William Happer Interview

  • Date: 09/01/17
  • The Best Schools

William Happer is the Cyrus Fogg Brackett Professor of Physics, Emeritus, in the Department of Physics at Princeton University. A long-time member of JASON, a group of scientists which provides independent advice to the U.S. government on matters relating to science, technology, and national security, Happer served as Director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science from 1991–1993. [He is a member of the GWPF's Academic Advisory Council].

Best known to the general public as a vocal critic of the U.N. IPCC “consensus” on global warming, he has been called frequently to give expert testimony before various U.S. congressional committees on the subject of global warming (climate change). In 2015, he found himself at the center of a new controversy involving a so-called “sting” operation organized by Greenpeace.

A list of some of Professor Happer’s major research publications may be accessed here.


Professor Happer: Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview, and to participate in the upcoming Focused Civil Dialogue on global warming with the Australian physicist, David Karoly. The global warming controversy is both exceedingly complicated and highly charged emotionally. Our goal in these interviews is to lay the groundwork for a productive Focused Civil Dialogue between you and Professor Karoly. In this interview, we will explore the issues from a number of different angles, both scientific and political .


William Happer

[...] I learned a lot about the atmosphere at JASON. I was involved in the analysis of “thermal blooming” of high-power lasers when they are weakly absorbed by H2O and CO2molecules in the atmosphere. The physics is closely related to that of greenhouse warming. I learned about the physics of the tropopause, where much of the wavefront distortion of starlight or defensive laser beams takes place. I was one of 14 JASON coauthors of one the first books on global warming, with the nerdy title, The Long-Term Impacts of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Levels, edited by Gordon J. MacDonald (Ballinger Publishing Co., 1982). We over-predicted the warming from more CO2 as badly as later establishment models, a topic to which I will return below.

My invention of the sodium guide star gave me some credibility in parts of the US government, but since the work was highly classified in the first few years, only a few scientists knew about it. I scrupulously avoided working on related areas with my university students. But based on this classified notoriety, I was elected to be Chair of the JASON steering committee in 1987, and in 1990 I was appointed Director of the Office of Energy Research at the US Department of Energy (DOE) by President George H. W. Bush, where I served under Secretary of Energy, James Watkins, until the election of President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore in the 1992 election. I served for three more months under Secretary Hazel O’Leary in the spring of 1993. I was fortunate that both Secretaries of Energy were supportive of basic science, the responsibility of my office.

The DOE Office of Science had an annual budget of over $3 billion at that time, more than the National Science Foundation. It funded almost all of DOE’s non-weapons basic research, including a great deal of environmental science and climate science. This was my first encounter with the climate establishment, and I was surprised to find environmental science so different from high-energy physics, nuclear physics, materials science, the human genome, and the many other areas we had responsibility for. I insisted that my assistant directors arrange for regular seminars, given by principal investigators of grants we supported. In most fields, principal investigators were delighted that government bureaucrats were actually interested in their research. They enjoyed being questioned during their talks, since this allowed them to show off their erudition. But, with honorable exceptions, principal investigators working on environmental issues were reluctant to come to our Washington offices, and evasive about answering the questions that were so welcome to briefers from other fields.

About three months after the beginning of the Clinton administration, Hazel O’Leary called me into her office to ask, “What have you done to Al Gore? I am told I have to fire you.” I assume that the main thing that upset Al Gore (left) was my questioning of blatant propaganda about stratospheric ozone that was his focus at the time: “ozone holes over Kennebunkport” and similar nonsense. Although Secretary O’Leary offered to find a way to keep me at DOE as a civil servant, I was glad to have an excuse to get back to doing real science at Princeton University, which was kind enough to offer me a professorship again.

For the next few years after my return to Princeton in 1993, I was very busy working on an exciting new project on magnetic resonance imaging with laser polarized nuclei that my young colleague, Professor Gordon Cates, and his students had pioneered while I was at DOE. But watching the evening news, I would often be outraged by the distortions about CO2 and climate that were being intoned by hapless, scientifically-illiterate newscasters. My wife Barbara, who patiently sat through my outbursts, finally said, “Why don’t you speak up?” At Barbara’s urging, I began to speak up and I have never stopped.

I often hear that since I am not a card-carrying climate scientist — that I, and many other scientists with views similar to mine, have no right to criticize the climate establishment. But as I have outlined above, few have a deeper understanding of the basic science of climate than I. Almost all big modern telescopes use my sodium guidestar to correct for atmospheric turbulence. It works. As we will see below, most climate models do not work. The history of science shows many examples of fields that needed outside criticism. A famous example is Andrei Sakharov’s leadership of opposition to Trofim Lysenko’s politicized biology in the Soviet Union. We will have more to say about Lysenko (right) later in the interview, but one of Lysenko’s main defenses was that Sakharov, a physicist who invented the Soviet hydrogen bomb, was not a “Michurinian” biologist.

Full interview