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The threat posed to humanity by climate change is questionable, University physics professor William Happer GS ’64 said in a talk Thursday at the physics department’s monthly colloquium.
Happer’s comments came in response to an annual report on the state of climate change released by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in September, with whose findings he disagreed. Two weeks earlier, Happer had shared the same views at a talk celebrating Institute for Advanced Study physicist Freeman Dyson’s 90th birthday.
Happer’s criticism of the link between greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide contributing to global warming has been a point of contention among the academic community, including his peers at the University.
In his Thursday discussion, titled “Why Has Global Warming Paused?”, Happer directly challenged the IPCC report that supported the link between human greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Contrary to the report, Happer said that increased carbon dioxide emissions would not pose a problem for humanity.
Over the past 15 years, temperatures have not risen as high as scientists, including himself, have predicted, Happer pointed out. He suggested that current models that predict rising global temperatures are flawed, citing a recent Nature article that included a provocative graph of climate models predicting higher temperatures than what was eventually measured.
University geosciences and international affairs professor Michael Oppenheimer, who sat on the IPCC, has questioned Happer’s views. According to Oppenheimer, the report “fine-tuned” most of previously collected evidence for the immediate danger posed by climate change, including extreme temperatures, precipitation and rising sea levels. Oppenheimer said the report clarified areas that need further research, such as exact predictions of sea levels.
Echoing the report’s statement, audience members said that since ocean temperature dynamics have not been understood completely, the discrepancy between models and measured temperatures could be explained by heat absorption by the ocean. While Happer agreed that more emphasis should be put on collecting data on the oceans, he also maintained that he would be more impressed with correct prediction than trend-fitting in hindsight.
Happer said he is used to having his views questioned, both by the academic community at large and by his colleagues. While Happer said he has felt very comfortable and welcome within his department — garnering support from Dyson — those in the field of climate research do not see his views as substantiated.
According to Oppenheimer, Happer has not recently published substantial data about climate change to support his arguments.
“Professor Happer to my knowledge doesn’t publish in the scientific literature on this subject, and therefore there’s no reason to pay his scientific opinion much weight on this,” Oppenheimer said. “As a citizen, he’s entitled to his views on what we should do about it, but his scientific views don’t count for anything.”
Another colleague who takes issue with Happer’s claims is astrophysical sciences professor Michael Lemonick, who is a writer at large for Climate Central, a nonprofit located in Princeton that works to model weather patterns of the future, and a former senior science writer for Time magazine.
“The people I respect in climate science do not take most of what Happer says even a little bit seriously,” Lemonick said. “He’s truly considered to be someone who does not know what he’s talking about.”
“I occasionally get copies of letters demanding that I be fired, and the University has not … That’s not meant to be taken seriously — you know they’ll send me copies with a comforting note,” Happer said. “A lot of people make great livings out of being environmental reporters and saving the planet: [Andrew] Revkin at The New York Times, Oppenheimer here and Lemonick … So you know, they’re doing very well. It won’t last. I don’t know how much longer this can go on.”
Happer pointed to easily attainable private and public funding for climate research as an incentive that has inflated the issue. “To have honorary degrees showered on Al Gore when he doesn’t even get the hurricane direction right on the cover of his book, what sort of movement is this?” he said.
Happer directed the $3 billion research budget at the U.S. Department of Energy under the Clinton administration, where he interacted with then-Vice President and Nobel Laureate Gore.
Despite their opposing views, both Oppenheimer and Happer said they see a role for the University as a place of research to improve knowledge of climate change and “get the science right,” Happer said, about the consequences of greenhouse gases.
Oppenheimer added that it is also a place where students from all disciplines may become actively involved in the cause.
Though Happer’s views have been unpopular, he said he sees the University as a place where different opinions can coexist.
“The University, the word itself, means all views,” he explained. “I think the best thing they could do is to let all flowers bloom, so to speak.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article implied that professor Michael Oppenheimer attended the Oct. 10 talk given by professor William Happer GS ’64. Oppenheimer did not attend. The ‘Prince’ regrets the error.