[Marxism] Princeton Climate Scientists Tried to Ignore a Campus Skeptic. Then He Went to the White House.
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Tue Aug 20 06:46:22 MDT 2019
Chronicle of Higher Education, AUGUST 16, 2019 PREMIUM
Princeton Climate Scientists Tried to Ignore a Campus Skeptic. Then He
Went to the White House.
By Marc Parry
It was a curious phenomenon on a campus famous for climate science.
In March 2010, Princeton University’s alumni magazine featured a small
group of scientists on the faculty who bucked the global consensus that
human-spewed emissions are warming the planet, with alarming
consequences. One of them, a physicist named William Happer, likened
that consensus to Nazi propaganda.
The story presented Princeton’s climatologists with a dilemma: how to
respond to the skepticism of their academic colleagues when the issue at
stake is the future of the planet. Should they try to open up a personal
dialogue with the skeptics, in the hopes of bringing them around? Ignore
them? Discredit them?
The climate scientists chose to go with a public takedown. Eight of them
wrote a letter attacking the “many errors” made by Happer’s circle of
skeptics, none of them actual climate scientists. The letter also held
up Happer’s Nazi quote as evidence that he had lost all objectivity. His
judgment, the letter suggested, could not be trusted.
“Every debate has some people who fight on the losing side to the very
end. And, eventually, they don't become convinced. They just disappear.”
The scientists’ broadside against Happer was an exception, though. “The
general attitude on campus is he’s someone who’s best ignored,” Michael
Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at
Princeton, a faculty member in the Princeton Environmental Institute,
and one of the letter’s signatories, later told The Chronicle.
But that has become impossible. The campus gadfly is now a White House
science adviser — the only person known to have briefed President Trump
on climate science, according to a story in E&E News, an environmental
media outlet. Happer, now an emeritus professor, has reportedly used his
White House position to push for a climate-review panel that would
challenge the government’s own global-warming studies.
Among the Princeton colleagues who have interacted with Happer for
decades, his Washington move has stirred a mix of despair, concerted
indifference, and (qualified) hope. It has also rekindled a larger
discussion about communicating climate research, a challenge that
resonates with any community of scholars facing outsiders’ attacks on
its foundational knowledge.
Researchers are arguing about who has a right to be heard on climate
science, how to articulate the uncertainty within that research, why
scientifically sophisticated climate skeptics still exist, and whether
fresh strategies may be needed to deal with them.
Princeton, because of its contrasts, is a unique lens on these problems.
The university houses one of the country’s leading climate-modeling
centers, the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, part of the federal
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The lab and university
are home to renowned scientists who have devoted their lives to
understanding the climate problem and figuring out how to mitigate it.
But Princeton is also a locus of dissent. At least four current or
emeritus Princeton scientists have publicly challenged the climate
consensus. At the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J., but
independent of the university, a close friend of Happer’s, the prominent
physicist Freeman J. Dyson, is also a vocal climate skeptic.
Climatologists and their critics have worked across from each other on
either side of Washington Road, a main artery through the Gothic campus.
“Maybe this is an overreach, but I see the breakdown in communication
with Will as symptomatic of the breakdown in the larger climate
conversation in the country,” says Nadir Jeevanjee, a climate scientist
who works for the NOAA lab at Princeton. “We can’t even talk to someone
across the street. No wonder this country is so divided on the issue.”
In 2017, students in Steve Pacala’s environmental-studies class came to
their professor with a concern. They had just heard Happer speak at a
Climate Day event. We don’t feel like we know how to respond to
contrarians, they told Pacala.
Pacala, an ecologist who studies the interaction of the biosphere and
climate, was one of the scientists who had eviscerated Happer in that
2010 letter. He generally preferred not to focus on Happer at all. It
was better, Pacala felt, to prepare for a time when Americans take this
issue seriously than to spend one’s energy continuing to argue with the
same skeptics. But now the media buzzed with reports that an infamous
“denier” could be joining the White House. And Pacala weighed how to
explain skeptics like Happer to his students.
Happer’s renown as an atomic physicist made him a particularly vexing
case. His research generated improvements in the clarity of telescopes
and new technology to scan images of human lungs. He’s a member of the
National Academy of Sciences. He led the committee that counsels
Princeton’s president on all university research. He was director of
energy research in the Department of Energy from 1991 to 1993,
overseeing a $3-billion budget and a broad portfolio of scientific
studies, including environmental ones.
Happer, who said he was not authorized to be interviewed for this
article, has described how that 1990s federal job soured him on climate
research. As director, he would ask the leaders of agency-backed
projects to brief him. Most answered questions eagerly. But
environmental scientists were generally reluctant to come in, he said in
an interview with TheBestSchools, a website that focuses on secondary
and higher education, and were “evasive about answering the questions.”
He was fired in 1993 after disputing then-Vice President Al Gore’s views
on the dangers of ozone depletion and greenhouse gases, according to a
report in Physics Today.
Returning to Princeton, Happer began to articulate a conspiratorial view
of the climate-science establishment. He depicts that scholarly
community as “glassy-eyed” and a “cult” that is incentivized to alarmism
by money and prestige; that depends on unreliable models whose
predictions are exaggerated; and that muzzles dissent. Although Happer
is not a climatologist, he defends his right to pronounce on climate
issues. “I have spent my professional life studying the interactions of
visible and infrared radiation with gases — one of the main physical
phenomena behind the greenhouse effect,” he testified during a 2009
Happer doesn’t dispute that humans are pumping more carbon dioxide into
the atmosphere, or that the planet has warmed. But he attributes a large
portion of that warming to natural causes. He also says carbon dioxide
has been wrongly demonized as a “dangerous pollutant.” More carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere will warm the planet somewhat in the future,
he acknowledges. But those emissions will also help stimulate the growth
of plants, he has written, leading to more food, wood, fiber, and other
products for the planet’s growing population. Such benefits “will easily
outweigh any negative effects.”
“The nonexperts are very often more likely to see the truth.”
In contrast, the Fifth Assessment Report of the United Nations
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the authoritative judgment of
hundreds of scientists, concluded that human emissions were “extremely
likely” to have caused most of the warming since the mid-20th century.
As to the supposed benefits of more CO2, scientists describe this as a
misleading claim that “misrepresents a complex reality.” It’s true that
plants feed on C02, and that its increase in the atmosphere has greened
the earth in recent decades. It’s also true that a warmer climate will
boost farming in some places. But plants need a delicate balance of
water, sunshine, and nutrients. What happens when climate change
disrupts that equilibrium, bringing, say, heat waves? The scientific
literature indicates that in many places — probably most — the
agricultural benefits of high C02 “are going to be offset by strong
decreases in yield from climate impacts,” says Pacala, a specialist in
Pacala dismisses Happer as a political intruder into the realm of
climate science. That realm, he says, is adversarial, not
conspiratorial. Top accolades go to those who can tear down an
established order. A scientist who could show a tragic flaw in the
global-warming story would be showered with prizes and grant money, he
says. Plenty of uncertainty remains about the climate, such as how fast
and how much the world will warm this century. But after decades of
research and debate, Pacala says, the scientific underpinning of the
global-warming narrative has become overwhelmingly strong.
In response to his students, Pacala created a lesson in the sociology of
climate contrarianism. He showed slides of six “scientifically
sophisticated critics,” with head shots of each and climate data to
parry their claims. For Pacala, a key piece of data in rebutting
climate-change doubts is that the skeptics are late in their careers.
Happer is 80; Dyson, 95. The absence of “shiny credentialed young
people” from the dissidents’ ranks is evidence that the scientific
debate over global warming has ended, he says. Ambitious young people
see no margin in attacking the foundation of climate science.
“Every debate has some people who fight on the losing side to the very
end,” Pacala says. “And, eventually, they don’t become convinced. They
Happer isn’t disappearing yet. He serves on the National Security
Council as senior director for emerging technologies. He has used that
perch to promote various plans for a debate between climate scientists
and their critics. One version, reported by The Washington Post, would
create a presidential committee to review intelligence agencies’
conclusion that climate change presents a major security threat. A
more-recent iteration would generate “dueling white papers” between
skeptics and mainstream scientists, according to E&E News, though the
effort has been shelved as Democrats criticize Trump’s record on the
At Princeton, the dialogue between Happer and his critics has hardened
over years of ad hominem attacks. Happer has repeatedly made statements
that seemingly compare the behavior of climatologists to that of the
Nazis. “The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization
of the poor Jews under Hitler,” he said in a 2014 CNBC interview.
Climate scientists on campus tend to view Happer as a nuisance who
should not be engaged. In response to an interview request, Isaac M.
Held, a longtime scientist at the NOAA climate lab who is the son of a
Holocaust survivor, said in an email that he prefered to “stay out of
any discussion of this sort” and “let the science speak for itself.”
Oppenheimer, an author of IPCC climate reports, says he stopped doing
public debates with contrarians like Happer some two decades ago. These
“fruitless” discussions don’t convince many people and may just drive
them to the positions that align with their politics, he says. The
better way to defend science, in his view, is to explain it to people,
like journalists, who put aside the time to listen carefully.
Leadership Insights: Innovation
Oppenheimer argues that the scientists who deserve to be heard on
climate matters are generally the ones who roll up their sleeves, do the
research, and publish findings in peer-reviewed journals. Skepticism in
that vein can be healthy, he says, citing the example of Richard A.
Muller, a physics professor at the University of California at Berkeley
who had been dubious about the accuracy of the temperature measurements
that underlie climate science. Muller put together a team of scientists
to re-analyze those records. He eventually reached the same broad
conclusion as everyone else — “global warming is real” — and other
scientists now use the data he produced.
Oppenheimer contrasts that with Happer and Dyson, who make
pronouncements on the details of climate science despite scant
peer-reviewed publications in the field. Scientists, because of the
credibility they enjoy with the public, must be extra careful when
treading beyond their specific expertise, he argues.
“If you use your Ph.D. in physics to pronounce on the science of the
field that you really don’t know much about,” he says, “you’re being
Dyson, however, calls his outsider status a virtue. Experts, he has
said, often succumb to the conventional wisdom. They believe in the
reality of their own models. The thrust of Dyson’s position on climate
change is uncertainty: how little those models truly tell us.
“The nonexperts are very often more likely to see the truth,” Dyson
says. “They see it better, because they are on the outside looking in.”
For climate scientists on the inside looking out, one reaction to the
skeptic advising President Trump is self-reflection. Is there something
about how climate science gets communicated — something, that is, beyond
the political muscle of the fossil-fuel industry — that contributes to
skepticism about its findings?
That question is being asked by two of Happer’s Princeton colleagues,
one a veteran climate analyst who has long advocated changes in how
climate science is presented, the other a young atmospheric physicist
who is taking that campaign in new directions. Their message: Climate
scientists could build trust by being more open about the incompleteness
of their research and more welcoming of opportunities to engage with
“There’s people in our community who feel that if we show any chinks in
the armor, then that’s going to open the door to questioning and to a
lack of action on climate,” says Nadir Jeevanjee of the NOAA climate lab
on campus, who until recently was a postdoctoral fellow in Princeton’s
geosciences department. “But what we’re seeing is a lack of action
because we’re politically polarized. And part of the polarization is
because climate change has become a religion. And we just ask people to
believe it. And we’re not willing to engage with skeptics.”
For Jeevanjee’s senior colleague, Robert H. Socolow, Happer is
emblematic of a distrust of climate science within the fields Socolow
knows firsthand, physics and aerospace engineering. Socolow decamped
from theoretical physics decades ago to lead interdisciplinary
environmental-research efforts at Princeton. A professor emeritus of
mechanical and aerospace engineering, he is known as the author, with
Pacala, of an influential blueprint for mitigating the climate crisis
with existing technologies. Over lunch with Jeevanjee at Princeton’s
faculty club, Socolow lamented that climate research is “not given the
benefit of the doubt by other science disciplines.”
When Socolow speaks of physicists’ distrust, the main evidence he cites
is a controversy over the climate statements of the American Physical
Society, a top professional group. In 2007, the 55,000-member society
declared, “The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is
occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions
in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security
and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of
greenhouse gases, beginning now.”
In response, more than 160 past and present members of the group,
including Happer and three other Princeton scientists, signed a petition
to replace that statement with one casting doubt on global warming,
according to media reports. That failed, but the issue refused to die.
In 2015, after a new skirmish, the society issued a more equivocal
statement that scotched the word “incontrovertible” and played up the
uncertainty over global warming’s future effects.
What physicists think is important because climate science is rooted in
the physics of atmosphere, ocean, and ice. Physicists like Jeevanjee
provide much of the brainpower for climate research.
Socolow notes that no comparable debate embroiled the American
Geophysical Union, which includes earth and space scholars from fields
like atmospheric sciences, ocean sciences, and hydrology.
So what is it with physicists?
Charitable theories chalk up their doubts to an independent streak and
high evidentiary standards. Less charitable ones observe the workings of
a scientific caste system, one described years ago by the paleontologist
Stephen Jay Gould. At the top of that hierarchy sit the mathematicians
and physicists, says George Philander, a professor emeritus of
geosciences at Princeton. Next come the chemists, then, lower down, the
biologists and geologists, and then, even lower, the psychologists.
Arrogant quantitative types at the top want to reduce things to “a few
equations or physical principles,” Philander says. They’re skeptical of
the “holistic” types lower down, he says, who weave stories based on
gathering data. The climate problem, he says, is so complex that
reductionist principles “can’t get you very far.”
The vast majority of physicists have now become convinced of the reality
of human-caused global warming, Philander adds.
Still, Socolow says he is discouraged that climate research remains
insufficiently valued by the science community as a whole. Part of the
difficulty, as he sees it, is the emphasis on consensus in the
communication of climate science. He points, for example, to a statistic
that has become iconic: According to a 2013 literature review, 97
percent of peer-reviewed climate papers that expressed an opinion
“endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global
warming.” Socolow sees such claims as “counterproductive” to the goal of
elevating the status of climate research among scientists from
“When a scientist in another field hears ‘97 percent,’ she worries
whether this is a field seeking consensus rather than searching for
disruptive insights: She worries, even, that there may be coercion,” he
writes in a draft paper based on a talk he gave at a Princeton
conference on the ethics of climate-change communication. “From my
perch, I find the norms of science practiced and defended by climate
scientists as much as in any other field. Still, no other area of
science is shackled by anything resembling ‘97 percent,’ as far as I know.”
Climate scientists, though, aren’t just communicating with other
scientists. They’re targeting lay people, too. The 97-percent figure, as
Socolow acknowledges, is a powerful way of persuading nonscientists that
climate change is real, and humans are causing it.
Climate scientists also contend with a lavishly funded campaign by
fossil-fuel interests and their allies to stave off regulations by
manipulating public opinion. That campaign has recruited skeptical
scientists, amplified their message through a network of think tanks and
advocacy groups, and harassed mainstream climatologists, according to
the investigative journalist Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money. A core
element of its strategy has been to promote the idea that there is no
scientific consensus on global warming.
Happer is part of that machinery of doubt. He founded the CO2 Coalition,
an advocacy group that spreads his ideas about the benefits of
fossil-fuel consumption. The group, according to an E&E News analysis,
has “received more than $1 million from energy executives and
conservative foundations that fight regulations.”
In a 2015 sting operation, undercover Greenpeace operatives posing as
representatives of a Middle Eastern oil company found that Happer was
willing to write a paper for the company about the benefits of CO2,
while hiding the firm’s role in funding that paper. Happer has countered
that he intended to use the oil company to advance his own agenda, not
vice versa, and that he has not benefited financially from his pro-CO2
Jeevanjee believes that climate scientists’ dismissive response to
skeptics exacerbates the problem. The skeptics grow more bitter. They
feel climate scientists have something to hide. In 2017, as Happer’s
name began to surface for a potential White House job, he decided to try
a different approach: an experiment in civility.
He would go talk to the notorious skeptic across the street.
Jeevanjee focused on one issue: Happer’s claim that the climate
community was incorrectly modeling a particular aspect of the greenhouse
effect, making the climate-change problem look more serious. In an
email, Jeevanjee introduced himself as a fellow physicist who shared
Happer’s frustrations with the “the opacity of climate modeling.” He
invited Happer to a campus talk he was giving. He visited Happer’s
office. He listened to Happer complain about the journal reviewers who
had thwarted his effort to publish a critique of the modeling problem —
a “cover-up,” Happer wrote in an email to Jeevanjee.
Then Jeevanjee worked with experts at the NOAA lab to reanalyze Happer’s
calculations. Happer believed that climate modelers had neglected
important physics about the way that carbon dioxide molecules absorb
infrared radiation leaving Earth. The reality was different: Climate
scientists had long ago incorporated that physics into their models.
Jeevanjee documented that fact in an email to Happer.
“If you use your Ph.D. in physics to pronounce on the science of the
field that you really don't know much about, you're being dishonest.”
Next time Jeevanjee visited Happer, his reception was less friendly.
Happer changed the subject when Jeevanjee brought up his email. In
public, though, Happer did stop claiming that models got this detail
wrong, Jeevanjee says. (Happer has not retracted the claim in print.)
The exercise was, from Jeevanjee’s perspective, a mini version of the
kind of climate-science review that Happer might end up creating from
within the White House, an approach that is sometimes referred to as a
“red team, blue team” debate. Climate scientists generally scoff at that
idea. Their reports are already vetted through peer review, they point
out, and and don’t need a redo. They worry about lending credibility to
Pacala writes off Happer’s climate-review project as a “sideshow” that
is out of step with changing attitudes among both the public at large
and Republicans in Congress. Seventy-three percent of Americans now
think global warming is occurring, a rise of 10 percentage points since
2015, according to a survey published in January by the Yale Program on
Climate Change Communication. The same poll found that almost half of
Americans believe that they have felt global warming’s effects in their
own lives, a leap of 15 percentage points since 2015. In the GOP, long a
bastion of opposition to climate action, more and more lawmakers are
talking about ways to deal with climate change.
But Jeevanjee and Socolow are open to Happer’s idea. Socolow has long
advocated, without success, that the IPCC include a section in its
climate reports responding to criticisms of external dissidents.
This month, in the spirit of his interactions with Happer, Jeevanjee
tried to expand his engagement with skeptics. He and other young climate
scientists got out of their liberal elite campus bubbles to stage public
forums in small towns and cities across south-central Pennsylvania, most
of them located in counties President Trump carried in 2016. The idea
was to give ordinary people the chance to interact with climate
scientists, something they rarely do.
The effort, called Climate Up Close, did attract a few skeptics. Mostly,
though, Jeevanjee and his colleagues found themselves speaking to
liberals who were already concerned about climate change. Some of those
people expressed frustration that the scientists’ carefully sourced
presentation was not alarming enough.
Jeevanjee had hoped to make a small dent in America’s dysfunctional
climate conversation. He learned how difficult it would be to achieve
even that modest goal.
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