Princeton University professor: Carbon dioxide ‘demonized,’ plays almost no role in climate change

While the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has increased from the levels present in pre-industrial times, a Princeton University professor speaking at the NARUC Summer Committee Meetings in Denver, Colo., said those higher amounts of CO2 are not responsible for global warming, and in fact bring certain benefits.

Dr. William Happer – a physicist, professor and fellow of the American Physical Society – made his case in a presentation to the Gas Committee at the NARUC meetings on July 23. His presentation, “The Myth of Carbon Pollution,” followed a session dealing with cap and trade and carbon tax.

“CO2 has been demonized because it supposedly causes catastrophic global warming,” he said. “You’ve noticed that [the term] has morphed into ‘climate change’ now. There’s a reason for that, and that is the globe is not warming.”

While global temperatures have risen since 1980 and spiked in 1998 when a strong El Niño appeared, global temperatures have been stable since 2002, Happer said, citing data from U.S. government agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In pre-industrial times, CO2 levels in the atmosphere were approximately 280 parts per million (ppm). CO2 concentrations rose between 1960 and 2010, from slightly less than 320 ppm as measured at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, to 400 ppm. However, even the higher number is historically low, he said, noting that over geologic history, CO2 levels were between 1,000 ppm and 2,000 ppm.

Happer does not dispute that average temperatures have increased over the past decades and centuries. In fact, he said, the current warming cycle started about 200 years ago, long before there was any increase in fossil fuel.

“One of the first people to notice that was [naturalist] John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club,” he said. “In 1879, he made a trip to Alaska to see what was happening to the Alaska glaciers. They were melting at an alarming rate … much faster than today.”

Neither does he dispute that average temperatures are higher today than in 1980, when many of the current weather satellites were launched and began transmitting climate data. However, Happer said, the observed conditions do not align with the predictions.

“Most [climate] models predicted that temperatures would go up [with higher CO2 concentrations],” he said. “Most models predicted that, over the last 15 years, we would have had a warming of three-tenths of a degree; that’s a very clear prediction. In fact, we’ve observed zero warming; none at all. The climate models are clearly wrong.”

The stability of those recent temperatures has forced a change in nomenclature, Happer said.

“Alarmists have switched to blaming ‘extreme weather’ on CO2,” he said, indicating the shift in terminology away from global warming.

Recent weather, however, has not been extreme. Tornadoes per year peaked in the 1930s. The snow cover in the northern hemisphere matches the historical average and hurricane rates, if anything, have gone down.

If you look at the data, nothing has changed, he said.

“The theories are not working, the models are not working,” he said. “Everyone agrees with that. Even the [U.N. International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)] has finally agreed with that; it’s not working.”

Everyone except the politicians.

Regardless of the data, politicians continue to speak of “decarbonizing the world,” but Happer questioned whether that is a good idea. Referencing German literature, he said that, just as Goethe’s character Gretchen asked two questions before deciding whether to become involved with Faust, two questions must be asked and answered in this cases: “If you hold CO2 constant at any level, will the climate stop changing?” and, “What is the best level for CO2 and why?”

Happer said the answers are “no,” and “no one knows.”

“Earth’s climate is almost constantly changing, and nothing we do with regard to CO2 will make the climate stop changing,” he said. “It has always changed; it will continue to change.”

Because discussions of climate change never get to the second question, Happer could not provide a definitive answer, though he noted that there can be such a thing as too little CO2. Plants, he said, stop growing at concentrations of less than 150 ppm.

Conversely, higher levels of CO2 cause faster plant growth and higher crop yields, which are beneficial.

There are limits beyond which CO2 becomes harmful to human beings. As a result, the U.S. government has set limits for astronauts and personnel aboard submarines of 5,000 ppm, a level that Happer said “does not cause them the slightest harm” and which is far beyond anything likely to be found outside closed systems like spacecraft and submarines.

Policy drivers

When introducing the session, the chair of the Gas Committee teed up the presentation by highlighting the federal government’s fervor around the issue.

“Not since the Manhattan Project has the U.S. government been so focused on one singular objective, that being the reduction of CO2,” Barry Smitherman, who is also chair of the Texas Railroad Commission, said.

“U.S. CO2 emissions are declining and, on a per capita basis, we are down to 1964 levels,” he continued. “Why is this administration so compelled to issue, by presidential memorandum, a recent directive to the EPA to finalize carbon standards for new and existing power generation units?”

Happer noted that energy-related CO2 emissions peaked in 2007, and current emissions have been reduced to 1992 levels. “No other country has done that well,” he said.

While Happer primarily focused on the science behind the issue, he did make one reference to a possible motivation.

“You should be looking around because there’s usually somebody in the background that’s going to profit, and that’s true of global warming,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons it has been such a difficult subject to deal with, because it’s not just a scientific issue; there are many other forces [at work].”

When asked why a large number of scientists agree that global warming exists and CO2 is causing it, Happer was candid.

“There is a tremendous incentive to conform; it’s a constant in academia,” he said, adding, “The people I know who’ve taken the trouble to dig in and audit the science have all come out like me.”

As to the potential for broad acceptance of his point of view, Happer quoted German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who said: “All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed and third it is accepted as self-evident.”

With a significant percentage of the nation’s generating fleet emitting CO2, including coal and gas-fired generation, and therefore potentially affected by any rules around carbon emissions, Smitherman said it is vital that the facts be clearly understood before action is taken.

He asked, “Given the extremely high percentage of generation that we receive from fossil fuels, and given electricity’s fundamental role in powering the U.S. economy, shouldn’t we be sure – or as close to sure as we can – about CO2’s role, or lack thereof, in changing the climate before we … dismantle our power generation fleet?”