point of the statement was to manipulate people to act against climate change in fear whilst using accurate language.
However, it's clearly an ineffective strategy, since not only is at an absurd possibility, but because it's an absurd possibility, it turns people off, since it's not generally perceived as a 'worthy' reason for fighting climate change, in most people's eyes - purely because it's so improbable.
Additionally, the proposition doesn't encourage us for any of the other factors that climate change could bring about on the Earth and other habitats/environment, so it is very narrow. Of course, this is an unwise area to make claims about. It's extremely difficult - practically guess work - to make other predictions about such a complex system with so many unknown variables.

I think a much more effective strategy would be to move away from scare-mongering - which gives the denialists perfect material with which to draw in others without first looking at the evidence - and instead be more respectful to the intelligence of the public. Give realistic aims, figures and, most importantly, reasoning and justification! Most people, quite rightly, won't do something until they are given a legitimate & realistic reason, which they can imagine, to do it.

As for me, I'm still dreaming of the day that Dr. Novella is able to proffer his scientific reasoning and wisdom to the political world in a more direct way!

John Marley,

Sorry, good catch. I wrote the sentence in present tense, but the facts are past. Dr. Holdren made the statement years ago, at that time, he foretold of one billion people or ~1/4 of the worlds population perishing. As you pointed out, our planet's population has increased substantially since then, despite Dr. Holdren's expectations.

Vitter & Horner might very well be tools, I don't know enough about either to have an opinion. I'm a little more familiar with Dr. Holdren.

I have been an avid consumer of scientific literature throughout my life. Over time, I have developed a strong distaste for those political creatures whose "work" always seems to result in the need to shape public policy. Dr. Holdren is a particularly egregious example of the genre. Although he has worked in a variety of fields, as coincidence would have it, there are always important social ramifications to his findings. How trying this unwelcome burden must be! He just wants to do good science and mind his own business, but time and again, it's up to him save the world from a medley of quixotic threats.

It wasn't my intention to disparage those with a liberal political viewpoint, it is the so called science I am critical of. Personally, I don't care much for either political party, while most issues are multi-faceted, our political system is decidedly binary. One group thinks that government is a necessary evil, to be avoided to the extent possible, the other thinks that governmental action is the answer to every problem. Which viewpoint would be more attractive to someone with a penchant for societal engineering?

Flymises - Dr. Holdren's original statement was that it was highly likely that 1 billion people would die from global warming before 2020 - a prediction? Rather than split hairs, I'll conceed your point, but it's a distinction without a difference. The evil tool Vitter was trying to get an (honest) admission that Dr. Holdren's career is checkered with a string of ludicrous "visions of the future", all catastrophic, all wrong. The "unlikely, but possible" line was Dr. Holdren's own assessment of the chances that he wasn't full of c**p on that one as well.

The few items touched on in his confirmation hearing are by no means the full extent of his ah..fortune telling. When I was attending Purdue in the late '70s he was making a big stink that the world was on the verge of running out of every important industrial commodity; chromium, aluminum, nickel etc. Even economists disagreed, they explained that supply is related to price, if demand pushes prices higher, exploration and expansion of supply are the result. Holdren maintained his prophecy and was challenged to a public wager, he could pick any five commodities with the goal being to identify just one that would not experience a price drop within a five year period. Of course, if Holdren was right, then consistent demand and deleted supply would make a price drop impossible. He lost the bet within a year. At least it helped move him along to the next crisis he needed to save us all from.

It is my opinion that Dr. Holdren would be a bad choice for science advisor, almost like selecting a tax cheat as Secretary of the Treasury, - whoops, bad analogy.

By HoosierHawk (not verified) on 14 Feb 2009 #permalink


In regards to Holdren's original statement, do you happen to have access to the quote? Everyone I've seen reference it only mentions that it's in the book "The Machinery of Nature", where the author refers to Holdren. The vagueness of the citation makes me suspicious of quotemining.


Dr. Holdren made the statement years ago, at that time, he foretold of one billion people or ~1/4 of the worlds population perishing.... I have developed a strong distaste for those political creatures whose "work" always seems to result in the need to shape public policy.

A prediction of global weather change resulting in deaths is not, as you imply, a public policy claim. The prediction of weather change is hard science, the prediction of deaths is a mix of hard and social science.

A need to shape public policy would be: "...and we should do X about it."

What's ironic about your complaint is (a) everyone has such opinions, (b) one might expect a potential science advisor to offer, um, advice, and (c) Vitter never bothered asking about what advice Holdren would give on climate change. Evidently that wasn't important to him.

Le réchauffement climatique fait partie d'un cycle planétaire qui touche toutes les planètes de notre système et n'a rien avoir avec la pollution.
La glace occupe un volume supérieur a son volume en eau, donc: si la glace fond le niveau baisse.
Des millions d'humains vivent sous les tropiques et ont des températures supérieures aux pays industrialisés et s'en accomodent trés bien. Le réchauffement de nos régions sera bénéfique pour tous et permettra une expansion de l'agriculture.
Le "réchauffement climatique" est un produit de supermarché pour vendre des conneries.

By huemaurice1 (not verified) on 16 Feb 2009 #permalink

One group thinks that government is a necessary evil, to be avoided to the extent possible, the other thinks that governmental action is the answer to every problem.

I think this disingenuous formulation is very informative as to the intellectual honesty which HoosierHawk is bringing to the discussion.

Vitter...vitriol...vitter...vitriol, is there a connection? Vitter made a fool out of himself with his baseless attacks. "I'm scared to death that you think this is a proper function of government, which is what that sentence clearly implies." That was so obviously wrong that I am 'scared to death' that an U.S. senator is illiterate.

By TheThomas (not verified) on 26 Feb 2009 #permalink

"As a rarely breached rule of thumb, if you can determine a scientist's political leanings a) they are liberal b) it's junk science"

-- and if they are conservatives we can trust their science? Like this guy? (http://www.ecosyn.us/adti/Seitz_Tobacco_Crimes.html).

"Le réchauffement de nos régions sera bénéfique pour tous et permettra une expansion de l'agriculture. Le réchauffement climatique" est un produit de supermarché pour vendre des conneries."

Foutaises. Ce ne sera pas les températures que iront tuer (pour la plupart)... ce sera des famines a cause du séchage des sols. We currently exploit all available high quality soils and those outside the current agricultural zones are of low quality. Soils take thousands of years to form. No citations to back up what you wrote? Nope. La gueule.