Organization Trends

The Triumph of Environmental Alarmism

Science 'Czar' John Holdren and the Woods Hole Research Center

(Organization Trends, October 2009 PDF here)

Summary: Funded by liberal foundation dollars, the Woods Hole Research Center has aggressively promoted an alarmist ‘the-world-is-ending’ environmentalist ideology. President Obama foreshadowed his views on environmental policy when he named its former director, John P. Holdren, as his science ‘czar.’

March 19, 2009 was a banner day for the environmentalist movement. On that day, the U.S. Senateunanimously approved President Obama’s selection of physicist John P. Holdren to be the new White House science “czar.” Officially his title is Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The office, established in 1976, advises the president on the latest scientific research related to important public policy issues. It also coordinates the president’s decisions with federal agencies.

Its 40 Ph.D.-level science policy experts help the White House keep track of everything from developments in biomedical research and climate science to broadband technology. They help the White House decide how much research and development (R&D) money to ask Congress for and offer advice on how the federal government should organize its research programs. If the issue is swine flu or cyber-sabotage or global warming or the future of NASA space exploration, the science adviser and his staff have the president’s ear. He needs to trust the science adviser to make sound recommendations about what the federal government should do.

Clearly the science adviser should be broadly knowledgeable about science and technology; he should know how the federal bureaucracy and academic and scientific organizations create and influence public policy; and he should have the political skills to be able to testify before committees of Congress and persuade its members to fund the policies and programs of the administration. A good science adviser needs to be much more than a good scientist.

Since he was nominated for the OSTP position last year, John Holdren has been watched closely for what he will say about many controversial policy issues. But what has raised eyebrows is the discovery of Holdren’s past scientific opinions and associations. He is the coauthor of a 1,000-page textbook, Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment, written in 1977 with the controversial Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich and Ehrlich’s wife Anne. In 1968 the Ehrlichs received widespread attention for their alarmist book The Population Explosion, which hysterically warned against overpopulation and the depletion of natural resources. It has proven to be badly mistaken in all its predictions.

In Ecoscience, Holdren and the Ehrlichs considered scientific trends and developed scenarios of what was likely to happen to the world in the future. They discussed what scientists should recommend to policymakers should these trends persist.

*For instance, they consider the advisability of “compulsory abortion… if the population crisis became sufficiently severe to endanger…society”;

*They propose the creation of an “an armed international organization to enforce order worldwide; and the institution of a “Planetary Regime” to “control the development, administration, conservation and distribution of all natural resources” in addition to “regulating all international trade…”

*Ecoscience calls for severe limitations on economic growth. “It is by now abundantly clear that the GNP cannot grow forever. Why should it? Why should we not strive for zero economic growth (ZEG) as well as zero population growth?” the authors ask.

Robert Bradley, CEO of the free market-oriented Institute for Energy Research, has catalogued many other controversial Holdren comments over the years (available at; Search on “John Holdren”), including this gem from a paper co-authored by Holdren and Ehrlich in 1971: “Some form of ecocatastrophe, if not thermonuclear war, seems almost certain to overtake us before the end of the century.”

Ecoscience was not mentioned during Holdren’s Senate confirmation hearings. Only Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana), a junior member of the Senate Commerce, Transportation and Science Committee, asked about Holdren’s view, published in 1973, that a U.S. population of 280 million by the year 2040 was probably excessive. (Current U.S. population is estimated at 309 million.) Holdren said that was no longer his opinion. He added that he did not believe the federal government should decide an optimum U.S. population.


After Holdren’s confirmation, quotations from Ecoscience began to circulate on websites, which generated news reports, which prompted questions to the White House about its new science adviser. Holdren was sufficiently stung by the controversy to respond to a question from, which reported an OSTP statement on July 21 disassociating Holdren from his book:

“Dr. Holdren has stated flatly that he does not now support and has never supported compulsory abortions, compulsory sterilization, or other coercive approaches to limiting population growth…Straining to conclude otherwise from passages treating controversies of the day in a three-author, 30-year-old textbook is a mistake.”

The Ehrlichs also provided a statement to FoxNews, expressing shock “at the serious mischaracterization of our views and those of John Holdren…We were not then [in 1977], never have been, and are not now ”advocates’ of the Draconian measures for population limitation described – but not recommended” in the book.

“Described but not recommended” – a cynic might call that “a distinction without a difference,” or “floating an idea,” or “launching a trial balloon,” or “testing the waters”—it’s what policy advisers are supposed to do.

Resume of a Science Czar


Sixty-five year-old John Holdren was not an unknown quantity before taking the OSTP job. His science degrees come from MIT and Stanford. He was previously the H. John and Teresa Heinz professor of environmental policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Before that he was a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Cal Tech and the University of California, Berkeley, with interests in energy technology, global climate change, and nuclear arms control. He is the author or coauthor of some 20 books and 300 articles. In 1981 he received one of the first “genius” grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Al Gore consulted with him in the making of the movie An Inconvenient Truth.

Holdren’s career moved from scientific research to science policymaking at the highest levels. From 1987 to 1997 he chaired the executive committee of the Pugwash Conferences on Sciences and World Affairs, a group founded by Bertrand Russell in 1955. From 1994 to 2001, he was a member of President Clinton’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), a group he will now chair. From 1991 to 2005 he was vice-chairman of the MacArthur Foundation board of trustees. He coordinated an 18-member, 11-nation UN Scientific Expert Group on Climate Change and Sustainable Development and he was lead author of its 2007 report. In 2006, he was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest scientific society.

Woods Hole Research Center


To learn more about Holdren it helps to know something about the purpose of the Woods Hole Research Center. From 1994 to 2005, Holdren was vice-chair of the Woods Hole Research Center board of trustees, and in 2005 he became director of the Center, succeeding its founder, George Woodwell.

The Center (WHRC) is located in a renovated 17 room Victorian summer home in Falmouth, Massachusetts along the Cape Cod Atlantic coast just north of Martha’s Vineyard. It is not affiliated with its richer and much larger neighbor, the world-renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The Center has a staff of about 35 scientists and 17 support staff. It describes itself as “an independent, nonprofit institute focused on environmental science, education, and public policy.” On its most recent tax form, IRS Form 990 for 2007-2008, WHRC reports $8.2 million in total revenue, including government contributions of $3.5 million. It had net assets of $14 million. WHRC scientific research focuses on climate, forests, soils, and water, and it is usually published in academic journals (e.g., Journal of Geophysical Research, Ecological Economics, etc.). WHRC scholars frequently contribute to United Nations reports on climate change.

But there is another side to WHRC activities. The Center regularly circulates alarmist statements, op-eds and open letters of the sort that Paul and Anne Ehrlich and their coauthor John Holdren made in the 1970s. These statements typically end with a demand for more and bigger government economic intervention for the sake of the environment, and they attack anyone they regard as standing in the way of their agenda. Consider the following:

-In June 2009 WHRC released an open letter to President Obama and Congress initiated by founder George Woodwell and three others and signed by 20 academics demanding “strong leadership by the United States” to help avoid “a rapidly developing global climatic catastrophe.” The letter said passage of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill was only a first step to protect the climate, which, “is moving out from under civilization rapidly.”

-Lecturing at MIT in April 2004, WHRC founder George Woodwell said: “The nations collectively, but under the leadership of the United States, have squandered the opportunity for a gradual transition away from fossil fuels, a transition started in the Carter administration and abruptly and stupidly abandoned in the Reagan administration and scorned by all subsequent U.S. Houses of Congress.”

– In “New Orleans: Only the Beginning?” (published in the Sept./Oct. 2006 issue of World Watch magazine), Woodwell described the lessons of Hurricane Katrina:

The big lesson is that global biophysics, ecology writ large, is biting into the economic and political systems that have dominated our free enterprise dreams and is setting new rules. Suddenly global climate matters, sea level matters, glacial ice is important, the global budget of carbon and nitrogen are issues before town and state and national governments, and must be before the world…There is another lesson, also writ large. That is the importance of competence in government as use of our small world intensifies. Contrary to conservative dogma of the moment, the free market system offers no solution to major environmental crises. Intensification requires new rules, new laws, and a competent and evolving governmental system in which science, as well as economic and political interests, has a guiding hand.


-In 2002, Scientific American published four reviews, including one by Holdren, attacking The Skeptical Environmentalist, a best-selling book by the Danish academic Bjorn Lomborg that questioned the exaggerated claims made by environmentalists regarding global warming, endangered species, overpopulation and other issues. When Lomborg rebutted his critics, Holdren, then a WHRC board member and “visiting scientist,” responded with a diatribe designed to squelch his adversary:

“Lomborg’s performance careens far across the line that divides respectable even if controversial science from thoroughgoing and unrepentant incompetence…He has needlessly muddled public understanding and wasted immense amounts of the time of capable people who have had to take on the task of rebutting him. And he has done so at the particular intersection of science with public policy – environment and the human condition – where public and policy-maker confusion about the realities is more dangerous for the future of society than on any other science-and-policy question excepting, possibly, the dangers from weapons of mass destruction. It is a lot to answer for.”

In 1995, Holdren co-authored with Paul Ehrlich (again) and Gretchen Daily an essay providing a politically correct definition of the concept of “sustainability.” The essay, distributed by the World Bank for the United Nations University, included in its definition the concept of security, which it called “a condition in which no nation’s military forces were strong enough to threaten the existence of other states.” Observed the Cato Institute’s Dr. Patrick Michaels, “Good thing we didn’t listen.” Holdren, then a Harvard professor, thanked WHRC for its hospitality “during a 1992 sabbatical in which much of his part of [the paper] was done.”

What becomes clear is that WHRC’s goal is not to increase the knowledge of policymakers. It is to set the emotional tone in which policies are made. Threats and fear are just as important as data and statistics.

George M. Woodwell


George M. Woodwell founded WHRC in 1985 and is now the center’s director emeritus. The Center grew out of his work on climate change and his interest in helping shaping government policy towards it. In his 2008 memoir, The Nature of a House: Building a World that Works, Woodwell writes:

“In 1985, when we moved to establish the Woods Hole Research Center, it was becoming clear that an international treaty [on climate change] was necessary and that details of the treaty must emerge from the scientific community. We were at the center of this discussion and free to proceed as we set forth with the new institution. We had both the insights in science and the opportunity to put the insights into action in government.”

Like John Holdren, Woodwell has the kind of academic credentials that are usually labelled “impeccable.” But they serve as cover for his larger ambition to be an environmental activist and policy shaper. Woodwell is a founding trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Environmental Defense, and the World Resources Institute. He is also a former board member and former chairman of the World Wildlife Fund – US.

Like John Holdren, Woodwell is also the recipient of a Heinz Award, established by Teresa Heinz, widow of the late Sen. John Heinz and current wife of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. Woodwell received the Heinz Environmental Prize in 1996; Holdren the Heinz award for public policy in 2001. No surprise, then, that Sen. Kerry greeted Holdren’s confirmation with high praise: “John Holdren is a leading voice in the scientific community and we are fortunate to have him lead the fight to restore the foundation of science to government and policymaking that has been lacking for almost a decade.”


“The natural menace to nature was humans themselves”


Like many nonprofits WHRC invites its supporters to remember it in their wills. It has set up what it calls the George Perkins Marsh Society for donors who will provide for the Center ” through a life income gift, retirement plan ,life insurance policy, or bequest.”

Who was Marsh? WHRC’s most recent annual report notes that this American entrepreneur and diplomat “was born in 1801 [and was] the first to draw attention to the notion that the natural menace to nature was humans themselves.”

Marsh’s 1864 book Man and Nature is favorably cited in Holdren and Ehrlich’s 1977 book Ecoscience for good reason. Marsh writes:

“The earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant [i.e., mankind], and another era of equal human crime and improvidence…would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten the deprivation, barbarism and perhaps even extinction of the species.”

The Foundation-Scholar Alliance


Knowledge is the key to science, but money is the key to science policy. Big money comes from the federal government, but the critical start-up money comes from foundations. Understand this and you understand the mechanics of science policy.

In an essay in a 2008 book Foundations of Environmental Sustainability, George Woodwell writes that science and environmental policy experts will have to move fast to stop global warming:

“The time for reorientation of the scientific and conservation communities and their supporters is now…Defining the details of [the effort to counter global warming] is the immediate challenge, and the money and interest must come initially from the foundation community and the non-profit scholarly community…To speed the process we need models and examples, financed by the private foundation community.” (420-421)

Because there is nothing unusual about foundation grantmaking to science nonprofits, this sounds like a typical request for additional support that nonprofits often send their most reliable donors. But consider some of the current foundation donors, large and small, to WHRC. Their patterns of philanthropic giving suggest that they understand the point Woodwell is making.

–The Overbrook Foundation, New York City (2008 assets: $182 million): $50,000 to WHRC for a project in the Amazon rainforest. Other Overbrook grants in 2007-2008: Alliance for Justice ($55,000), ACLU ($75,000), Amnesty International ($75,000), Center for Reproductive Rights ($50,000), Environmental Defence ($80,000), Institute for America’s Future ($75,000), National Public Radio ($65,000), Natural Resources Defence Council ($90,000), People for the American Way Foundation ($75,000) and Rainforest Action Network ($40,000).

–Wiancko Charitable Foundation, Vashon Island, WA, (2008 assets:$37 million): $30,000 to WHRC in 2007. Other grants: Nature Conservancy ($230,000), Wilderness Society ($50,000), League of Conservation Voters ($25,000), Environmental Defence Fund ($50,000), Earthjustice ($120,000), Union of Concerned Scientists ($45,000).

–Tinker Foundation, New York City (2008 assets: $88 million): $65,000 to WHRC in 2007. Other grants: Conservation International Foundation ($66,000), International Union for the Conservation of Nature ($75,000), Nature Conservancy ($60,000), Rainforest Alliance ($65,000).

–Pisces Foundation, San Francisco (2008 assets: $12 million): $26,000 to WDRC. Other grants: Conservation International ($1.5 million), Natural Resources Defence Council ($1 million), New America Foundation ($50,000), Union of Concerned Scientists ($2,500).

–Aria Foundation, Homewood, IL (2008 assets: $40 million): $10,000 to WHRC. Other grants: Amazon Conservation Team ($300,000), Environmental Working Group ($30,000), Natural Resources Defence Council (974,000), and Rainforest Alliance ($25,000).

–Blue Moon Fund, Charlottesville, VA (2007 assets: $213 million): $301,000 to WHRC. It was formerly called the W. Alton Jones Fund after its founder, the board chairman of the Cities Service oil company: $255,000 to Conservation International, $549,000 to the Global Environmental Institute, $390,000 to the Worldwatch Institute, and $177,000 to the World Wildlife Fund.

–Henry Luce Foundation, New York City (2008 assets: $861 million): $100,000 to WHRC in 2007. Other grants: Natural Resources Defence Council ($100,000).

— Normandie Foundation, New York City (assets: $9.7 million in 2008): $1,500 to WHRC in 2007-2008. Other grants: Youth for Environmental Sanity ($15,000), Ohio Environmental Council ($20,000), Environmental Law Institute ($10,000), Citizens Environmental Coalition ($20,000).

–John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (2008 assets of $6.7 billion): $19,500 to WHRC in 2007-2008. Other grants: $1 million each to the World Resources Institute, World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society. The MacArthur Foundation also provided funding for the National Commission on Energy Policy (NCEP), which John Holdren helped co-found. For background on the NCEP, see “De-Energizing the Market: The Energy Foundation,” by Jennifer Locetta and David Hogberg, Foundation Watch, January 2006 as well as Max Borders’s “The National Commission on Energy Policy,” Organization Trends, September 2007.

–Harbourton Foundation, Princeton, NJ (2007 assets: $19.7 million). Amy H. Regan is listed as its “V.P & Secretary.” She is also a trustee of the WHRC: $50,000 to WHRC in 2006-2007. Other grants: American Institute for Social Justice to support “ACORN Women’s Financial Literacy Initiative” ($5,000), National Resources Defense Council ($50,000).

–Foundation for the Carolinas, Charlotte, NC, distributes donor-advised funds (2007 assets: $532 million): $10,000 to WHRC. Other grants: $11,000 to Conservation International, $1 million to the EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund, $187,000 to the American Environmental Leadership Fund, $138,000 to Environmental Defense, $110,500 to the Environmental Working Group, $100,000 to Friends of the Earth, $1.3 million to the Natural Resources Defense Council, $200,000 to Population Action International, $6,000 to the radical eco-saboteurs at the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, $7.4 million to the Southern Environmental Law Center and $1.1 million to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

–The Rockefeller Brothers Fund (2008 assets: $955 million): $50,000 to WHRC in 2007 for its work on global warming. Other grants: World Federalists Association ($45,000), United Nations Association of the United States ($75,000), Renew the Earth ($50,000), Pew Charitable Trusts ($115,000), League of Conservation Voters Education Fund ($50,000), Global Greengrants Fund ($75,000), Earth Island Institute ($200,000), Natural Resources Defense Council ($300,000), National Wildlife Federation ($156,000) National Religious Partnership for the Environment ($200,000), and Ceres ($250,000). Ceres encourages pension funds and other institutional investors to support environmental groups and policies. The Fund also approved $265,000 to the Tides Center in 2007-2008 and committed $750,000 to the Tides Foundation. James Gustave Speth, a Rockfeller Brothers Foundation trustee, is also an honorary member of WHRC board of trustees. He was formerly administrator of the UN Development Programme, founder and president of the World Resources Institute and cofounder, Natural Resources Defense Council.

Trust for Mutual Understanding, another Rockefeller family-linked foundation (assets: $46.9 million): $40,000 to WHRC. Other grants: $40,000 to the World Wildlife Fund, $40,000 to the Wildlife Conservation Society, $25,000 to EarthCorps, and $30,000 to the Earth Island Institute.

–New York Community Trust, a donor-advised fund (2008 assets: $2.09 billion): $6,000 to WHRC. Other grants: $62,000 to the World Wildlife Fund, $48,000 to Environmental Defense.

–Boston Foundation, a donor-advised fund with assets of $870 million in 2007: $100,000 to WHRC from the Bronner Charitable Foundation, one of the 850 charitable funds that make up the Boston Foundation.

You get the picture.

What Happens When Your Old Boss Advises the President?


WHRC doesn’t seem worried about the impact of John Holdren’s views on its ability to raise money or influence environmental policy. Apparently not many of its supporters followed the Ecoscience controversy. Indeed, one part of the Center’s mission is to groom future John Holdrens.

In 2002, the Center received $2 million from a single contributor to endow a Chair in Environmental Policy. Its primary focus is “to connect science, conservation and human affairs nationally and internationally and to incorporate the findings of science into the decisions of government.” The current occupant of the endowed chaired is Kilaparti Ramakrishna, Ph.D., who is described this way on WHRC website:

“…directs the Center’s Program on Science in Public Affairs. He is responsible for international issues including law and policy aspects associated with global climate change, conservation and utilization of world forests, biodiversity, environmental governance, and developing country perspectives. Dr. Ramakrishna served as a special advisor to the UN in drafting the Framework Convention on Climate Change. He helped establish an independent World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development, and worked with the Secretariat for the Convention on Biological Diversity…He holds a doctorate in international law of environment from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.”

We can expect to hear more from Dr. Ramakrishna.

As for the future impact of the Woods Hole Research Center, we might review John Holdren’s 2007 address to a conference in London convened by the investment banking house Goldman Sachs. The conference theme was “Energy, Environment and the Financial Markets.” As WHRC director Holdren’s principal recommendation for fighting global warming was to impose sufficient taxes on oil to keep the price above $60/barrel and to enact “a carbon tax or emission-permit price.”

Comments Heritage Foundation energy analyst Ben Lieberman:

“Holdren is not someone who has shown a great deal of openness to arguments with which he disagrees. This is unfortunate, because he has been magnificently wrong on a number of issues. But rather than learn something from this experience, and, for example, question why certain environmentalist groups seem intent on spreading fear about extreme apocalyptic global warming scenarios, we may find Holdren uses his position at OSTP to echo those same scenarios.”

Not every White House science adviser has had a major influence on public policymaking, so it’s too soon to forecast the impact of the newest science czar. (Remember Van Jones, the green jobs “czar”?) Still, John Holdren and the Woods Hole Research Center have demonstrated political savvy and public relations expertise. They know how to overawe the public with scientific credentials. And they know how to scare the public and intimidate adversaries. They also know how to curry favour with politicians (and their wives). It’s too bad average Americans will have to live with the consequences of their policies.

Neil Maghami, a freelance writer, profiled the American suicide lobby in the September 2009 edition of CRC’s Organization Trends.

Neil Maghami

Neil Maghami is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Capital Research Center publications.
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