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Remembering the Holdren/Lomborg Debate

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- June 1, 2019

“Do you operate the ‘Institute of Energy Research’ out of your living room? What exactly entitles you to the evidently self-applied label of ‘energy expert’? … You appear to be a deputy adjunt miller, lacking both discernible qualifications in the real world and the ability to tell a good argument from a bad one.” (Holdren to Bradley, September 17, 2003)

Some 16 years ago, I put my book writing on hold to critically review the long written record of John P. Holdren, then (and now) a Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard University. (He was President Obama’s science adviser between Harvard appointments, from 2009 until 2017.)

The result, “The Heated Energy Debate: Assessing John Holdren’s Attack on Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist,” was published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute in mid-2003.

I politely sent an email with the paper to Professor Holdren (indeed, his assistant Patricia helped me find obscure writings to complete the project). He responded emotionally, stating that I had no credentials, operated out of my living room (wrong: I had an upstairs office), and wrote for a “propaganda mill” (CEI).

What was the paper that so infuriated Professor Holdren–yet inspired nary a constructive criticism from him (his quotations of doom-and-gloom were in black-and-white–and I simply asked him to update or correct what was obviously wrong). I’ll let you decide if this is evidence of a shared narrative where the emperors do not want to have a clothing check.

Reproduced below is the Executive Summary of the 46-page paper that struck such a nerve.

In September 2001, Cambridge University Press published Bjørn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the True State of the World.  The book’s comprehensiveness (515 pages; 2,930 footnotes), the author’s green credentials (a former Greenpeace member, Lomborg began the book’s research to debunk Julian Simon’s forecasts of continuing environmental improvement), and Lomborg’s powerful refutation of the doomsday “litany of our ever-deteriorating environment,” sparked considerable interest. Favorable reviews followed in the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Economist. When the book became an international best seller, ideological environmentalists launched an angry counter-attack. Among the key figures to impugn Lomborg’s scholarship is the subject of this paper: Harvard Professor John P. Holdren.

Holdren, a Clinton-era leader of climate policy and energy technology task forces, is now the leading academic member of the National Commission on Energy Policy, a $10 million, two-year project tasked with formulating a “centrist” energy policy.  Holdren is also one of four authors to attack Lomborg in the January 2002 issue of Scientific American, in a feature pretentiously titled, “Science Defends Itself Against The Skeptical Environmentalist.”

A more accurate title would be “Environmental Establishment Fears to Debate Bjørn Lomborg.” Scientific American refused Lomborg the right of reply in the same issue, offered no space to scientists not affiliated with environmental activist causes, and even threatened to sue Lomborg if he tried to reproduce the Scientific American articles, with his detailed responses, on his own Website. Scientific American’s one-sided presentation of evidence, while claiming to defend science from just such abuse, easily qualifies as Orwellian. The fact that the magazine, five months later, gave Lomborg one page to respond to 11 pages of criticism hardly constitutes balance.

In January 2003, a group calling itself the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty issued an official denunciation of Lomborg, alleging that his book “is contrary to standards of good scientific practice” because it offers a “systematically biased representation” of environmental data.  Yet, rather than conduct an independent investigation, the Committees simply rehashed the four attacks published in Scientific American.  And just as Scientific American initially tried to suppress Lomborg’s detailed rebuttal, so the Committees declined to evaluate it. A more honest name for this panel would be the Committees for Scientific Dishonesty.

The present paper, written by energy historian and policy expert, Robert L. Bradley, Jr., President of the Institute for Energy Research and senior research fellow at the University of Houston, confines itself to the task of examining Holdren’s Scientific American article and other publications on energy issues.  It demonstrates that Holdren’s critique of Lomborg fails dismally. Insofar as the Danish panel relies on Holdren’s allegations, it is retailing falsehoods and exaggeration in the name of science.

Bradley finds the following flaws in Holdren’s Scientific American article:

  • Holdren falsely accuses Lomborg of debunking a straw man (the notion of an impending physical or geological exhaustion of petroleum supplies). In fact, Lomborg challenges the more widely held view—shared by Holdren—that oil will become increasingly scarce as an economically recoverable resource over the medium to longer term.  Would Holdren like to make a wager that real (inflation-adjusted) price of oil in 2013 will be higher than it is today?
  • Holdren fails to appreciate the technological innovations that are commercializing crude oil substitutes like Alberta oil sands and Venezuelan orimulsion, sustaining the petroleum era beyond even optimistic forecasts of recoverable crude reserves.
  • Holdren refuses to consider the reasons for climate optimism: enhanced CO2 fertilization and a moderate, predominantly nighttime warming under realistic climate scenarios.  Instead, he naively endorses full-scale government energy planning in the quixotic quest to “stabilize climate.”
  • Holdren’s charge that Lomborg’s energy analysis “careens far across the line that divides respectable (even if controversial science) from thoroughgoing and unrepentant incompetence” applies not to Lomborg but to Holdren himself.

In addition, Bradley documents shortcomings and outright errors in Holdren’s 30-year career as a physicist-turned-energy-polemicist:

  • Holdren in the 1970s forecast major ecological and economic crises absent a “revolution in human behavior” and a massive political campaign to “de-develop” the United States.
  • Holdren has not outgrown his 1970s opinion that, “Our limited knowledge of the details of air pollution permits little hope for early relief.”  He continues today to call air pollution “acute,” belittling the tremendous gains in air quality trends in cities from Los Angeles to Houston to New York due to remarkable advances in oil, gas, and coal technologies and mostly incremental regulation.
  • Holdren once predicted that as many as one billion people could perish by 2020 from man-made climate change. He now hedges: “That the impacts of global climate disruption may not become the dominant sources of environmental harm to humans for yet a few more decades cannot be a great consolation.” Yet he remains firmly in the climate alarmist camp.

Holdren’s 30-plus-year publication record exhibits a penchant for exaggeration, error, and now wholesale intolerance of reasoned dissent.  Holdren’s criticisms of Lomborg should be dismissed as inadequate and troubling, and the National Commission on Energy Policy should reconsider Holdren’s leadership role in devising a “centrist” approach to U.S. energy policy.

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