MacCracken v. Happer: The Real Truth about Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change

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Michael MacCracken

In “The Real Truth about Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change: Paragraph-by-Paragraph Comments on an Article by Dr. William Happer,” Dr. Michael MacCracken, Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs at the Climate Institute in Washington, DC, takes on the prominent ‘skeptic’ Princeton physicist and Marshall Institute board chairman with a detailed and illuminating rebuttal.

Full text of the article: The Real Truth About Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change

MacCracken’s introduction:

Dr. William Happer, the Cyrus Fogg Brackett Professor of Physics at Princeton University, who also serves as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Marshall Institute in Washington DC, has been a prominent and outspoken critic of the science of climate change, its impacts, and proposed policies to deal with it. In the June/July 2011 issue of First Things, Dr. Happer published a summary of his views: “The Truth About Greenhouse Gases: The dubious science of the climate crusaders” (see http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/05/the-truth-about-greenhouse-gases). The paper is so misleading that, in my view, it merits a paragraph-by-paragraph response. Indeed, being an alumnus of Princeton University and having devoted my career to study of climate change science, preparing a response almost seemed an obligation.

In offering these comments, my intent is to present the findings and perspectives of the national and international science community, illuminated with insights gained over more than four decades of seeking to improve understanding of how the Earth system works and is affected by natural and human events. In contrast to Dr. Happer’s view that the science of climate change is like a house of cards (i.e., find one flaw and the whole sense of understanding will fall), I have tried to give a sense of why, as Professor Henry Pollack of the University of Michigan has put it, the science of climate change is like a rope hammock (i.e., with lots of interconnections and linkages, such that weaknesses or failure of any particular detailed finding does not weaken the overall strength of scientific understanding).

Unless footnoted, the views I have offered are primarily drawn from IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report and/or from perspectives on climate change that are summarized at http://www.climate.org/topics/climate-change/science-in-six-findings.html and references, including a review paper, that can be downloaded from that site.

The full set of points made by Dr. Happer is included below, in paragraph-by-paragraph order, with my comments on each paragraph immediately following. To assist in referring to Dr. Happer’s various paragraphs, I have numbered the paragraphs sequentially, and my response is provided in italics. To provide a sense of the issues covered, the table gives a sense of the questions that an independent moderator might ask that would lead to the exchange regarding each paragraph, and the reader may want to use this to jump to comments and responses on a topic of particular interest.

A key to Will Happer’s assertions and Mike MacCracken’s responses:

1. Is the climate change community really off on a “climate crusade”?

2. Is CO2 a pollutant or a vital molecule for life on Earth—or both?

3. On what basis is EPA moving to regulate CO2?

4 through 7. Isn’t CO2 a nutrient for plants? Don’t we really want to have a higher CO2 concentration? Wasn’t the CO2 level actually nearly too low? Won’t more CO2 be beneficial?

8 and 9. How high can the CO2 level be without impacting human health? What is the optimal range for the CO2 concentration?

10 and 11. Is the increasing CO2 concentration really having adverse impacts?

12 and 13. Will increasing CO2 really cause warming? Is it really human activities causing the warming?

14 through 17. What does the history of Earth’s climate tell us over centuries to tens of millions of years? Hasn’t the Earth’s climate always been changing? So what makes the present warming significant?

18, 19, and 20. Has the IPCC really considered what has been learned from the study of Earth’s climatic history?

21 and 22. Is the “hockey stick” curve indicating recent warming really solid? Don’t the hacked emails show that climate data were manipulated?

23, 24 and 25. Has peer-review been compromised? Isn’t it biased?

26. Will the warming in response to the rising CO2 concentration be significant? How fast will these changes be occurring?

27. Will shifting to renewables enrich a few with political ties at the expense of the majority?

28, 29 and 30. Are computer models reliable enough to depend on? Aren’t they tuned and therefore unreliable? Can they really be used to project into the future?

31, 32, and 33. What has led to climate change being seen as so controversial? Has the science been co-opted by politics? How large is the funding for climate change research?

34 and 35. Are the views of those who are critical of the climate change results being suppressed? Aren’t their reputations being impugned?

36, 37, and 38. Are professional societies being corrupted by the climate change proponents? Has the American Physical Society misrepresented the views of its members?

39, 40 and 41. Is the public getting a balanced picture of climate change science? What is the trend in public understanding and viewpoint? Is the public just being rushed to judgment?

42 and 43. Aren’t there other environmental problems more deserving of emphasis than climate change? Where should the attention lie?

From MacCracken's conclusion:

Building a better future can only be accomplished by facing up to the impacts that increasing CO2 emissions are having on the climate, on sea level, and on ocean acidification. That Dr. Happer is slowing this down by putting forth scientific statements that indicate so little understanding (presumably, because of reading too narrowly or with too closed a mind) is very disappointing. In the years that I was at Princeton and the grading system went from 1 (high) to 7 (low), I regret to say that Dr. Happer would have earned the 7. This grade was actually hard to get because it indicated “flagrant neglect” in one’s studies. For his generally uninformed and limited discussion and understanding of climate change science, however, I very much regret to say that Dr. Happer seems clearly to have earned that designation.

Full text of the article: The Real Truth About Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change

Mike MacCracken has been a guest contributor at Climate Science Watch and we have cited his work on several earlier occasions. A few of these include:

MacCracken federal court Declaration defending EPA Endangerment Finding

Climate Progress interviews Christopher Field and Michael MacCracken on climate change reality

Michael MacCracken: The Achievable Path to Climate Protection

Michael MacCracken’s review of Roger Pielke, Sr.’s May 14 climate talk to the Marshall Institute

Michael MacCracken’s analysis of errors in Robinson, Robinson, and Soon 2007 contrarian article

Climate Institute home page

MacCracken bio at Climate Institute website

 

This entry was posted in Global Warming Denial Machine, Science Communication. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to MacCracken v. Happer: The Real Truth about Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change

  1. sailrick says:

    And that pile of rubbish, basically a regurgitated littany of the usual denier arguments, is all they have? Good grief.

  2. JS says:

    Lubos does not think Dr MacCracken's rebuttal is very convincing:
    http://motls.blogspot.com/2011/09/william-happer-vs-michael-maccracken.html

    I find Lubos, and Prof Happer for that matter, both credible and convincing, and I commend their comments to all of your readers.

    • Rick - Climate Science Watch says:

      Normally our comment mediation policy would disapprove abusive trash-talking global warming denialism like that of Lubos Motl, but I thought perhaps our readers might find this one interesting. Motl is a theoretical physicist, a string theorist, and radically right wing. Here's something about him: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Lubo%C5%A1_Motl
      Judge for yourself -- I'm not familiar with him -- but I'd say he appears to be an embarrassment to his fellow Bohemian countrymen.

      Here's a link to Mike MacCracken's bio and some of the other pieces he's written: http://www.climate.org/about/maccracken-bio.html
      I always find him eminently worth reading.

    • Robert says:

      Well thank god that Lubos is here to save us... failed string theorists are really what the world needs more of, of course! haha

  3. Gabriel Atega says:

    Finally a good debate between to enlightened people. I think, however, the debate is not finished. Dr. Happer should be allowed to make a response; then back to Dr. MacCracken; and back to Dr. Happer, and so on until the truth is laid bare for everyone to see. But there should be more science and less propaganda and politics. A quantification of the impacts of deforestation and the continuing retreat of the ice sheets should be included in the consideration of the debate. The effects water vapor as evidenced by the increase in the amount of snowfalls and floods should also be discussed. Water vapor itself being more effective heat retainer than CO2. To enrich the debate Dr. Happer should enlist another scientist to make for a panel on his side, and likewise Dr. MacCracken should do the same.

    • Rick - Climate Science Watch says:

      Thanks for this interesting suggestion. Perhaps we should invite an exchange or two between Dr. MacCracken and Dr. Happer on some key points at issue between them. But I share MacCracken's view that this is the not forum for a full-blown debate -- and that the 'debate' format in general, pitting two 'sides' against each other, is not the best way to assess the state of scientific understanding of climate change. Scientific assessment of climate change is what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does. The IPCC, while imperfect and always in need of updating as scientific understanding advances, is the closest thing we have to an authoritative and comprehensive source on all aspects of the climate change problem. We should continue to support broadly-authored scientific assessments, also including the U.S. National Climate Assessment now ongoing, as the best vehicle for engaging the leading scientists in a well-structured and systematically reviewed format, with comprehensive references, and so forth. This is more than can be resolved in a debate between MacCracken and Happer -- though we would be interested in seeing Happer reply to MacCracken's points.

  4. Pingback: Wanted: Politicians Who Tell the Truth | Decisions Based on Evidence

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