Another very impressive Obama pick

No, not Pastor Rick Warren; I'm with the multitude thinking this is one of Obama's rare clumsy steps.

Instead: John Holdren, who according to AAAS's Science Insider site will become the president's main science advisor, as head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Unlike, say, the inspired choice of Eric Shinseki to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, there is no fancy multi-level symbolism in the selection of Holdren. His nomination is more comparable to that of Steven Chu at the Department of Energy: he is a figure of unquestioned eminence in his field, with significant experience not just in hard science but also in the application of science to public policy.

And like Chu, much of his recent professional attention has been directed at energy and climate questions. Holdren has also worked extensively on nuclear nonproliferation, and seven years ago won the $250,000 Heinz award largely for that effort. Noting the wide range of disciplines and pursuits that have engaged him (he has also directed Woods Hole Research Center), Holdren said in his Heinz acceptance speech:

One might wonder from the array of interests of mine that have just been mentioned, whether I simply have a short attention span, but I do like to think that there is some method in this madness. I think that many, if not most, of the great problems of the human predicament - population, resources, environment, prosperity, security - are not separate problems, but are intimately interconnected. And I believe if they're not all addressed and solved together, they won't be solved at all.

After the jump, some quotes from Holdren on energy and climate change from an Atlantic article by Mark Sagoff back in 1997.

Here's the only reason I can think of to worry about this pick: Knowing how bureaucratic politics works, but not myself knowing much about Holdren or Chu personally, I can imagine their shared roles as scientists-in-chief working very well, if they're a natural team, or not so well, if they are in the slightest degree turf-conscious or jealous. We'll see.

From "Do We Consume Too Much," by Mark Sagoff, Atlantic Monthly, June, 1997. I am struck by the optimistic note on which this passage ends.

Misconception No. 3: We Are Running Out of Energy
Probably the most persistent worries about resource scarcity concern energy. "The supply of fuels and other natural resources is becoming the limiting factor constraining the rate of economic growth," a group of experts proclaimed in 1986. They predicted the exhaustion of domestic oil and gas supplies by 2020 and, within a few decades, "major energy shortages as well as food shortages in the world."

Contrary to these expectations, no global shortages of hydrocarbon fuels are in sight. "One sees no immediate danger of 'running out' of energy in a global sense," writes John P. Holdren, a professor of environmental policy at Harvard University. According to Holdren, reserves of oil and natural gas will last seventy to a hundred years if exploited at 1990 rates. (This does not take into account huge deposits of oil shale, heavy oils, and gas from unconventional sources.) He concludes that "running out of energy resources in any global sense is not what the energy problem is all about."

The global energy problem has less to do with depleting resources than with controlling pollutants. Scientists generally agree that gases, principally carbon dioxide, emitted in the combustion of hydrocarbon fuels can build up in and warm the atmosphere by trapping sunlight. Since carbon dioxide enhances photosynthetic activity, plants to some extent absorb the carbon dioxide we produce...

However successful this and other feedback mechanisms may be in slowing the processes of global warming, a broad scientific consensus, reflected in a 1992 international treaty, has emerged for stabilizing and then decreasing emissions of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse" gases. This goal is well within the technological reach of the United States and other industrialized countries.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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