The Trump official who thinks carbon dioxide is vilified just like “poor Jews under Hitler” has been a professional “climate change skeptic” — i.e., denier — for years. But now, he has a major opportunity to alter the government’s data on global warming.
The New York Times reported Monday that the official, National Security Council senior director William Happer, is pushing for a “review panel” to question the scientific consensus on climate change. It’s hardly Happer’s first push: The Washington Post reported that Happer advocated for a similar effort in February, though the plan was still in flux at the time. In 2017, documents obtained by The Washington Post and BuzzFeed News showed, Happer was emailing with senior EPA officials about creating a “Red Team/Blue Team” exercise to cast doubt on established climate science.
Long an accomplished physicist with Princeton University, Happer kickstarted his second career in the George H.W. Bush administration, when he oversaw research at the Department of Energy. He’d later tell The Daily Princetonian that the attitude of climate scientists he spoke in the job was “give me all this money, and I’ll get the answer you like.” He officially joined the Trump administration as senior director for emerging technologies at the National Security Council last fall.
Fellow scientists have accused Happer of leveraging his Princeton credentials to spread misinformation about the threat posed by global warming. As Princeton University geosciences and international affairs professor Michael Oppenheimer told TPM in a Tuesday phone interview, Happer’s status as an tenured professor at a major research university was unique in the world of climate science skeptics, “giving him in some people’s eyes credibility that he might not have if he had a position elsewhere.”
“However, his publication record on climate science in peer-reviewed journals was slim-to-none,” Oppenheimer said. “In the world of scientists, if you don’t publish your evidence for the statements you’re making, especially if the statements are contrary to what the literature says, then your words don’t count.”
That never stopped Happer, whose fiery public comments on the “cult” of climate scientists have made him a fixture in right-wing politics and policy for years.
Take his favorite comparison that the Times cited in its Monday story: In 2014, during a CNBC interview, Happer said “the demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler. Carbon dioxide is actually a benefit to the world, and so were the Jews.”
He was responding to a question from financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin about a similar comment made to The Daily Princetonian in 2009: “This is George Orwell. This is the ‘Germans are the master race. The Jews are the scum of the earth.’ It’s that kind of propaganda.”
That’s hardly all: A month after Donald Trump’s election, at a talk at the Heritage Foundation, he referred to the group he’d created a few years earlier, “the CO2 Coalition,” as “the CO2 Anti-Defamation League.” (Desmog Blog has compiled quite an extensive highlight reel of Happer’s work.)
“It’s hard for me to think of a precedent where someone whose views were so contrary to the scientific mainstream was put in such a position,” Oppenheimer told TPM. “One can only hope that it’s a symbolic position with no power or influence.”
Happer’s rhetoric — and his widely disputed claims that increasing CO2 in the atmosphere will benefit plant growth more than it hurts the future of humanity — makes more sense given his position in the corporate climate denial ecosystem.
Since its founding in 2015, according to tax filings obtained by the Climate Investigations Center and reported in February, the CO2 Coalition has received more than $1 million from “energy executives and conservative foundations that fight regulations,” including huge sums from the Mercer Family Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute.
Happer developed the group from the ashes of the George C. Marshall Institute, a Reagan-era right-wing creation initially focused on military and defense policy that eventually branched out to climate skepticism. Happer, a longtime board member, served as chairman of the institute before it dissolved in 2015.
In late 2001, a writer named Matthew B. Crawford served briefly as the Marshall Institute’s executive director. He would later write of the experience in his book “Shop Class As Soulcraft”:
“I would quickly discover [the job] was not to my taste. It was concerned more with the forms of inquiry than with the substance; the trappings of scholarship were used to put a scientific cover on positions arrived at otherwise. These positions served various interest, ideological or material. For example, part of my job consisted of making arguments about global warming that just happened to coincide with the positions taken by the oil companies that funded the think tank.”
Tax forms and corporate records collected by a Greenpeace project, ExxonSecrets.org, show the Marshall Institute received $865,000 from ExxonMobil between 1998 and 2011, from the corporation itself and its foundation.
In 2015, GreenPeace activists recorded an undercover effort in which they posed as consultants for a fossil fuel company interested in commissioning a briefing from Happer. He accepted.
“More CO2 will benefit the world,” Happer emailed the “consultants” in response after attacking “the climate-change cult.” He added: “The only way to limit CO2 would be to stop using fossil fuels, which I think would be a profoundly immoral and irrational policy.”
In emails with the “consultants,” Happer revealed that Peabody Energy had paid the CO2 Coalition $8,000 for his testimony before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. After the undercover operatives noted that they wanted to pay him without revealing their “client,” Happer roped in William O’Keefe — former Exxon Mobile lobbyist and fellow Marshall Institute board member — who suggested they funnel the payment through the Donors Trust, where they would have “complete confidentiality.”
In recent years, Happer has focused on the government’s own climate data, seeking to bring in fringe voices on climate change.
“[A] dispassionate analysis of the science indicates that more CO2 will bring benefits, not harm to the world,” he wrote in 2015 testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. “The Congress could help by establishing a ‘Team B’ to make a dispassionate review of climate science, with sponsorship by the federal government.”
Now, Happer has his chance.