A Missed Opportunity to Teach Trump Some Science

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The people advising Trump on science could change the world, for better or worse, for a long time to come. Though journalists have implied the president is intractable on climate change by endlessly repeating his quip that it’s all a “Chinese hoax,” he probably can be influenced. He’s also said he’s open minded on the issue.

Trump’s belated pick for science adviser, meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier, looked good when he was first chosen on July 31, but people are applying a low standard. He appears much more mainstream than Trump’s long-assumed pick — physicist Will Happer — who has gone public many times saying that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere will be good for us.

But there are a couple of clouds looming. First, there’s a good chance Droegemeier’s advice on climate will still amount to the same thing as Happer’s: Do nothing. In confirmation hearings last month, he equivocated on questions about climate change, according to an analysis in Nature. He made the feel-good statement that science should be conducted without political interference or influence. Conservatives will think this means without interference from those alarmist liberals, and liberals will think that means without the influence of those problem-denying conservatives.

Reporters for Science dug back to a 2014 talk Droegemeier gave, in which he said “We don’t know everything about the nitrogen cycle, the carbon cycle….” Pointing out such uncertainty is the sort of true-but-irrelevant fact that linguists consider a common form of deception.

The other cloud is that Happer remains in the picture. Earlier this month, the news broke that he was appointed to the National Security Council as senior director for emerging technologies. Last year, when it seemed likely he would be science adviser, I called him to make sure he wasn’t being misquoted in his views on climate. He told me that more carbon dioxide will benefit the world, and that “Everything about CO2 is positive.” The world, he said, would become greener, while any resultant global warming would not be harmful. This is, to put it mildly, not the consensus of climate scientists.

As an atomic and optical physicist, Happer helped pioneer a technique called adaptive optics, which was developed for missile defense and is now useful in astronomy. He’s a smart guy, but he makes a poor representative of the scientific community.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.

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