Defining Ideas

Will Happer – Climate “Denier”?

Monday, February 25, 2019
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The press reported that President Donald J. Trump plans to establish by executive order a Presidential Committee on Climate Security to reexamine the commonly accepted claim that climate change poses a threat to our national security. The head of this committee will be William Happer, a retired physics professor at Columbia and Princeton and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Critics of Happer cite a recent report from the Department of Defense on the risk of rising sea levels to debunk the President’s proposal. Pity that these misguided souls fail to note that the words “carbon dioxide” do not appear once in the DOD Report, which examines a variety of other reasons why land erosion and sea-level rises can compromise naval activities. The data on this front are mixed. In fact, a recent report on the stability of atoll islands, on which the U.S. operates several military bases, found that out of the 709 islands in 30 atolls, “518 (73.1%) were stable, 110 (15.5%) increased in size, and 81 (11.4%) decreased in area. Thus, a total of 88.6% of all islands examined were either stable or increased in size.” 

Nonetheless, Trump’s plan was greeted with a chorus of disbelief by a climate establishment that regards Happer as a retrograde appointment who, as Vox angrily proclaims,“has bizarre, backward views about climate science,” and was denounced by The New York Times as a “climate denialist.” The chief substantive complaint about Happer is that he thinks that on balance the increased levels of carbon dioxide over the last 80 to 100 years has positive value for humanity—a position that is widely rejected by establishment scientists. There is a great deal of evidence that cuts in his direction, most notably the increased green covering of the earth’s surface over the past 30 years, which arises for the simple reason that plant growth is far more sensitive to increases in CO2 than temperature changes. Thus, we gain the benefit of disproportionate greening in agriculture, forestry, and the rest with only modest temperature increases.

In Vox, as in The New York Times, Happer is widely condemned for saying that “the demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler.” His point was not, of course, to defend the Holocaust, but to highlight the obnoxious attacks directed to those people who like myself share his point of view. Sadly, he has a point. The word “denier” is used in connection with global warming in exactly the same sense that it is used in connection with the Holocaust. No one, however confident in his or her own views, should attach so odious a label to their opponent over a serious scientific disagreement.

My own skepticism about global warming goes back at least a decade and is captured in my 2010 article, Carbon Dioxide: Our Newest Pollutant, which I stand by to this day. I became friends with Happer in 2016 when I critiqued on scientific and legal grounds then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s ill-advised attack against Exxon-Mobil for concealing information about the incipient risks of global warming. Happer’s own views are well set out in a key publication,“A Primer on Carbon Dioxide and Climate.” It would do well for the critics to answer his arguments rather than engage in name-calling that reflects only badly on themselves. Unlike his nasty critics, Happer is a learned and judicious man.

In recent work I have indicated some of the evidence that goes against consensus views on the subject. As I noted in my critiqueof the Green New Deal, none of the recent attacks on Happer reference the global cooling in the last two years of about 0.56° C—the most rapid two-year decline in the last hundred years. Events like this are not supposed to happen as CO2 levels increase. That number is especially telling because the near-hysterical report issued by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”) concluded that it was necessary by 2030 to reduce the targeted level of temperature increase to 1.5° C above pre-industrial levels. Without any real explanation, that report lowered the acceptable temperature increase by 0.5° C from the previous target of 2.0° C. To put this number in perspective, the world would be only 0.137° C cooler by 2100 if the United States cut all carbon emissions. Even if we assumed every other industrialized country would be equally on board, this would merely avert warming by 0.278° C by the turn of the next century. 

In this context, it is important to remember three points. First, there have been enormous shifts in climate over both the long and short terms, well before human emissions of CO2 rose above negligible levels. Second, other drivers also explain these major changes, some of which are global and others local. Globally, Richard Lindzen, a distinguished MIT climate scientist who worked closely with Happer, has found that water vapor and aerosols have an effect on climate. And Willie Soon, an aerospace engineer affiliated with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, argues that “changes in the sun’s brightness, sunspots and energy output, changes in the orbital position of the Earth relative to the sun, and other powerful natural forces drive climate change. In brief, our sun controls our climate.” The local category includes such factors as draining aqueducts and unsound forest management. Cost effective measures, unrelated to controlling CO2 emissions, are readily available to control these phenomena.

The establishment’s misunderstanding of both the science and economics of global warming quickly leads to serious policy blunders. In order to explain why Happer is such a dangerous appointment, The New York Times offers an elaborate graphic titled “To Cut Emissions Faster, U.S. Can Apply These Policies.” The graphic is based on a model by the firm Energy Innovation Policy and Technology LLC. The entire presentation is a powerful testament of the sorry state of the dominant views on climate science. 

The initial difficulty with that graphic lies in its estimate of the future decline in CO2 emissions. From 2000 to 2018, U.S. emissions declined from about 6.7 gigatons (one billion metric tons) to about 5.5 gigatons, a decrease of about 18 percent. This occurred during a period when the US population increased from 282.16 million in 2000 to about 328.3 million as of July 1, 2018, an increase of 16.3 percent. The net decline in emissions per person is around 42 percent. The model projects that the total level of CO2 emissions will remain roughly flat for the next 32 years, as if all technology innovation has been exhausted. But if one keeps the same rate of improvement for the next 32 years, it amounts to a further decline of 32 percent to a level of about 3.8 gigatons, which, with an estimated population of 438 million people by 2050, works out to a decline of emissions per person of over 50 percent. 

The model then lists a series of seven changes in climate policy that it believes are needed to cut that 5.5 gigaton total down to about 3.1 gigatons. The first six of these are estimated to reduce emissions to 3.5 gigatons. These are, in order, the imposition of a carbon tax on the model of British Columbia, which has already ceased to be revenue neutral despite its advocates’ promises. The tax was abandoned in Australia as “political poison” in 2014, two years after it was enacted. The next proposal requires utilities to produce all their energy from zero-carbon sources, which would require a massive retrofitting of American industry amounting to trillions of dollars in new expenditures in order to create an intrinsically unstable system. The third measure is the use of electric cars, which also require heavy subsidies to work. In principle, these cars should be welcome if they require no subsidies, as non-electric vehicles do indeed involve emissions, of which CO2 is not the most dangerous. The next three proposals involve setting various CO2 emission standards for heavy industry, without noting that the most important administrative measures should be directed to other pollutants, including the dirty coal that is burnt if the use of relatively clean natural gas succumbs to regulatory pressures.

None of these proposals are needed if the projected decline in CO2 from current technologies keeps pace with the developments of the last 18 years. Worse still, at no point does The New York Times’ model try to estimate the horrendous costs that come from the simultaneous implementation of policies that in all likelihood turn out to be counterproductive or unnecessary. Nor does The Times indicate what it thinks will be the decrease in temperature levels from the faithful implementation of these policies, especially if it turns out that, with the widespread breakdown of the Paris Accords, the rest of the world continues to increase its output of CO2 as the United States engages in fruitless action to reduce its CO2 emissions. Sadly, with the current state of intolerance in climate science, the U.S. needs Will Happer now more than ever.