News broke Tuesday that Dr. William Happer, a skeptic of climate science and professor emeritus of Physics at Princeton University, has joined the National Security Council, directing an emerging technologies portfolio. The scope of his responsibilities and the power he will wield remain unclear as the position appears to be newly created. However, Dr. Happer’s public condemnation for the scientific consensus around climate change (a field that he is not an expert in) is cause for serious concern, especially given the role the National Security Council has in setting high-level foreign policy and the growing threat climate change is posing to our nation’s security. Yet again, the White House has elevated an individual who denies the science around climate change to a position of power – with this, individuals such as Happer are not the exception in this administration, but the rule.
Dr. Happer is known for his important contributions to the field of modern atomic physics. He has been on the faculty of Princeton University since 1980, during which time he has also been active in government service, having, for example, served as the Department of Energy’s director of energy research during the George H.W. Bush administration.
However, Dr. Happer is also known for his dismissal of the scientific consensus around climate change, making scientifically unfounded statements that more carbon dioxide will net benefit society. He has also questioned the science underpinning The Paris Agreement (a worldwide commitment to reduce global warming emissions and limit the increase in global temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius), and recommended withdrawing from the Agreement. Such statements caught the attention of the Trump Administration, who considered Dr. Happer for the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) post (a post Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier was nominated to fill). Instead, the administration named him to his new role directing the emerging technologies portfolio.
In his new position, Dr. Happer is now an earshot away from the President and his closest climate and energy advisors. While it is unclear what his specific responsibilities will be, we will be watching to see if he advocates or not for technologies that help reduce carbon emissions in line with climate goals, and that help make the world a safer place. The White House must specify soon what exactly Dr. Happer will be working on. We will be watching to ensure that if his role drifts into climate-related issues, such as policies around our climate, ocean, the Arctic and Antarctic, and Earth observations, that he relies on and accurately conveys the latest science represented by the expertise of many excellent agency scientists and scientific resources available to him.