Sarita Sarvate

Copenhagen Politics Becomes Personal


New America Media


When President Barack Obama announced plans to attend the U.N. Climate Change summit in Copenhagen, I was excited. This was definitely a change in the right direction from the Bush administration. Then the e-mail scandal from the University of East Anglia hit the media, allegedly proving the manipulation of temperature data scientists had used to demonstrate global warming. And suddenly, the public seemed ready to debunk the entire theory. Two years ago, 71 percent of the public believed in the link between global warming and greenhouse gas emissions. That number is down to 51 percent – the lowest it has been in 12 years, according to a poll from Harris Interactive Inc. Tuning into congressional hearings on the e-mail scandal, the political suddenly became personal for me. Testifying before Congress was none other than the very person who had been responsible for bringing me to this country over 30 years ago and was now being grilled about his role in the e-mail exchange. John Holdren, Obama’s science advisor and my erstwhile professor, was telling Congress that even if this particular data from the University of East Anglia was doctored, there was overwhelming scientific evidence to support the claim that climate change was man-made. John’s voice evoked a wave of nostalgia. I embarked on a trip down memory lane, recalling a clipping a pen pal had sent me from Berkeley about a new graduate program in energy and resources, created in the wake of the first energy crisis of 1973. I remembered writing a letter by hand to John, asking him if I could possibly make a transition from my physics background to this new and exciting area, which could potentially change the course of human history. I recalled John’s encouraging letter, saying that he had made a decision in my favor, mostly based on my admissions essay, also handwritten. Much of what John stood for then has come to pass as the accepted wisdom today. In his Energy and Resources 101, he taught us about the devastating effects of strip mining coal, of the pollutants in fossil fuel power plants, of the proliferation risk of nuclear technology, of solar, geothermal, and wind energy, which were in infancy then. John was the one who told us about Roger Revelle’s early modeling of atmospheric CO2. John was the one who taught us back-of-the-envelope calculations on the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on global temperatures. He was the one who, after I graduated, sent me to the East West Center in Hawaii and from there to India and other countries of Asia to do field research on energy and rural development. John was the one who encouraged me to travel to rural Uttar Pradesh to visit cow dung biogas plants and solar cookers built by village artisans. Then Ronald Reagan happened. Funding for all such work disappeared. Still, none of the opinions and beliefs that John and his cohorts, like Emory Lovins, held back then are in question today. Today, everyone agrees that we need renewable, clean energy. Everyone accepts that efficient use of energy is essential for the survival of the planet, if not from a climate change perspective, then from the vantage point of managing our resources. Why then this resistance to the possibility that man-made climate change could be deleterious to our planet? Could it be that threatened with the loss of their comfortable lifestyles, people are relieved to find a scapegoat in the form of some mad British scientist? As an energy professional, physicist, public policymaker and writer, I believe in John Holdren’s testimony to Congress. As any scientist knows, you need two things to prove a theory: a premise and the evidence to support it. Evidence in this case is too strong to refute climate change as a total hoax. And it can be found in our own backyards. Crops are failing in my native India because of late or absent monsoons; permafrost is melting in Alaska; the Netherlands is busy buffeting itself from tides. In the Pacific Northwest, flowers are thriving and vineyards are flourishing where only cold rain fell before. And most alarmingly for me, the coral reefs of the Andaman Islands are disappearing. Andaman Islands! They were the stuff of which Indian legends were made. The most famous involved Veer Savarkar, the Marathi freedom fighter, who jumped out of the porthole of a ship in 1910 to escape confinement in the political prison the British had built on its rocks. The image of his scraped body being stung by salt used to move me to tears as a child. Today, as a mother, the disappearance of coral in the Andamans and other places is unimaginable. So is the possibility that my children may never be able to see the polar ice caps, the frozen tundra, the Alaskan glaciers. My sons have never met John Holdren but they are grateful to have him on their side. Why not follow his advice, play it safe, and reduce our carbon footprint, they say? In fact, Obama is doing just that, proposing modest carbon reduction targets that will still rate the United States as the top emitter, but perhaps give us breathing space in which to do further research. For this mother, the option of not doing anything at all seems too risky to consider.