A Physicist and Possible Adviser to Trump Describes His Love of Science, and CO2
By Andrew Revkin, ProPublica
Shortly before President Donald J. Trump’s inauguration, his staff confirmed that he had met with two brilliant and pugnacious scientists, each said to be a candidate for the position of science adviser or director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
On Jan. 13, Trump met at Trump Tower in Manhattan with one of them, Dr. Will Happer, an emeritus Princeton University physicist variously hailed and attacked for his enthusiasm about rising levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide that an overwhelming range of scientists see as a profound, if slow-motion, threat to human prospects and to nature.
As you’ll read below, even among foes of curbs on greenhouse gases, Happer is an outlier, insisting the benefits of more carbon dioxide will outweigh any harms.
Shortly after the election, two dozen scientific organizations pressed Trump in a letter to name a science adviser, at the level of assistant to the president. Phone and email contacts with the White House seeking an update on the position and any other candidates have not yet been answered.
In an hourlong Skype interview from his Princeton office on Monday, Happer offered fresh thoughts on science policy. He stuck by his unusual views on the benefits of global warming and the main warming gas, carbon dioxide. He insists warming will be at the lowest end of projections and is captivated by CO2’s plant-boosting properties and its implications for agricultural production. But he also expressed enthusiastic support for fresh investments in science, including climate science, and the need for greatly invigorated science education.
Happer’s own research focused on atomic physics and the interactions of light and matter and applications in optics and medical imaging. He has been a longtime member of JASON, the advisory group created during the Cold War to advise the government on defense-related science questions. He directed the Office of Science in the Department of Energy from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush.
But his sharp attacks on climate scientists have made him a popular witness at hearings convened by Republican lawmakers aiming to highlight doubts about climate change (explore his 2015 testimony at a Senate hearing and 2010 House testimony to get the idea).
As a result, he’s been a frequent target of environmental groups and scientists focused on slowing climate change. Greenpeace staff, pretending in 2015 emails to represent a Beirut company focused in part on energy, tricked him into agreeing to write reports on the virtues of carbon dioxide. His replies directed hoaxers to pay fees to a nonprofit group he had launched with others to convey the upside of the greenhouse effect. “My activities to push back against climate extremism are a labor of love,” he wrote.
Here are excerpts from our interview, edited for clarity and length.
Q: Are you still considered in the running for science adviser or some position in the administration?
A. Well, that’s what people tell me. I don’t know. It’s not something I’m campaigning for. But if I thought I could do some good, I would do it.
Q: Given your time at the Department of Energy, what’s your sense of the importance of basic research and development to make sure people are still testing basics of these different sciences?
Certainly in the long run people still hope that we’ll get better ways to do nuclear fission and nuclear fusion for energy. There’s potentially enormous amounts of energy locked up in the deuterium in the oceans, and there’s a lot of uranium and thorium. It hasn’t been all that successful in either case. In the case of fission energy, there have been these accidents and alarm over what do you do with the waste.
In the case of fusion, it doesn’t even work — not yet. Nobody’s going to fund things like that in the private sector. It’s very long-range research, and if the government isn’t willing to do it, nobody will do it. I wouldn’t invest my money in it. So I would hope that our government and others will continue to work on these things.
One of our problems in climate is that you need long-term good science — for example long-term temperature records, long-term records of CO2, and it’s very hard for the government to support that kind of stuff because you go to Congress and they say, ‘Isn’t that what you were doing 20 years ago or 50 years. Aren’t you finished yet?’
It’s extremely difficult to maintain that network. They’re always trying to shut it off to get the money for some hare-brained new scheme, new silver bullet.
Q: There’s a March for Science coming up and you’ve commented on it before. You said everyone has the right to express himself or herself but you questioned the utility. I’ve talked to plenty of scientists who question the utility, as well, in such a polarized environment.
But is there a way to invigorate the country’s appreciation of science that’s missing right now? Obama did his annual Science Fairs in the White House, and it’s hard to see that happening under President Trump, but maybe something like that can emerge.
A. Well, I guess where I see the big problem in our country is science illiteracy in the general population. If I were King, I would figure out some way to get better science teaching into the schools, you know, K through 12, and especially middle school and high school. It’s a disgrace that people get out with high school degrees knowing as little as they do. And I think it’s getting worse. I think it was much better in the ‘30s than it is today. And teaching makes a difference.
I often tell the people this anecdote — I once asked Edward Teller [a key architect of the hydrogen bomb] how it was possible that there were all these Hungarians, you know, there was him and Eugene Wigner and Szilard, von Neumann — a real constellation. They were all about the same age, and made enormous contributions to science. It was easy, he said. We all had the same high school teacher in the Fasori Gimnázium in Budapest. So there’s an example. Whoever this teacher was deserves a medal, you know. Nobody pays any attention to him. But at least in Hungarian society, teaching was an honorable profession, so that this really good guy — probably better than most university professors — produced this galaxy of stars. So I think we should seriously think about improving general education.
It’s so difficult to talk to people because their backgrounds are so weak in anything having to do with science.
Q: People say, well, if we had more science literacy — more clarity about climate science for example — then everyone would get more engaged. But people at Yale have studied how science literacy actually is highest in people at the most polarized ends of the discussion over something like global warming.
Science literacy won’t necessarily resolve some of these harsh debates. I wanted to ask you about that. You’ve used the word “cult” in describing climate groupthink and agendas. And I’ve seen it at both ends of the spectrum. When people say action on climate will destroy the economy, that’s kind of an alarmist thing, without a lot of evidence. And at the other end there have clearly been overstatements.
Do you have your own sense of a way to get us out of this alarmist-denier-alarmist-denier rhetoric? Or is it hopeless?
A. I don’t know. First of all, just the term denier to someone like me is extremely offensive because it’s carefully chosen to make me look like a Nazi sympathizer. And you know, I dodged Nazi submarines when I was a kid [on a ship carrying immigrants to the United States] and my father fought against them and my mother worked on the Manhattan Project, and I found it profoundly offensive, you know, and many other people feel the same.
I think toning down the rhetoric would help a lot. And it has been very uneven — for example under the previous eight years the President and secretary of state kept talking about the deniers, you know, about the baskets of deplorables, the knuckle draggers, the Neanderthals. That was me they’re talking about.
And I think the climate alarmists have been most guilty because they have complete control of the media, they’ve got people like you, they got the President, they got the secretary of state, they hijacked all the major scientific societies. It’s not my side. There’s nobody who listens to us, you know, even if we have crazies saying things, nobody pays any attention, and on the other side if you’re crazy you get the front page of The New York Times. And it’s not because the science is all on their side either. The science is very, very shaky on their side.
Q: Can you dig in on that a little bit? What is the shaky thing? Is it the science itself or the interpretations?
A. What’s not only shaky but almost certainly wrong is the predicted warming. In 1988, you could look at the predictions of warming that we would have today and we’re way below anything [NASA scientist Jim] Hansen predicted at that time. And the celebrated climate sensitivity, how much warming you get for doubling CO2 and waiting for things to settle down, the equilibrium sensitivity, is probably around 1 degree centigrade, it’s not 3 1/2 or whatever the agreed-on number was. It may even be less. And the Earth has done the experiment with more CO2 many, many times in the past. In fact, most of the time it’s been much more CO2 than now. You know, the geological record’s completely clear on that. So nothing bad happened, in fact the earth flourished with more CO2.
I’m still trying to find out myself how much of these judgments are a rigorous quantified thing or a value judgement. Basically, how much you value the future gets incorporated into all of these calculations. Even David Roberts, the liberal blogger who popularized the term “climate hawk,” wrote a piece a few years ago that said values often hide behind what look like numerical arguments.
Is what we’re seeing here mostly a debate between people with different value sets about what to do in the face of uncertainty with some risk attendant?
There are many economists and risk analysts — there’s even a Society for Decision Making Under Deep Uncertainty, which includes people at the Rand Corporation, people I’m sure you know — who say that the uncertainty cuts in both directions. Most of the time when we in society invest in some countermeasure it’s on the basis of the worst-case outcome, not the middle ground.
A. Well you know if you look around the world there are people peddling every risk you can imagine, you know. High-altitude nuclear bursts. The instability of the grid, you know. Cyber meltdown, the year 2000 bug. GMOs. People have been making money on risks as long as the world is existing. And if you subscribe to every one of these people’s worries you might as well shut down, you know, you can’t operate.
In the case of climate, I think that any dispassionate weighing of the facts would give you a negative cost of carbon, you know, that more CO2 is good for the world. I’ve always maintained that. I can explain many reasons for it.
Now this is not to say that irresponsible burning of fossil fuels is good for the world, there are all sorts of real problems there, and one bad thing about the climate hysteria is it distracted people from real problems. You go to Beijing or New Delhi and on certain days you can practically not go outside, the air is so bad. But it’s not CO2. It’s people burning the fields, it’s fly ash from unregulated coal burning, it’s every possible thing, all of which have solutions. You don’t have to live with this stuff. And yet instead of cleaning up the air and making people’s lives better, they jet around the world talking about saving the planet from CO2, which it’s not in danger from.
Q: So you really do see global warming as a non-problem, not as something worth investing in?
A. Absolutely. Not only a non-problem. I see the CO2 as good, you know. Let me be clear. I don’t think it’s a problem at all, I think it’s a good thing. It’s just incredible when people keep talking about carbon pollution when you and I are sitting here breathing out, you know, 40,000 parts per million of CO2 with every exhalation. So I mean it’s shameful to do all of this propaganda on what’s a beneficial natural part of the atmosphere that has never been stable but most of the time much higher than now.
Q: Is there a finding that could emerge related to, say, sea level that could get you more focused or thinking about the downside of the relentless buildup of this gas? Remember, the thing that’s the issue here is the long-lived nature of CO2. So it’s kind of like a ratcheting mechanism. It’s hard to reverse.
A. Well I think CO2 is good. I’m very happy that it’s long-lived. The longer the better. Look, I mean you can already see the Earth greening. [It is.] If you look at agricultural yields, they’re steadily going up. A lot of that is fertilizer, better varieties, but some of it is CO2. So I mean I can’t imagine why you would want to decrease CO2.
Q: This does make you a real outlier. I went to this debate 10 years ago that had Richard Lindzen of MIT, had Michael Crichton and some others who were harsh critics of overstatement about global warming. But none of them said that it’s not an issue, that there’s no sense of a downside to the relentless buildup of this gas toward levels that haven’t been seen in millions of years. Pat Michaels, a Cato Institute climatologist, has never said that CO2 is a good thing in that sense.
So who is with you on this?
A. Well you know, scientific facts, you don’t vote on them. I mean that’s what the climate community seems to think whenever I talk to them, they say look at all the international agreements for what the answer is. But Columbus was an outlier, you know, there’ve been lots of outliers, and many of them were right, you know.
Q: As you look at the world heading toward 9 billion people more or less by midcentury and beyond, all who want a decent life like we have, it doesn’t seem easy to figure out how to do that without a lot more innovation. And I don’t know if that would be an imperative for you if you got into sort of a leadership position in government.
A. I’m certainly for innovation. I mean you have to be realistic. Governments sometimes think that they can dump enough money on some desired outcome and it will happen. And you know, it’s pretty clear that that isn’t true, you know, the major breakthroughs in world history and science have mostly been accidental. But government and society did play a role because at the time the accidental things happened there were smart people who had been trained and knew what to look for who were able to take advantage of them. You discover photographic plates, you know, getting fogged up in your desk drawer as Becquerel did, and start looking at that, and Madame Curie started looking at that, and you discover some kind of strange radiation, from beryllium and radium and you know, Chadwick had enough sense to realize, oh my god this is a completely new particle, it’s a neutron; it goes right through most things. And you know, so over the course of history, even electricity and magnetism, you know, the discovery of Faraday’s law that was complete accident really, and you know, all of our transformers, everything we do, you know, is based on this sort of accidentally cobbled together beautiful structure of electricity and magnetism, you know, the sort of most convenient form of energy of all is electricity.
So I think the best thing governments can do is try and get the best and brightest people that you can find — honest, best and brightest — train them, and let them do something meaningful. Keep trying, you know. Most things you try, you know, they’re interesting but they’re not big breakthroughs, but every now and then a big breakthrough will come if you have these people out there. Train as many good people as you can afford and make sure that the rest of society works; you have to have people to drive the bus, to do all the other very important and necessary things that have to be done. But a certain fraction ought to be pushing the limits of knowledge.
Q: You mentioned the importance of maintaining systems that give us a clear view of change. And that is an area where Republicans and Democrats have both failed, basically. And this is from stream gauges through to air monitoring and more. If we don’t maintain a consistent view of the planet and resources, then no one can reliably say something new and different is happening that’s consequential.
Are we just doomed always to have politics where that’s always seen as not important?
A. In fact, it’s a huge problem. And especially if it involves important things, you know, like global temperature, rainfall, crops. I’m all for climate science, you know. If I were King, I would maintain and improve, if I could, any measurement systems we have — satellites, ocean buoys. I think those are wonderful things and they have this problem of maintenance I mentioned. We’re kind of stingy, and so a satellite goes down and then you have a gap and you’re not quite sure how to calibrate the next one, you know, and it wouldn’t cost that much to have a little bit of redundancy so that didn’t happen in the future. I don’t know what the solution to this is. I always admired Hindu theology because, you know, they had these three sorts of deities — a creator, a destroyer and a maintainer. And our society is mostly creation. We’ve neglected the maintenance that has to go into keeping human society going. And also destruction. Every now and then you have to shut down things that have outlived their usefulness.
The other scientist who met with Trump in January was Dr. David Gelernter, the computer science pioneer at Yale University also known for his conservative views and wide-ranging writing, including indictments of liberal intellectuals for allegedly tainting academia. Gelernter is a prodigious intellect with a provocateur’s style, qualities that may have caught Trump’s eye.
In a recent interview with The Scientist, David Gelernter offered a semi-skeptical view of human-driven global warming, describing it as his “impression as a layman, hearing, reading, looking around, and noticing how greatly the propensity is among scientists — and among many others — to overestimate mankind’s capacity for changing the Earth.”
“My own belief is that global warming is real, that it is happening,” he told the magazine. “After all, the Earth’s climate has oscillated clearly in the past. We expect not stability, but oscillation. The evidence I’ve seen has not convinced me that the cause of this global warming or an appreciable contribution [to it] is human activity. But not until I spend a lot more time with the topic … would I be in a position to give anybody advice on it.”
You can explore a separate interview with Happer in The Scientist that goes over some interesting terrain, including his view that inconsistent government scientific advice — he cited flip-flops in recommendations on nutrition — can fuel public distrust. “If we continue to promote, with government support, things that sooner or later turn out to be wrong,” Happer said, “then the important things that are right — that you would really like the population to pay attention to — get ignored, too.”
Andrew Revkin, who covers the climate, is scheduled to be a guest on NPR’s “Fresh Air” show on Feb. 15, 2017.
Correction, Feb. 15, 2017: A transcription error led to Faraday’s law mistakenly being called Flaherty’s law in an earlier version of this article.
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