Meet The White House's New Chief Climate Change Skeptic

Mar 1, 2019
Originally published on March 1, 2019 12:06 pm

Twenty five years ago, William Happer had an encounter with the White House that ended badly.

At the time, in 1993, the Princeton professor was taking a break from academia to direct scientific research at the U.S. Department of Energy. He turned a skeptical eye toward one of then-Vice President Al Gore's favorite issues: the risks posed by chemicals eating away at ozone in the stratosphere and letting in dangerous ultraviolet radiation. As the story goes, Happer went to the White House and told Gore's staff he saw no evidence that the ozone hole actually was hurting anyone.

Gore was annoyed, and Happer lost his job.

Today, Happer is back in the White House, still fighting against what he considers unfounded claims that our globe is in danger. But this time, his cause is backed by the man in the Oval Office.

Happer, 79, joined the staff of President Trump's National Security Council last fall. And according to documents first leaked to The Washington Post, he appears to be pushing the White House to mount a challenge to the government's official assessment of climate change, which calls climate change a serious national security threat.

On Thursday, the chairs of four different committees in the House of Representatives sent a letter to President Trump expressing concern about "recent reports that the National Security Council (NSC) is planning to assemble a secret panel, led by a discredited climate change denier, to undermine the overwhelming scientific consensus on the nature and threats of climate change."

The four Democrats called it "deeply concerning that Dr. Happer appears to be spearheading" that effort.

Happer is an intriguing and controversial figure. He was born in India when it was a British colony, the son of a Scottish military officer and an American medical missionary. His mother, with young Will in tow, spent part of World War II working as a physician at the secret Manhattan Project site in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The family later settled in North Carolina.

Happer became a physicist. He taught at Columbia University and joined the faculty at Princeton University in 1980.

"He is a damn good scientist," says Steven Koonin, a prominent physicist who is now a professor at New York University and who has known Happer for 30 years. "There are two really significant contributions associated with him."

One of them made it possible to capture much better images of people's lungs; the other allows astronomers to see the stars more clearly.

At the same time, Happer acquired a reputation as a contrarian, quick to challenge conclusions that struck him as unproven — especially when it came to environmental science.

That reputation was cemented by Happer's confrontation with Gore's staff over risks posed by the ozone hole. The incident was widely covered in scientific publications — Physics Today ran an article headlined "Happer Leaves DOE Under Ozone Cloud For Violating Political Correctness."

Koonin thinks Happer was doing what a scientist should, demanding better evidence. "I think it sensitized him to the squishiness, if you will, of a lot of the environmental science," he says.

Some of Happer's scientific critics, though, see it as something more: a visceral distrust of scientists who study environmental risks.

Over the past decade, Happer has waged a fierce campaign aimed at debunking fears of global warming caused by emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

In a speech to a 2015 conference organized by the Heartland Institute, which has railed against restrictions on emissions from fossil fuels, Happer scoffed at these fears, calling them an Alice-in-Wonderland fantasy. "When I got into this area and started learning about it, I learned that when I looked at CO2, I should assume that it caused harmful warming, extreme weather, Noah's flood, you know. I remember thinking, 'Are they mad?' "

Carbon dioxide is actually good for the planet, Happer claims; it's like fertilizer and makes crops more productive.

"We've got to push back vigorously on the demonization of fossil fuels," he said in his speech. "They're not demons at all. They're enormous servants to us."

Some of Happer's colleagues at Princeton are reluctant to talk publicly about him; it's like discussing a relationship that got messy.

"I mean, I liked him. We went off for coffee after our committee meetings a couple of times," says Michael Bender, an emeritus professor of geoscience and climate researcher.

Bender says he wouldn't do it now, though. It's partly because of the scientific dispute, because he thinks Happer is misreading the evidence. But it's also because of Happer's style — he's labeled climate science a cult and accused other scientists of whipping up climate fears to boost their own careers. Most offensive for Bender: Happer once said the "demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the Jews under Hitler."

"You know, there came a point where he attacked my colleagues' integrity," Bender says, "and I felt like I couldn't have a cordial relationship with him after that."

Happer, who last fall went to work in the White House as a senior aide to the National Security Council, wasn't authorized to comment for this story.

Robert Socolow, another Princeton colleague, has mixed feelings about Happer's post. Socolow's own biography — first a physicist, then a specialist on the environment — makes him a kind of bridge between Happer and the environmental scientists on Princeton's campus. He doesn't doubt Happer's technical grasp of climate science but says that "everybody has areas of irrationality."

"I think the environment in general, and climate change in particular, is an area of Will's irrationality. But nonetheless, I think he can accomplish something" in his current job, Socolow says.

Socolow hopes that while in the White House, Happer will behave less like an argumentative physicist and more like the kind of person who has to prepare for every possibility — including those that strike him as unlikely.

"A military person doesn't underestimate the enemy. A business person doesn't underestimate the competition," Socolow says. And even if, as Happer insists, there's uncertainty about the course of climate change, the U.S. can't afford to underestimate those risks.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Climate change is a danger to this country. That is the official position of the U.S. federal government. But according to leaked documents, the White House could be moving to challenge that conclusion. The man who appears to be behind this is William Happer. He's a scientist who recently joined the staff of President Trump's National Security Council. NPR's Dan Charles has more.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: William Happer was born in India when it was a British colony - the son of a Scottish military officer and an American missionary doctor. They later moved to North Carolina. And Happer became a physicist at Columbia University and then Princeton.

STEVEN KOONIN: He is a damn good scientist.

CHARLES: This is Steven Koonin, a professor at New York University. He's known Happer for 30 years.

KOONIN: There are two really significant contributions associated with him.

CHARLES: One made it possible to capture much better images of people's lungs. Another one allows astronomers to see the stars more clearly. So a respected scientist - also a contrarian and prone to arguments with environmental scientists. In 1993, for instance, then Vice President Al Gore was talking a lot about chemicals eating away at ozone in the stratosphere, letting in dangerous ultraviolet radiation. Happer had a top job at the Department of Energy at the time, running scientific research. He went over to the White House and said, there's no evidence the ozone hole's hurting anybody. He lost his job over it. Koonin thinks his friend, Will Happer, was just demanding better evidence.

KOONIN: I think that sensitized him to the squishiness, if you like, of a lot of the environmental science.

CHARLES: But other colleagues say it's more like a visceral distrust of that science. In recent years, Happer's been campaigning against the idea that rising carbon dioxide levels are a danger. Here he's giving a speech to the Heartland Institute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM HAPPER: When I got into this area and started learning about it, I learned that I was - when I looked at CO2, I should assume that it caused harmful warming, extreme weather, Noah's flood. You know, I remember thinking, are they mad?

CHARLES: Carbon dioxide's actually good for the planet, Happer says. It's like fertilizer. It makes our crops more productive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAPPER: We've got to push back vigorously on the demonization of fossil fuels. They're not demons at all. They're enormous servants to us.

CHARLES: Some of Happer's colleagues back at Princeton are reluctant to talk about it. It's like discussing a relationship that got messy. Here's Michael Bender, emeritus professor of geoscience - a climate researcher.

MICHAEL BENDER: I mean, I liked him. We would - we went out for coffee after our committee meetings a couple of times.

CHARLES: Bender wouldn't do it now, though, partly because of the scientific dispute. Bender says Happer's misreading the evidence. But it's also Happer's style. He's called climate science a cult, accused other scientists of whipping up climate fears to boost their own careers. Most offensive for Bender, Happer said people are demonizing carbon dioxide the way Nazis demonized Jews.

BENDER: You know, there came a point where he attacked my colleague's integrity. And I just felt like I couldn't have a cordial relationship with him anymore after that.

CHARLES: Happer wasn't authorized to talk to us for this story. He's in the White House now - 79 years old, possibly running a new review of climate science. And Robert Socolow, another Princeton colleague, has conflicted feelings about it.

ROBERT SOCOLOW: Everybody has areas of irrationality. I think the environment, in general, and climate change, in particular, is an area of Will's irrationality. But nonetheless, I think he can accomplish something.

CHARLES: Socolow is hoping that Happer will now behave less like an argumentative physicist and more like the kind of person who has to prepare for every possibility.

SOCOLOW: The military person doesn't underestimate the enemy. A business person doesn't underestimate the competition.

CHARLES: And Socolow says even if there is uncertainty about our future climate, as Happer says, it's not something we can afford to underestimate. Dan Charles, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER TRIO'S "MMMHMM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.