Meet the CO2-praising physicist behind the latest Trump climate push
Scientists see his proposal as part of a disturbing trend in which the Trump administration elevates ideological opponents of established scientific views.Updated: Feb 23, 2019, 08:00 IST
The man behind a White House proposal to re-evaluate the national security risks of climate change is a physicist who once compared the maligning of carbon dioxide to the “demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler.”
William Happer is a National Security Council technology adviser spearheading an initiative to create a presidential committee on climate. He has long drawn scrutiny for insisting that rising carbon dioxide emissions are a boon for the planet, not a danger.
Scientists see his proposal as part of a disturbing trend in which the Trump administration elevates ideological opponents of established scientific views.
“He’s not someone on the street who’s unaware or ignorant; he’s a scientist,” said Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. “In theory he has the mental skills to analyze and understand this problem, but he has clearly abandoned them in favor of an ideological position that’s not based” on facts.
A Princeton University-trained physicist, Happer directed energy research efforts under former President George H.W. Bush and has been a member of a scientific panel that advises the U.S. military known as JASON. He’s headed panels on radiological issues and improvised explosive devices, according to a Princeton biography.
Administration officials met Friday to discuss Happer’s proposal to establish a presidential committee that would assess the consensus of both scientists and the Pentagon that climate change poses a national security threat, according to a person familiar with the meeting. No decision was reached during that meeting and the next step is likely to be a meeting at the cabinet level, said the person, who requested anonymity to discuss non-public deliberations.
A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment.
Happer, referred inquiries to the National Security Council press office, which declined to comment. He has published more than 200 scientific papers -- though a cursory review didn’t reveal any in peer-reviewed journals that were focused on climate change. He graduated from the University of North Carolina and has a doctorate in physics from Princeton.
A bio at a climate group he helped found describes him as “a specialist in modern optics, optical and radio frequency spectroscopy of atoms and molecules, radiation propagation in the atmosphere, and spin-polarized atoms and nuclei.”
Conservatives skeptical of climate change say Happer’s rise is a reason to rejoice -- and an indication the Trump administration is getting serious about challenging the scientific consensus that the phenomenon is driven by greenhouse gas emissions tied to burning fossil fuels for energy.
“It’s about time,” said Marc Morano, a former Republican staffer for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee who runs the ClimateDepot.com website. “This is a major, major development. The biggest failing of this administration has been that they have not challenged the science.”
If approved, Happer’s proposed panel could be a counterweight to mounting warnings from within President Donald Trump’s own administration that climate change imperils military bases, critical infrastructure and the economy.
The U.S. Geological Survey has reported that rising seas could lead to the contamination of drinking water on island military bases. The Interior Department has warned that some national parks could become inundated. The Defense Department calls the changing climate a national security threat that could affect its missions and facilities.
Good for Mankind
For more than a decade, Happer has downplayed both the risks of global warming and the greenhouse gas emissions driving the phenomenon. For instance, he’s pointed out that carbon dioxide is a natural byproduct of breathing, that it’s “absolutely essential for life on Earth” and that plants have thrived amid increased atmospheric levels of the gas.
In 2010 testimony before a special House climate committee, Happer said he and other scientists believe the scale of warming “will be small compared the natural fluctuations in the earth’s temperature, and that the warming and increased CO2 will be good for mankind.”
In 2009, he told a Senate panel that a global campaign to slash greenhouse gas emissions would someday be viewed with the same scorn as the amendment prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol a century ago.
In an interview that year with the Daily Princetonian, Happer compared the “cult” around climate-change science to Nazi propaganda. Asked to explain the comment five years later in a CNBC interview, Happer said “The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler. Carbon dioxide is actually a benefit to the world -- and so were the Jews.”
Environmental activists with Greenpeace targeted Happer in 2015 by posing as oil industry consultants who were recruiting him to write a report touting the benefits of rising carbon dioxide emissions. Happer agreed, but declined to directly accept payment -- saying that fighting “against climate extremism” is a “labor of love.”
Instead, he recommended the consultants cut a check to the nonprofit CO2 Coalition he helped found to publicize the benefits of carbon dioxide.
Trump previously considered Happer to be his top science adviser, vetting him during a Trump Tower interview in January 2017, though the job eventually went to meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier.
“This scientist is the guy who compares the plight of his cause to Jews fleeing the murderous genocide of Adolf Hitler. Credibility is not his specialty,” said Connor Gibson, a Greenpeace researcher. Happer is among a band of people who “have made contrarian careers for themselves by claiming that small, decontextualized pieces of evidence can topple decades of scientific research on our climate.”
Although Trump has repeatedly mocked climate change -- famously tweeting that it is a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese and joking it would be useful during snowstorms -- his administration hasn’t started any formal program for scrutinizing the phenomenon.
Trump’s first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, tried unsuccessfully to persuade administration officials to back his plan for a “Red Team, Blue Team” exercise that could highlight uncertainties in climate science. EPA officials even worked to hone Pruitt’s pitch for that climate science debate with Happer’s CO2 Coalition.
Since at least 2010, Happer has been pushing for a rigorous examination of climate science led by a “Team B” of antagonists who would question “the party line.”
Happer’s outspoken assertions about climate change have won him a following among skeptics. “He’s a fighter,” said Steve Milloy, a policy adviser for the Heartland Institute, a group critical of climate science. “I look at him as a star.”
He’s a really brave guy, because being a climate skeptic is a challenging thing,” Milloy said. “He believes deeply that carbon dioxide is good for the planet,” Milloy said, crediting Happer with having “the guts to speak up.”