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Princeton must face its legacy of educating climate deniers

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

“Princeton will have the most significant impact on the climate crisis through the scholarship we generate and the people we educate,” University President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 was quoted as saying in Princeton’s announcement that the school would divest from 90 fossil fuel companies.

Over the past decade, Eisgruber has repeated versions of this sentiment many times to discredit divestment activists and justify Princeton’s refusal to disentangle itself from the fossil fuel industry. 

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It’s true that the University goes out of its way to position itself as a climate leader; indeed, Princeton has educated many who have contributed to the scientific consensus on the climate crisis and are fighting for a liveable planet. But if the University wants to rest its climate legacy on those alumni that have fought for the climate, we also have to reckon with the alumni that have advanced climate denial.

We have already written about the relationship the University has with family foundations determined to thwart climate action, including the Bradleys, Scaifes, and Davises. Though we do not know the extent of the Tiger Dark Money web, we know that there are high-profile Princeton alumni whose careers have undermined climate policy since the 1970s, including through these foundations. However, there’s more to the picture. Three people who bear responsibility for the planet being set to surpass 1.5 degrees are Fred Singer GS ’48, Frederick Seitz GS ’34, and William Happer GS ’64, all graduate school alumni of Princeton. Despite being born decades apart, their paths intersected, and together, they helped bring us to this point of existential crisis.

Singer and Seitz are identified by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their book, “Merchants of Doubt,” as two of the most influential and effective climate deniers in the world. Singer undermined the Kyoto Protocol and its ratification by the U.S., effectively setting back American climate policy by decades. He also worked closely with the Heartland Institute, a conservative, industry-funded think tank, publishing reports that were sent to teachers and continue to circulate widely, misleading enough to create a new generation of climate crisis deniers. One of Singer’s works, “Nature, Not Human Activity, Rules the Climate,” had a foreword written by Seitz.

Seitz founded the George C. Marshall Institute in 1984 to defend President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative but a few years later, his focus shifted to climate change denial. In addition to being funded by the fossil fuel industry, the Institute took money from the tobacco industry to deny the dangers of smoking. Despite Seitz having been president of the influential and prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS), NAS published a clarification to unequivocally disavow Seitz’s climate denial, stating that the notorious Oregon petition, which Seitz helped organize, deliberately attempted to undermine support for the Kyoto Protocol. The George C. Marshall Institute closed in 2015 and was replaced by the CO2 Coalition, co-founded by Happer. 

Happer, a Princeton alum and professor, has made a career out of climate denial. He was director of the Office of Energy Research under President George H.W. Bush. From 1987 to 1990 he served as Chairman of JASON, a group of scientists who advise the government on energy policy issues. Most recently, he served on President Donald Trump’s National Security Council to block efforts to curb global warming and ensure the United States left the Paris Agreement. In 2015, as Seitz’s George C. Marshall Institute folded, Happer co-founded the CO2 Coalition to take over its work and “advocate for carbon dioxide.” With a Princeton banner behind him, Happer said on CNN in 2017, “There’s this myth that’s developed around carbon dioxide that it’s a pollutant, but you and I both exhale carbon dioxide with every breath.” 

To understand the power of Happer’s work in blocking climate action, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito ’72 promoted Happer’s disinformation in another 2017 speech, stating, “Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. Carbon dioxide is not harmful to ordinary things, to human beings, or to animals, or to plants. It’s actually needed for plant growth. All of us are exhaling carbon dioxide right now. So, if it’s a pollutant, we’re all polluting.” 

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In 2015, employees at Greenpeace — an environmentalist group that uses “non-violent creative action” — posed as representatives of a Middle Eastern Oil Company and had Happer agree to write a paper espousing the benefits of oil and gas and downplaying the impacts of CO2 emissions. Happer agreed to write the paper as a professor emeritus at Princeton without disclosing the source of funding. He advised the undercover employees that the paper would not pass peer review and so proposed alternative publishing options. Happer remains a Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, allowing him to continue to use his professional title. 

Happer, Seitz, and Singer are not just the products of a Princeton education; they have actively taken advantage of their associations with Princeton, using its name and prestige to open doors, grab headlines, mislead the public, and grant legitimacy to their climate denial claims. For years, they intentionally discredited serious climate scientists and prevented climate action, helping put us on the pathway to today’s existential global crisis. 

If Princeton wants to trumpet its alumni and faculty who champion climate solutions, then it must also reckon with the loss and damage caused by its own alumni and faculty.

Lynne Archibald graduated from Princeton in 1987 and Tom Taylor graduated from SPIA with an MPA in 2021. Both are members of Divest Princeton and can be reached at ffdivestprinceton@gmail.com

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