Happer and Schmitt

I wrote a post a while ago about William Happer’s calculation of how long it would take to get a 6oC rise in surface temperatures. The calculation was simplistic and the assumptions didn’t seem to be based on current scientific evidence. I assumed that this was someone who maybe had some scientific training but wasn’t sufficiently experienced to understand the fundamentals of the scientific method.

How wrong could I have been. William Happer is the Cyrus Fogg Bracket Professor of Physics. He is a high-profile scientist who is also noted for pioneering Adaptive Optics. Adaptive Optics has really revolutionised parts of astronomy and allowed astronomers to have telescopes on the ground that can produce images that are as good as images from telescopes in space. This gave me a moments pause. Could I have been wrong? Could his calculation have been cleverer than I thought? I didn’t think so, but I was amazed that someone with these credentials could do such an absurd calculation.

Together with Harrison H Schmitt, William Happer has written – a few days ago – a Wall Street Journal article defending carbon dioxide. The suggestion in the article is that current CO2 levels are low by geological standards and that plants will thrive at higher CO2 concentrations. This just seems absurd. We now have CO2 levels that are higher than they’ve been for all of human history. Yes, it might have been higher in the past, but humans weren’t present and sea-levels were something like 45m higher at those times. There is also a recent report suggesting that we are seeing evidence for ocean acidification and that the Arctic is at particular risk. Some of the excess CO2 is dissolved in the oceans and turns into carbonic acid. I believe these results are quite robust and I would hope that most would agree that acidifying our oceans is a bad idea.

Basically, I really can’t believe that a high-profile scientist can argue that because plants “like” CO2 that much higher levels will be good for us. It’s just so absurdly simplistic and, by itself, a ridiculous suggestion. There are numerous things that are good for us at one level and bad at another. When I was trying to think of examples of such things I noticed that Harrison H Schmitt was an astronaut and the last man to walk on the moon. Of all people, I thought that he at least would understand the concept that something that is crucial for life could become extremely dangerous at high concentrations.

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7 Responses to Happer and Schmitt

  1. Rachel says:

    The Wall Street Journal article is dreadful. In particular I have issues with his very first paragraph. I don’t know of anyone suggesting that CO2 is the world’s worst molecule. And then he accuses everyone who supports action against climate change of being single-minded and an advocate of government control? While I completely disagree that belief in climate change equates to more government control, I can’t help thinking that denial of climate change is effectively bowing to the demands of fossil fuel companies.

    And then the claims about increased agricultural output as a result of increased CO2. I note that he’s provided no references for these claims and he is not an agriculture scientist or a botanist or whatever the relevant field would be. In other words, he’s what Peter Hadfield would call a “mcexpert”.

    And his criticism of NASA is completely unfounded. I went back and read James Hansen’s original 1981 paper and his predictions have so far been spot-on.

  2. It is a dreadful article. William Happer is a director of the George C Marshall institute which seems to be a right-wing think tank that is openly skeptical of AGW. It seems reasonable to conclude that he has decided that his ideological driven views about climate change trump any scientific evidence.

  3. Lars Karlsson says:

    The George C Marshall institute more or less invented climate change denial.

  4. Yes, having done some more reading about the GMI, there does appear to be quite a lot of evidence suggesting that they’ve played a rather large role in the climate change denial movement.

  5. Being an expert in one field is no guarantee of competence in another. Several Nobel prize winners have espoused crank theories (http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Nobel_disease); Happer demonstrated that eminent professors are prone to the same hubris.

  6. Yes, precisely. In fact, hubris was the word I was trying to think of when writing this post, but it didn’t come to me in time.

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