[Marxism] Princeton Climate Scientists Tried to Ignore a Campus Skeptic. Then He Went to the White House.

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
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 
Senate hearing.

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 
this domain.

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 
just disappear.”

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 
their critics.

“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 
neighboring disciplines.

“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.

More information about the Marxism mailing list