William Happer *64: Advising on decisions “that really need to get the science and technology right”
Ken Cedeno

William Happer *64, a professor emeritus of physics best known for his controversial views on climate change, has joined the White House in a senior science and technology advisory position.

Happer is working for the National Security Council as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for emerging technologies. His job is to try to ensure that important White House policies are based on sound science and engineering. 

Happer began teaching at Princeton in 1980 and served as director of energy research at the Department of Energy under President George H.W. Bush. He made his name in the field of optically polarized atoms and is credited with advancements in eliminating distortion in imaging systems, including those used in missile defense and astronomy.

In recent years, however, Happer has been best known for his contrarian views on climate change — views that mesh with those of President Donald Trump, who pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord. 

“Climate is important, always has been, but I think it’s become sort of a cult movement in the last five or 10 years,” Happer told The Scientist in 2017.

Most climate scientists say that atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels are rising due to human activities, warming the Earth and driving such worrisome changes as a rise in sea levels and receding ice cover. But Happer sees benefits in the increase in carbon dioxide, notably increased plant growth. Scientists told PAW that Happer isn’t entirely wrong about carbon dioxide promoting plant growth, but they added that any gains are outweighed by larger, more negative consequences.

“Some of the world’s worst weeds respond very strongly to carbon dioxide, and there is now pretty convincing science that the nutritional value of grains is lower with higher carbon-dioxide levels,” said John Reilly, co-director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. “Even if [the various trends] balance out or are positive, the broader effects of climate change — excessive heat, drought, wildfires, pest outbreaks, big-precipitation events, and rising sea levels — clearly pose serious risks even if the Earth is a little greener.”

Despite his climate-change skepticism, Happer has said that he supports continued climate-science research. “Many people feel like you ought to junk the whole climate enterprise, but I don’t feel that way at all,” he told The Scientist. “I feel like the information that is gathered is useful. ... Why not understand it better?”

Reached by PAW, Happer, 79, said he would like to comment for this article but was unable to secure clearance from the White House.

In his Scientist interview, Happer promised to be a straight shooter. “I’m a scientist,” he said. “I know a lot about some areas, and I know how to find out about others. I know how to reach out to people who really do know. And I think I could provide the best possible advice, technically related and scientifically related advice, for the administration for policy decisions that really need to get the science and technology right.”