Many thanks to those who responded to my Jan. 9 letter for engaging in this important conversation. I believe that conversation is the best way to work through our disagreements. But let us not mistake conversation for debate; facts cannot be debated.
Yet debate is exactly what these alumni erroneously sought. They employed tactics like cherry-picking, misleading claims (e.g. there are no alternatives to fossil fuels; the climate is simply too complex to model), and patronizing derision on the basis of my age (“How old was Mr. Turk in the '90s?”) to distract from the issues at hand.
Tactics like these have been used for decades by fossil-fuel companies to cast aspersion on legitimate research and sow doubt in people’s minds. The false notion of serious disagreement among scientists about the causes of climate change has contributed to the current policy paralysis. The longer we allow people like William Happer *64 to obfuscate the facts, the less time we will have to reverse the damage.
The issue isn’t what I or William Happer say but what such bodies as the National Academy of Sciences or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which truly represent the scientific consensus, have said. The Academy, the IPCC, and nearly every national academy worldwide agree that climate change is happening, human-driven, and a serious threat to our well-being. With such a strong consensus, who should governments listen to? I think the members of the IPCC and National Academy have little self-interest in conveying the dangers of climate change, compared to what those who profit from the fossil fuel industry have in denying its urgency.
On that point, readers should be aware that two of the critics of my article, Charles Hohenberg ’62 and William Hayden Smith *66, are members of the CO2 Coalition, the nonprofit that William Happer founded. In 2017, the group reportedly received $170,000 from the Mercer Family Foundation and more than $33,000 from the Charles Koch Institute, according to federal tax filings obtained by the Climate Investigations Center and cited by The Washington Post. In addition, Happer testified in 2018 that Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal company in the world, donated between $10,000 and $15,000 to the CO2 Coalition on his behalf in exchange for his testimony. Emails obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council revealed that the organization was strongly supportive of former EPA director Scott Pruitt’s “red team blue team” plan to stage public debates on the veracity of climate change. As The New York Times reported, Pruitt’s views on climate change (that carbon dioxide is not the primary contributor and that the extent to which humans are responsible is unknown) were refuted in a recent study issued by 13 federal agencies that found that more than half of the temperature rise in the past half-century can be attributed to human activity. It is worth noting that Pruitt was recently reported to be in discussions to consult for coal-industry executive Joe Craft.
Kerry Brown ’74, another critic of my piece, is the director of the Spark of Freedom Foundation, which advocates for natural-gas development (along with, commendably, hydro and nuclear energy). Peter Seldin ’76 is a general partner at a hedge fund called Centennial Energy Partners that has invested in fossil-fuel companies including Compton Petroleum Corp., Tesco Corp., and GMX Resources.
Because I imagine their next move will be to call into question my motivations, I will save them the trouble. I want to ensure that future generations of humans can continue thriving. The extent of my relevant financial interests is as follows: I work at a regulated electric utility in Vermont, where my salary is fixed, and my employer-provided 401(k) plan is an S&P 500 index fund that includes various energy-company stocks.
I stand by my statement that William Happer is a dangerous presence in the White House. This has nothing to do with his character or his distinguished career as a physicist. But his misguided views on carbon now have the potential to shape federal policy in the opposite direction we need to be going, namely toward substantially reduced emissions. Happer is no longer just Trump’s senior science adviser (On the Campus, Oct. 24); he was recently appointed to chair a White House committee tasked with delivering its own assessment on the risks posed by climate change.
Lastly, I was amused that Kerry Brown called my argument “juvenile.” I wondered if he would have used the same word if the number after my name was '67 and not '17. I am not sure what my age has to do with an ability to respect the wisdom of thousands of renowned climate scientists. My age does, however, have a great deal to do with how I will experience the consequences of climate change, the result of attitudes perpetuated by the writers who defended Happer. It’s time to discuss solutions, not the existence of a problem.
I invite these alumni to reach out directly to me at email@example.com if they would like to continue the conversation. I am happy to point them to the relevant peer-reviewed research.