Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Wege lecturer optimistic about
climate change legislation

The passage of health care reform “should free up the capabilities to forge climate change legislation,” President Barack Obama’s assistant for science and technology told a U-M audience Monday.

Click here to view John Holdren's lecture online.

John Holdren, who also serves as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, presented the Ninth Annual Peter M. Wege Lecture on Sustainability before more than 1,000 at Rackham Auditorium.

He was referring to Sunday’s historic U.S. House vote to approve a health care bill, which passed with no Republican votes.

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, presented the Ninth Annual Peter M. Wege Lecture on Sustainability on Monday. (Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services)

Still, of the subsequent climate-related legislation, Holdren said, “I think we can get it done with some Republican votes and not just Democratic ones.”

“We need to start putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions” with a clear goal of reducing the emissions, he said, adding the strategy would spur eco-friendly innovation.

In introducing Holdren, President Mary Sue Coleman said his appearance kicks off a month’s worth of campus activities to mark the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, which U-M played a significant role in founding.

She cautioned that while Earth Day has heightened awareness of pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and other complex threats, a recent study by Yale and George Mason universities found that the number of Americans who believe climate change is a hoax or scientific conspiracy had more than doubled since 2008, from 7 percent to 16 percent.

“At U-M, we very much believe in climate change, and are placing more emphasis than ever on our teaching, research and operations as they relate to sustainability,” she said.

Holdren suggested it is concerning that many Republicans opposed to Obama’s initiatives reject the science of climate change. “They don’t want to know because knowing would interfere with their preconceptions,” he said. “They think climate change is a scam, a way to increase government interference in their lives.”

Holdren said science hasn’t done a good enough job explaining concepts free of jargon. “It’s better to communicate in language that people will understand,” he said.

Also introducing Holdren was Rosina Bierbaum, dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment. She serves on Obama’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, which Holdren co-chairs.

“He’s President Obama’s science adviser, and he was here for the entire day teaching classes and engaging with our students. It was simply extraordinary,” Bierbaum said. “It shows that he sees us as a major research institution. We should be very proud.”

In detailing the Obama administration’s science-related initiatives, Holdren said benefits to Michigan include $243 million provided for home weatherization, $239 million for U-M research, and he added the administration’s support of stem cell research at U-M, would create 8,000 jobs in the state of Michigan.

He said the Obama administration has promoted initiatives to boost core science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education to move U.S. students from the middle to the top in world rankings on science-related tests. He said a significant portion of the $4.4 billion in stimulus funding going to the administration’s Race to the Top education reform initiative is for STEM education.

Holdren said the administration’s investments in science and technology, boosted through federal stimulus legislation, have approached $100 billion.

Taking questions from the audience, Holdren addressed the administration’s pursuit of clean coal technology: “There’s no such thing as clean coal. There is such a thing as cleaner coal technology.”

He added that when coal is used to produce 50 percent of the nation’s electricity, there is an incentive and need to retrofit existing coal plants to reduce emissions and reduce destructive practices of coal mining.