Let’s say you’re a president who wears his scientific illiteracy like a badge of honor, ignorantly conflates weather and climate, and long ago pledged his troth to the polluting oil and gas industries. On a personal level, you’re doing all you can, day in and day out, to toe the climate denialist line.
Still, despite demanding absolute loyalty, you’re unable to stop all the people working for you from acknowledging basic scientific and geopolitical truths. First, more than a dozen federal departments and agencies working jointly under the auspices of the executive branch—your branch!—release the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a report that’s as unsparing in its depiction of global warming’s horrific impacts as it is unambiguous in its call for action. Then, to add insult to injury, your Defense Department releases its own report stating that climate change poses a serious threat to the nation’s armed forces and, by extension, to national security. Finally, less than two weeks later, your director of national intelligence has the audacity to defy your wishes by saying pretty much the same thing.
So, what do you do? Well, if you’re President Donald J. Trump, you try to muddy the waters by forming a special working group to investigate climate change—and you put a climate-denying ex-professor in charge of it. For some context, this ex-professor, William Happer, once bemoaned the “demonization” of carbon dioxide in terms so offensive that I can’t even bring myself to type them out. (Read or listen to his words here, if you have the stomach for it.) In an administration not known for its transparency, Trump’s latest move stands out as a uniquely transparent attempt to undermine expert opinion and give the most vehement climate deniers a role in crafting our public policy. That’s one reason Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer has already vowed to do whatever is within his power to stop it from coming into being.
Before Trump appointed Happer to the National Security Council in November as a technology adviser, Happer held a number of illustrious positions at Columbia University, Princeton University, and the U.S. Department of Energy, all of them pertaining to his core area of specialty: optical physics. In a late-career shift about 10 years ago, he began involving himself in matters of climate science despite having no training in the field.
Within the denialist community, Happer’s lack of relevant credentials didn’t matter. But his irrelevant credentials were thought to lend a patina of scientific credibility to his outlandish pronouncements—like this one, for instance, from a Wall Street Journal op-ed that he cowrote back in 2013: “Contrary to what some would have us believe, increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will benefit the increasing population on the planet by increasing agricultural productivity.”
If a nonscientist wrote that in a major publication—or even drunkenly blurted it out at a cocktail party—he or she would rightly be mocked, even shunned. But this notion, as ridiculous as it is, was treated by the Wall Street Journal’s editors and others as a legitimate point of debate, thanks to Happer’s long list of academic bona fides. That his expertise lies in the field of optical physics rather than climate science wasn’t lost on actual climate scientists, of course, or on those of us who look to them for information and guidance. Unfortunately, many readers saw Happer’s bio and concluded, from the brief mention made of his tenure at Princeton and the Energy Department, that he deserved to be taken seriously.
In truth, everything you need to know about William Happer’s credibility on the topic of climate change can be gleaned from the fact that he’s the cofounder of a group known as the CO2 Coalition. On the organization’s website, we’re treated to a perfect distillation of denialists’ M.O. for countering the consensus regarding climate science:
Scientists and engineers in the CO2 Coalition want you to know that the negative effects of more CO2—like Mark Twain’s death—have been greatly exaggerated. Readily available data from both governmental and nongovernmental sources confirms that extreme weather events in recent years have not happened more often or with greater intensity. Reports of damaging ocean acidification, accelerating sea-level rise or unprecedented decreases of polar and glacial ice are also mostly myths designed to terrify people into accepting harmful policies that allegedly “save the planet.”
Note the reference to “readily available data” refuting accepted climate science—data which, for all of its supposed ready availability, is conspicuously not cited here. Meanwhile, the CO2 Coalition has the gall to dismiss exhaustively researched, peer-reviewed science proving the exact opposite of its assertions as “myths designed to terrify people into accepting harmful policies.” Again, the coalition provides absolutely no backup for this delusional statement. Because none exists.
And now Happer is tasked with steering the national climate conversation and influencing our government’s climate policy? It’s yet another absurd, through-the-looking-glass moment in an administration that is woefully pockmarked with them. If you had to choose an individual less equipped and more dangerous than William Happer to lead a National Security Council working group on global warming, you’d be hard pressed to find one. But of course he’s our president’s pick; Trump’s one unerring managerial instinct is to select the worst possible person for the job in nearly every instance.
This doesn’t mark the first time our current commander-in-chief has ignored the counsel of the various defense, security, and scientific experts who serve him. (And it likely won’t be the last.) But we can’t afford to treat this latest hijacking attempt as politics as usual. Call it what it is: a betrayal—of America’s armed forces, its economy, its environment, and its public safety.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.