Crank of the Week - April 6, 2009 - John Holdren

President Obama's new science adviser has stated that global warming is so dire, the administration is discussing radical technologies to cool Earth's air. Former Harvard physicist, John Holdren, described several extreme options including shooting pollution particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect the sun's rays and developing artificial trees to suck carbon dioxide from Earth's atmosphere. This is not the first time so called geoengineering schemes have been proposed by scientists thinking way out of the box—what makes this scary is that this guy is the President's science adviser.

At first, Dr. Holdren characterized the possible need for humans to tinker with Earth's climate as just his personal view. However, he went on to say he has raised the subject in administration discussions. In an interview with the Associated Press, Holdren outlined several “tipping points” involving global warming that could be fast approaching. Once such milestones are reached, such as complete loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic, it increases chances of “really intolerable consequences,” he said. If you are unclear about all this tipping point stuff read Tiptoeing Through The Tipping Points in the Resilient Earth Blog.

This isn't the first time that Holdren has wagered wrongly about the future. Holdren was one of the experts whom over population alarmist and all around natural catastrophe maven, Paul Ehrlich, consulted in his bet with economist Julian Simon during the “energy crisis” of the 1980s. Dr. Simon, who disagreed with environmentalists’ predictions of a new “age of scarcity” of natural resources, offered to bet $1,000 that any natural resource would be cheaper at any date in the future.

Dr. Ehrlich accepted the challenge and asked Holdren, then the co-director of the graduate program in energy and resources at the University of California, Berkeley, and another Berkeley professor, John Harte, for help in choosing which resources would become scarce. Holdren helped select five metals—chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten—and joined Dr. Ehrlich and Dr. Harte in betting $1,000 that those metals would be more expensive ten years later. They turned out to be wrong on all five metals, and had to pay up when the bet came due in 1990. Now Holdren wants to gamble with our planet's ecology.

Holdren is not alone in taking geoengineering more seriously. The National Academy of Science is making climate tinkering the subject of its first workshop in its new multidisciplinary climate challenges program. The British parliament has also discussed the idea and the American Meteorological Society is writing a policy statement on the subject that says “it is prudent to consider geoengineering's potential, to understand its limits and to avoid rash deployment.” We can go along with the “avoid rash deployment” part wholeheartedly.

After two decades of frenzied warnings about catastrophic climate change—which is being caused by accident—now we are supposed to let a bunch of far out thinking scientists mess with the environment on purpose? Considering how rudimentary our knowledge regarding Earth's climate really is, and how unpredictable creating man-made volcanoes or forests of fake trees could be (why not just plant more real trees?), to seriously mention such whacky plans is simply crazy. Remember, Holdren is the new administration's science expert: who knows what the scientifically naive policy wonks around Obama will come up with after hearing this nonsense. And Holdren calls climate skeptics “dangerous!”

We have reported on such improbable schemes before in this column: Dan Whaley, CEO of Climos, wanting to fertilize vast stretches of ocean with iron to remove CO2; Tom Wigley, Senior Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who wants to pump large quantities of sulfer dioxide (SO2) into the stratosphere in order to form droplets of sulfuric acid (H2SO4); and John Latham, also from NCAR, who wants to create a fleet of 1500 robot sailing ships to combat global warming. For their efforts, each of these free thinkers have won the coveted Crank of the Week, so we would be remiss if we did not give this week's award to Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren.