Comments by Dr. Michael Michael Oppenheimer at the 2017 HBRF Annual Meeting

Below are the comments made by invited speaker Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton University, during the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation, Tuesday, July 11, 2017 at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, New Hampshire. The lecture notes were provided by Dr. Oppenheimer with permission to post.

It’s a great honor to be asked to speak at Hubbard Brook because my earliest professional environmental interest was acid rain. Hubbard Brook was the touchstone and Gene Likens the oracle of acid rain.  In 1981, before I met Gene, I began my professional environmental career when I joined the Environmental Defense Fund after ten years as an academic scientist. Gene became a trustee of EDF soon thereafter.  In that capacity, Gene was a fellow schemer, a key mentor, and sometimes a tormentor.  Gene’s advice, and more than that, his standard of how a scientist should walk the line between science and public policy, provided a context and benchmark as I found my footing in the alien world of advocacy.  He was always there when I looked over my shoulder, a conscience, a force, a collaborator.  Among our co-conspirators was Charlie Driscoll who had the misfortune of joining Gene, me, and a few others in putting out an early report bridging the science/policy boundary on acid rain. It made the NY Times and other media. Without much thought, we took the default position and put the authors’ names on the report in alphabetical order.  “D” was first and so Charlie, a young and vulnerable assistant professor, got many of the calls from media and others, and understandably wanted to run and hide.

Which brings me to the first lesson from my experience: When you engage in the public arena over a controversial issue, be prepared for blowback. Think ahead about what you would say if things go south. And remember that staying out of the public’s eye doesn’t make you safe – several of my colleagues have been dragged into the limelight and hauled into court despite efforts to avoid attention.  It’s in the nature of being an environmental scientist these days.

Part of my job at EDF was to identify like-minded fellows, not easy to find, given scientists’ reluctance to join the public fray.  Luckily, Steve Hamburg found me and I hired him as quickly as I could but not quite quickly enough – before he came onboard, Brown stole him away for a professorship beginning the following year but that did give us an exciting year working together trying to figure out how to make the impacts of climate change immediate to people – and this was 1994, two years before IPCC definitively attributed the warming, much less any of its impacts to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But I got my revenge when Steve abandoned Brown to jump back to EDF as chief scientist about a decade later.  A few years before I left EDF for Princeton in 2002, Fred Krupp had created the position of chief scientist to justify giving me a disproportionate raise, but Steve has redefined the position, and more than any predecessor at EDF or anywhere in the environmental movement, shown how research scientists and scientists based at an advocacy organization can work together productively, effectively, honestly, and by and large smoothly to advance the knowledge frontier, guided by the need to answer questions that have importance and immediacy in the policy arena.  Thank you, Steve.

When I had interviewed with EDF staff in the late 1970s in the run up to my joining the group, one of their economists, Zach Willey, an expert on trading of water rights, asked me “what’s your agenda”.  I had no idea what he was talking about.  I was a research astrophysicist and expert on Earth’s ionosphere who was tired of working on far-away questions with little prospect of an impact on human welfare. I was at the time an avid backpacker and had spent five weeks hiking around what is now the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge long before the pipeline from Prudhoe Bay (100 or so miles to the west), was completed.  I had the experience of being asked by the Sierra Club, as one of the few people in the lower 48 who had been to the area that’s now the wildlife refuge, to testify before the House committee hearings on the Alaska Lands Act about keeping the area free of oil and gas development and when the Act passed with a ban on drilling, I might have gotten an unrealistic view of how easily political progress on conservation can occur.  Oh how the times have changed.

I also grew up at a time when many scientists were not shy about taking public positions that grew out of and were directly related to both their expertise and their moral sensibility, particularly those involved in the movement to ban atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, and was thrilled when in 1963, the landmark treaty banning such testing was achieved.  

I saw my junior year quantum mechanics professor and eventual Physics Nobel Laureate, Henry Kendall, co-found the Union of Concerned Scientist, a unique advocacy group for sensible energy and environmental policy based on science.

I was also familiar with EDF, an advocacy organization founded by a group of scientists including George Woodwell who spoke about loudly and publicly about their concerns, an organization whose staff consisted of scientists in addition to attorneys, an organization that combined the two effectively in convincing EPA to ban DDT.

Then, in 1974, I was stunned when two chemists, Mario Molina and Sherry Rowland, demonstrated that Freons or chlorofluorocarbons used in refrigeration, air conditioning, foams insulation, as solvents, and a host of other products, would slowly destroy the ozone layer. It was incredible that this might happen and it was even more incredible when average Americans listened and began to boycott aerosol sprays propelled by Freons, causing production of these chemicals to take a dive (if temporarily).  Mind you, no depletion had actually been observed and no depletion would be observed until 1985 when the ozone hole was detected but people had reacted to the immense publicity about the threat generated in no small measure by Rowland’s active public voice.  Then some governments, including ours, reacted by banning the use of Freons as aerosol propellants. These events culminated in another landmark treaty, the Montreal Protocol, in 1987 that effectively eliminated the threat from CFCs and related chemicals. Again, scientists using their science and their public presence to change, and save, the world.

So sitting with Zach Willey, I eventually articulated that my agenda was to do what those other scientists had done: contribute to solving environmental problems using my scientific skill, inspired by my mother, a chemist,  combined with my longstanding interest in policy and politics, the latter learned from my father, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, and honed in the cauldron of disgruntlement over the Vietnam War (where, again, scientists were prominent in the public debates, on both sides of the issue). 

More specifically, I had become interested in acid rain and had read Gene’s 1972 (?) paper in Science Magazine and a few others.  And I had become personally troubled when I read Carl Schofield’s reports of “dead” lakes in the Adirondacks where I had hiked as a teenager.  It seemed you couldn’t get far enough away to escape the effects of industrial pollution and this really bothered me. So in the back of my mind was the idea that I would join EDF to help solve the acid rain problem. It turned out that was a good enough agenda for EDF and they offered me a job, not immediately, but after we had dickered about details and sniffed each other out for 3 years. Keep that in mind – such opportunities don’t just fall in your lap.  You need to take the initiative, too, and shape the opportunities that come your way into a form that aligns with your interests, concerns, and capabilities.

With one exception, the friend who had shown me an ad, also in Science Magazine, placed by EDF looking for a scientist interested in energy-related issues, all of my other colleagues were puzzled by this decision, or simply thought I was crazy.  “You’re burning your bridges” one said and from his point of view, I was crazy. I had a permanent, federal research position at the Harvard-Smithsonian Observatory and a hastily arranged offer in hand to start an environmental research institute there.  But from my own perspective, astrophysics was interesting but of slender relevance to the world that concerned me; I was unmarried with no children, didn’t own a house, and had no major responsibilities.  I was in a position to take a risk. And I had absolutely no idea how to start anything more complex than my car, much less a research institute. But I did have a wonderful girlfriend (now wife) who encouraged my decision to try to make a meaningful contribution to science and political progress simultaneously.

There’s another lesson here, one especially relevant to a fast-changing, interdisciplinary research area like yours: don’t be bound by the usual way of building a career. You’ll likely go further by breaking the mold.

And as it turned out, I hadn’t burned my bridges after all. EDF was a rare advocacy organization, one where science was and is respected and where scientific understanding not political exigency, was the motivator of initiatives and positions.  I was actually allowed to DO science while at EDF – it was part of the understanding; otherwise, I would not have joined up.

I more or less had to teach myself the craft of how to be an advocate-scientist because three of EDFs top scientists were leaving or had already left just as I was joining the staff. Joe Hyland, head of EDF’s toxic chemicals program, was the last out the door and he essentially said “shut off the light when you leave”. This was early 1981, at an EDF staff retreat a few weeks before my formal start date at EDF and Ronald Reagan was newly inaugurated President. The proud toxic chemical program, from where the DDT ban had sprung, was about to strike the iceberg of Reagan deregulation and they could see it coming.  Joe said flat out to me “don’t expect to get anything done; you’re wasting your time”.  Joe was partly right if ungracious, but he was also wrong. While hearings on a bill to curb acid rain began in 1981, none passed until 1990 when the landmark Title IV of the Clean Air Act was adopted. And as Gene will tell you, that was just the beginning of officially dealing with the problem, not by any means the end. This provided another important lesson: In these policy battles, there is no end, so there can’t be any quitting or resting on laurels – good preparation for my life with the climate issue.

And this footnote: when I came to EDF, I also intended to find a way to get greater attention on the climate change issue and my first opportunity arose when the National Clean Air Coalition, the “group of groups” pressing for action on acid rain, asked me to testify on the proposed acid rain legislation since I was the only atmospheric scientist among the groups. At the very end of my written testimony, I slipped in a line to the effect that if Congress cannot get its act together to deal with acid rain, how would it ever grapple with the emerging threat of climate change (this was 1981 or ’82).  The Coalition asked me to remove the reference to climate change so as not to confuse Congress by making it think about two problems at once (or climate change at all, for that matter – prescient words).

The lesson here: If you hope to influence public outcomes, don’t be deterred by the current situation, whatever it is. What counts is the long game.

Gene helped me through some difficult moments in the run up to the legislation. I had developed a simple model showing that the Chesapeake Bay estuary received a substantial chunk of its nitrogen load from deposition of acidic pollutants in the watershed, largely of distant origin. With a decision on Clean Air Act amendments and the 1988 presidential election looming, we decided to take a risk and publish the findings as a report before submitting it to the slow process of peer review. The finding were reported as a page 1, column 1 story in the NY Times and got an immense amount of additional media exposure. The stories noted the potential influence of nitrogen on coastal eutrophication. From the perspective of trying to find a way to move the needle on policy based on good science, it was a major success but in the short term, it caused me a big headache because it landed in a no man’s land that two scientific factions were waring over: whether nitrogen or phosphorous is the limiting nutrient in estuaries.  As it turned out, the Cary Arboretum (pre-Center for Ecosystem Studies) was home to some in the phosphorous camp and I had been doing my homework mostly with those in the nitrogen camp.

Gene deftly played referee, not taking sides, inviting me up to the Arboretum to discuss not just the findings but the media stories and the appropriate public role for scientists. He rightly decided that the deal wasn’t kosher until I got the findings peer reviewed and published which we subsequently did. That paper currently has 218 citations on Google scholar and a few less on Web of Science and, almost 40 years later, is still cited a few times a year. And EPA spent millions of dollars independently confirming our findings and extending them to other estuaries.  The Clean Air Act, for many reasons, credits nitrogen deposition reductions along with sulfur reductions, and I managed to keep my reputation more or less intact despite publishing before peer review and simultaneously angering much of the press by giving the Times an exclusive.

Another lesson emerges: Better to have your work peer reviewed first but if the policy context is pressing enough, you can take a risk and still get out alive. If it’s good science, it will prove out in over the long haul. When leaning outside your discipline, double check, triple check, and then check some more because even if you are right, you want to find the potential scientific opposition in advance and give them a chance to understand what your motives are and that your findings are real.  They still might not like the outcome but they are more likely to be civil about it. The real enemies lurk elsewhere.

As you can see, I was deeply involved in both the science and the politics of acid rain and also got my first taste for a process that would turn out to devour much of my attention beginning in the late 1980s – scientific assessment.  My experience with assessments taught me some lessons about the importance of connections, relationships, networks, and the importance of others trusting your judgment.  Engendering trust is more important than exuding brilliance. Trust is not to be squandered.

By the early 1980s, there had been multiple scientific assessments of environmental problems, including ozone depletion and climate change.  In 1980, acting partly with the noble intention of improving the scientific basis but largely, I suspected, to defer any policy initiative, Congress had approved the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program to conduct a ten-year effort of research and assessment with the ultimate goal of evaluating the effect of potential policies to reduce acid rain. About two years into the program, the new EPA Administrator (for the second time), William Ruckelshaus, undertook an assessment of the assessment and appointed MIT professor, former Undersecretary of Energy and future CIA director John Deutch to chair the committee evaluating NAPAP. It’s notable that among the dozen governmental positions John held, this one is omitted from his MIT online bio…possibly because NAPAP was in many ways a failure. Ruckelhaus or perhaps Deutch wisely decided to seek a representative from the environmental groups on the committee and fortuitously, Deutch vaguely knew me – John was the TA for my junior year thermodynamics class at MIT 18 years earlier and the course professor was Irwin Oppenheim.  I doubt Deutch remembered me – my performance was decidedly unspectacular, although name confusion with Oppenheim might have helped. But the fact that I had become noticeable in the press at the time without saying anything outrageous, was an atmospheric scientist, and had an MIT degree to boot was enough for him to invite me onto the committee. In other words, if Deutch had to involve a troublemaker, I appeared to be a relatively safe one.

Serving on the committee was one of the most interesting experiences of my early advocacy career.  I got to see how an assessment works – mind you, I doubt I had even heard the word in this context previously. And I also saw how the government works – the brutal combination of anti-government ideology and budgetary constraints of the early Reagan years was epitomized by an eye-opening meeting we had with the OMB official responsible for environment who cared not one whit about outcomes others than budget bottom lines and fending off the possibility of regulations. As far as NAPAP’s budget was concerned, acid rain research was to him an irrelevancy at best. Sound familiar? In any event, Deutch learned to trust me up to a point and was to call on me later for other several interesting and for me, educational activities, including serving with him, Harold Brown, and Ernie Moniz on a scientific advisory panel to Cummins Engine when the firm was attempting to understand scientific uncertainties and anticipate policy developments on climate change.  They were to some extent trying to be good citizens and I again was exposed to a new and important perspective.  The experience helped me understand the distinct non-scientific influences on government, private sector, and university scientists, and I learned plenty about how to interact effectively with all three sectors. The lesson here is that if you want to be effective outside research, get as much experience as you can with other professions and professional contexts.  You need to understand how the user of science thinks if you want to help in the delivery and implementation of it.

My climate assessment experience goes back to the mid-1980s when, along with George Woodwell, Bill Clark, Bert Bolin, Gordon Goodman and others, I helped organize a nongovernmental assessment of the climate issue.  At about the same time, UNEP director Mustafa Tolba began pressing governments to consider the concept that became IPCC. One reason IPCC was formed was that our nongovernmental assessment’s findings, carried out under the auspices of WMO’s Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases, were beginning to attract the attention of governments. The US threw its weight behind the proposal for an IPCC partly to short circuit our nongovernmental efforts. The US assumed, and my WMO group did too, that any international group of government-appointed scientists asked to reach consensus on something as complex from a scientific standpoint and weighty from a policy perspective as climate change would never reach agreement. Thus my group was extremely skeptical of IPCC and more than a little jealous that it would take away the potential client for our reports – the governments, the media, and the broader public. We were right about the US motivations but dead wrong about the efficacy of IPCC. The IPCC, for all its imperfections, got its main job done, time and again – delivering an honest if somewhat cautious set of assessments and taking argument among governments about climate science off the table, opening a space for political agreements, like Paris, to emerge.

I’ve participated as an author of one kind or another on every major IPCC assessment and a special report beginning with the first IPCC assessment.  I have been involved with IPCC longer than my employment at either EDF or Princeton or the Center for Astrophysics and I regard that involvement as time well spent.  I feel I helped change the way ice sheets, sea level rise, and climate risk in general are assessed and reported to governments.  IPCC author meetings gave me an intensive, efficient way to get caught up on the latest developments across a broad swath of climate science. At the same time, I experienced some of the most intensive and focused collegial experiences ever because despite a very wide range of expertise, we IPCC authors all shared a very particular objective – to produce the most up to date, accurate, and comprehensible assessments possible of an issue we all feel is of the utmost significance. In other words, to be effective and useful to the world. The plenary sessions where governments approve the Summary for Policy Makers and scientists are questioned intensively about their findings are themselves an object lesson in how governments interact at the diplomatic level, what happens when science and political objectives collide (science actually wins much more often than not in an IPCC Plenary), and how individual diplomats and scientists, too, behave under pressure.

For all those lofty reasons, my initial rationale for trying to get access to IPCC was pedestrian: As an NGO scientist confronted with a new institution that was potentially influential, I wanted a way to keep abreast of what was going on inside the process.  After IPCC was established officially, Bob Watson, NASA scientist, later Chair of IPCC, and leader of the 1986 WMO assessment of ozone depletion, was one of the people charged with organizing the new institution. I knew Bob through mutual scientific colleagues and so I wrote a letter to him as soon as IPCC began work, asking if NGO scientists would be invited into the IPCC process. He didn’t respond.  When I ran into him at a meeting on ozone depletion a few months later and asked if he got my letter, he said yes, and that his first reaction had been “F--- You”.  But he also said his second reaction was “why not, if the NGO scientist have the credentials for the job”.  That opened the door and I managed to get credit as a contributing author and reviewer on the first assessment report.

More important, after I had joined EDF, I maintained many of the longstanding relationships I had with atmospheric scientists around the country and beyond. It was critical to my doing my job at EDF – understanding the rapid-fire scientific developments on acid rain, ozone depletion and climate change. Among the most important of these relationships turned out to be with Dan Albritton, an expert in atmospheric chemistry at the NOAA Boulder lab I had known in my former life at the Observatory. Dan also understood the political advantage of bringing NGO experts to the table, to get their buy-in and support for research and for assessments. The flip side of that is the relationships helped NGOs build stronger ties with the scientific committee, a priceless commodity in the policy battles underway.  Dan invited me to participate in many assessments over the years; the first was a WMO assessment of ozone depletion in the early nineties. Watson and Albritton were working together on both ozone and IPCC assessments and now I had good relationships with both. Dan invited me to one of the ozone author meetings.  It turns out that these closely resembled IPCC author meetings – an experience rich with collegial interaction and rapid exposure to the cutting edge, an immersion experience with a real world outcome. As a contributing author in first IPCC assessment, a junior role, I hadn’t been invited to those meetings but now my experience at the ozone author meeting was so astonishing that I  asked one of the scientists there, Bruce Callendar, who was a link between the ozone and IPCC assessments whether I could get invited to the IPCC author meetings, too. He said “sure”. It was that easy.

So and obvious lesson from this is maintain your collegial relationships. Once inside, you’re inside. And never be shy about asking to participate. I can take many asks but eventually, the door will open.

How do these experiences and lessons drawn from my experiences decades ago help a scientist achieve effective public engagement in the current discouraging and depressing scene? Is the experience of an advocate/scientist relevant to that of an academic or research institute scientist? My answer is, most assuredly, yes, and in conclusion, here are a few ideas that grow out of the experiences I just described, and others, that might make it easier if you do decide to engage.

First, public engagement isn’t a good fit for every scientist or even most scientists.  But for the 5, 10, or 25% it might suit, don’t be daunted by the seeming difficulty of getting involved, the lack of apparent rules and benchmarks for what to do, the idea that nobody is listening now anyway.

Remember – get into it to play the long game.

Second, getting involved with assessments is one of the easiest and most comfortable routes for a typical scientist.  Assessments involve a modest stretch beyond what we do anyway and it can put you in contact with entirely new worlds. The business of assessments is a major institution and an important new aspect of science. It will survive the Trump era and thrive because governments are faced with increasing and enormously complex, multidisciplinary problems that are clarified by assessments. And whom would you rather see interpreting science for the public and policy makers if not scientists (albeit with help from messaging experts).

Third, especially early in your career, no one will listen to you and no one will credit you with judgment, unless you continue to do good science.  Your ticket to public influence is your scientific record of accomplishment, not your imagined insights into policy or ability to articulate science to the public.  Even while at EDF, I continued to publish in the peer reviewed literature.  I picked my subject for their policy relevance but I published, if a lot less often, in the same level of journal I had before and that I still do now.

Fourth, never get confused about the difference between your personal political or policy views on what’s best to do about a problem and the basic scientific facts of what the problem actually is. You are entitled to your views on policy and you are entitled to express them publicly but don’t try to fool others or yourself about the difference.

In addition, the further from your expertise you wander in making judgments about policy, the shakier ground you are on, and the more humility and caution you should exercise.  It’s one thing to argue that within scientific uncertainty, warming of a given amount would cause a particular level of damage and that such damage is in your personal view, morally unacceptable.  But it’s far outside the expertise of most people in this room to assert that one or another type of policy initiative is appropriate for getting there. Be as forceful as you wish but don’t wrap your science PhD around a policy argument to enhance its credibility by trying to pass it off as following automatically from your scientific expertise.

Just because you’ve published in the peer review literature doesn’t mean you have a license to say whatever comes to mind on a subject, even about its scientific aspects.  If you know your view on a scientific point is anomalous or incomplete, say so. Half-truths and statements out of context are sometimes the worst form of public deception.  Being asked to venture expert opinions is intoxicating, but you need to keep your head while doing it.  If someone sticks a microphone in front of you, it’s awfully hard to keep quiet, but sometimes that’s the right thing to do. Credibility, once lost, is almost impossible to retrieve.

If a doctor expressed a view on whether people subject to capital punishment via death by injection felt pain and suffered, we would tend to cede this terrain as within their expertise.  But surely none of us would hesitate to express a value judgment about capital punishment in front of a doctor due to the doctor’s holding such expertise, nor would we necessarily honor the doctor’s judgment on whether capital punishment is ever justified.  As scientists, we should not hesitate to express value judgments about matters bordering on, but outside our expertise, but neither should we pretend our values are a necessary outcome of our expert understanding.  Often, they are not.

Finally, the further you go into the public arena beyond assessments into advice to policy makers, to public testimony and finally all the way out on a limb with the media, be prepared to be vilified.  It doesn’t happen often but it will eventually happened to you. Here are some excerpts from emails I received after TV or radio interviews; I’ve heard of worse stories from colleagues: for example, some of our colleagues have been recipients of death threats, which I have not.  But I hope these do help to inoculate you, should you decide to venture out into public:

First of all I must say that you look like Bozo the Clown”, followed by vulgar references to my moustache.

“I suppose most of us can't expect much from (VULGAR REFERENCE TO MY ETHNIC BACKGROUND), like you. Except that you are so (EXPLECTIVE) ugly.”

Or the one with a subject line “Commie Maggot”:

“Commie Maggot ….. DIE SLOW, DIE HARD.”

Never mind all that. Public engagement is part of what some scientists can and should do. Otherwise, we leave the field to those less able, less knowledgeable, and too often, quite despicable. 

Thank you.