Friday, October 23, 2009

The Amazing Dr. Happer

While sifting through my archived correspondence with a good friend of mine, I came across a mail I sent him in response to some questions he had last February regarding the opinions of one Dr. William Happer. Dr. Happer it seemed had added his considerable intellect to the Dark Forces of global warming denialism and his credentials were formidable. He served as director of the Office of Energy Research in the U.S. Department of Energy under George H.W. Bush. And "was subsequently fired by Vice President Al Gore, reportedly for his refusal to support Gore's views on climate change.".

And so it would seem that in Dr. Happer, denialists had finally found the long sought after Philosopher's Stone. Degreed scientist? Check. Head of a major, climate related department in the D.O.E.? Check. Expression of "politically incorrect" scientific views got him fired by AGW's Darth Vader, Al Gore? Check... and check mate!

But before we start popping champagne corks and celebrating the end of global warming, it only seems fair we give Dr. Happer a second look. Here is what I wrote (with a few minor corrections):


The car you are driving has an air conditioning system which uses an HCFC (hydro chlorofluorocarbon) refrigerant, known in the business as R134. This is true of all cars built since around 1997. Prior to that, automobile air conditioning systems used R12, a CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) refrigerant known to deplete atmospheric ozone. This change came about as a result of the Montreal Protocol, which Ronald Reagan signed in 1987 on behalf of the United States. I have a little first hand experience in this matter.

Back in 1987, I had an HVAC/R business which specialized in commercial refrigeration. Just about all light duty commercial refrigeration systems at that time used R12. Right after enactment of The Montreal Protocol, our government put up quotas which diminished, year after year, the production of R12, aiming at the eventual phase out of R12 production entirely - which at this time has occurred. As I said, we now use R134 instead.

Now because I was in a related business, I remember this transition quite well. For quite some time there was a great deal of uncertainty. R12 prices shot up. All sorts of predictable mayhem and double dealing occurred. There was speculation, smuggling, hoarding and price gouging. Yet eventually we all changed over to R134 and the American public hardly noticed.

Now this was odd because a great many of our leaders in and out of government had predicted widespread and calamitous consequences which would result from discontinuing the production of CFC's. People were going to starve in third world countries. Food prices would go through the roof. The effect on world economies would be devastating. I remember well these and many other dire predictions. But none of them came true.

The roots of The Montreal Protocol go back to the mid 1970's and the pioneering work by Dr. G.M.B. Dobson on the ozone layer. This work later formed the basis of ozone depletion models proposed by Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina, and independently, Paul Crutzen - who were jointly awarded in 1995 the Nobel prize in Chemistry for "their work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone". Most importantly, none of their work or conclusions are questioned today by anyone, including the most ardent of their earlier detractors.

That Ronald Reagan would decide to sign the Montreal Protocol is a fascinating study in itself. Reagan was not a man who paid much attention to environmental issues. Yet many of his admirers consider Montreal to be a signal expression of his better qualities as a president - that is, the capacity (at times) to rise above petty politics and act decisively on the crucial issues of his day.

After the signing of the Montreal Protocol in 1987, a whole host of forces lined up to fight against its implementation. I want to focus on the part played by the George Marshall Institute and in particular, one of its staff - Sallie Baliunas. You won't find her work disputing ozone depletion models at the GMI site, despite the fact that they originated there. The reason is that GMI lost that battle and doesn't need evidence of its own, or Sallie Baliunas's incompetence lying around. But through the miracle of the Internet, here is her written contribution to the the congressional deliberations in the early nineties. Relevant to this note, here's an excerpt:

"The bare cost of replacing or retrofitting equipment is roughly $100 billion, because chemicals do not exist that can be simply dropped into existing equipment. A short term cost of $2 trillion will rip through the U.S. economy (!!!) according to a 1993 estimate contained in House Resolution 291." (emphasis added)

...and what a stunningly horrible prognosticator Ms Baliunas turned out to be. R134, a chemical which could literally be dropped into existing equipment was already being introduced as a replacement.

Steve, I wish you would take the time to read through this. Her arguments against the man-made causes of ozone depletion are eerily similar to the arguments which the George Marshall Institute is today making against the consensus view on global warming. THIS IS NOT A COINCIDENCE. It is just not plausible to say that, well, maybe the GMI was wrong on ozone depletion, but this has no bearing on their work regarding global warming. This is because, as I shall demonstrate, the GMI position against ozone depletion was NOT motivated by any consideration of sound science. If this was true, the GMI would by now have publicly conceded that ozone depletion models were correct (no one today disagrees they were not).

Let me say that again in a different way. IF, you consider the George Marshall Institute to be an impartial source of scientific information, why wouldn't they by now have revised, publicly, their stance on the effects of CFC's? Want proof? Go to the George Marshall Institute website - type in "CFC" in their search bar and see what comes up. What comes up is a dry link which goes nowhere. Now type in "Bauliunas". You then get lots of hits - mostly on global warming - but no mention whatsoever of her paper on ozone depletion. It's just not there.

The primary evidence against prevailing theory amounted to little more than a misunderstanding of Dr. Dobson's measurements of the annual ozone hole over Antarctica. You can find this misunderstanding from the ubiquitous Fred Singer, who chimed in with "My Adventures in the Ozone Layer", a piece of mumbo jumbo published in The National Review in 1988. I found a lovely summary of Fred Singer's current excuse for this (see Robert Parson's comment here):

"Singer has repeatedly claimed that back in the mid 1980’s, the weight of the evidence implied that most of the chlorine in the stratosphere came from natural sources. (I myself remember very well this assertion) He concedes that subsequent measurements contradict this, but insists that back in 1988 his conclusion was the right one to draw. In fact, his conclusion is based on asserting that one particular type of measurement (long-term trends in stratospheric HCl) is the only relevant one, and ignoring a cartload of other measurements going back to 1975 that lead to a different conclusion. His reasoning here has always struck me as peculiar - he concedes that he was wrong in 1988, but argues that everybody else should have made the same mistake that he did. To me, it would seem more natural to conclude that the other guys interpreted the balance of the evidence more accurately than Singer, since it was their conclusions that ended up being confirmed even by Singer’s preferred choice of measurements."

And that about sums it up. Scientists developed a testable theory that CFC's were destroying atmospheric ozone. This led to the creation of a world wide treaty banning the production of CFC's. The United States signed the treaty. Right wing front groups like the George Marshall Institute and many others mobilized and sought to overturn the treaty by questionable attacks against the science and the assumption that the costs of eliminating CFC's would far outweigh any of the benefits. Yet today we know the science was accurate and that the costs of banning the production of CFC's were wildly inaccurate. In fact, as I noted earlier, DuPont went ahead and developed R134 - and today makes no less money on this chemical than it did on R12.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because the same cast of clowns are using the same tactics against the scientific consensus on global warming and the proposed strategies for mitigation. Our government, including the likes of Ronald Reagan - didn't trust them then, why should we trust them now?

Oh... Dr. William Happer, the noted physicist, was a political appointee in the Department of Energy for two years under George H.W. Bush. When the Clinton administration took office in January of 1993, he was asked to stay on until April of that year. In the event, he immediately butted heads with the administration on the issue of ozone depletion and therefore was asked to leave in March. A rare insight on this comes from "Political Science" an article published in the right wing "Reason" magazine in December of 1993 (take note of the date). Some of the quotes attributed to Happer compliment Fred Singer's earlier (and now thoroughly debunked) claims. Here is one particularly egregious line:

Happer noted that the richest fishing area in the world, just off the coast of Ecuador, receives "a thousand times more UV-B radiation that do the oceans around Antarctica during the height of the 'ozone hole'. Yet many of the same species of phytoplankton thrive in both areas with little or no apparent damage."

And another:

"With regard to global climate issues, we are experiencing politically correct science," Happer says. "Many atmospheric scientists are afraid for their funding, which is why they don't challenge Al Gore and his colleagues."

Now Steve. Think. Regarding ozone depletion, way back in 1993 William Happer was pushing the idea that more UV-B radiation just might be good for us, and that scientists were afraid to go against the prevailing view for fear of losing their funding. Well, we now know that more UV-B radiation is NOT good for us - in fact it is bad - and that Happer was dead wrong. You can try to smoke the whole thing up with vague references to global warming - but that was NOT the issue THEN and Happer was wrong. I assume his excuse would be the same as Fred Singer's - that given the evidence, everyone else should have been wrong also - which is a rather bizarre, up is down way of exonerating yourself.

Let's wrap this up. Happer's testimony in 1993 was part of a larger effort in congress, headed by Tom DeLay and John Doolittle, to stop the phase out of CFC's. Thankfully, the movement rapidly petered out after Rowland, Molina, and Crutzen were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1995, and we are all better off as a result. And where is Dr. Happer now? As executive director of The Marshall Institute, he's pedaling the same snake oil on CO2 as he did on CFC's. Let's hope he is no more successful now than he was then.


P.S. : For further research on the CFC controversy, you can read a 1994 paper by Robert Parson. The paper is a review of some works on CFC's by Dixie Ray Lee, who also submitted papers on behalf of the GMI. It gives you a fairly good grasp of the obvious, contemporaneous scientific reasons for why the contrary views of Singer, Happer, etal amounted to zilch.

Sites like The Marshall Institute routinely scrub links to failed or embarrassing positions on various issues. Sometimes you can find these scrubbed links at a The Way Back Machine - which archives thousands of pages of different sites dating back to 1999. You have to be absolutely precise when you enter the site you are looking for. The Marshall pages are at:*/http:////


An interesting postscript:

Scanning through the Baliunas material I referenced in my mail, I wondered how she came up with the 2 trillion dollar cost estimate for ceasing production of R-12. For her part, Ms Baliunas cited data from House Resolution 291. This resolution comes from the 103rd Congress. You can find it at Thomas by selecting the 103rd Congress and searching "2 trillion" as a Word/Phrase. But be careful to use this exact link as Thomas seems to be fairly unstable.

What you find is a bill proposed by John Doolittle and co-sponsored by a veritable laundry list of Republican gas bags, including today's prominent pests, Dick Armey and James Inhofe. A few excerpts from the text:

"Whereas substantial questions have been raised by many prominent scientists regarding the validity of the theory that the ozone layer in the stratosphere is thinning and that man-made chemicals cause such thinning;"

"Whereas it has been alleged that it is the chlorine in the CFCs that breaks down ozone molecules and causes a thinning in the ozone layer, even though 600 million tons of chlorine are released each year into the atmosphere from the evaporation of seawater and 36 million tons of chlorine are released each year from volcanoes, compared to only 7,500 tons of chlorine released from the breakdown of CFCs;

Whereas CFCs thus contribute about 1 thousandth of 1 percent of the total amount of chlorine released into the atmosphere by natural sources;"

"Whereas it is estimated that the mandated phaseout of CFCs may require the replacement of 610 million refrigerators and freezers, 120 million cold storage units, 150 million automobile air conditioners, and several thousand refrigeration units used for the storage of medicine, blood supplies, and vaccines, because the approved replacement chemical cannot be used in existing refrigeration systems;"

"Whereas such a delay in the development and an interruption in the food delivery chain will have particularly severe effects in the developing countries, where it could cause an estimated additional 20 to 40 million deaths per year from disease and starvation:"

I can't offhand come up with strong enough epithets for men who would write this kind of abominable legislation. Without a single shred of proof, they threatened the world with 20 to 40 million deaths if we proceeded with what was then the most responsible reaction to the predictions of honest, honorable scientists.

Among other things, ozone depletion has been linked to increased incidence of skin cancer, including malignant melanoma, which is fatal in 15 to 20% of all cases. Had these cheep, seedy whores succeeded in setting back the phase out of R-12, how many deaths would they now have on their hands?


  1. I'm curious. How did your friend react?

    Until recently I used to have a friend whose response to this thorough debunking would have been: You resort to an ad hominem attack, so you must be wrong.

  2. Els, I don't keep up with this blog as often as I should - and don't have automatic notification of comments, but if YOU do, here's your answer.

    My friend was and is an extremely sensitive and open minded person when it comes to issues which affect us routinely in daily life. On balance, I think society could use a lot more people like him.

    But when it comes to more esoteric issues like global warming, he has a great deal of trouble separating fact from fiction. We are constantly debating this issue in private correspondence and on another blog. Amazingly, I've noted that although some of his talking points have been addressed and debunked, he repeats them in slightly different form in later posts, as if he has a selective memory.

    I've since decided that the best way to promote the understanding of this issue is NOT necessarily to refute the obvious misrepresentations of denialists, but to teach people, in the most tactful manner possible, how to use the vast potential of the internet to refute these things for themselves. One example:

    Some months ago featured a list of stations which were supposed to be faulty. I selected one station on this list, then went to the NOAA and downloaded graphs for this station and two others nearby. Using a rudimentary graphics program, I combined the three graphs and (not to my surprise) found that they were all recording pretty much the same readings. I then sent this new graph to my friend and explained to him how he himself could perform this same exercise.

    If there is anything useful you can come away from this story with, maybe it is that sometimes people are caught in the trap of believing the wrong things for the right reasons. There are a great many plain liars out there who prey on the good intentions of people like that. So the best we can do is expose these liars for what they are and in the process, educate people on how to do this for themselves.


  3. Chris, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I don't have automatic notification of comments either, but stumbled on your article - again - by looking for info on Will Happer.

    "in the most tactful manner possible"

    I'm working on it! That's the hardest part.

    Thanks again.