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John P. Holdren, Obama's top science adviser, discusses solutions for global climate change with Adele Simmons, co-chair of the task force that developed a Climate Action Plan for the City of Chicago.

Global warming picking up steam, Obama top science adviser says

by Fahiemah Al-Ali
April 28, 2010

Related Links

Read more about NAE’s Grand Challenges Chicago Summit 2010View John P. Holdren’s presentationPew Research Center global warming study

5 simple things you can do today to go green and save green:

Use compact fluorescent bulbs in place of the incandescent variety

Insulate your house and install windows with multiple panes to increase energy efficiency

Drive a hybrid car or use a car-sharing program like iGo

Use public transportation when you can or ride your bike/walk

Talk to other folks about the challenges we face in energy, the economy and environment, and how we can solve them in ways that benefit all three

Chicagoans everywhere are enjoying the unusually warm spring this year, trading in their bulky winter gear for T-shirts and tanks and swapping shovels for sunglasses.

From street corners to outdoor cafés, the city’s warm weather enthusiasts can be spotted basking in the sun’s rays and relishing in record-breaking temperatures reflective of the warmest April in Chicago in 33 years, according to Tom Skilling, WGN-TV chief meteorologist.

Warm weather sooner in Chicago… that’s a good thing, right?

Maybe not, warned John P. Holdren, Obama’s top science adviser, at the recent National Engineering Academy’s Grand Challenges for the 21st Century Chicago Summit.

The summit focused on the topics of clean water, carbon, energy and climate, urban sustainability and global health— four of the 14 “Grand Challenges” recently identified by the academy as requiring immediate solutions from scientists, engineers and policymakers.

“The problem that we have is that the world is getting most of the energy that its economies need in ways that are wrecking the climate that its environment needs,” Holdren said.

As the keynote speaker during a discussion on carbon, energy and climate, Holdren detailed climate data that suggests an overabundance of sunshine here and elsewhere points to indicators far graver than just a mere stroke of seasonal good fortune.

His message built upon the simple framework that our ability to manage our energy and environment directly impacts the sustainability of our economy and national security.

Unfortunately, however, understanding climate change and its looming consequences isn’t as easy as 1,2,3.

So, where to start in unraveling the climate challenges we face at the turn of the 21st century?

It’s all about how we use energy, said Holdren, and the important thing is for people to take action in their everyday lives.

It’s as easy as using compact fluorescent bulbs in place of the incandescent variety, or insulating your house, said Holdren.

According to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the last 150 years have produced a 20-fold growth in global energy use— nearly all of it coming from fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels, a non-renewable energy source, which include natural gas, oil and coal, are the main source of energy on the planet, with 82 percent of our global dependence relying on its production and consumption, said Holdren.

And that’s the problem, he asserted.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration echoes Holdren’s sentiments.

According to NOAA, the burning of fossil fuels in the last century has released large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, all of which has contributed to the Earth's warming.

In December 2008, NOAA researchers measured an additional 16.2 billion tons of CO2 and 12.2 million tons of methane in the atmosphere— amounts that far outmatch levels that can be absorbed by the Earth's ecosystems, said NOAA.

Lessening our global dependence on fossil fuels and increasing energy production from renewable resources is vital in reducing the harmful effects of climate change, said Holdren.

But Carlos A. Cabrera, president and CEO of the National Institute of Low Carbon and Clean Energy in China, reminded the audience that transitioning away from fossil fuels would not happen overnight— nor should it.

“We must absolutely develop all forms of energy— including fossils,” said Cabrera, a self-described “pragmatic” industry panelist.

Cabrera averred that companies, which are dedicated to the production of fossil fuels, have a responsibility to minimize energy consumption and create technologies that lead to less deleterious climate and environment effects.

But what does all of this climate jargon mean for Chicago residents?

Better whip out the SPF 100+, because Adele Simmons warns that city dwellers could be facing 31 sweltering days of over 100 degree weather every summer if global energy production and consumption methods don't change.

Simmons, who co-chaired the task force that developed Chicago's Climate Action Plan and oversees its implementation, said Chicago is one of the city’s worldwide "leading by example" in its transition toward "greener" practices.

During the panel discussion, she recounted some of the goals set forth within the action plan, which included among several others, reducing carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

“We think that to help John [Holdren] accomplish these goals he’s been talking about, we’ve got to act intrusively with energy, imagination and commitment at the local level,” said Simmons.

Not everyone is onboard with global warming, though.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Sept. 30-Oct. 4, 2009 among 1,500 adults reached on cell phones and landlines, found that there has been a comparable decline in the proportion of Americans who say global temperatures are rising as a result of human activity, such as burning fossil fuels.

Just 36 percent said that currently, down from 47 percent the previous year.

But compiled climate data suggests otherwise, Holdren says.

“It’s [global warming] actually lulled people into a degree of complacency about this problem,” Holdren said, calling the term a “dangerous misnomer.”

Increases in floods, droughts, heat waves, pest outbreaks, typhoons and hurricanes of the largest categories, among several other factors, show the pattern of what is actually happening to the Earth— not just what you would expect to happen if global climate change was the cause, said Holdren.

“Climate governs,” he said, “and therefore, climate disruption affects.”

Immediate worldwide action is vital to ameliorating the energy issue, Holdren urged.

But global warming isn’t going to be solved overnight noted David Archer, professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, at the close of the panel discussion.

“Winston Churchill once said that Americans can be counted on to do the right thing after we’ve exhausted all the alternatives,” Archer remarked in reflection on the transition toward safer energy consumption in the U.S. “I’ll leave it at that.”