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News and Notes: U. physics professor discusses climate change at Trump Tower

On Jan. 13, 2017, William Happer GS ’64, Cyrus Fogg Brackettcheck Professor of Physics, met with President-elect Donald Trump in his New York office at Trump Tower to discuss climate change. Happer, who had previously worked in George H.W. Bush’s Department of Energy as director of the Office of Science from 1991-1993, is a prominent climate change denier who believes that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are beneficial due to their impact on increased plant growth, among other factors, according to The Washington Post.

Trump, like many Republican politicians, has criticized the theory of anthropogenic climate change, tweeting on Nov. 6, 2012, that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” and stating in a Dec. 11 interview with Fox News Sunday that “nobody really knows” whether climate change is in fact occurring.

The meeting between Happer and Trump comes at a crucial moment for the administration as it decides how it will approach environmental issues for the next four years. While E&E News, which broke the story, was “unclear” whether Happer was being considered for one of the many open positions in the Department of Energy, Happer’s influence may nevertheless be felt as Trump deliberates whether to withdraw from the 2016 Paris Agreement, the first-ever legally-binding treaty regarding climate change, which was signed by 195 countries. The treaty’s main goal is to drastically reduce global emissions in order to keep warming to under two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, with a built-in system of accountability.

While Trump’s official platform page does not have a specific section regarding environmental issues, his “energy” platform emphasizes “unleash[ing]” American shale, oil, natural gas, and coal reserves, while “conserv[ing]... natural habitats” and “reduc[ing] emissions,” although specific initiatives to these ends are unclear.

Like many of the individuals Trump has chosen to consult or appoint during his campaign and transition to the White House, Happer holds views on climate change that are outside the mainstream. His potential contributions to policy are largely unrelated to his research, which focuses on the physics of spin-polarized atoms and nuclei, according to his biography on the physics department’s website.

It is unclear whether these non-mainstream views will characterize the Trump administration’s approach to climate policy, as Trump was also reported to have had a “very productive” discussion on Dec. 5, 2016, with Al Gore, former Vice President and prominent climate change activist.