Twenty-five years ago, William Happer had an unfortunate encounter with the White House.
At the time, in 1993, the Princeton professor was taking a break from academia to lead scientific research at the US Department of Energy. He turned a skeptical look at one of the favorite subjects of the then Vice President, Al Gore: the risks posed by chemicals that destroy ozone in the stratosphere and lead to dangerous ultraviolet rays. Throughout history, Happer went to the White House and informed Gore staff that he saw no evidence that the hole in the ozone layer was hurting anyone.
Gore was annoyed and Happer lost his job.
Today, Happer is back in the White House, still fighting what he sees as unfounded, claiming that our planet is in danger. But this time, his cause is supported by the oval office man.
Happer, 79, joined the staff of President Trump's National Security Council last fall. And according to the documents first fled to The Washington Post, it seems to push the White House to challenge the government's official assessment of climate change, which sees climate change as a serious threat to national security.
On Thursday, the presidents of four different committees of the House of Representatives sent a letter to President Trump expressing his concern over "recent reports that the National Security Council (NSC) is planning to convene a secret committee, headed by by a discredited denialist of climate change ". undermine the overwhelming scientific consensus on the nature and threats of climate change …. "
The four Democrats have described it as "deeply concerned that Dr. Happer seems to be spearheading" this effort.
Happer is an intriguing and controversial figure. He was born in India at the time of a British colony, son of a Scottish military officer and an American medical missionary. His mother, accompanied by Will, spent part of the Second World War working as a doctor at the Manhattan Project secret site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The family later moved to North Carolina.
Happer became a physicist. He taught at Columbia University and joined the faculty of Princeton University in 1980.
"It's a pretty good scientist," says Steven Koonin, a renowned physicist, now a professor at New York University who has known Happer for 30 years. "Two very important contributions are associated with it."
One of them has captured much better images of people's lungs; the other allows astronomers to see the stars more clearly.
At the same time, Happer gained a reputation as a contrarian, ready to question the conclusions that did not seem solid to him – especially in the field of science of the environment.
This reputation was cemented by the confrontation of Happer with Gore staff about the risks posed by the hole in the ozone layer. The incident was largely covered by scientific publications – Physics today published an article entitled "Happer leaves the DOE under the cloud of ozone for violating political correctness".
Koonin thinks that Happer was doing what a scientist should do, demanding better evidence. "I think this has made him aware of the devious nature of environmental science," he says.
Some scientific critics of Happer, however, see something more: a visceral mistrust of scientists who study the risks to the environment.
Over the past decade, Happer has waged a fierce campaign to dispel fears of global warming caused by emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
In a speech delivered at a 2015 Heartland Institute conference against restrictions on fossil fuel emissions, Happer is mocked by these fears, calling them fantasies of Alice in the country. wonderful things. "When I came to this area and started to learn more about it, I learned that by looking at the CO2, I had to assume that it was causing a damaging warming, a extreme climate, Noah's flood, you know .. I remember thinking: "Are they crazy? ""
Carbon dioxide is good for the planet, says Happer; it's like a fertilizer and makes the crops more productive.
"We must vigorously repel the demonization of fossil fuels," he said in his speech. "They are not demons, they are huge servants for us."
Some of Princeton's colleagues at Happer are reluctant to talk about him in public; it's like discussing a relationship that has been messed up.
"I mean, I liked it, we went to have coffee after our committee meetings a few times," said Michael Bender, emeritus professor of geoscience and climate research.
Bender says he would not do it now, though. This is partly because of the scientific dispute, because he thinks that Happer misinterprets the evidence. But it's also because of the style of Happer – he called climate science cult and accused other scientists of fanning climate-related fears to improve their own career. More offensive to Bender: Happer has already said that "the demonization of carbon dioxide is similar to the demonization of Jews under Hitler".
"You know, there came a time when he attacked the integrity of my colleagues," said Bender, "and I felt that I could no longer have a cordial relationship with him after that."
Happer, who went to work at the White House last fall as a senior adviser to the National Security Council, was not allowed to comment on this story.
Robert Socolow, another colleague from Princeton, has mixed feelings about Happer's message. Socolow's own biography – first a physicist, then an environmental specialist – makes it a kind of bridge between Happer and the Princeton campus environment scientists. He does not doubt Happer's technical understanding of climatology, but says that "everyone has areas of irrationality".
"I think the environment in general, and climate change in particular, is an irrational area of Will, but I think it can accomplish something" in his current work, says Socolow.
Socolow hopes that during his stay at the White House, Happer will behave less as an argumentative physicist than as the kind of person who must be prepared for all possibilities, including those that seem improbable.
"A soldier does not underestimate the enemy.A businessman does not underestimate the competition," Socolow said. And while, as Happer points out, there are uncertainties surrounding the evolution of climate change, the United States can not afford to underestimate these risks.