John Holdren, Pseudoscience Czar, predicted waste heat would doom humanity

January 10th, 2014 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.

I have to admit to being a little embarrassed for John Holdren, President Obama’s Science Czar. How did this man ever attain such a lofty position, other than his politics?

A couple of days ago, Holdren went on the record claiming the recent cold weather was due to global warming. Published research has found no evidence to back up such a claim…there has been no long-term change in the baroclinic wave pattern. Besides, how does a reduced equator-to-pole temperature gradient lead to more baroclinic wave activity?

But this part of Holdren’s history takes the cake. As described at, Holdren co-authored a book chapter with Paul Ehrlich (the honorary Failed Forecast Czar) back in 1971 entitled Overpopulation and the Potential for Ecocide. In that chapter, they forecast both a human-caused ice age and human-caused warming, with the latter being the biggest threat.

What is astounding from a science perspective is that Holdren blamed warming on waste heat, the result of humans and their energy use, rather than a slowly increasing greenhouse effect. He predicted that the localized nature of this waste heat would eventually spread to be a global problem.

But a little research and few minutes of math (which I assume Holdren learned at some point) would have revealed that humanity’s waste heat generation is, from a global perspective, trivial.

Assuming today’s global energy use is about 150 petawatthours per year, and dividing that by the number of hours in a year and the surface area of the Earth, this yields an average energy flux of 0.03 Watt per sq. meter. This is about 100 times smaller than the estimated heating from increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It is almost 10,000 times smaller than the rate of solar energy input into the Earth.

It scares me that someone with so much energy policy influence has so little knowledge of basic physics.

56 Responses to “John Holdren, Pseudoscience Czar, predicted waste heat would doom humanity”

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  1. mf says:

    Holdren is no surprise to anyone who ever experienced first hand science politicians.

    Having said this, denouncing prophets of overpopulation as idiots and socialists seems just a bit premature to me. A simple math exercise tells us that our contemporary oil based civilization cannot be extended to seven billion people, a direct result of nearly exponential population growth during the last century. Much of our middle class crisis, attributed to this and that cultural and economic force, can be directly traced to this simple observation. Living standards in the west are dropping, while the rise of living standards in the developing world is severely constrained by the same constraint of global oil production. Both will lead to social destabilization. This is not to say that these seven billion can not be ultimately accommodated, but not easily, not soon, and the potential for wars over resources with nukes widespread is already enormous. A direct result of a too rapid population growth.

    • Scott Scarborough says:

      I don’t see that. Our problems in the United States do not stem from not enough oil. They stem from letting people borrow money to buy houses who cannot repay that money. In Europe the governments just spend too much money and some purposely try not to use fossil fuels… not that there isn’t any.

    • Layne says:

      mf, what seems intuitive just isn’t true. Just within the last year there have been declarations by the USGS and (former) Secretary Chu acknowledging 1000 years of Natural Gas (in an Alaskan project), and more oil (in shale) here in the Green River formation than ALL of the world’s reserves times Two. 3 Trillion Barrels.

      The Russians claim they’ve figured out how to find the Abiotic oil sources at the fracture points in crust plates.

      There are wells drilled below all sedimentary layers delivering in excess of 200000 bbl/day. Deep reserves may be far beyond anything we’ve imagined.

      We have more than 200 years of coal in the US, and coal can be converted to fuel.

      Frozen Clathrates are speculated to exceed all other forms of hydrocarbons combined. But we can forget about all of them because….

      The 8 THOUSAND lb gorilla is Thorium. It is relatively plentiful, and reserves are estimated from a few hundred thousand years and up. There is no energy crisis. It’s a myth.

      • Carbonicus says:

        Great answer/post.

        And the 8 million lb gorilla may be deuterium at some point after all reading this are long gone.

        The only energy crisis is the one trying to put the brakes on fossil fuels and impose “alternatives” by govt diktat (renewable fuels standards, etc.), political activism, and pseudo-science.

      • Fernando Leanme says:

        I guess it’s a matter of cost in dollars and enviromental impacts. Most of the shale oil resources will be so expensive to produce we could probably do better burning wood. And the other oil sources being mentioned, such as “abiotic oil” don’t exist at all.

      • J Doug Swallow says:

        Layne: You are right and this below should b e of interest to you:
        “Ocean Floor Methane Gas Hydrate Exploration
         Introduction: Over the last decade, large deposits of methane hydrates have been identified along the world continental margins. Frozen mixtures of hydrocarbon gas (mostly methane) and water occur over large areas of the ocean floor and vastly exceed other carbon-energy reservoirs.

  2. Hot Potato says:

    mf, what you just described is not the result of overpopulation, and in fact, statistics show that when you raise the standard of living, population decreases. If the ecofascists have their way, either billions are purposely culled so the Lithium-dosed Ted Turners of the world don’t have to look at our beautiful faces any longer, or the majority of the Earth’s inhabitants will be forcibly pauperized, which as we’ve seen in undeveloped and developing countries with still sub standards of living results in population booms with shortened life spans.

  3. Hot Potato says:

    They stem from letting people borrow money to buy houses who cannot repay that money.

    Scott, I’d go a step further and say not only letting them but encouraging them to borrow the money that could never be repaid. The skids were greased for the mortgage bubble starting under Clinton. Rubin and Clinton created the environment for this delinquent borrowing and predatory lending first by expanding the reach of the Community Reinvestment Act and secondly by eliminating the regulatory barriers between traditional banking and investment banking. The foxes were given free reign of the hen house and many hens were more than willing to dance with the foxes for a short-term thrill/gain before they, and all the rest of us by consequence, were eaten by the foxes.

    • Threepwood says:

      Exactly the same principle central to Obamacare is it not? Create dependency and power by making something less affordable to the public and then graciously subsidizing it with the public’s own money!

      Obviously they knew the ‘affordable housing act’ would raise housing prices, and that people would be forced into the program that could have otherwise bought the house at market price with their own money. But people who can look after themselves are ultimately worthless to politicians.

      And back on topic.. replacing a free robust naturally fluctuating climate with an ultra sensitive, ultra expensive high maintenance model..

      replacing cheap, reliable self funding energy with
      expensively subsidized ‘alternatives’- same old political strategy.

    • J Doug Swallow says:

      ”The bill (The CRA was passed into law by the 95th United States Congress in 1977, signed by Jimmy Carter) encouraged the Federal National Mortgage Association, commonly known as Fannie Mae, to enable mortgage companies, savings and loans, commercial banks, credit unions, and state and local housing finance agencies to lend to home buyers. It also encouraged the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, commonly known as Freddie Mac, to buy mortgages on the secondary market and sell them as mortgage-backed securities on the open market.

      Other rule changes gave Fannie and Freddie extraordinary leverage, allowing them to hold just 2.5% of capital to back their investments, vs. 10% for banks. By 2007, Fannie and Freddie owned or guaranteed nearly half of the $12 trillion U.S. mortgage market. Thus leading us to the problems of today.”

  4. Ed Caryl says:

    It is very true that man’s energy use compared to global solar input is extremely small, but it is also very localized, resulting in large urban heat islands. See:
    If US energy use is calculated over the US area, the number is 0.3 Watts/sq. meter, comparable to solar TSI variation. This is not insignificant. This doesn’t say the Holdren has any point, as that energy goes to make us much more comfortable in the summer heat and winter cold. The problem is that the urban heat islands have skewed our temperature measurements, convincing some people that we have a problem.

    As for the energy use versus population argument, Hot Potato has a good point. As the standard of living rises, population growth crashes. See:
    Energy use in the developed world has become more efficient recently, and will continue to become more efficient. There is no reason the global population cannot be stable and economically well to do with the current level of energy consumption. In fact, population will fall, and energy consumption will fall, if the whole world is developed.

    • Threepwood says:

      It’s always interesting that NASA’s Goddard Institute for SPACE studies.. invariably prefers to base it’s charts on data gathered from airports & university parking lots rather than satellites.

    • Chad says:

      The urban heat island effect is due to the heat sink capacity of large amounts of asphalt, concrete, etc. within the confines of the cities, the heat being slowly released during the night, thus raising minimum temperatures.

      • AlecM says:

        The UHI is because of low evapo-transpiration and restricted convection: asphalt/concrete has low water content and walls restrict wind speeds.

        Temperatures are controlled, like deserts, by IR emission to Space in the atmospheric window. a 4th power Law.

    • tom says:

      If the US is 2% of the Earth’s surface, then our energy use is skewed because of the enormous energy used in manufacturing. How would you measure this accurately to distinguish it from the huge sink of heat trapped in the real culprits likes asphalt, buildings and now solar panels.

  5. Mark Bofill says:

    I think he’s been reading too much Larry Niven science fiction. I’m pretty sure in the Ringworld books that waste heat was a problem on the puppeteer homeworld.

  6. Mark Bofill says:

    Yeah, here it is:

    Nessus explains some of this background to Louis Wu and the crew of the Long Shot thus:

    “I had explained,” said Nessus, “that our civilization was dying in its own waste heat. Total conversion of energy had rid us of all waste products of civilization, save that one. We had no choice but to move our world outward from its primary.”

    “Was that not dangerous?”

    “Very. There was much madness that year. For that reason it is famous in our history. But we had purchased a reactionless, inertialess drive from the Outsiders. You may have guessed their price. We are still paying in installments. We had moved two agricultural worlds; we had experimented with other, useless worlds of our system using the Outsider drive. In any case, we did it. We moved our world.

    “In short, we found that a sun was a liability rather than an asset. We moved our world to a tenth of a light year’s distance, keeping the primary only as an anchor. We needed the farming worlds and it would have been dangerous to let our world wander randomly through space. Otherwise we would not have needed a sun at all.

    “We had brought suitable worlds from nearby systems, increasing our agricultural worlds to four, and setting them in a Kemplerer Rosette.”

    —Ringworld, Chapter 5, published 1970

    Talk about radical geoengineering solutions. I hope he’s not reading this, on second thought.

    • bill_c says:

      little orbital nudges don’t seem a bad way to manage the earth’s heat budget once they’re doable.

      • Mark Bofill says:

        :> Don’t get me wrong, alot of the ideas in those books were neat.

        But our government is apparently not competent to manage the development of a front end website given more or less unlimited money and a schedule of several years. I don’t want those goobers thinking about geoengineering. Why not just use our nuclear arsenal in a first strike on everybody? It would be a cheaper and more direct way to get to the end state IMO.

  7. Thomas says:

    Worrying about waste heat is not totally crazy if you expect continuing exponential growth in energy consumption. Say 5% increase per year and Holdren said the effect might become significant in 100 years. With those numbers you get a factor 130 growth in energy used and then you get into the area where the effect becomes significant. In reality energy consumption hasn’t increased that rapidly, but say that someone manages to build a really cheap fusion plant…

    If you want nuts there are a couple of more recent papers claiming that the warming we’ve seen so far is due to industrial waste heat:

  8. Andrew says:

    I’ve been tossing an idea around for a while, based on my readings of works by both Roger Pielke Sr. and Richard Lindzen, that while the climate system may be relatively insensitive to globally uniform radiative forcing, it might vary significantly as a result of spatially heterogeneous forcing. The idea is that this would alter the atmospheric circulation patterns and could thereby change the global heat budget (by altering clouds, say). The glacial-interglacial swings seem to be proof that this works in practice. Which means that waste heat has the right properties to have surprisingly large results given it’s small magnitude.

    However, a more likely originator for such an effect would be a *larger* spatially heterogeneous forcing.

    Also, under such a situation, even the *sign* of the temperature effect of a spatially heterogeneous forcing is by no means certain. A regional cooling forcing could cause *global* warming on average.

    At any rate, this illustrates that the picture based on one dimensional analysis might be significantly misleading

  9. bob young says:

    why should holdren’s lack of scientific knowledge be surprising? Obama has no knowledge of the law or the constitution, and claims to be a constitutional scholar. Obama was also elected without any resume of accomplishment. Holdren is par for the Obama course. Pardon the pun given how Obama plays so much golf, yet still sucks at the game.

  10. Les Johnson says:

    I did the same calculation a few years back, and came up with nearly an identical number. As I recall, it was just over two orders of magnitude difference between heat generated, and observed warming.

    Nice to know that I was correct.

    Odd that a high school graduate could do that, but the science czar couldn’t.

  11. Adrian Vance says:

    Since Hansen’s attack on science, denying Wohler, repressing Tyndall and noting only the 1895 paper by Arrhenius, but ignoring the second wherein he denies his previous hypothesis in 1897 is just part of this insanity. The truth is very simple.

    CO2 is a “trace gas” in air, insignificant by definition. It absorbs 1/7th as much IR, heat energy, from sunlight as water vapor which has 188 times as many molecules capturing 1200 times as much heat making 99.9% of all “global warming.” CO2 does only 0.1% of it. For this we should destroy our economy?

    The Medieval Warming from 800 AD to 1300 AD Micheal Mann erased to make his “hockey stick” was several degrees warmer than anything “global warmers” fear. It was 500 years of great abundance for the world.

    The Vostock Ice Core data analysis show CO2 increases follow temperature increases by 800 years 19 times in 450,000 years. That makes temperature change cause and CO2 change effect; not the other way around.

    Carbon combustion generates 80% of our energy. Control and taxing of carbon would give the elected ruling class more power and money than anything since the Magna Carta of 1215 AD.

    Most scientists and science educators work for tax supported institutions eager to help government raise more money for them. And, they love being seen as “saving the planet.”

    Google “Two Minute Conservative,” and When you speak fine ladies will swoon and liberal gentlemen will weep.

    • David A says:

      You claim CO2 is a “trace gas,” and insignificant.

      Do you know the average level of ozone throughout the atmosphere?

      600 ppb — about 1/700th that of CO2.

      Do you know what you’d be without that tiny trace of a gas?


      • Max™ says:

        Well yes, no CO2 means no plants and thus no free O2.

        That is the only effect of significance.

      • Max™ says:

        Whoops, was distracted midpost and saw the tiny trace of gas bit and remembered CO2 and wrote in response to that.

        Ozone is more important yes, at least until we find a way to harden our biology against most of the UV spectrum.

  12. stevek says:

    No matter how you look at AGW it just doesn’t matter.

    Even if it were true, Which I do not believe it is, it can easily be fixed with geo-engineering the climate with very little cost.

    It is totally pathetic how much time is wasted on this nonsense.

    • David A says:

      What are the side effects of the different geoengineering schemes?

      And who pays for them, for the next 100,000 years?

    • Threepwood says:

      Yes, there are lots of ways the Earth could suddenly get several degrees colder, for several years, threatening modern civilization and nature alike, without resorting to scary computer simulations.. meteors, volcanoes, etc. There’s no debating that the results would be catastrophic, and no way to heat it back up quickly- although by extension to some beliefs; lifting the ban on light bulbs and de-funding the Chevy Volt would make a significant contribution!

      But if for some bizarre reason we actually wanted a colder planet, cooling with particulates wouldn’t be all that big a deal, we’d just have to be careful not to overdo it.

  13. Neville says:

    So show us Stevek how it can be easily fixed with little cost? BTW I don’t believe it can.

  14. mrapplewine says:

    Believing in Global Warming is about accepting the morality of Karl Marx which is altruism and rejecting the morality of Ayn Rand which is selfishness. If believing in Global Warming helps one with that moral acceptance then it doesn’t matter what Global Warming means or if it is true or not.

  15. David A says:

    Roy Spencer wrote:
    Published research has found no evidence to back up such a claim.

    Francis, J. A. and S. J. Vavrus, 2012: Evidence Linking Arctic Amplification to Extreme Weather in Mid-Latitudes, Geophys. Res. Lett., Vol. 39, L06801, doi:10.1029/2012GL051000

    • GeoChemist says:

      David A. – I find Barnes (2014) to be far more compelling than Francis (2013), although neither study is close to the last word. This shows the fallacy of linking to a single paper to make bold claims, especially for a newer issue that will likely to take years to resolve.

  16. Threepwood says:

    Yes, obviously global warming causes record cold temps, and this was clearly predicted all along so deniers shouldn’t act so surprised

    But an even more worrying trend clearly emerging is the record low hurricane and tornado activity, along with the flat global temp trends. Studies now show that not only does global warming exacerbate floods, drought, rain, snow, heat,cold, wind, but something far more terrifying still; boring weather. How long before the tipping point, beyond which we enter an irreversible runaway feedback tailspin catastrophe of mind numbingly uninteresting weather?

  17. Milton Hathaway says:

    “Assuming today’s global energy use is about 150 petawatthours per year . . .”

    Way off topic, but here’s a homework assignment for you physics types:

    If all of the world’s energy use came from tidal generators, how long before the earth’s rotation period increased from 24 hours to 48 hours?

    I ran the numbers for fun once (hey, I’m an engineer), and I was astonished by the answer. Way too many hours spent watching Star Trek, I guess.

  18. David South says:

    Roy – I have a few questions.

    (1) I think Spencer and/or Christy showed a relationship between population density and temps measured at weather stations. Is waste heat part of the driver behind this relationship, or is it all due to a lowering of albedo?

    (2) What are the drivers behind the “heat island” effect?

    (3) When correcting for “heat island” effects, how much of a difference does this make in the global (land) temperature mean?

  19. Max™ says:

    Wonder who else here has read Accelerando?

    Part of the story goes over what is known as a Matryoshka brain, wherein the solar system bodies are bit by bit (no pun intended) dismantled to turn them into computing elements.

    This begins a process where the solar output is used to power computation, the waste heat from those computations are used to power another layer of cooler running machines, and so on so forth until from the outside the solar system went from being a G-type star to a dim infrared source.

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  21. Dr. Strangelove says:

    Even without doing basic calculation, the idea is absurd. Waste heat, like other forms of heat, will just radiate to space. Otherwise sunlight, which is many times greater than our energy production, would have fried earth long ago.

  22. old44 says:

    “This is about 100 times smaller”

    Please please please Dr Spencer not you too, one time smaller is zero. Use percentages.

  23. Joe Madrid says:

    John Holdren (I looked him up on the MIT alum site) has BS 65
    in Aero Engineering and MS 1965 also in Aero Engineering. Also
    a phd (not verified) from Stanford in plasma physics.

    I agree with another poster that waste heat was a popular science fiction stable back then. I didn’t remember it from Ring World. Niven is my favorite all time SF author especially Worlds out of Time and Ring World.

    So this guy Holdren is riding the political wave to fame and fortune. He worked at the Kennedy school at Harvard blah blah yech…

    MIT has always been a cauldron of far left politics especially in the 60s. To even say you were a republican was to be laughed at.

    In Ring World in case Dr. Spencer doesn’t know (he probably does) a race of engineers has built a circular ring around a sun–the centrifugal spin acts as gravity—-this thing is enormous mind you and no longer inhabited because a virus or microbe that destroys electronics finished them off. But the ring is still intact and explored by Wu and company. The puppeteers are Neesus a strange race of people whose main characteristic is extreme fear of danger. Read it it is fun.
    Niven later admitted there were flaws in the story as the ring would have been unstable as he depicts it for some reason.

    Holdren sees a prestigious job and has to voice imbecilities to please his boss and minions. This thing has become completely political.

    I too believe that over population is undesirable. The earth with a 50 million people would be a paradise.

  24. David South says:

    (1) In 2010, Roy Spencer wrote a paper on “The Global Average Urban Heat Island Effect in 2000 Estimated from Station Temperatures and Population Density”

    (2) What are the drivers behind the “heat island” effect?
    Roy says “I am generally including in the “UHI effect” any replacement of natural vegetation by manmade surfaces, structures and active sources of heat.”

    (3) When correcting for “heat island” effects, how much of a difference does this make in the global (land) temperature mean? Roy’s data suggest that just 20 people per sq. km can cause up to +0.77 deg. C of warming for a given weather station.

  25. David South says:

    “Now I’m not so sure….at least for industrialized and economically active countries like the U.S., it looks like waste heat production from our energy use could be a major player.” Roy Spencer

    1) Radiative Forcing is Alleviated After Warming…Waste Heat Forcing Is Not

    The actual residual radiative imbalance from increasing CO2 in 2006 was (according to Jim Hansen or the IPCC) more like 0.6 watts per sq. meter, since warming has alleviated some of the radiative forcing caused by increasing CO2.

    In contrast, waste heat from our use of energy keeps getting generated, no matter how much our surroundings have warmed. So, with this correction, we now see that waste heat generation (0.33) becomes more like 50% of the remaining radiative imbalance (0.6) from anthropogenic GHG production.

    • Dr. Strangelove says:

      UHI effect is not man-made waste heat. It’s solar energy absorbed by man-made surfaces like roads and buildings.

      “Radiative Forcing is Alleviated After Warming…Waste Heat Forcing Is Not”

      Why not? Any warm object radiates energy according to Stefan-Boltzmann law. Warmer objects radiate more energy. It’s a negative feedback. Higher temperature, more heat loss.

      “waste heat from our use of energy keeps getting generated, no matter how much our surroundings have warmed”

      Waste heat radiates to space as soon as it is generated unless absorbed by greenhouse gases.

      • PeterB in Indianapolis says:

        Is human waste heat even in the proper range of the spectrum to be able to be “absorbed” by greenhouse gases?

        “Absorbed” is an improper word anyway – greenhouse gasses absorb and then RE-EMIT energy… it isn’t as if they absorb it and then hold on to it somehow.

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