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Michael Oppenheimer and the End of the Climate As You Know It

By Wendy Plump

If Michael Oppenheimer has told the story once, he has told it a hundred times: Where he stayed, what he saw, and what he was thinking on that night in October 2012 when Hurricane Sandy turned the East Coast into a blast corridor.

Where he stayed—at his home in New York City with his family, at one point walking over to the South Street Seaport to look at the Hudson River from the pier.

What he saw—the river already risen to just below the height of the pier, hours before the hurricane peaked.

What he thought—well, that is another question altogether. Oppenheimer’s impressions are the sum of several decades of scientific inquiry into climate change, and they require more than a simple answer. They require a little background.

At his Princeton University office one spring morning, surrounded by the detritus of someone else’s research (a graduate student is sharing his space), Oppenheimer is relaxed, chatty, and surprisingly free of animosity for a man who has been called all manner of names by global warming “denialists.” He talks freely about climate change and his long professional life articulating it, first as chief scientist at The Environmental Defense Fund, and now as Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School.

He has authored a staggering list of books and papers on climate change, and edits the Climatic Change journal. He is associated with the faculty of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, and a myriad of other programs. He was a Guggenheim Fellow. He provides counsel to New York City’s panel on hurricane and storm surge mitigation. Most notably, he was part of a team of scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

An engaging conversationalist, Oppenheimer has a kind face and one of those large mustaches that puts you in mind of the actor Sam Elliott. Regardless of the claims of his blustery critics, however, Oppenheimer is no actor. He is an advocate on behalf of the climate and, to be frank, of the entire planet. It’s a rough job these days but he seems quite willing to do it. And keep doing it, and keep doing it until the essential point is sufficiently made and even the denialists accept the ominous evidence of global warming.

Not Exhausted, Yet

“I don’t find it exhausting to talk about this all the time, no. I’m an optimist. So anytime I find anybody who is really willing to listen, it makes me happy,” he says. “And frankly, who needs a bad news story? You pick up a newspaper and you could throw up. I mean, things are just terrible in a lot of different ways, and so, Poof! I don’t want to read about that.

“And then the average person—their jobs are not secure, they don’t have healthcare, they’re running into problems. So where does the climate fit in? For most people, it doesn’t. So if it is not in their faces today, they’d rather put it on the back burner. And I don’t blame them. You have to deal with life, frankly.

“Anyway, although there appears to be a struggle over people’s thinking on the climate right now, the debate probably would not exist at all had scientists not been pounding their fists loudly over what they know. We wouldn’t have enough observations. No one would understand. And then one day, someone would wake up and say, ‘Hey, some really bad shit is happening with the climate. Why didn’t somebody tell us about that?’ So I’m just one of a lot of people who are doing that.”

Scientists With A Purpose

Oppenheimer sees himself as following in the wake of that early generation of World War II scientists who “got their hands dirty” building the atomic bomb. (He is no relation to theoretical physicist and atom bomb scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer.) Many of them later came to regret that involvement, says Oppenheimer. But they also realized it created new opportunities to take part in public policy debates raging, then and now, about matters that affect us all. While most scientists still prefer to be in their laboratories, he says, they cannot ignore an almost evangelistic sense of their larger duty. That thinking would explain Oppenheimer’s very public, very outspoken profile.

Born and raised in Queens, New York, Oppenheimer came of age in a household brimming with political awareness. His mother was a chemist, and her father in turn had been a politician. “I was very alive politically,” he says.

Oppenheimer’s father was a diamond expert, and managed a jewelry firm in the Empire State Building. “My brother used to be a gem runner in the small hours,” he says, laughing at the memory. “I still can’t believe this. They would give him, like, thousands of dollars of gems to take up to the guys on 47th Street.” That brother, he adds, later earned a Ph.D. in chemistry.

Oppenheimer chose the maternal family business as well, going off to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the age of 16, his academic prowess already apparent. He was uncertain about whether he wanted to be a scientist. A career in law had an equal,early appeal. So instead of deciding, he took the “path of least resistance,” quite possibly the only individual in history to call MIT a path of least resistance.

“The atmosphere at MIT was suicidal. They set it up so that it was unrelenting pressure,” Oppenheimer says. “My grades were mediocre through my junior year, but I didn’t care. The chance to learn was incredible. It was like being in a candy store—all this new stuff that I had no idea existed. My courses were in philosophy, religion. There was a guy I took a course on Shakespeare with. The foreign language association just exploded there after the Vietnam War. I took a course in that. It was really inspiring.”

After MIT, Oppenheimer got his Ph.D. in 1970 in chemical physics from the University of Chicago. He worked with a chemist there on issues surrounding air pollution, his first real step into science and advocacy. Partly because one post-doctoral grant fell through and partly because there happened to be a Harvard astrophysicist standing next to him when he found that out, Oppenheimer ended up at Harvard, as an astrophysicist in the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Years later, an eye-opening, one-month backpacking trip through the pristine splendor of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge convinced him to seek work on behalf of the environment at the Environmental Defense Fund. He spent the next two decades there.

Oppenheimer came to Princeton University in 2002 after receiving “a fabulous offer,” allowing him to think deeply, train a new generation of young scientists, and be a “good dad.” Oppenheimer and his wife, Leonie Haimson, who runs her own educational advocacy group, have two children, ages 23 and 15. Oppenheimer says the kids spent their first few summers and many holidays since on Block Island off Rhode Island, leaving them with an appreciation of nature in its untrammeled beauty. Oppenheimer himself loves the island’s rolling meadows, wild coast and beautiful beaches.”It’s a peaceful place,” he says.

The Same Question, Asked Often

Oppenheimer fields a lot of questions about the climate, many of them from the average citizen who puzzles over why an estimated three- or four-degree increase in the average global temperature due to climate change is something to worry about. One MSNBC television reporter recently told Oppenheimer during an on-air interview that he experiences that differential every time he adjusts his thermostat.

What, then, is the big deal?

“One measure of miserably hot days is if you take the 10 percent hottest on record. Keep that in mind as a benchmark,” Oppenheimer says. “It turns out that the days that used to occur only 10 percent of the time historically are now occurring 15 to 20 percent of the time. And by 2040, if the projections are correct, should be occurring about 30 percent of the time.

“So days that were rare—days that make people sick or kill people—are just going to keep increasing. And that’s for only a modest global temperature increase.” This does not take into account, Oppenheimer adds, the consequent rise in the sea level; larger, more violent storms; droughts, food shortages, water and infrastructure problems, and the vast, frightening possibility of an irreversible decline in the planet’s climate balance. It is no wonder, Oppenheimer says, that denialists, and regular people, turn away from the specter of global warming.

“The research suggests that people don’t make decisions based on the facts. They’re guided by looking to others whom they trust, either in their small social circles or in the larger world. And that might be anyone from Al Gore to Rush Limbaugh.” As the world quickly approaches the threshold of no return, beyond which the efforts to reverse global warming will have little impact, Oppenheimer believes there is one entity above all others that is crucial to the battle.

“Personally, I’ve always thought that the people are open to the idea that something has to be dealt with,” he says. “What is missing is the governmental leadership. People are only going to deal with problems like this if they feel everybody else is going to deal with them, too, and if they think that governmental leaders are serious.

“So the only way people can be brought around to acting now on something that’s going to affect them later is political leadership. For the first time, we’re seeing a coherent regulatory response to greenhouse gases coupled with a public message. Now, it ain’t perfect. But I detect a level of seriousness that I haven’t seen before.”

Sandy Revisited

So what, after all, were his thoughts during Hurricane Sandy? The question has to be phrased the way most people phrase it, as one that bedevils all scientists trying to explain the issues: Was the hurricane a result of global warming? Oppenheimer gives the kind of slow, deliberate answer that irritates news outlets like CNN and MSNBC, and goes to the heart of the skepticism over global warming.

“Was this snowstorm or hurricane due to global warming, or was that tornado due to global warming?” Oppenheimer asks rhetorically. “Those are connections that are difficult if not impossible to make. So when scientists start saying, ‘On the one hand…,’ or ‘On the other hand…,’ and, ‘maybe statistically…,’ the reporters go, okay, stop talking. It’s a story that doesn’t fit the media mold. To really understand and get to the real information that the experts are trying to deliver takes homework. It’s technical. And the stories can’t be done superficially.”

But as for that night in October 2012 waiting for Hurricane Sandy’s approach, Oppenheimer and his family stood on the South Street Seaport pier looking out at the river. And he drew a conclusion analogous to the larger issue of global warming, and what we are likely to face.

“It gave you the feeling,” he says about watching the river rising, “that if you didn’t get out of there quickly, you weren’t going to get back home.



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