Physics professor William Happer GS ’64 has some tough words for scientists who believe that carbon dioxide is causing global warming.
“This is George Orwell. This is the ‘Germans are the master race. The Jews are the scum of the earth.’ It’s that kind of propaganda,” Happer, the Cyrus Fogg Brackett Professor of Physics, said in an interview. “Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. Every time you exhale, you exhale air that has 4 percent carbon dioxide. To say that that’s a pollutant just boggles my mind. What used to be science has turned into a cult.”
Happer served as director of the Office of Energy Research in the U.S. Department of Energy under President George H.W. Bush and was subsequently fired by Vice President Al Gore, reportedly for his refusal to support Gore’s views on climate change. He asked last month to be added to a list of global warming dissenters in a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee report. The list includes more than 650 experts who challenge the belief that human activity is contributing to global warming
Though Happer has promulgated his skepticism in the past, he requested to be named a skeptic in light of the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, whose administration has, as Happer notes, “stated that carbon dioxide is a pollutant” and that humans are “poisoning the atmosphere.”
Happer maintains that he doubts there is any strong anthropogenic influence on global temperature.
“All the evidence I see is that the current warming of the climate is just like past warmings. In fact, it’s not as much as past warmings yet, and it probably has little to do with carbon dioxide, just like past warmings had little to do with carbon dioxide,” Happer explained.
Happer is chair of the board of directors at the George C. Marshall Institute, a nonprofit conservative think tank known for its attempts to highlight uncertainties about causes of global warming. The institute was founded by former National Academy of Sciences president and prominent physicist Frederick Seitz GS ’34, who publicly expressed his skepticism of the claim that global warming is caused by human activity. Seitz passed away in March 2008.
In 2007, the Institute reported $726,087 in annual operating expenses, $205,156 of which was spent on climate change issues, constituting the largest portion of its program expenses, according to its I-990 tax exemption form.
In a statement sent to the Senate as part of his request, Happer explained his reasoning for challenging the climate change movement, citing his research and scientific knowledge.
“I have spent a long research career studying physics that is closely related to the greenhouse effect, for example, absorption and emission of visible and infrared radiation, and fluid flow,” he said in the statement. “Based on my experience, I am convinced that the current alarm over carbon dioxide is mistaken.”
Geosciences professor Michael Oppenheimer, the lead author of the fourth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — whose members, along with Gore, received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize — said in an interview that Happer’s claims are “simply not true.”
Oppenheimer, director of the Wilson School’s Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy, stressed that the preponderance of evidence and majority of expert opinion points to a strong anthropogenic influence on rising global temperatures, noting that he advises Happer to read the IPCC’s report and publish a scientific report detailing his objections to its findings.
The University is home to a number of renowned climate change scientists. Ecology and evolutionary biology professor Stephen Pacala and mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Robert Socolow, who are co-chairs of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI) and the Princeton Environmental Institute, developed a set of 15 “stabilization wedges.” These are existing technologies that would, by the year 2054, each prevent 1 billion tons of carbon emissions. They argue that the implementation of seven of these wedges would be needed to reach target emissions levels.
Neither Pacala nor Socolow could be reached for comment.
Happer said that he is alarmed by the funding that climate change scientists, such as Pacala and Socolow, receive from the private sector.
“Their whole career depends on pushing. They have no other reason to exist. I could care less. I don’t get a dime one way or another from the global warming issue,” Happer noted. “I’m not on the payroll of oil companies as they are. They are funded by BP.”
The CMI has had a research partnership with BP since 2000 and receives $2 million each year from the company. In October, BP announced that it would extend the partnership — which had been scheduled to expire in 2010 — by five years.
The Marshall Institute, however, has received at least $715,000 from the ExxonMobil Foundation and Corporate Giving division from 1998 to 2006, according to the company’s public reports. Though Exxon has challenged the scientific models for proving the human link to climate change in the past, its spokesmen have said that the company’s stance has been misunderstood. Others say the company has changed its stance.
Happer explained that his beliefs about climate change come from his experience at the Department of Energy, at which Happer said he supervised all non-weapons energy research, including climate change research. Managing a budget of more than $3 billion, Happer said he felt compelled to make sure it was being spent properly. “I would have [researchers] come in, and they would brief me on their topics,” Happer explained. “They would show up. Shiny faces, presentation ready to go. I would ask them questions, and they would be just delighted when you asked. That was true of almost every group that came in.”
The exceptions were climate change scientists, he said.
“They would give me a briefing. It was a completely different experience. I remember one speaker who asked why I wanted to know, why I asked that question. So I said, you know I always ask questions at these briefings … I often get a much better view of [things] in the interchange with the speaker,” Happer said. “This guy looked at me and said, ‘What answer would you like?’ I knew I was in trouble then. This was a community even in the early 1990s that was being turned political. [The attitude was] ‘Give me all this money, and I’ll get the answer you like.’ ”
Happer said he is dismayed by the politicization of the issue and believes the community of climate change scientists has become a veritable “religious cult,” noting that nobody understands or questions any of the science.
He noted in an interview that in the past decade, despite what he called “alarmist” claims, there has not only not been warming, there has in fact been global cooling. He added that climate change scientists are unable to use models to either predict the future or accurately model past events.
“There was a baseball sage who said prediction is hard, especially of the future, but the implication was that you could look at the past and at least second-guess the past,” Happer explained. “They can’t even do that.”
Happer cited an ice age at the time of the American Revolution, when Londoners skated on the Thames, and warm periods during the Middle Ages, when settlers were able to farm southern portions of Greenland, as evidence of naturally occurring fluctuations that undermine the case for anthropogenic influence.
“[Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration] was exactly the same then. It didn’t change at all,” he explained. “So there was something that was making the earth warm and cool that modelers still don’t really understand.”
The problem does not in fact exist, he said, and society should not sacrifice for nothing.
“[Climate change theory has] been extremely bad for science. It’s going to give science a really bad name in the future,” he said. “I think science is one of the great triumphs of humankind, and I hate to see it dragged through the mud in an episode like this.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Pacala and Socolow's stabilization wedges would lead to a target level of carbon in the atmosphere. In fact, they would lead to a target level of carbon emissions.