Michael Oppenheimer

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ORAL HISTORIES
Michael Oppenheimer

Credit: Egan Jimenez, Princeton School of Public and International Affairs

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
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Interview of Michael Oppenheimer by David Zierler on January 8, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/47105

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Interview with interviews Michael Oppenheimer, Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs and the High Meadows Environmental Institute at Princeton University. Oppenheimer describes the three-way nature of his work at Princeton, between the School of Public and International Affairs and the Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy program. He describes the possibilities for climate change policy in the transition from Presidents Trump to Biden, and he discusses the moral dimension to climate change diplomacy and what the “Global North” owes the “Global South.” Oppenheimer recounts his childhood in Queens, the opportunities that allowed him to enroll at MIT at age 16, and his decision to focus on chemistry and to become involved in political activity in the 1960s. He explains his decision to go to the University of Chicago for graduate school, where he studied under the direction of Steve Berry on low-temperature spectroscopy of alkali halides. Oppenheimer describes his postdoctoral research at what would soon become the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard to work on astrophysics from an atomic and molecular perspective and on the chemistry of comets. He explains how the acidification issue in the Adirondack Lakes serves as an entrée to his interests in environmental policy and how this led to his work for the Environmental Defense Fund. Oppenheimer describes his work on the linearity question and why it is relevant for understanding carbon emissions and his advocacy work on the Clean Air Act. He explains the early science that concluded that even a few degrees of warming would be globally catastrophic, and the early signs that the Republican party would serve generally to block legislation to mitigate climate change. Oppenheimer discusses his involvement with international climate negotiations and policy with the IPCC and the issue of contrarianism in global warming debates. He contrasts the simplicity of the greenhouse effect with the complexity of understanding climate change, and he explains his decision to move to Princeton within the context of what he thought the Kyoto Protocol had achieved. Oppenheimer reflects on how climate change has increased in the public consciousness, and at the end of the interview, he considers early missed opportunities for more change in climate policy, and where he sees reason for both optimism and pessimism as the world faces future threats relating to climate change.

Transcript

Zierler:

Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is January 8, 2021. I am delighted to be here with Dr. Michael Oppenheimer. Michael, it’s great to see you. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Oppenheimer:

Well, thank you for asking me to do this. It’s a pleasure and an honor.

Zierler:

Okay. So, to start, would you please tell me your titles and institutional affiliations? You’ll notice that I pluralized both because I know you have many.

Oppenheimer:

Yeah. It’s one of the annoying things about academia. Not only do they attach titles to people endlessly, but they attach titles to centers, institutes, buildings, anything that allows them to facilitate fundraising, which is all to the better as far as I’m concerned, but at some point, to outsiders it must seem pretty dim. So, my official full title is Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs and the High Meadows Environmental Institute.

Zierler:

All at Princeton.

Oppenheimer:

Yeah. That’s my professorship. I have a chair. Simply put, I’m a professor in the Geosciences Department and the School of Policy in Public and International Affairs, which I still have trouble pronouncing the name of because it was, until recently, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. And I’m also part of the faculty of what was the Princeton Environmental Institute and is now the High Meadows Environmental Institute, named after a foundation which has provided us with generous support.

Zierler:

Now when you came to Princeton, was all of this baked into one offer, or did you take on one role and then others came on later on?

Oppenheimer:

No. It was baked into the offer. Princeton does not like to make appointments in the policy school that are school-only appointments. They prefer to have the expertise of the people they’re appointing validated by a traditional departmental attachment, and therefore I had to be accepted by both the faculty of the school and the faculty of the Geosciences Department. [laugh] Another one of my colleagues at EDF came to Princeton at the same time, David Wilcove, and he is in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department as well as the School of Public and International Affairs. We often sit around musing over what the faculty meetings must have been like that accepted us into the academic world. We had plenty of publications, so nominally we should have qualified for sure, but it must have been very strange for them to be taking people who, in my case, had a very long career in public interest and advocacy and to accept me on an equal basis, but they did. It was remarkable. I’ve never had anything but the highest level of collegiality from my fellow faculty members. And actually, going to Princeton, they’ve been extremely interested in getting me involved with their projects…finding out what I know that they don’t know, essentially because I was out in the real world, an unusual experience in academia. However, there are other people in my center who have these kinds of mixed backgrounds. In particular, other faculty like to try to engage me in the work they’re doing both for my real-world perspective, but also because these days, to be frank about it, if you apply for a grant, you have to say some things about the broader—like an NSF grant—the broader implications. Who do you engage that’s not an academic? How do you communicate your work? What’s it going to do to improve the general field of policy, for instance? So sometimes there’s a specific interest, a selfish interest on the part of other faculty who reach out to get me involved in their work, but I don’t think that’s been the driving force. It’s mostly because I know something they don’t know, they usually know something I don’t know, and we’re curious about each other.

Zierler:

Now in normal times when you’d have a more physical presence on the campus, between the Department of Geosciences, School of Public and International Affairs, and the High Meadows Environmental Institute, where would you be physically located most often in terms of your teaching, your interaction with your peers, with students? Where would you be mostly?

Oppenheimer:

I spend most of my physical time in Robertson Hall, which is the center of the School of Public and International Affairs, but the Geosciences Department is right down the block, and on days when I’m teaching a geoscience course, I hang out there. The Environmental Institute sits in the same building as the Geosciences Department, so I have a lot of faculty over there that I deal with anyway. So, it’s a nice place to have an office, which by the way, another thing about academia: it seems as if everybody’s got 12 offices. I don’t believe in that. It’s a waste of space, a waste of money. So, the office I use in the Geoscience Department I share with other people on a rotating basis, and mostly I’m there when I’m teaching and when I’m meeting with students. All that is going to change because there’s a new building being built specifically for the Environmental Institute, for the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department, and for the Geosciences Department, which is about the same distance from the School of Public and International Affairs, but on the other side of the main road. So, they’re all going to move over there, and it’s still close enough so I’ll be interacting with them in the same way.

Zierler:

Michael, perhaps as a window on--

Oppenheimer:

And by the way, the major problem with being cross appointed in two other entities (three total) is that I have three faculty meetings I have to go to, three sets of committees that I have to either participate in or find a good excuse for not doing stuff. Three sets of different worries, and interestingly, three different sets of students to interact with, particularly at the graduate level, which is a boon.

Zierler:

Right, right. That’s three sets of responsibilities but one salary. [laugh]

Oppenheimer:

But I’m not complaining. They treat me well.

Zierler:

Michael, perhaps as a window on to your current interests, because an effective graduate advisor needs to be current in the research, who are the graduate students that you are most likely to advise these days? Are they more in the geosciences, in the hard sciences, or are they more policy-oriented graduate students?

Oppenheimer:

I have three sets of graduate students. The first I’ll talk about are students in the PhD program in the School of Public and International Affairs. However, almost all of them have a background in science or engineering because we’re purposely but not entirely, seeking science and engineering students who want to develop skills in policy analysis and the social sciences that support such analysis. They develop skills that are going to be useful to the society at large whether they end up in jobs in academia, government, the private sector, or NGOs. This has become a driving force for a lot of people who want to go to graduate school. There are programs at a lot of colleges, a lot of the elite institutions—research universities, I should say—that are aimed at integration in a multidisciplinary way of the knowledge base and granting PhDs to people that want to have a strong base in a traditional discipline, but are really interested in the application of that discipline to public policy. As a result, in that program, we teach students not just-- You know, they don’t need to focus on physical science or engineering or biology courses because they’ve got that stuff already. What they take are courses in economics, sociology, psychology, political science, history in some cases. They are learning the methods of other disciplines—whatever they need to learn to do a dissertation on the project they eventually develop. So, there are some required courses in these other disciplines, and then they take electives also. Some of them do fill in their science-- You know, there’s a hole in their science education which they need to fill to be able to do the research that they’re going to do, and some of them will continue to take courses in science and engineering, although fewer. So that’s one set of graduate students. A second set have roughly the same interest but they’re getting their PhDs in science and engineering and they’re supplementing that education with courses at the policy school and a research project through the policy school—a program that is associated with a fellowship. It’s a competitive program that admits four or five students a year. They get a fellowship that covers one year of their graduate career, and the research project they pursue almost always becomes a chapter in their departmental dissertation. It’s usually an extension of their dissertation research project, their basic research project, applying it into the policy domain. And they take the courses and learn the methods of the social sciences and policy analysis as part of the program. The latter students form a subculture within our PhD group under the Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy program. In other words, there are two sets of PhDs under the latter umbrella: one where the fundamental focus is on developing the skills to do policy analysis, but whose overall education here is about science and engineering; the other whose education is focused increasingly on the social science methods, but who leverage off their basic science education and their ability to read the scientific literature. Their dissertation projects use mixed methods as opposed to students who are getting their PhD in their traditional department but want to explore applications of their disciplinary research in the policy arena. I advise about equal numbers of each group—about five or six of each right now, and then on top of that I have occasional graduate students from the Geosciences department. I have one of those right now, but the work they do is usually a little more tilted towards the physical science side. But they also are people who have an interest in applications and so the projects they pick up are usually heavily motivated by some social concern, like in the case of my current Geoscience student who is interested in certain refinements of estimates of future flood levels due to coastal storms as sea level rises and the interaction of that with the tidal system. He could have done that-- he could have had nothing to do with me. He could have gotten a traditional advisor in the Geosciences department who’s got a traditional background, but instead he is interested in the policy motivations also, so he picked me as an advisor. But his dissertation will look different than the dissertations of the other two classes of students. So there you go, and I wind up with a bigger research group than I can handle. Then I have senior thesis students. I was just counting it the other day. There are about 20 people in my research group and I, you know--

Zierler:

Wow.

Oppenheimer:

It’s too much at this point. I have to dial back a little bit.

Zierler:

Michael, before we go back to the beginning and develop the narrative of your life and your family background, I’d like to ask a very sort of ripped-from-the-headlines question, given this enormously important and difficult historical moment we find ourselves in right now. So, our interview ultimately will land in the Niels Bohr Library, and researchers generations from now will come back to this. So yesterday, of course, President Trump seemingly finally accepted that there will be a transition to power to Joe Biden. It’s been an incredibly dark chapter in our history these past few days, and who knows what the next two weeks or so will bring. I’m sure, like every American, you’re full of emotions and ideas about what the future may hold, but I’d like to ask specifically—in light of your research and the things that you’ve been devoted to over the course of your career—with regard to climate policy, as we now are getting closer and closer to this transition from the Trump to the Biden administrations, I’d like you to answer sort of these three different categories, given the radical departure and destruction of climate policy from the Obama administration to the Trump administration. So, the three categories of questions with regard to climate policy looking forward are: What has been destroyed and cannot be put back together? What has been destroyed but can be repaired? What has been not destroyed, despite the Trump administration’s best efforts, and in one way or another, the Biden administration can pick up from the Obama administration? The answers, of course, in light of your research, I’d love to hear both the policy side and the science side.

Oppenheimer:

Let me preface that since you said the broader context of the craziness we’re experiencing. Since over the last few days you can’t begin a conversation with graduate students who might be trying to figure out what to do over the next few years, graduate students who are on the job market, without talking to them about the context that they’re living in because I think it’s very relevant. To draw off some of the comments you made at the beginning, if you looked at how old I am, you know, I was in graduate school during the late 1960s. I was at the University of Chicago. It was a political hotbed, as were many universities. A lot of my attitudes about science, public policy, and environmental policy were formed right then. We can go back to that later, but in the current context, the message I try to transmit to students is, look, Trump is unique and uniquely terrible, and what happened the other day is unprecedented. But I lived through some terrible times, too. At the time I was living through them, we also thought sort of the political framework that governs the United States was shattering and that there was a lot of uncertainty about what kind of world we were moving into professionally. There was also uncertainty about what kind of a world we wanted to move into professionally. A lot of the fact that I wound up working in public interest eventually for 20 years had to do with the fact of my skepticism about government that I developed during the Vietnam period—some anti-institutional attitudes, skeptical not just of government but of institutions—an understanding that political change is sometimes generated from the outside, coupled to a firm belief in nonviolence and trying to understand the connection between the strong desire to protest what we thought were moral wrongs by the US government, but also seeing some of those protests go too far. Also a relevant point, with the Weathermen winding up going around the dead end of extreme violence in a few cases. There’s no doubt, I think, that what’s going on now will, in some way that neither I nor they know, will shape the careers of the scientists and policy-interested students that we’re producing. So, they will be different because of this context. It’s not too much to speculate that part of the-- Not forgetting that the civil rights movement was a predecessor to all this, that the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement set the ground for the environmental revolution that occurred in the early 1970s and onward. At least, that’s what I think, and it could be that historians have proved that to be wrong in some way and I welcome hearing a rebuttal from you. But I can say in my own mind it certainly did. It caused-- it nurtured a sort of skeptical attitude I probably had anyway, and a distrust of power and a distrust of institutions which was probably borne of the fact that my father was a refugee from Nazi Germany. So putting all that together, I do think it’s very important to look at that broader context. So, now let’s get back to your three questions you wanted to ask me. Remind me what they were.

Zierler:

So, it’s the three categories, right? I mean, the question is, as we look to the Biden administration, every indication is that they’re going big on climate policy—bigger, and in some ways bigger than they otherwise might have because there’s so much to repair as a result of the Trump administration. So the three categories of question are: What has been irreparably damaged, both in policy and science? What has been damaged but can be repaired? And what, despite the Trump administration’s best efforts like the ACA, for example—you know, another kind of thing that they wanted to destroy but they couldn’t—what legacy from the Obama administration going back has more or less been the same where the Biden administration can essentially pick up where we were in 2016?

Oppenheimer:

So, what can’t be retrieved are the four years that were lost and whatever time it takes to repair. It might seem that in a problem that plays out over a century or more that four years doesn’t matter, but at least in the policy world and largely in the scientific world, the problem has been reframed recently. Part of that is the outcome of the IPCC’s 2018 report on 1.5 degrees of warming. That report is an examination of the long-term target that governments adopted of either 1.5 or 2 degrees—the language is slightly different—that the governments use to refer to one or the other. They set those targets in the Paris Agreement, although they originally suggested a 2-degree target in 2009 in the Copenhagen Accord, another agreement coming out of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change which was signed in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit by George H. W. Bush, rather grudgingly. That report made it clear that even though the Paris targets were determined in a political process, they are consistent with climate science, and number two, that it was very difficult to meet either target at the then-current time that the report came out in 2018, and that if there’s to be any chance at all of meeting particularly the 1.5-degree, and to a somewhat lesser extent the 2-degree target, monumental efforts would need to start right away in order to turn around the supertanker of global emissions of the greenhouse gases. So four years makes a big difference in that context. Essentially the world’s net carbon emissions over that four years the difference between emissions from, say, fossil fuel combustion and any enhancement of the natural sinks of carbon dioxide that humans manage to implement like direct air capture, removing carbon dioxide through chemical absorption from the atmosphere and disposing of it somewhere harmless—that difference needs to be zero worldwide by 2050 if we’re going to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius warming above preindustrial temperatures. If we’re going to make 2 degrees, then net zero by 2070. Again, that’s globally. Countries like the US that have been pumping out the carbon dioxide for centuries and you would think in any fair world, would have to get there first. So the clock is not just ticking, it’s racing toward this deadline. Now these targets, in my view-- you can’t regard them as firm: if you’re on one side of the target, we’re okay; on the other side, the world explodes. That’s not the way it is. There’s a lot of uncertainty about exactly what impacts occur, to what degree, at what time, so it’s not like we’re sure that if you go just a little over one of those targets we’re hopeless. But we are in a climate danger zone—that is, where despite the uncertainties, the risk of various types of unpleasant outcomes are increasing nonlinearly. That’s something policymakers would like to avoid, so in that context—which is basically there’s a clock ticking; we don’t have all day to get this done—four years is a much bigger deal than you might think. So that’s what’s irretrievably lost. What can be repaired, although not immediately—and you have to tack on, again, the time it takes to repair, to do the catch-up on the four years we lost—are changes that Trump made to the regulatory system. It took the entire length of his administration, which was singularly inept at changing the regulations, but they eventually did it. By the time year four was over, they just barely managed to change the two big ones. The regulations on electric power production and the regulations on automobile fuel economy, which account for, together, about 60% of US emissions, some other emissions, for instance, on methane from natural gas production and distribution. They seriously weakened or eliminated a bunch of those regulations, and to reconstruct regulations requires a process which can take a few years because it involves a public comment process. It requires analysis. It requires presenting alternatives. It basically has to be done in a rational way. You can’t just switch things overnight because the Trump administration early on hadn’t figured out you have to govern in a rational way. It’s not clear they ever figured it out. They wasted two years trying to change the regulations before they put some competent people in charge of doing it. They could have done a lot of damage more quickly if they’d been more adept. But those regulations—if the course that the Biden administration chooses is to reconstruct the Obama program, getting to your third question, they could do it and then some. In other words, the Obama program was developed with what was then a pretty strong set of regulations, developed and implemented around 2009, 2010 and subsequently. But now, a decade has passed. The problem has only gotten more severe. All other things being equal, you would expect the administration to notch up those regulations in whatever form it reproduces them. If that’s the route they choose—and that will be the route they choose if they can’t get any cooperation out of Republicans, and if they don’t remove the filibuster, there won’t be any choice about it. It looks unlikely that the filibuster is going to be removed—maybe trimmed but not removed—simply because they probably can’t get 100% participation by the Democrats and you will get pretty close to 100% opposition by the Republicans and the Senate is split exactly 50-50, anything that can’t be stuffed in a budget reconciliation bill is subject to filibuster. They’re probably going to have to do a lot of things through executive power, which is the way Obama did what he did after the attempt to legislate greenhouse gas controls tanked in 2009-2010. The Waxman-Markey bill passed the House, but it had no chance in the Senate.

Zierler:

To broaden the question out to an international context, first, of course, in foreign affairs, the executive branch is much less constrained. I’d like to ask that same question with regard to diplomacy. In what ways does the Biden administration have opportunities with countries in Europe—with BRIC, for example, the rapidly industrializing large countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China)—and of course the developing world, as a result of the Trump administration leaving the Paris accord and for whatever the Biden administration is planning in terms of reentering global climate diplomacy more generally?

Oppenheimer:

Is what you’re asking, how does the fact that the US pulled out change things at the international level?

Zierler:

In the way that each of these different groups of countries have reacted to what the Trump administration has done.

Oppenheimer:

So, you know, I think ultimately it’s subtle, and ultimately I can’t prove either way that it’s either had or not had a big effect. One thing, it certainly had an important psychological effect that while the Europeans in particular are welcoming the US back into the Paris accord. It’s also true that if I were them, I’d be very skeptical, not about President-elect Biden, but about the US system and our ability to keep focus. You know, an economist who was skeptical, or at least had some friends who were skeptical about government action on climate change-- Well, I can name names here since there’s nothing nasty about it. Bill Nordhaus recently won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on climate change. I’ve known Bill for about 30 years, and we’ve interacted periodically in person, on the phone, and at least one time, we got into a pretty good argument about his skepticism. Early on he was very cautious about the uncertainties. He was one of the authors of the 1983 National Academy report on climate change, which was the first really comprehensive US report on the problem, and he was always doubtful about the seriousness of the looming climate problem … That report essentially argued that we should wait for ten years before doing anything about it. A lot of us in the scientific community thought that that was… You know, the risk is there. Let’s do what we can and do it now. The problem isn’t going to go away; let’s have some governmental action now. So in 1985 at a meeting in Europe, I ran into one of his—I think at that point he was still either a graduate student or post-doc, maybe a former graduate student or post-doc, Gary Yohe, who is a professor and a good friend of mine now, at Wesleyan. He recently became emeritus, and he’s the coeditor of the journal Climatic Change with me; the two of us edit the journal. That was the first time I met him and I said, “Why is Nordhaus so skeptical about the need for action on climate change?” and he said—to paraphrase— “Well, he’s not… He takes the problem seriously, obviously, but he just thinks that the ability of governments to stay focused on a problem for what’s essentially decades or even a century is questionable. Therefore, you don’t just plunge forward because you want to make sure that whatever you do is robust. This is what he meant.” That’s the question that the Europeans must have about the US now. Any kind of arrangement, any international cooperation, any venture which is done jointly which is contingent upon US cooperation must now be in doubt because the ability of our system to flip-flop has been revealed—not for the first time, but it’s been revealed at a scale, a scope penetrating to the very depth-- the very heart of decision making in our system, which it probably… You know, in my lifetime, I can’t remember a flip-flop that’s quite so radical, and it’s not the only one that happened under Trump. We insulted NATO a bunch of times, told them we could live without them. We pulled out of a nuclear arms agreement effectively—I mean, unheard of changes. So, it’s not just climate. And what are they supposed to think about all this? They’re going to think, “Well, if we…” Let me back up. International cooperation always involves a risk. You offer to do something because you’re going to get more out of a joint arrangement than going it alone. There’s a risk in that that you’ll take some actions you wouldn’t have done otherwise, and then the part of it that would have given you the extra benefit of the other countries doing something—well, some key country just won’t, and then, to some degree, you’re stuck, and worse yet, the solution to the problem is just not getting to where it needs to get. So there must be that question mark, and not just in the minds of Europeans, but also other governments that are eager to do something about the problem. So that’s a loss that is not-- I can’t monetize it for you. I can’t quantify it for you. Do I have evidence that specific governments are doing less than they would have had the US stayed in Paris? No. The second the US pulled out, I said, “This is bound to leave some governments who were already a little shaky in the knees about serious action—it’s going to lead them to do less over the long term.” Didn’t last as long as it could have lasted. Four years may not have been enough to make a lot of countries truly hesitant, but I bet you you’ll see some hesitancy on the part of some countries to do as much as they would have done. It’s the problem with political science. You can never run the counterfactual movie. You don’t know what the hell they would have done, so I can’t defend the statement. But my guess is of the four years that the US lost, throw in another year or two that the world as a whole lost because the other countries weren’t doing or won’t do as much as they would have done had we remained in Paris and retained the Obama regulations. Now there’s lots of other stuff going on. We’re in the middle of a COVID crisis! Economies are grinding to a halt. More important is the question of how do they come out of that? Will they, as Biden has suggested the US will do-- Will a sort of unification of the Green New Deal with the COVID crisis—will we have a green recovery? Will we make sure that the inevitable large spending on infrastructure, which I think is a route they will take, a direction that Trump always was going to take but he never took for reasons that aren’t completely understood. A lot of that will be aimed at repositioning our economy vis-à-vis the greenhouse gases. Other countries are likely to do the same thing. In the end, that might be much more important than the fact that the US lost four years. So I don’t want to shed crocodile tears about what other countries might or might not do because of Trump and because of uncertainty about the US’s long-term commitment to fix the climate problem. Enough countries now are serious about the climate problem so that the COVID situation might provide the excuse to actually get going on it.

Zierler:

Michael, to take the Trump administration out of the picture and to think more broadly, going back to 1992, one of the central challenges in climate diplomacy has been the moral dimension with regard to developing countries, whose response is, “It’s just inherently unfair that you’re putting these expectations on us when the fact of your wealth comes from burning fossil fuels.” Do you think we’re far enough along in the process both politically and because the science is so clear that, Trump administration or not, that element, that challenge in climate diplomacy is essentially behind us?

Oppenheimer:

So, we… “We.” The developed countries, the so-called Global North, organized the original framework—the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change—around the idea that developed countries—because, for the very reason you stated, the Global North should go first. Although there were no mandatory emissions obligations in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change signed, again, in 1992, there were essentially voluntary (unenforceable) emissions obligations on the developed countries, but not on the developing countries, which has since been renamed the Global South. Consensus among countries, whatever—they all signed the document—reached a peak in 1995, three years later, when it was obvious that nobody was doing anything, really. Countries got back together and had the first Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Berlin in 1995; set up an objective of reaching a new agreement within two years, which became the Kyoto Protocol which was supposed to include mandatory, supposedly enforceable limits. But again, the principle was only for the Global North. Because of that shaping of the agreement, the US government never-- well, the administration, having signed the Kyoto Protocol (the Clinton administration), never sent it up to the Hill, never asked the Senate to ratify it. In fact, six months before the administration signed the Kyoto Protocol, the Senate had voted 95-0, 95-0, that any agreement that had the characteristics of what then was developing at the negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol, any agreement that looked like what they thought the Kyoto Protocol was bound to look like would not be welcomed by the Senate. I clearly remember at Kyoto—I was at all these meetings. I was at Rio. I was at Berlin. I was at Kyoto. I was at a thousand meetings that just tired me out after a while, being an observer at the negotiating sessions. I learned a lot about diplomacy. I remember John Kerry, who was then a senator and whom I had a relationship with, mostly because EDF had a close relationship with him in part because his wife, Teresa Heinz, was vice president of EDF’s board of trustees at that point. So, we got to talk to him quite a bit. He sought our counsel sometimes. You know, he arrived at Kyoto relatively early compared to other policymakers. These negotiations proceed on a lower diplomatic level for a week at least before the high-level policymakers, ministers and heads of state come in. Kerry was fuming angry that the administration, he thought, was about to agree to something that the Senate would never ratify. He knew the Senate. He knew the issue, and he just said, “It isn’t going to work.” I was sort of stunned by that, I guess, his frankness. The Kyoto Protocol was signed, as I said. It was ratified by a bunch of countries. It went into effect, but the US under the Bush administration almost immediately, I think in March of the year that Bush was inaugurated (George W. Bush), pulled out of it. That represented the fragmentation of what looked like a consensus that developed countries in the Global North had to go first. So a lack of consensus characterized the global negotiations on climate change in the years of the Bush administration. All eight years the negotiations meandered. Finally, that reached a turning point at the fifteenth Conference of the Parties, I think it was—I’d have to look that up—in Copenhagen in 2009—yeah, it must have been 15, because Paris is 21 in 2015—a new consensus began to emerge that instead of requiring countries to agree to binding targets and timetables for which, theoretically, nonperformance could be punished. It’s a whole other issue which we don’t have to get into to consider what countries thought constituted punishment and why that was faulty in itself. But countries basically started going down a different track, which is to let every country just put an emissions reduction plan on the table. Don’t negotiate these numerical targets which are unrealistic under the rushed, unrealistic circumstances of a time-limited negotiation session. Let each country determine what it plausibly can do and then the social pressure of countries on each other will make it more likely they’ll actually achieve the targets. So, nothing really mandatory. That’s the route that led to Paris. It’s where we are on the problem today. It probably means if the Paris Agreement never is amended to include binding limits, Paris will always fall short of its long-term goals, the ones we talked about at the beginning, the two-degrees, and that’s because there’s a free rider problem. Some countries, the US most recently-- the US rejoined, at least; maybe next time it’s China. Maybe it’s some key EU countries. They decide for whatever reason they can’t meet these obligations and they pull out because they don’t want to be penalized by admonishment. And you have to think about penalties for nonparticipants, too. That’s a tricky area. Again, I don’t know that it’s a good subject for this conversation. But the point is there is no longer a consensus that countries have to put down plans which are consistent with not just what they’re able to do, but the moral principle that they’ve got to do more than the poorer countries that are just in some early of middle stage of their economic development. Not to mention meeting the 1.5 or 2C target. So, we’ll see. Governments don’t yet have the political will to forge a strong, binding agreement, maybe some of them actually sacrificing their political careers to save the planet. Do world leaders see it that way? I don’t know. I don’t know what most leaders see. Some of them certainly probably do understand that there’s a moral obligation, and you can’t just expect a big developing country like India, which is emerging as the next big emitter, to just do what we think they should do, or do equal to what we should do, when they haven’t hit the top of their development curve. On the other hand, these countries, most of them are in-- a lot of them are in sunny places. Solar energy is pretty clearly a major source for the future. It’s becoming a major source already, and exploitation of that possibility could put a country like India in the driver’s seat in energy markets, and they’re thinking that way to a certain extent. China has been thinking that way and is right now the leader in production of photovoltaic cells. You know, it’s hard to say exactly what’s going to happen. It could be that economic advantage drives the right thing to happen rather than moral finger-waving.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm. Well, Michael, let’s take it all the way back to the beginning now. It’s a fascinating family history you have, so let’s start with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they’re from originally.

Oppenheimer:

[laugh] A little detail which isn’t totally irrelevant. My parents are second cousins. Part of my family-- Most of my family is from Germany originally, German Jews, and there’s a small rural farming village on the west bank, sort of up the hills in an area called the Hunsrück west of the Rhine, a region that passed back and forth between German and French dominance for a long time. There had been a family in that village since at least the mid-18th century—that eventually included my paternal great-grandfather and his 5 siblings, and of the six, one of them—a daughter—my maternal great-grandmother emigrated in the 1860s and eventually wound up in Brooklyn, New York, USA. Another daughter, went on a journey around the world serving as the companion to a rich woman until she jumped ship in New Zealand, and married a miner in the 1860 gold rush there. My great-grandfather stayed in the farming village in Germany, married, and started a family from which my father sprung. My great-grandmother in Brooklyn married and started a family from which my mother sprung, and the one who wound up with the gold miner in New Zealand died without any children. When her will was probated, it took till after-- She died in 1913. Because of World War I, the lawyers didn’t get their act together until the ’20s. They put the two parts of the family together, who had more or less drifted apart. There had been some communication, but not much. In the act of probating the will, my grandfather on my mother’s side and grandmother on my father’s side realized that they had first cousins across the ocean. At one point, my mother wanted to learn German—this was around 1930—and my grandfather said, “Well, you have a German cousin. Why don’t you write to him?” They started corresponding—you know, I have some of those letters. My father had a promising career in banking but then Hitler rose to power, and it became hard for Jews to pursue regular careers. My grandfather ran a precious metal business out of his home. So, my father decided to stay home to help him with the business, eventually realizing that he just didn’t have a future in Germany and was smart enough to get out in 1936 and then bring his parents over in 1938. Before heading for the US, he needed someone to provide an affidavit of--

Zierler:

Sponsor. Sponsorship papers.

Oppenheimer:

Yeah, an affidavit indicating willingness to be responsible for an immigrant. My mother’s family in Brooklyn sponsored my father to come over. He lived with them when he arrived. They lived in a brownstone in Bed-Stuy [Bedford-Stuyvesant] and my parents fell in love. So that’s where I come from, you know.

Zierler:

Michael, is your family more on the assimilated side of things? Were there any religious parts of your family?

Oppenheimer:

Well, you know, there’s a little bit of a spectrum, but I’d say on the whole, the German-- Yeah, both the German and the American side of the family were assimilated. My father was bar mitzvah-ed, so the upbringing he had resembled the upbringing of a lot of middle-class conservative Jews in the era when I grew up. And my mother’s family would have been similar in her generation. The other part of that story is that my maternal great-grandmother from Germany married a Civil War veteran who we think came over in 1857 from Alsace-Lorraine, at that point part of the Kingdom of Baden. His name was Michel Maier and that’s who I’m named after. He was a horse dealer who volunteered for a Pennsylvania cavalry. We never figured out why Pennsylvania, but he signed up in Erie, even though he was living in Brooklyn. He was injured and discharged in 1862. We have these great Civil War documents. He came back to Brooklyn after the war and again was in the horse business-- this time as a drover. They weren’t particularly religious either.

Zierler:

Did your father have a career in finance in the United States?

Oppenheimer:

No. My father stuck with the jewelry aspect of his earlier career, the precious metal aspect. He worked in the Empire State Building in a company that still exists, and he managed the place for a wealthier gentleman who went around making big deals. They dealt in gold, diamonds, rubies, sapphires, any kind of jewelry and precious metal or stone. He began as an office boy sweeping floors and climbed up to run the place, becoming an expert on evaluating, appraising diamonds. So, he wasn’t a scientist, but my mother was a chemist. There weren’t very many female chemists in those days. She went to Brooklyn College and got a degree in chemistry, and I don’t know whether she ever wanted to be a professional chemist. I’m not sure, but she wound up getting-- She spent the years before and during the war tutoring German refugees in English. She was fluent in German because of the earlier arrangement corresponding with my father. Then my grandparents came over in 1938 (my father’s parents). My father’s father was very sick already when he got on the boat. He died ten days after coming to this country. My grandmother lived with us, lived with my parents before I was born. Just before the war, her sister came over to visit her and got stuck in the United States because of the war and stayed there from 1939, I think, until just before I was born in early ’46. So my mother started her married life essentially with my father and his mother and his aunt all in a small apartment. It wasn’t that much fun. But the two of us were born and after the war, after taking care of us as a housewife for a while, she became a teacher and taught chemistry in the public school system in New York City. I have no doubt that one of the reasons I’m a scientist is because I sort of absorbed a scientific way of thinking in the house, was familiar with chemistry, liked it sort of, but basically also wasn’t all that creative at that point in considering career options and so became a chemist. My brother also got a PhD in chemistry; worked for Eastman Kodak. So, either there’s a very strong something or other there, the influence my mother had, or it was just neither of us were too creative in thinking about what our career should be. I still don’t know.

Zierler:

Michael, what neighborhood did you grow up in?

Oppenheimer:

I grew up-- When I was born, my parents lived in Elmhurst, Queens, and then they moved when I was almost two to Bayside, where I lived till I was 16. When I was 16, I left New York City and went away to MIT. I went to graduate school at the University of Chicago. I lived in Chicago. Took a post-doc at the Harvard-Smithsonian—what was then the Harvard College Observatory—stayed and eventually got a permanent job as an atomic and molecular astrophysicist, as my position was called and stayed there until I wanted a different career and went to EDF in 1981 and at that point moved back to New York City.

Zierler:

Michael, of course the chemistry connection from your mom is clear enough in terms of your own interest and exposure, but I wonder if you ever got interested in what your dad was doing with regard to diamonds and rare minerals.

Oppenheimer:

I did, and it wasn’t just diamonds and minerals. He was running a thing. He was running a business, and I remember when I was in either the first or second grade, we had to draw pictures illustrating what our parents did. It probably was just what your father did at that point, and I remember drawing a picture of him signing a check. That was the part of it that impressed me, and for a long time, when I was uncertain what kind of career I wanted, I thought I might go into-- be a business executive. I wasn’t sure what business. I didn’t want to do the diamond/jewelry business, but I wasn’t sure what business. This interest lasted so long that when I was almost done with MIT and really had to make a career decision at the end, I applied to several business schools plus several PhD chemistry programs. So, I took something from both parents, essentially. But the thing I really got from my father was this intense interest he had in politics. He loved to talk about politics. He loved to discuss-- He had no hesitation about discussing what it was like to grow up in Germany at the time that he did, both the good and the bad. He was incredibly interested in US politics. Roosevelt was a hero for him, and so we spent a lot of time talking. You know, after dinner we would sit around, even when I was quite young, talking about what was going on in the world, and that… You know, it’s not that my mother was disinterested in that; she was too, but he had a real focus on it which I’m quite sure was a big influence on the other half of my professional direction.

Zierler:

Michael, you went to public school as a kid?

Oppenheimer:

I went to public school. I went to PS 162 in Queens. It’s still there. I went to Nathaniel Hawthorne Junior High School, and I went to Bayside High School.

Zierler:

Now going to college at 16, was this part of a gifted program? Were you just skipping grades on your own? How did that work out?

Oppenheimer:

Two things. If you’re born at a certain time of year, you’re right near the dividing line for going into the-- for being held back—not held back, but into the earlier or the later grade and I happened-- The line was April 30 and my birthday is February 28, so I was close to the end of the year, so I was young for my grade anyway. Then New York City had what was called the Special Progress program (SP), which allowed students to skip a year in eighth grade and pushed us ahead, which I think was really the stupidest decision of my life. You know, when you’re that age, why not leave kids alone? Why accelerate? You know, we’ve super accelerated education.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Oppenheimer:

I think it’s dumb. I think it’s harmful. I think it’s just another way to track students and segment one group from another, and I think it’s bad for individuals and bad for society. You know, a lot of… In junior high school, we were together as a group, all the little SP students, and they were literally littler than the other students. At that age it makes a difference. That wasn’t my problem, but it was a lot of the kids’ problem. But later when you get into high school, all of a sudden you’re a year behind everybody in social development, and I’m sure a lot of people had just a fine time. All I can tell you is for a couple years in high school I felt very alienated because I was sort of in this different group socially. I think it wasn’t good for me. I grew out of it, and by the time I got to college-- By the time I was a high school senior, I’d outgrown the problem and I had a great time in college even though I started at 16 and a half and I was younger than almost everybody else. I had a fine time both academically and socially.

Zierler:

Michael, did you have a broad range of colleges that you applied to, or because you were young, you were sort of focused and you got into MIT and that was the plan?

Oppenheimer:

In those days, you didn’t apply to like 20 colleges like they do today. I applied to four colleges. My safe school was Queens College, the public City University unit nearest my home. I applied to Cornell, MIT, and RPI. I wanted to do something in science, basically is what was going on there. I did not get into Cornell, which may seem surprising. It surprised me a little bit, but my high school had-- There were 1,200 graduates, and something like 15 or 20 of them-- I was like number 30 in the class academically, and more than half of the ones above me wanted to go to Cornell. And the city… The public schools were always… Well, when you’re in a school like that, you’re automatically discriminated against because the colleges want to get a geographically broader selection—and they should. It’s fine. I understand it being on the other side of the fence now. You know, they want to get a broader set of… They wanted to get a broad class, even in those days, so I did not get into Cornell. But I got into MIT and it was a great thing. It was a great--

Zierler:

Was the plan to focus on chemistry from the beginning?

Oppenheimer:

By using the word “plan” I think you’re imputing too much thought to it. I didn’t have it that well thought out. I probably wrote chemistry down when they asked me what I was interested in, but as I said-- You know… Well, let’s talk a little bit about what MIT was like and then maybe I can explain to you what my state of mind was. MIT was both fantastic and horrible. It was heaven and hell. It was hell because the competition, the sense of competition was unavoidable.

Zierler:

Even among undergraduates.

Oppenheimer:

Oh, especially among them. When we first got there for orientation, they went out of their way to say, “Look. We’re really very welcoming and we’re easy now. You’ve heard all these horrible stories about us, but they used to do it this way at the orientation session. They would say, ‘Look to your left. Look to your right. One of the three of you will not be here in two years,’” or something like that. They said, “But we’re not like that anymore,” but in fact, they proceeded to put you through the ringer. You had a test every Friday, an hour exam, in either physics, calculus, or chemistry. You had to take those three courses-- No, I’m sorry. Yeah, that’s right—introductory physics, calculus, or chemistry. You had to take those courses until you got to the point of selecting a major, and then if you weren’t that interested in the science, you started taking less quantitative courses maybe. But for a freshman walking in, it was really tough. You couldn’t-- Everybody was always falling behind because you couldn’t breathe for a second. You know, we spent every night… You come home from classes—go to classes all day or most of the day. You come home, relax a little bit maybe, maybe do some studying, have dinner, and then you’re studying until midnight, or if a paper is due, much, much later. Then you have to get up because you’ve got a 9:00 class. Then on weekends, we wound up working part of the time but not in the evenings, when we’d party or go on dates, or Sunday afternoon when we’d watch football. Saturdays were partly for intramural sports, too—I played football, although not very well. So it was a very, very intense experience. It was hard for me in the beginning. I was doing okay work, but not-- You know, I wasn’t getting A’s. I was getting B’s, maybe an occasional C. I really started liking the non-quantitative courses. I got really engaged…sort of relaxation, and I was learning something different. If you’re learning-- If you have three courses in physics and chemistry and math, it’s a breath of fresh air to be able to read some Shakespeare, for instance, or learn a little social science. So, I got to love the non-quantitative courses. And they had a great non-quantitative faculty! They had terrific people in philosophy, in religion, in history, and in political science, too—and the political science department is interesting for a variety of reasons related to its involvement in the Vietnam War. But it was a different world which I hadn’t picked up in high school, either. So that was what allowed my mind to, you know, loosen up and think in different ways and let me think about doing other things potentially besides science. It was great and very stimulating, but it never solidified in terms of a career, and one of the problems with the freshman courses at MIT is that the teaching was very uneven. A lot of the… I skipped a lot of lectures when I was a freshman. I just… I was a chemistry major eventually, but I don’t think I went to more than five chemistry lectures, and these were lecture courses when I was a freshman. The lectures were terribly boring, and you had course bibles, and past exams and older students around who could help you and tutor you, so you didn’t need to go to lectures if they added nothing. So as I started out, chemistry just wasn’t that interesting. Sophomore year was organic chemistry. Organic chemistry is a nightmare except for the subset of people who really love it. It’s just-- There was no sense to it to my mind, and I’ll never forget being in the lab and the lab instructor. They were all sadists. They came over and would engage you in conversation. This happened to me. They engaged me in conversation while I’ve got a test tube over the Bunsen burner and trying not to lose all the sample that I was evaporating and concentrating, and they didn’t give a shit. He distracted me and of course my sample boiled over. I lost the sample and I got like a D on that particular assignment. Now I’m sure they would say, “Yeah, well, we were trying to teach you to pay attention to what you really were supposed to be doing,” --- that was kind of the attitude. But once I got past the second year— Oh, and I got in my third year, I started really getting excited about not chemistry so much, but physics. The physics courses were better taught. I was taught junior physics, which was quantum mechanics, by Henry Kendall, who later won the Nobel Prize and who later was a great environmentalist, a founder of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Zierler:

Yeah!

Oppenheimer:

I met him again in his other life as a “concerned scientist”, a moral leader on managing the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, while I was at EDF. It was a nice connection. But when he was just a young physics professor, at that point, none of the broader context had emerged. At least he didn’t reveal it in class. He was fantastic. He was a great teacher. He was serious, but he was clear, and he could get into the mind of what a junior at MIT who wasn’t exceptional as a student, but just a good student—what that person would think about physics. He made quantum mechanics really different and interesting to me, and maybe it was different and interesting anyway, but Henry really did it. Then I had another teacher for the other semester who was not quite as good as Kendall was, but it was also quite good. Junior year in physical chemistry I had a couple of good teachers, but it was a tough course. It’s a course they purposely made sure has a C average to start filtering people out. I had a teacher whose name was—I can’t remember his first name; his second name was [Carl] Garland—who was also a terrific lecturer, and then Irwin Oppenheim for thermodynamics and I started to break through and pull myself back into science after having really loaded up on non-science courses to the extent I could in electives, and really getting engaged in the courses. Then when I was a senior, I had a wonderful teacher in spectroscopy, which was a specialized upper-level physical chemistry course, also elective. His name was Richard Lord, and he was a great teacher, too. So it was a combination, just a set of teachers who were wonderful who pulled me back into being really interested in being a scientist so that although I applied to business school and got into-- I got into Harvard. I got into Columbia. I got into a couple of other places. I decided that was not what I wanted to do; I wanted to be a scientist, and I credit that entirely to the wonderful teachers I had.

Zierler:

Michael, on the social and political side of things, you graduated in 1966, which of course is early on both in terms of campus protests and the unpopularity of the war. I’m curious at all if you had a sense of some of the tensions that were developing with regard to the research at MIT that was being put to national security use like at Lincoln Lab, for example, things like that. Was that on your radar at all? Was that influential in your developing political consciousness?

Oppenheimer:

Yeah. I mean I became aware of it, and I can’t give you a specific episode where I became worried about it anyway, but a lot of the people who I hung out with-- I was in a fraternity. A lot of the students that were in there, some of them, the physics majors, were attached—you know, had jobs or did projects at the instrumentation lab at MIT. I don’t know what it later became called; I don’t think it’s called that anymore. But basically, it was government contract research. A lot of the people had some relationship to the MITRE Corporation, which was a spinoff by some MIT faculty that did government contract work, military work, basically. Also later, as I said, some of the people who I knew both in my fraternity and who taught political science were involved early on in research related to the Vietnam War, and I think-- Later, as it turned out-- I’m projecting backwards here, so some of this is vague as to what I knew then and what I didn’t know. Ithiel de Sola Pool was the guy, a political scientist who I think was doing essentially opinion surveys on the Vietnamese people for the US government. So, there was a lot of activity which afterward you could describe as providing rationale for the US, development of the US involvement in Vietnam. Then some of those people switched and decided it was all wrong, of course. I started to become troubled. I remember a teach-in I attended, and I think that was quite early. It might have been as early as around 1964 where students would get together. They’d have a speaker, and it would be a learning experience about what was going on in Southeast Asia. By the time I got to be a junior and a senior-- Oh, and I had friends. I had a good friend who went to Cornell who I met over Christmas vacation during one of those years who was getting very concerned about our involvement in Vietnam and who I’d talk to extensively and who had some influence on me. Basically, I was well aware of the discomfort that was developing, and by the time I got into 1965 when I was a-- I graduated in ‘66, so this was late junior year, early senior year. I was, of course, starting to worry about… You know, they were starting to talk about drafting people. I think they had begun drafting people for Vietnam sometime after in ‘65. Then all of a sudden people were, out of self-interest, very worried. I was concerned about Vietnam. You know, it just didn’t sound right, and then I was-- Me and my friends were exposed to it potentially, getting drafted. So even though we had student deferments, we were going to graduate and then what was going to happen? Then it becomes hard to separate out pure moral objections to the war from self-interest. I’m pretty sure that even if the draft weren’t an issue, I would have found the whole thing morally repugnant.

Zierler:

Michael, I wonder in your generation—it’s a classic conversation, particularly with children of refugees from Nazi Germany—if your father ever said anything like, “I didn’t come to this country for you to go over and fight in that stupid war.”

Oppenheimer:

You know, interestingly, my father and I had some differences of opinion on the war and actually got in a serious argument about it. He was more-- Although he was a Roosevelt Democrat and he was never a neocon and he had good liberal progressive politics, on the war, for some reason he didn’t particularly oppose the US position and I did, virulently, and my mother was opposed, too. It led to some disputes in the house, so no, the particular conversation you refer to, we didn’t have.

Zierler:

I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that, up until Nixon, it was a Democrat-led war.

Oppenheimer:

Possibly. Possibly. I honestly don’t… I never actually… I should talk to my brother about it. He might have a more specific recollection on exactly what was going on.

Zierler:

Back on the academic side, when you were starting to think about graduate programs, I might just guess. With chemical physics, did you sort of split the difference between your comfort zone in chemistry and the fact that you were so turned on to physics later in your undergraduate career?

Oppenheimer:

Yeah. I think that’s a great way to put it. MIT had kind of a sub-major called chemical physics which I signed myself up for, and then when I went to Chicago… The name of the degree I got was chemical physics, given by the chemistry department. I took a lot of physics courses, and I was interested in the physical side of things. You know, part of that might have been that physics was more competitive than chemistry, and even if I liked physics a little more, I was a little uncertain about my abilities early on. I might have seen chemistry as a somewhat easier route. I came out of a chemistry family. But in the end, it didn’t matter. I drifted over and did whatever I wanted to do, which was-- I never took boundaries seriously in that regard. Social boundaries maybe, but professional boundaries, nah. I wanted to do what I wanted to do because I enjoyed it. I didn’t want to do it just because it had a label on it.

Zierler:

Besides Chicago, what other programs did you look at?

Oppenheimer:

Harvard, I recall. Others I don’t remember. Nothing unusual. You know, Chicago gave me a good financial deal. It had the reputation of having been a great department, having slipped a little bit, and they were trying to build back. So, I was perfectly happy to go there. I didn’t know anything about living in Chicago, in the Midwest. [laugh] I piled everything in my car. My parents gave me a car at that point, a used Rambler. They don’t make them anymore. I drove cross-country. Stopped in Pittsburgh and slept overnight at the apartment of and MIT friend of mine, and the most notable thing about the trip is it was my first exposure to Star Trek, which my friend had it on TV and it was the first episode, I believe—September 1966. I was really taken by it and I became a serious Trekkie for the next three years. Then when I landed in Chicago, even before… I made a trip out there in June of ’66 to figure out…to orient myself, and I’ll never forget—a foreshadowing of the split that would happen at the university. The chairman of the department was talking to me and there was an antiwar demonstration on the quad at that point right when he was trying to talk to me, and by June of ‘66 I was seriously antiwar. He put his arm on my shoulder. He’s long gone, and not to speak badly of the dead, I won’t say what his name was. He put his arm around me and he basically said in a very condescending way, “I’m sure you’re not like those people out there.” I didn’t feel like getting into an argument right there and then, so I let it pass. But there was a serious divide in the faculty with most of them either keeping their mouth shut or being pro-war. A lot of it I think was tied to the fact that they had government grants that were militarily funded. The Pentagon was really-- You know, until 1970 when Proxmire blew the whistle on defense funding and changed the pattern of funding for at least a while, almost everybody I think had some sort of Defense Department grant and that probably shaped their attitudes a little bit. Some of the faculty, particularly on the social science side, were heavily antiwar. The students were heavily antiwar as far as anyone could tell. The university was headed for a serious split, and of course there was the occupation of the main offices and there were recriminations afterward. Part of my dislike of institutions, in addition to my father’s experience in Germany and just my general skepticism, grew out of my experience at Chicago and how the University administration handled student unrest in 1968. The behavior of the universities as institutions was typical. They acted like a bunch of old men who were sort of mindlessly protecting something—it wasn’t even clear what they were protecting—but loosely labeled as decorum and keeping your mouth shut, keeping your head down and getting your degree and getting out and just having a normal 1950s-style life, but things weren’t going to be that way anymore. It was too late. So, I was clearly on the side of-- I was clearly very strongly antiwar at that point. On the other hand, I was also still very committed to nonviolence. Some of my friends got involved in activities like throwing stones at the police during demonstrations, and I thought that was just lame and would lead down a bad road and wasn’t-- I was right about that. The violence didn’t help. The violence hurt the movement in the ‘60s, and I think the violence will hurt the right wing today. It took forever for the liberals and progressives to outgrow those images from the ‘60s, and it still isn’t clear that we did get past it because the Republican Party still draws a lot of energy off the so-called culture wars which were partly born out of that experience.

Zierler:

Michael, where were you during the Democratic Convention?

Oppenheimer:

During the Democratic Convention I was in New York visiting my family-- my first wife’s father had died suddenly a couple of months earlier. We also took a canoe trip on the Boundary Waters at the Minnesota-Canada border that summer. Beautiful, wild place. We came back a while after the convention and participated in a demonstration at Chicago Police Headquarters to protest the police riot that occurred during the convention. I got tear gassed then, so I have my badge of honor that the Chicago Police tear gassed me. It was not a pleasant experience, but you know… It wasn’t easy deciding, are you going to go to a demonstration against the police, given what the police had just done in Grant Park?

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah.

Oppenheimer:

Other than the tear gas, nothing terrible happened.

Zierler:

How did you develop your relationship with your graduate advisor?

Oppenheimer:

My graduate advisor was terrific, and in a lot of ways, my career bears the hallmark of some directions that he led me in. On the other hand, he was very hands-off. By the way, he just passed away recently, Steve Berry. I decided to work for him because I liked his attitude, and his attitude was very much that there are a lot of intellectually interesting pathways in physical chemistry. This is interesting; that’s interesting. Don’t be constricted to just one problem and one approach to one problem. Let your mind open up and think about a lot of different things, and I did. That was his attitude guiding me, and among the things he started to think about was the role a chemist could play, what he could say about air pollution and what a chemist could say about energy efficiency, and he became well-known later for his work in both areas.

Zierler:

You mean intellectually he allowed you sort of that broader framework to use chemistry as a starting point to understand much broader issues.

Oppenheimer:

That, but also just within chemistry, not forcing my nose onto my-- I was doing experiments is what I was doing, spectroscopy—not forcing my nose onto my experiment so uniquely that I wouldn’t, for instance, spend a lot of time thinking about the theory involved behind the experiments that I was doing and getting as deeply as I could into theoretical constructs which he himself had done. He had started on experiments but gotten into theory also, and that ability to think both in terms of measurement and theory really helped me build the way I think about the science behind what I did later in climate change. Although I haven’t done a measurement in decades or generations, I understand what it’s like to do experiments. I understand the complexity. I understand the uncertainties, and I understand the necessity that you can’t understand the results of experiments without having some theoretical construct to put them in. The co-development of theory and experiment is one of the beauties of physics. Physics is ultimately-- Some people say it’s ultimately empirical science and that’s true, but you can’t understand anything without some theoretical framework and structure, which is not normally understood even by a lot of scientists. So yeah, he allowed me-- He didn’t point me in directions, but I picked up stuff from being around him that both liberated my mind, both within science and going outside of pure science as well and thinking about applications. I particularly-- [laugh] Putting those two sets of things together, the political stuff that was starting to go on, I remember getting really upset when I discovered that I was actually… My salary as a research assistant was being paid for by the Army Research Office—AROD, Army Research Office, Durham. While I was mouthing off about the Vietnam War, the Army was paying me to do what I was doing, and why were they interested in my work? My PhD was on low-temperature spectroscopy of alkali halides. I would aim a hot beam of vaporized alkali halide at a transparent, sapphire surface at liquid helium temperature on which I simultaneously deposited an inert gas at a 100/1 or 1000/1 ratio to the halide molecules to create a rare gas matrix embedded with isolated alkali halide molecules. I’d pass UV light through the deposited material (UV from a high-intensity lamp actually, not a laser beam) and try to see what the spectrum was in order to be able to interpret the electronic spectrum of these molecules at temperatures at which they’d usually be solids. When they’re in solids surrounded by other polar molecules—for instance, other sodium chloride molecules—there’s a heavy perturbation of what the gas phase molecular spectrum looks like because it’s essentially acting like a solid. But when you put those ionic molecules in an inert matrix, you can get a spectrum which represents sort of what the spectrum would look like if the halide molecules were at low temperatures, like as if it were in outer space, essentially, at low temperatures and free floating. Those are conditions that are hard to reproduce on Earth, and that-- Where was I going with that? Oh, yeah. So, what the hell does the Army Research Office care about this? Well, I don’t know if we knew or just speculated. We heard that the Army wanted to paint the nosecones of missiles with dielectric materials that would sort of interact with radiation in a way which would deflect the signal so they would create a protective halo around the nose cone, making it undetectable. So that was probably why, we thought, I was funded for the work I was funded for, and that gnawed away at me. I started to think, isn’t there any way to get away from these people? Being a scientist, it wasn’t easy—

Zierler:

Right.

Oppenheimer:

—but it’s one of the reasons why I didn’t-- As I got toward graduating and thinking about post-docs, I had two ideas in mind. Either I was going to do biophysics, which I thought was an area which started to intrigue me for reasons that were just scientific, but also I couldn’t think of a military application at that point. Now, I’m sure there are.

Zierler:

Of course! [laugh]

Oppenheimer:

I’m sure there are many applications of anything militarily, but I wanted to get the hell away from it, and the other was astrophysics where there are also military applications, and I’ll tell you a story about that later. But at least it seemed like it’s a bit of a stretch.

Zierler:

What were the post-docs that were most compelling to you?

Oppenheimer:

The three that I remember applying for were one in astrophysics. I became really interested in astrophysics and in biophysics—biophysics because of the cooperative phenomena that happen in solids, and the other, astrophysics, I’m not sure. I must have just… You know, I was interested in astronomy like a lot of people are, and here there’s a physical basis to these miraculous things you see. I got in my head that this would be an interesting set of science to do, and it was also very dependent on knowing a lot about molecular physics and that was what my degree was about. So I applied for one at the Harvard Observatory. I applied for one at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, and I applied for one in biophysics with Dudley Herschbach, who later won the Nobel Prize for his molecular collision work, but who had gotten interested in complex polymer-type molecules, long-chain molecules. So I’d spent a lot of time in the library reading up about long-chain molecules in order to be able to write an intelligent letter to him, and he said he’d be happy to have me if the proposal-- He wrote had submitted a proposal. He had a proposal in to NIH; if it got funded, the proposal-- The bottom line is the proposal didn’t get funded, so he took me on a contingent basis and the contingency didn’t work out. I accidentally ran-- There was an applied mathematician named Alex Dalgarno who was a member of the faculty at the Harvard Observatory and who came out of a great group of atomic physics people at Queen’s College in Belfast and had a big group at the Harvard Observatory. He was very interested in interstellar processes, and I just ran into him. He came to Chicago to visit a bunch of people including my advisor. I ran into him in my advisor’s office one day, and I got up the courage to ask him if he had any post-docs, you know, openings, and he said, “Maybe. Write me a letter.” So, I did that and he said, “We’ll see. I might have the money for it,” and so I was waiting. And the JILA thing, I just don’t remember whether that one was funded, whether I got accepted or not. It was a tough time. This was 1970 and as I said, Proxmire had started his war against basic research funding by the Pentagon. All of a sudden, after not having to worry about my next job because there were a million jobs out there, all of a sudden there was a shortage of research money which ricocheted around the disciplines, and it was going to be not that easy to get a job. But I extended my PhD by a few months while I waited to hear from these post-docs. Eventually Alex got the money and hired me, and that’s how I wound up in astrophysics. In other words, luck matters.

Zierler:

Yeah! Right! [laugh]

Oppenheimer:

I was intellectually fascinated with polymer physics, essentially, and I was fascinated with atomic and molecular astrophysics. But the decision about which to go to was pure luck.

Zierler:

Who was the director of the Center for Astrophysics when you got to Harvard?

Oppenheimer:

So, the Center for Astrophysics hadn’t been established yet. The department was led by a guy named Leo Goldberg, and then while I was there and still a post-doc, they brought in George Field--

Zierler:

Right.

Oppenheimer:

--and reorganized the whole thing. There had always been the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory acting cooperatively in the same building. They made it a unified institution in the first couple of years I was at Harvard.

Zierler:

Was the reorganization what allowed you to take essentially a two-year appointment into a decade-long affiliation?

Oppenheimer:

Correct. The astronomy department was small, and it was unlikely I was going to get a faculty appointment in the astronomy department, and Harvard didn’t keep its own people around very much anyway. They liked to kick them out and get them—what’s the expression when you season somebody or something like that in the outside world and then they bring them back? The only person that we knew of in the science at that point who had managed to get tenure after being a junior faculty member at Harvard--

Zierler:

Was Georgi.

Oppenheimer:

--was Michael… Huh?

Zierler:

Howard Georgi.

Oppenheimer:

Before… The one I remember was Michael McElroy.

Zierler:

Oh, he was before. Right, right. He was before Georgi.

Oppenheimer:

Right. Georgi was later. So, I knew McElroy pretty well, but he was unusual. So anyway, I knew I was going to have to do something eventually and I started applying for faculty positions around 1976… Well, let’s just do this a little differently. I got to Harvard, and I discovered that what I really wanted to do in addition to my research was teach, and I started teaching a course on the history and philosophy of physics and astronomy, which had been invented by a guy named David Layzer, who was a cosmologist. I was one of several young scientists who gravitated to David. He was incredibly interesting. Later when David took a sabbatical, I ran the course. I had become sort of a central actor in the course, and I loved it. I thought it was terrific, again, getting into sort of mind-expanding things, when I knew nothing about the history of science, but I figured I would teach myself while taking this course, and in fact, I managed to teach myself quite a lot of history and philosophy of science. I’m no expert, but I was good enough to teach Harvard freshmen and sophomores in a gen ed course. I was better than good enough, I suppose. You know, it was a great experience. I just loved that. It’s one of the things that just-- I was just having a great time teaching that course. But at the same time, my research was incredibly exciting because a revolution was happening in astrophysics where all of a sudden, before I got to Harvard, they basically-- Radio astronomy was allowing the discovery of dozens of molecules in outer space which nobody thought could exist because of the high radiation densities, but in fact did exist, which meant that either there was an environment that was protecting some of those molecules from the high radiation levels, which was partly the case, or/and there were processes going on, physical chemistry going on in the interstellar medium which were accelerating the formation of these molecules. It turned out both are the case, so I got focused on eventually mostly the chemistry end of the problem. What were the chemical processes that were leading to the formation of these molecules? Every week some radio astronomer would come up with a new molecule. They were progressively more complicated, and we would then get in the business of trying to compete with other groups to be the first to explain why those molecules were present in interstellar gases. It was great fun. You know, you get into these fields that are all of a sudden exploding. It’s intellectually incredibly exciting. A lot of people are coming into the field, a lot of very smart people who had been doing something else and see an opportunity, and it was a bubbling up. It was just terrific. Alex was sort of the opposite in some ways of Steve Berry. He had a more—what you might call a conservative attitude towards science. It was like cross every T, dot every I. He was a perfectionist, but he also liked to think about things which were a little out there. It’s just that he wouldn’t publish anything until he was sure of it, and I learned just a tremendous amount from him. Where Steve sort of encouraged me to sort of grow outward, Alex taught me how to discipline myself. I remember having this great conversation. This is sort of beside the point, but I think it illustrates something. I had this great conversation with Alex where-- [laugh] You know, I talked with a bit of a New York accent. I don’t know if I still have it, but I certainly had it big time in those days. I also used to have a slight lisp, and I think this was a factor in this also. One day, I brought in a handwritten manuscript to show him. Of course, everything was handwritten in those days. I had terrible handwriting. I’m sorry he ever had to read my manuscripts. But I wrote a chemical equation in one of them and I put on the top of one of the arrows connecting the two sides of the chemical reaction “c.c” and Alex asked me, “What is that? What do you mean by c.c?” I said, “Charge transfer,” but because I pronounced it “chransfer”, when I wrote the equation, I must have heard my own voice in my head even though I know how “transfer” is spelled. He said, simply, “Oh. Charge transfer,” [Imitating British accent] emphasizing the T. [laugh]. He was British, actually of Scotch decent. But that was the way he was. He was very precise. He had no patience for slobs, and he wanted to get everything right. But he also used that precision to do things which I thought were miraculous. Probably at the time a lot of people knew you could do this, but I didn’t. You can infer the temperature of an interstellar cloud, you know, millions of kilometers away with absolutely no direct measurements by taking the ratio of intensities of spectral lines. You can infer what the temperature of the cloud was because the temperature populates the lower quantum levels in the atoms or molecules that you’re looking at. Just that idea that you could do something, use an inference like that had a tremendous impact on me. Alex spent his time thinking about ways that you could use the basic physics of the problem to infer something about the macro qualities of what they were looking at through telescopes. So he was just great at both connecting the micro to the macro, how the micro properties that you measure through spectroscopic telescopes tell you something about the macroscopic properties like temperature. I never got over it.

Zierler:

Michael, I’m sure academically there was some catching up to do since you didn’t have a formal training or background in astronomy or astrophysics, but I wonder. Coming into essentially a new field with all of the intellectual maturity that one goes through in graduate school, I wonder if that was actually an asset for you, coming to a new program.

Oppenheimer:

Well, yeah. I mean, it’s the way I’ve done my career, and part of it is that I get bored and I don’t have the patience to see things through. A lot of people, I’m sure, have that opinion of my career, “Yeah, he’s a good scientist, but he’s there and there and there and he never just drills deeply.” That’s partially true. I could have drilled a lot deeper on a few things. I’ve drilled very deeply on two or three things, but I spent a lot of time going sideways.

Zierler:

Did you publish any significant papers in astrophysics during your time at Harvard?

Oppenheimer:

Yeah. I published two papers that I regard as particularly significant. One of them is a paper which… By the way, during that time, when I stopped being a post-doc and started being on the regular research staff even before I got a permanent position (which was a federal position on the Smithsonian side, by the way, eventually). I had soft money positions, including one for a satellite project called the Atmospheric Explorer Project which launched three NASA satellites into the ionosphere and was investigating the atomic and molecular properties and behavior and chemistry and physics of the lower ionosphere. As part of that project, I… I’m trying to remember. I lost the stream of thought that I had. How did you start me on where I was just going?

Zierler:

The idea that you were coming to a new field, but you were doing it with all of the intellectual maturity and experience of already having gone through graduate school.

Oppenheimer:

Yeah. So coming out of graduate school, what I mostly knew was how to do physical chemistry experiments, plus I knew a lot about molecular theory. I’d gone beyond that and read a lot of quantum field theory and other more advanced aspects of theoretical physics in order to try to understand if there were ways to apply some of the lessons from quantum field theory to understanding behavior of molecules rather than nuclei or anything at the subatomic level. It was intellectual curiosity mostly, but there were some formalisms that were applicable to both. I never published a paper on it, but the thinking turned out to be quite useful. Once I got into learning how to reframe things and learn a theory which was copied from another field, I began to realize I understood this stuff pretty well. I lost my fear of entering into other areas. You know, the post-doc was going to be in something well removed from my PhD research but you could see some relationship between astrophysics and what I’d done previously (molecular processes) versus something that had almost no relation to the latter (namely biophysics). So when I got to Harvard and I saw all these people getting into astrophysical applications of atomic and molecular physics and chemistry, I didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t try, too. I mean, that was close to what I knew previously, but it also involved a big leap because as I said, I knew nothing about the macro scale at which astronomy and astrophysics operate. So I got interested in all kinds of things which were processes driven… I had to know what was going on at the atomic and molecular level, but where what was driving it was understanding some macro scale behavior like the way that diffuse clouds become dense and then dense clouds condense into stars. So, I did some work which was quite interesting at the interstices between the diffuse and the dense and between the macro and the micro. One of the things I did was write a paper which was entirely my idea. I co-wrote it with Alex—he helped me whip it into shape—which was on why there’s a relatively high fractional ionization at certain levels in the ionosphere when normal physics and chemistry would have said there should have been a lot fewer ions. The reason had to do with, again, charge transfer between polyatomic molecules in the ionosphere and atoms of metals that were floating around. Once the charge transfer occurred to the metal—I still have trouble saying it right—to the metals, they have very long lifetimes before they interact with anything else, so that maintains the relatively high level of ions at certain altitudes in the ionosphere. That paper got a lot of citations at that time, and it still is cited. You know, two or three people a year cite the paper, and so it’s got a couple of hundred citations. I was very proud of that piece of work. It really-- Because people still cite it as explaining an important aspect of the ionosphere, so it has a significance which is higher than a bunch of the other papers that I wrote. Another paper that’s sort of like that, only not as broadly cited, has to do with the chemistry of sulfur in the interstellar medium. That paper has a fairly good number of citations. It’s sort of a narrow field, but for the people who are interested in how sulfur-bearing molecules are produced in the interstellar medium, it was an important paper. Then I wrote a paper in 1976 on chemistry in comets. The theory of comets was that all the atoms and molecules-- Comets are fundamentally dirty snowballs, and that’s, for most comets, probably true. But it was at first believed that most or all of the molecules you see in the spectrum of a cometary coma, the evaporated gases and dust streaming from the head, must be crap that was frozen in the snowball, or photolysis fragments thereof but there were some… You know, people were starting to discover, again through both optical and I think radio techniques, that the molecules in the coma produced by these dirty snowballs were actually fairly complex and nobody had any idea how they got there because there was no reason they should be in the frozen material to begin with. I developed—I wasn’t the only one, but I pushed it further than the others—a theory of chemistry of the cometary coma in which the coma became a medium to reshuffle all the atoms and molecules because it got enough radiation and it was at a high enough temperature that the “parent” molecules evaporating from the nucleus and their photolysis products could interact with each other. I wrote a bunch of papers on the chemical reactions that might be responsible. I took it a step too far in conjecturing that you could even make water this way. If so, should we really be so convinced that comet nuclei are made of water just because we see it in coma spectra? Under certain conditions, you can get enough water to explain these spectra by arguing that water arises from gases streaming from a nucleus made of something else, not water, but the atoms and molecules got reshuffled, thus producing water in the coma. That was probably wrong, although one of these days such a comet might come by for all I know. But for the comets we had observed that speculation was probably wrong. But the theory did explain why a bunch of other molecules had been observed, and again, there were a couple of other groups that were following this same logic at the time. That was an important paper in this small domain, and one of the landmarks of my career was delivering that paper to a symposium at the Greenbelt NASA facility in 1975 and walking out and getting seriously depressed because although the paper was well-received, although the audience was very engaged—there were hundreds of people there—I walked out and said, “Well, I just wrote a paper which was really important to a bunch of people, and do I really give a shit?” because by then, my mind was starting to travel in other directions.

Zierler:

Ah.

Oppenheimer:

I was starting to think about why am I doing science up there, and what’s it got to do with the problems we have down here?

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah.

Oppenheimer:

I had become engaged in that environment. The original interest in the environment probably goes back to my mother, who was kind of an amateur naturalist, and she looked at things, again, from a scientific point of view. But in the late ’60s, I got very interested, because of the influence of Steve Berry, in the work on air pollution. So the idea that a scientist could contribute to the improvement of the environment started to take hold in my mind. By the time the first Earth Day came around, I was working on completing my dissertation. 1970 was the year I got my PhD, and I volunteered to teach an elementary school class that day about the environment. Kind of an interesting experience. [laugh] I mean, these were like eight-year-olds. Then that interest just built over time. I remember in 1975 a scientist at Cornell named Carl Schofield published some work on the Adirondack lakes revealing their acidification, and that really pissed me off. I was a very big backpacker in my graduate school years, mostly going out west. But when I was younger, we vacationed occasionally in the Adirondacks. My brother went to school at Clarkson. That’s where he got his PhD in chemistry. It’s where he did his undergraduate degree, too, and I just hated the idea that you couldn’t hike far enough to get away from air pollution because it was sneaking in via acid deposition and poisoning the lakes and that really upset me. So by the time we get to 1975, I was starting to decide that my career should not be stuck up in the ionosphere or outer space. What the hell has this got to do with anything? Maybe the ionosphere does (close enough to Earth) but not interstellar clouds. I don’t give a shit. I’m going to do something else, and I started looking around for other opportunities.

Zierler:

Michael, besides the obvious life lesson that you gained going into astrophysics from chemical physics where it dawned on you that you could make these transitions, which obviously you capitalized on afterwards, scientifically, looking forward to geosciences, environmental policy, climate change, these issues, scientifically was there anything particularly valuable about the background that you gained in astrophysics and astronomy that you would be able to apply in these newer interests?

Oppenheimer:

Oh, yeah. I mean, that whole point I made about Alex teaching me about the relationship of the micro to the macro—that’s what the environmental sciences are all about. It’s about understanding the micro processes that are creating problems…or that are being disturbed and thereby creating problems at the macro level. It’s understanding the relationship between something that atoms and molecules do individually and in small groups and a problem that arises in the environment. Its simplest representation is why do greenhouse gases affect the climate and being able to understand that at a relatively deep level. That made it easy for me to get into environmental science because the part of it I decided to focus on was about the atmosphere to begin with, and so I had a basic understanding of some of the processes in the atmosphere. On the other hand, as a kid I’d been a weather fanatic like a lot of kids are. I used to watch the TV weather several times a day. I loved the maps of weather systems. Used to keep a little notebook with weather-- I’d draw the daily weather map and where the fronts were and all that. I was enough of a nerd to do that. But I didn’t know shit about real meteorology, and I knew nothing about the global level—or climate. So, what it did is it gave me a credential that the outside world could… It means when I decided to open my mouth and take public positions that there would people who would have to listen to me because I not only had a PhD, but I had a PhD in something that, as far as they were concerned, meant I understood climate change. Of course, that put a burden on me to actually learn as much as I could about climate and climate change.

Zierler:

Michael, looking ahead to the EDF, I’m curious. Were you outside of the normal academic track at that point where tenure-line positions were either something that was not feasible to you, or it was not responsive to the things that were most important to you in the policy realm? How did you work those various considerations out?

Oppenheimer:

So let me pick up. After I had that insight in 1975 that I’d better think about doing other things, I kept producing the papers. I had a lot of publications. I applied for a few jobs which looked like they might be interesting. I got offered a job at UC, San Diego. It would have been a nice place to live, but I turned it down because at that point, I decided the rat race of getting tenure just seemed to me to be… It would force me to focus on things that I don’t want to focus on, so I said, “No, thank you.” I started to realize I might be able to stay at the Center for Astrophysics longer. Alex was willing to keep me there on soft money. And then in 1977, I let some of my colleagues know that my mind was going in other directions, and one of them came over to me and said, “Look. There’s an ad in Science magazine that EDF is looking for a scientist to do a number of things related to energy or atmosphere.” I don’t even know if atmosphere was mentioned, but energy was mentioned. They were trying to replace a scientist who was leaving. I said, “Maybe that’s something I should apply for,” and I applied for it, and it started what turned into a three-year conversation with EDF. I knew EDF because of their DDT work, and I knew they had real scientists there who did some level of real research and had credibility enough so that you’d see their work talked about in, say, the news section in Science magazine. They were having influence in the world, and I said, “I’d love to have that kind of influence in the world.”

Zierler:

So, your sense was, Michael, that EDF was not simply an advocacy organization that employed scientists; scientists were doing real work.

Oppenheimer:

Scientists—I had the feeling, and I was right, it turned out—were at the core. It wasn’t a bunch of lawyers trying to use scientists to prop up the cases they wanted to take anyway.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Oppenheimer:

It was the scientists pointing to what were the important problems and what was the nature of those problems and mobilizing economists and lawyers to try to help the scientists solve the problem. That was a better way to look at it. So the scientists had unusual clout and credibility within the organization, and economists did, too. The lawyers did also, but they weren’t driving the program. It was the scientists and the economists who were driving the program, the experts, and I liked that. So I started talking to EDF and while I was talking to EDF, I let it be known that I might leave, and for reasons I still don’t totally understand, the people running the Center for Astrophysics decided I was… They didn’t want to lose me and they, on an expedited basis, got me federalized. That means they turned my position into a permanent civil service position. I nevertheless decided in the end I was going to leave because my mind had seen this other world and I had this itch to satisfy my desire to be useful to the broader concerns of the world. I didn’t feel comfortable in academia totally at that point because I thought people’s interests were, on the whole—Steve Berry aside and some others aside—too narrow. I didn’t like the disciplinary straitjacket and I was always pushing outside of what my specialty was supposed to be. I saw EDF and the environmental movement as a way to scratch all those itches. I would be able to take public stances. It would be my business to take public stances. I’d be able to have an influence, I hoped, on public policy, and I could still do science at the same time. I made sure in that negotiation with them that they would let me keep doing research. So when one of the administrators at the observatory came over to me and I said, “I’m sorry; I’m leaving,” he said, “You’re burning your bridges. You will never get back to academia.” Now there were two problems with that comment. First of all, I didn’t say so, but my reaction was I don’t give a shit. I’m sick of academia. It’s not the world I want to be in. The second thing was, of course, he was obviously wrong, and I’m not saying that I cared at that point. I didn’t foresee the next twist in my career, but it certainly didn’t matter to me that I was being threatened with the possibility that I would not be able to spend my life as a professor or a research scientist at a big research institute. I just didn’t care anymore. And very helpful to me in this was that I had a girlfriend whose father was a well-known Russian historian at Columbia and who was sick of academia because she had lived a childhood immersed in the minutiae, the triviality of academic politics. You know the famous joke about academia: Why is it that people are always battling with each other so seriously? It’s because the stakes are so low.

Zierler:

Right.

Oppenheimer:

That was the way she felt about the whole thing. We got married eventually and we’re still married and had kids. She grew up in her early years in Chicago and later in New York, and she was eager to get back to New York where her family was, my family too, and she really loved New York. As it turned out, the EDF opportunity wound up being in New York. It sort of moved during the course of the negotiations we had, and all of a sudden they decided they needed a scientist in New York, so that was influential also. All those factors converged and I took the job with EDF, and it was a fabulous way to spend 21 years. It taught me a lot of things I would never have learned if I’d stayed at the CFA, as wonderful a place as it is.

Zierler:

Michael, as great as the assurance was at EDF that you’d be able to do science, that’s a very broad assurance in terms of what kind of science? What kind of laboratory? Who would your collaborators be? To the extent that you had free reign to set all that up, what were the parameters that you were working in? What were the most pressing environmental issues that you wanted to start on?

Oppenheimer:

The reason I felt comfortable doing it is I’d gotten quite used to doing theoretical astrophysics, theoretical atomic and molecular astrophysics. I went to do-- Just for the hell of it, a colleague and I went and did some observations at the Kitt Peak radio astronomy telescope once and wrote a paper about the results, and a second time in the late ’70s I took a sabbatical at UC Santa Cruz and did some work which was-- Santa Cruz is attached to Lick Observatory, or rather, vice versa. I didn’t actually do the observations, but I worked through the archives there getting the big photographic plates which had images of comets on them, which allowed me to analyze spectroscopic data in a more direct way than just sitting in my office and reading papers. But other than those two very brief interludes-- You know, I was used to sitting in my office writing out equations on paper and trying to figure out what they meant, so I had no problem thinking about how to tackle the problem that was in front of me, which was acid rain. That was the one I wanted to get at, and that was the one EDF was interested in. The issue there was… Really, there were a bunch of issues around the chemistry and transport of pollutants in the atmosphere, which I figured I could teach myself, and I taught myself. I wrote a series of papers while I was at EDF on the chemistry of the atmosphere that led to the transformation of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide into acidic constituents and then their descent to Earth and then started thinking about the consequences in the ecosystem. There was one set of papers I wrote between about 1983 and 1985 which argued on the so-called linearity question. That is, is there more or less on a large scale a linear relationship between the amount of pollution that is emitted and the amount of pollution that gets deposited in acidic form in the eastern United States? That’s an important question because if you cut emissions, it’s possible-- Emissions—a lot of it winds up over the ocean, a lot of it winds up in Canada, and a lot of it doesn’t wind up-- some of it doesn’t wind up in acidic form. The question is, is there a linear relationship, a proportional response in terms of the pollution basket you want to reduce, mainly the part of it that was deposited over the Adirondacks and the rest of the eastern United States, or would you be fruitlessly just reducing the fraction that goes out to sea? The basic chemistry was not linear, but it turned out if you look at larger scales, the nonlinearities kind of average out or become negligible, and it’s basically a linear problem. I worked and published a series of papers, including one in Science magazine, which had a relatively primitive statistical analysis, but it was interesting in that it took advantage of a natural experiment. There was a labor strike at the copper smelters in several western states in the early 1980’s—the Science paper came out in ’85—which were the largest regional sources of sulfur dioxide—as opposed to the eastern United States where the main source of acidic pollution is electric power plants. The smelter emissions went to zero and those had been the dominant sources. So it was this beautiful natural experiment, the kind of thing economists are always looking for. They shut down the smelters in the strike. An attorney at EDF, Bob Yuhnke, came to me. He said, “You know, this should be something you should look at. All of a sudden, all the big sources of the Rocky Mountain West have been shut down. That must have an effect on acid rain. Why don’t you look at the acid rain data (there was a network) and see what you can find out?” He may have already looked at some of this data himself; I don’t really recall. But we did it. I had an intern who was a really bright kid out of Swarthmore, Chuck Epstein. He was a biology major who was adept at statistics, and we did what turns out to be a primitive analysis. I mean, today I’d do it much better, but we did this analysis of the levels of acidic pollutants in wet precipitation—all the stations in the Rocky Mountain area in the same air shed as the smelters—and analyzed them and showed that, within a broad uncertainty, the relationship between the ups and downs in sulfate concentrations in precipitation, which were quite noticeable over a multi-year period —we were able to show that those tracked the changes in emissions. Then we did a much more careful analysis. The original was published in Science in ’85. The next year we did a much more careful analysis which took account of seasonal variations instead of annual average, and that was published in Nature. Together with some earlier papers I had written which were done just on a mass budget basis, I said it has to be that this is a more or less linear problem. I basically made a very strong case that there should be a linear relationship there. In the meantime, the National Academy of Sciences in 1983 came out with a report which also argued on the side of linearity, but the US government, partly because it was trying to do the science from a bottom-up point of view, partly for political reasons—they didn’t want to regulate the acid rain problem (this was the Reagan administration), heavily funded EPA. Heavily funded-- Could have been DOE. It could have been joint. Going at it by building up a chemistry transport model, which was a good idea, but it wasn’t going to get the problem… You know, they didn’t ever get a serious answer to the problem because it takes 15 to 20 years to build and apply one of these models to a real-world situation. Taken together, my papers made a serious contribution, I felt, to the science, a sort of pushing back on the policy of neglect on the part of the Reagan Administration, which was utilizing the premise that if we do significant control on power plant emissions, we’ll never get the benefit. Now the problem isn’t identical in the East, but I had published a mass budget analysis for the East as well and it showed the same thing—basically, taken together, chemistry and transport produced a linear response. So that really made me feel like “Aha. I see a way to do this.” Find a part of the problem you are capable of solving. If you do treat it seriously enough, you can get your results published in top peer-reviewed journals. The original papers on some of this were published in Atmospheric Environment, which is a top air pollution journal. You stay connected to your friends in the scientific community. I learned how to build a scientific network where people knew me from my former work on the ionosphere and on interstellar space, and those same people became very useful to me as a scientist at EDF. I became useful to them in introducing them to some environmental issues that they might not have gotten involved with otherwise. The act of creating a scientific network was something I just didn’t know anything about, but it became critical to my role as a scientist at EDF. I was able to engage those people eventually in things like meeting with the president’s science advisor because they trusted me, and they knew I wasn’t going to lead them down a bad path and get them into trouble. Their trust in me was based on what they knew about me as a scientist. The other papers I wrote at EDF—there were three papers I wrote at EDF that are among the best work of my career. In 1988, I had the idea. There was a scientist—he’s still around—Hans Paerl, who had published a paper pointing out that thunderstorms off the North Carolina coast were strong enough to affect the acidity levels in near-coastal waters. I took that and got the idea that-- I’m sorry. It wasn’t the acidity levels. That’s wrong. The nitrogen levels. Nitrogen is a pollutant, and a lot of the nitrogen falling in the eastern United States was due to nitrogen oxide emissions from cars and power plants and contributes to the acidity of precipitation. Nitrogen that falls into rivers in the eastern United States winds up in estuaries before it winds up in the ocean, and in estuaries, it turns out-- I read the literature, including some of Paerl’s papers, and I realized that the limiting nutrient in these estuaries in general was not phosphorus, which most people thought and which is true of freshwater lakes. But because estuaries aren’t freshwater but are brackish, it turns out nitrogen is the limiting nutrient. The chemistry and the biology are different. I did a simple model with the help of a junior scientist at EDF named Diane Fisher, and the model showed about a third of the nitrogen in the Chesapeake Bay estuary, a third of the human-made nitrogen, was from acid deposition. That was a major route. People used to think it was all from farm runoff and sewage, and indeed, a lot of the remainder is. However, about a third, and maybe as much as 40%, was due to the nitrogen in acid deposition – originating in the emissions from factories, powerplants, and motor vehicles. This, I thought, would be a very big deal. This was 1988. We were approaching what looked like would be the reauthorization of the Clean Air Act. We were pressing for amendments to the Clean Air Act that would cover acid rain, and I did something which as a scientist I had never done previously. Namely, I decided to release our report on the model results before it got accepted through peer review. That’s a risky--

Zierler:

What was your thinking? Why would you do that?

Oppenheimer:

Because politically I just waited and decided the political opportunity wasn’t going to come around again, getting the Clean Air Act passed. Then there was a window of opportunity, and part of that was because George H. W. Bush was running for president and had to run in the New Hampshire primary and would have opposition in the Republican primary. Bush went up to New Hampshire and promised to do something about acid rain. So, we knew that if he got elected president, he’d probably have to stick by that promise. So, I decided to grit my teeth. I had enough faith in the work, and I had sent it around to a bunch of other scientists to read to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. I got some pushback from people who loved phosphorus and who weren’t willing to accept that phosphorus wasn’t the most important nutrient in estuaries, but that question wasn’t the part of it that was new. There were enough other scientists who were nutrient experts to back me up; that wasn’t something I discovered, so I felt fine about that. I knew I’d get shit, but I didn’t care by then. The key, new finding from the analysis showing how big a share of the human-made portion of nitrogen in the Bay originated in atmospheric emissions was my discovery, and I went ahead and released it as… [laugh] I also did something that I only did one other time in my life— because you piss people off when you do this. I released it as exclusive to the New York Times and it was a column one, page one story the next day. Well, not the next day, but the day it was published. I really gave it to the reporter a month in advance or two months in advance. It took a long time for them to do these stories – they were cautious about big environmental claims. The reporter was Phillip Shabecoff, one of the best ever on the environment beat. We did it. I went down to Washington to do a press conference, and everybody was there, all the major media—the AP, the Washington Post, TV. It was an amazing press conference. And then we shaped it into a paper ready for peer review and submitted it to Ambio, which is a very good Swedish journal on natural ecosystems, and it passed muster. The amounts of attention that our work got did, I think, have an influence on the way nitrogen was treated eventually in the acid rain provisions of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. More generally, the public doesn’t distinguish between nitrogen and sulfur. They see acid rain and don’t worry about the details. Most policymakers, the same thing. So, we thought that we made a contribution to nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide both being dealt with in the acid rain provisions of the Act. You know, it’s another brick in the wall pushing the ball up the hill. It’s a slow, sometimes Sisyphean task to get any significant policy changes, so I was very happy with it. Those were the big scientific contributions I made on the acid rain side which I thought were durable, long-lasting. Scientists on the EPA staff looked at our model and said, “Holy shit. We should have been doing this all along.” These were people who were in charge of the Chesapeake Bay program. We showed it was applicable to other estuaries. EPA built a Cadillac version model of what we did and did it much better, but of course they had the resources. But we stimulated a lot of additional research, and it was, for that era, a very widely cited publication, and it still gets citations.

Zierler:

Michael, to go back to the beginning of your tenure at the EDF, to zoom out a little on the larger scientific considerations, circa 1980, 1981, was anybody thinking about climate change? I mean, I know the report comes out in 1983, but even in the mid-1970s there was some talk about global cooling, right? What was your entre to climate change and the greenhouse effect?

Oppenheimer:

My entrée into climate change and the greenhouse effect occurred in 1969, and I recently-- A reporter who’s writing a profile of me for Reuters and to whom I related the following story resurrected an article that I had looked for over the intervening years but could never find. It was written by a great person and scientist named Gordon MacDonald. Gordon got interested in weather modification in the ’60s; was on President Johnson’s scientific advisory panel. I don’t know what it was called at that point and…

Zierler:

Of course, they were interested in weather modification in Vietnam.

Oppenheimer:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s a good and bad to everything. He raised the issue of weather modification, and climate change was part of that discussion. He was terrific. He himself, by the way, worked at MITRE Corporation later. He was a professor at Scripps. I think he was a professor at MIT for a while, and he was one of the people running around in the late ’70s in Washington trying to get people to pay attention to climate change. Anyway, I read this article in 1969. It was in Tech Review, the MIT alumni magazine, and it laid out all the ways in which human beings could affect the heat balance of the atmosphere and Earth’s surface. I was a late-year graduate student at this point who was starting to get concerned about the environment, and I picked this up and I literally said, “Holy shit. Can this really be? Can we really affect the thermal balance of the entire global atmosphere?” I must tell you for the only time in my career I got frightened by something that I had discovered in the literature. It wasn’t my scientific discovery, but I uncovered this thing and I just was… I remember being in my living room in Chicago in the afternoon reading this and just getting the shakes, basically. That’s what started my interest in climate change. It’s that simple. I always remembered the article, but I didn’t know how to find it because I didn’t know who had written it. So, it’s only a couple of months ago that I was given a copy of the article again. In the meantime, I had come to think that this was all what Freud called a screen memory. You project something backward onto something much older and you pretend that that’s-- I was doubting my own remembrance, but there the fucking thing was, you know? It’s not screen memory; it’s reality! And the fact that it was written by Gordon, whom I hadn’t known… I had met Gordon later and really admired the guy for his public spirit, his engagement. It was just sort of a closing of the circle. That was terrific. That’s how I got into the problem. I put it in the back of my mind, and I didn’t really know much about it or think much about it, but it was there and it was part of the agenda I wanted to bring to EDF. When I came to EDF in 1981, by then some people in the environmental community had heard about climate change, but they didn’t want to touch it, basically. It wasn’t on the agenda. The National Clean Air Coalition, which was the collaborative of environmental groups that lobbied together, had some words about it in one of its position papers, but it was very brief. And there were no scientists in the environmental community who knew any atmospheric science—at the level that I did, anyway. There was one other scientist who worked on ozone depletion, but he was a biologist. He was a good guy and a good scientist, but he really didn’t have the expertise in atmospheric science to be able to grapple with the climate problem. So I was looking for opportunities to make a public statement about it. The first opportunity came around shortly after I joined EDF, and I don’t remember whether it was that spring or a year later. The National Clean Air Coalition asked me to present some testimony on acid rain legislation, and I have a copy of this somewhere. I went through the science of acid rain. I had taught myself a lot of ecosystem science and aquatic chemistry by then to be able to do this kind of thing. I was reading the literature on impacts, biology, literature on ecology and acid in the environment. At the end of the testimony, I just slipped in a sentence which essentially and a little snarkily, basically, said, “If you guys can’t figure out how to deal with acid rain, how are you ever going to deal with something as big as climate change? That’s the next thing coming down the pipe.” The Clean Air Coalition strongly urged me take that sentence out of the testimony because they convinced me it would be entirely counterproductive—not because it was snarky, but because forcing Congress to think about two issues at once, one of which was too big for them to grapple with, was not sensible. So I got rid of that sentence in the testimony, but I didn’t get rid of the problem. I kept thinking about it, and I wrote an op-ed in 1983. In 1983, not only did the Academy report on climate change come out, but another report by EPA came out that was slipstreamed intentionally on the Academy report in order to maximize attention. While the Academy report was very comprehensive, it was too conservative on the policy end. Again, it had this “Let’s wait ten years” mantra in it, which came out of I think both Bill Nordhaus and Tom Schelling, who both were authors of report, and was to the liking of Bill Nierenberg, who was a well-known Earth scientist who was politically conservative and would have been inimical to early action. And I know here we’re getting into an area of how much science judgment is affected by political views, and that’s a very long conversation which we don’t have time to do today, certainly. If you want to get into that, we can talk about it some other time. But Nierenberg is tied in interesting ways to the climate contrarianism movement, the climate skepticism movement, and if you didn’t… You know Naomi Oreskes?

Zierler:

Of course, of course.

Oppenheimer:

If you haven’t read Naomi’s book, read it because Bill Nierenberg is mentioned. He was a chair of the committee that produced the 1983 Academy report. In any event, when that report came out, I decided to write an op-ed for the Times. Somebody-- I had already made a connection at the Times because I had been invited to write an op-ed about acid rain, which had already appeared. So, I authored them an op-ed which said, “Look. There’s one report coming out virtually the same day, one report saying we have time, the luxury of waiting before we do anything about climate change. Another report says it’s already too late to avoid serious consequences,” which is basically what the EPA report said because it was written by a bunch of staffers who really had-- They were leftovers from the Carter administration, and they were burrowed inside the Reagan administration. They were committed to the issue of doing something about climate change, and some of them really… There were three of them there, the late John Hoffman. Dennis Tirpak was the second one, and there was a guy who was doing coastal work who was really way ahead of the curve. The three of them generated a lot of trouble over time by producing reports in the days before the government was into trying to squelch these things on climate change and ozone depletion. I said, “Well, you’ve got these two reports. What are we to make of them?” and the op-ed then went on to basically side with the EPA view. I got it published in the Times and that generated not only some notoriety for me and put EDF on the map on climate change before any other environmental group got on the map, but it also caused me to get a phone call from Rafe Pomerance, who you may have heard of, who just left Friends of the Earth. He may have started to work on WRI at that point. Rafe said-- He was lonely, basically, because he was running around Washington with his hair on fire, as they say, about climate change. He had tripped over Gordon MacDonald, and the two of them were trying to get the Carter administration interested in climate change. All of a sudden, somebody else in the environmental movement was interested in the issue (me) and had the expertise to speak to it. Rafe and I made a kind of cabal, and we did a lot of good work together on the Hill. Rafe was a genius at the inside game, and he put together the so-called Hansen hearing in 1988 where I was also sitting there and testifying. It was great because we found each other, and then I went about trying to convince the rest of the environmental groups, the heads of the groups, that they should also be focused on this issue. So yes, you’re right that from the Washington point of view, the issue didn’t really exist before the early ’80s. But as a scientific issue, there were some big landmarks that occurred. The opening of the issue occurred in 1896 with the publication of Svante Arrhenius’ paper which basically said if we burn a lot of coal, we’re going to have a lot of warming. Arrhenius was a Swede who thought warming would be just fine because it’s too cold up here anyway. [laugh] Then virtually nothing scientifically happened on climate change for the next 50 years, 60 years almost. There’s a gap in the literature. An American named Chamberlain suggested a tie between variations in atmospheric CO2 and Earth’s climate. A British engineer named Callendar pulled together some of the temperature data from mostly or entirely northern hemisphere weather stations, noticed a small warming and suggested that it might be tied to carbon dioxide increases. Not much else notable. There were others…

Zierler:

We’ll come back.

Oppenheimer:

Forget it. I can look it up. You’re a historian. Look up the history. Look up what Spencer Weart has to say about it. Anyway, there were a few of these people running around who had something to say about temperature change, greenhouse gases, but really nothing significant until the ‘50s when a few scientists started to try to build models of the climate system, initially just radiation models and radiative-convective models, models that somehow included atmospheric motions in some way. The first really semi-realistic model was built at the Princeton Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory by Suki Manabe, and it showed a significant warming for a doubling of CO2 of something like 2 degrees Celsius, which isn’t too far off where we are right now in terms of what we now believe might happen; it was a little low. Then after that, the environmental movement, which started to define this thing that you referred to at the very top of our conversation as the question “Is there a global environment? If so, what is it?” There hadn’t been a global environmental problem. The idea of a global environment started to develop with the meeting…the first international conference on this question, the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm during 1972.

Zierler:

The human environment, I think.

Oppenheimer:

The later follow-up conference was called the UN Conference on Environment and Development, held at Rio in 1992, and that’s where the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed. The earlier conference started building the concept… It wasn’t there yet, essentially, but the concept of the global environment started to build. I place its beginning there, partly because of the scientific work that was in preparation for the conference. Then moving through the mid- ‘70s, a core of scientists started to get interested, like Steve Schneider, and started to focus on the broader concept, not just of climate change as a phenomenon but the question of what is it going to do to human beings?

Zierler:

Yeah.

Oppenheimer:

There you get to this issue of, well, there are other pollutants which actually cool the Earth, and what’s the balance between the warming due to the greenhouse gases and the cooling aerosol? Through the mid- ‘70s, that debate was still contentious. In the late ‘70s, some work was done which showed that the particle effect was relatively local, and the global size of the particle effect wouldn’t be enough to offset the increasing greenhouse effect, even though locally it might have a significant effect. That’s basically where we are today. But there were still relatively few scientists who were involved in it. Jim Hansen’s first paper on climate change I think was written in 1980, for instance. Early papers which try to actually quantify what was going on with sea level rise also date to the early 1980s. Vivien Gornitz, also part of the group at Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was the author of an important one on sea level rise. So, the explosion in scientific work really took off with the 1980s, but there was an earlier landmark report of the Academy called the Charney report in 1978 which basically said the climate sensitivity is somewhere around 3 degrees, plus or minus, and we’re not far from that still today. We have a lot more confidence in the estimate now, but the range, the uncertainty of 1.5 to 4.5 degrees really hasn’t changed very much. That 1978 report really was the first effort, I think, to legitimize the issue for both policymakers and scientists and started-- A lot of people started to be attracted to the field. Part of it was because of the ozone depletion theory by Molina and Rowland in 1974, which attracted a lot of atmospheric scientists to the question of climate change because several of the ozone-depleting substances also were powerful greenhouse gases. So a lot of science, and particularly government-supported science, developed through the ‘70s that had greenhouse implications. And again, with Manabe’s modeling, although he was sort of a lone voice at that point in the mid- ‘60s showing that you could, with advanced modern computation, actually get some serious answers about the problem, it just started to grow, first slowly, and then starting in the ‘80s, very rapidly. So, I went to EDF when the science was just starting to emerge in very…you know, in an expansive form and when the Academy had now cranked out two-- (There’s actually a third Academy report which is less important in my view.) So, there was a way for the policy arena to start engaging, and that’s why it became obvious to me that it wasn’t just some article that I had written which had scared me. There was a lot to this issue. Again, in 1981 when I came to EDF, there was nobody to talk to about it, but then once Rafe found me and we started making some trouble together and we got other people to take it seriously, the environmental movement started to get active. Then there were forums that could be created, and at the same time, partly as a result of that activity, but partly on their own initiative, we started to get some members of Congress who were interested: people like Tim Wirth, who was a representative at that point; the late Jack Heinz, who was a senator from Pennsylvania; Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island. He was terrific. There was a middle-of-the-road Republican Party that actually showed interest in these issues, and so there were people… We could go to the Hill. We could have people to talk to about this. It wasn’t just, “Well, you’re crazy. Get lost. I don’t want to hear about this.” Later George Mitchell. These were smart people, and some of them actually did some homework on the science and came to understand it, and because it started to become serious, of course it generated political opposition also from some of the same people who were in political opposition on acid rain, some of the same people in political opposition on smoking and lung cancer. So, it generated strong opposition, but for a while in the 1980s, we kind of had free ability to go make our case in the policy arena and they would be listening, and they wouldn’t have to worry about contrarian interest groups, specifically the fossil fuel industry and others that were highly dependent on energy from fossil fuels.

Zierler:

Michael, as it was dawning on you that the political and economic hurdles to make meaningful change on climate change were going to be so enormous, what scientifically compelled you at this early history that, you know, why is this not 1896 in Sweden all over again? What was it about the science that convinced you that a couple degrees’ warming (circa the early, mid-1980s) would be catastrophic and it would necessitate the economic and political battles that you’ve been engaged with ever since?

Oppenheimer:

One thing was that there were already enough scientific papers on impacts, and by the way, the impact I spent most of my time on, sea level rise and the effect on the ice sheets, people were worried about that, including Roger Revelle going back to like the… If I got the date right, sometime in the late 1950s he included the threat to the ice sheets in some testimony he made in Congress. It’s just there weren’t a lot of people working on the problem. There was enough literature on that part of it. There was enough literature on ecosystem effects. There was quite a bit known about the effects of extreme heat on human health. You could start seeing a whole wave of impacts, and whether they would be triggered at 1, 2, or 3 degrees where they get really serious—the knowledge wasn’t that sharp yet, but what we knew was that emissions were growing exponentially and there was a big lag between emissions and seeing serious consequences. And the lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere was so long—this was known by the mid- ‘80s—that it was an irreversible problem effectively, unless some genius figured out some way to remove the stuff directly, an idea on which various people are now working. So, it had all the characteristics of a policy nightmare that you’d want to get ahead of, and that’s when I wrote a book with Bob Boyle and I published in 1990 called Dead Heat: The Race against the Greenhouse Effect. That was the race because even though we didn’t know what the reading on the clock was, how long—and now we sort of do, as I stated at the beginning of the conversation—the fact is we knew that at some point this would become serious. We had analogs from older climates which showed that during the entire history of human civilization, the variation in global mean temperature had occurred over the narrow range of maybe 1 degree Celsius, no more, and that even going back to the last interglacial, it wasn’t more a couple of degrees Celsius warmer and the sea level was 6 meters higher. That was knowledge which either existed already by the early ‘80s or was generated during the ‘80s. Today, the global warming during the last interglacial is thought to have been even smaller than that and the sea level rise greater. Then just a whole lot of literature came out cementing the knowledge, including in particular the Vostok ice core, which showed the intimate relationship between CO2 variations and global temperature, at least Antarctic atmospheric temperature. So just the initial-- If you go back-- If I go back and read early testimony, it’s pretty clear that I understood this, or how bad-- It’s clear that the general outlines of the problem were clear enough by the mid ‘80s that scientists who had any caution about the environment were going to be concerned about human-induced climate change. After the ozone depletion problem arose and the ozone hole showed how wrong we could be in our estimates and how far the deterioration of the ozone layer had gone before we noticed, well, that was the primary thing, I think, which solidified the concern about the global environment as a phenomena or entity in the human mind—that, and the deforestation issue, the fact that what happens in the Amazon doesn’t stay in the Amazon. Those realizations all of a sudden created, I think-- during the 1980s solidified these ideas. Since the 1920s at least, there were small scientific niches here and there centered on the idea that there’s a unified entity of concern we have to worry about, but it didn’t gain wide traction until the 1980s.

Zierler:

Michael, when did it dawn on you that the political responses to climate change would become so hyper-polarized and that the Republicans, almost in lock step, would be the obstructionist party with regard to achieving realistic solutions?

Oppenheimer:

That started to become clear in the late 1980s…no, earlier than that. I went to a conference sponsored by several UN agencies at Villach, Austria in 1985. The meeting was an attempt by a group of scientists to develop a consensus on the climate issue, not simply for the sake of generating adequate research funding on the issue but more importantly, getting the governments to recognize it as a problem and, among other possible actions, consider limiting emissions of the greenhouse gases. One of the recommendations was that governments consider negotiating a framework convention to govern the problem cooperatively. Bert Bolin was the elder statesman, and he later became head of IPCC. He was just terrific. He was calm. He was dignified, though he was motivated by the understanding that this problem really needed to get attention. At that meeting were the representatives, among other things, of some governments but also the fossil fuel interests, including one of the people who worked at a high level in the US Department of Energy – recall, it was during the Reagan Administration. We started to hear this stuff about, well, “No need to hurry, no rush; if it’s really a problem, humans can adapt.” Plus, there was some thinking in the scientific community among people who worked at DOE. They were doing modeling themselves and some of them were just very cautious when it got to discussing climate projections. Now whether they were cautious because their bosses wanted them to be cautious, or whether they legitimately just saw that’s the side of the problem where there’s a lot of uncertainty; we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, I seriously-- I still don’t know. I’m friends with these people now. I talk to them. We joke about it, but I still can’t get a straight answer out of some of them as to what they were thinking. But in any event, it was distinct from what was going on in EPA where you had staff who were really engaged in pushing that something must be done about climate change. The ozone thing was just taken as a warning that we’d better-- You know, we only have one Earth, as they say, and you can’t get it wrong, and if you’re uncertain, you’ve got to be precautionary. So, let’s start thinking about action now. That kind of thinking started to-- That motivated me from the beginning, anyway, and that need for precaution began to gain adherents in the scientific community and in the broader world of public policy. But seeing the influence that the fossil fuel guys had and that they were going to dig in and oppose it made it clear that this was not going to be a free ride. So, my early interactions with the Reagan administration, of which there were several and some at a very high level, made it clear that this was not going to be easy, and we were going to have to be clever about it. I got some support from a couple of foundations to try to find a way to link with a bunch of European and a few American scientists, including George Woodwell, Bill Clark, to try to find a way to bridge between the product of that 1985 Villach meeting, the product of the Brundtland commission—the UN Commission on Environment and Development, which reported to the UN General Assembly and I believe coined the phrase “sustainable development”—and the development of the Framework Convention on climate change. The governments we knew weren’t ready for it in the mid-1980s but the proposal was there. We took up the charge of figuring out a way to bridge over and influence the governments to get interested in the issue, and that was what a lot of my activities were involved with in the late 1980s.

Zierler:

Michael, as it dawned on you that there would need to be a total reworking of the regulatory and economic framework to deal with climate change, in the 1980s what was some of the low-hanging fruit in terms of energy efficiency, in terms of taxes, in terms of the kinds of stuff that we’re nowhere near talking about people pursuing a revolution in their lives. What was some of the low-hanging fruit to pursue?

Oppenheimer:

If you really want to know what I think about it—I know you want it on tape—you can read my book from 1990 which basically has both ends of it. It has “Here are the simple things that we need to do,” and energy efficiency was being pushed by a bunch of real experts, both in the US and in developing countries who knew at a very detailed level what the gains could be from not wasting energy on incandescent light bulbs, from increased efficiency of appliances—a program, by the way, which US DOE was both funding research on and regulating in terms of increasingly tough standards on ordinary appliances like air conditioners. Immense gains already were starting to be made by 1990 from that program on the benefits of energy efficiency. On motor vehicles, the fuel economy of the motor vehicle fleet had jumped radically due to the fuel economy regulations that came out in the 1980 Energy Security Act, I think is where it is. Fuel economy is inversely proportional to amount of CO2 emissions. Those measures were already being taken not because of climate change, but because of the energy crisis of the ‘70s and the desire to become less dependent on foreign oil, which turned out to be pretty difficult until the fracking revolution in the United States. All of that stuff had created a whole list of possible measures, including, for instance, making the steel industry (which was starting to evaporate from the US anyway) more efficient, but other industries like aluminum which are very energy-intensive, or aviation which is very energy-intensive. So during the ’80s, a lot of activity at EDF and other environmental groups wasn’t focused specifically on climate change but was focused on policies that would force the electric utilities to treat the selling of efficiency measures on the same basis of the selling of electricity because a negawatt (negative watt), as it was dubbed by Amory Lovins, was as important environmentally or to saving energy as the kilowatt was to producing energy. Let’s put it that way. So, a lot of this stuff was going on because-- not anything to do with climate. On the policy side, the ground had been prepared during the ’70s, and into that came the extra concern about climate change.

Zierler:

Okay. Next question is we’ve been talking about climate change up to this point largely in a domestic context, and of course the atmosphere is the ultimate global commons and it’s inescapable that there needs to be a global response to it. So, what was the game plan for you in terms of realizing the importance of bringing this to the UN agenda?

Oppenheimer:

First of all, I want to put a marker down. Let’s come back to it. You started me down the path of when did I realize it wasn’t going to be easy.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Oppenheimer:

And I want to get to talking about the contrarian skeptical movement which included no small number of physicists, so it’s well worth talking about in this context. But if you prefer, I’ll go around the other way first. But let’s remember. You know, it was obvious from the beginning that this problem needed an international solution. US emissions were, what, 25% of the global total. You weren’t going to solve the climate problem by reducing that part alone. As time went on, it became clear that issues like leakage of emissions from the US to other countries that weren’t controlling their emissions would be a problem if you didn’t do an international solution—that is, a transfer of industry production from one country, high emission production from one country to another. Then trade competitiveness would be an issue, and of course, if you were going to stare down the oil industry, which has been powerful for more than a century, it was going to take a lot of agreement by other governments probably at the same time. So, this was a given at the beginning. So the idea we had, the political idea that went along with the scientific work that I did in the mid-1980s on the nature of the climate change problem—the political idea was to gather a scientific consensus, working with a few governments who were willing at that time to cooperate on the problem and could be counted on to forward the problem, press the problem in areas, international venues, and that that would eventually stimulate enough interest so that a negotiation on a framework convention would be inevitable. Once you had a framework convention, you could use that to leverage a bunch of protocols, and that’s in fact what happened. I and the small gang of scientists and governments I was collaborating with was certainly not the only thing going on, but it helped. It was one of the factors. We originally-- After the meetings we had—we had a second meeting in Villach to explore the impacts of climate change and then a meeting at Bellagio, you know, the Rockefeller Foundation mansion on Lake Como in Bellagio. It’s a fantastic place to have a small meeting. We got a bunch of people who were from the science policy world together with people doing research on climate change. Again, Bert Bolin was a big presence there, George Woodwell, Bill Clark, Jill Jaeger, and some others. We got out of them-- First of all, we got the cooperation of UNEP and WMO, two UN agencies. That was important. Mostafa Tolba, who was head of UNEP, was very activist and wanted to use UNEP, which has not been very useful in general but had been very helpful on the ozone depletion problem. By the time we got to-- This was 1986 going into 1987. The Montreal Protocol was signed in 1987, so he was very engaged, and he wanted to do something similar on climate change. The friendly governments that got involved were the Canadians, whose government wanted to take up this issue. I think they saw, you know, half the country is kind of frozen, to exaggerate a little bit, but a lot of it is up there in the arctic and they didn’t like the idea of arctic change for a lot of reasons. I think one of them is the sovereignty up there in the archipelago would be threatened and they had to worry about that once access was possible. So the Canadian government and some of the usual suspects in northern Europe: The Swedes, the Danes, and the Dutch were making favorable noises, and Germany, which didn’t give a damn about the environment—at least the government didn’t until the Greens won a substantial minority in the Bundestag in 1986 elections, all of it based on the acid rain problem. Following the Green victories, the main German parties decided to get interested in a bunch of environmental problems, switched their negative position on ozone depletion at the Montreal Protocol negotiations, and got interested in the climate problem, too. So, some governments were shifting positions at that time, and then… Anyway, we generated this report called the Bellagio Report. It had the WMO and UNEP seals of approval, and our plan was to use that as evidence, you might say, at the next international meeting on this issue which was to be hosted in 1988 by the government of Canada (the Toronto meeting). We (this group I was involved with) not only organized-- And the key guy was an ecologist who was British—Welsh, he would say—working in Stockholm, Gordon Goodman. He was just a fantastic guy, a really good scientist and a terrific person who was rather wily and knew how to operate in these international scientific organizations which I didn’t know anything about, basically, until I got involved with this activity. We made contact with the Canadians—I’m not sure exactly how that happened, maybe through Jim Bruce or Ken Hare, two influential scientists Gordon knew—and we had a lot of influence on the final statement from the Toronto meeting. We were on the steering committee of the meeting and wrote big parts of the statement. Then that led to-- That statement itself formed one of the bases for the 1990 Second World Climate Conference. We expected that conference to issue a call for a framework convention again. We thought that after that the governments couldn’t avoid negotiation. That was a little naïve, but in fact the negotiations did start in January 1991 in Chantilly, Virginia. It was remarkably easy, you might say—too easy, deceptively easy. The one thing that we had not done—the “we” I’m thinking about was the US environmental groups—is establish a domestic constituency, and maybe it would have been impossible. One of our thoughts was that the difficulty of establishing a serious domestic constituency for an abstract future-looking issue made it a necessity to go through the international political arena, but there are damn few international issues which have reached serious binding agreements on anything which didn’t start at home. You’ve got to first get the domestic politics straight at least partly. So that was either a mistake or the best we could do under the circumstances or some combination of both. Since I wasn’t really-- My interest and activity had drifted over to the international side more and more, and other people-- I wasn’t a grassroots organizer, and the other environmental groups just couldn’t figure out a good handle on it, and neither could EDF. First, the other environmental groups didn’t get involved until 1988 and then they continually found it very difficult to organize around. That’s one reason you wound up with an agreement later like the Kyoto Protocol that did have binding targets but didn’t have the political support to get ratified in the US. So in a way, events played out at the international level more optimistically and faster than I expected, but then they eventually hit a brick wall in the US. Now there’s the parallel development at the same time of IPCC. IPCC was founded in 1988, and it eventually became a key source of information for the climate negotiators. If there’s one thing IPCC-- IPCC has been successful. If there’s one thing you could use as a measure of its success, it’s that at the climate negotiations, science is no longer debated. IPCC took it off the table, not right away, but eventually, and that’s the most important thing that a process like that could do—set up walls and protect the science while making the science available in a cogent way to policymakers and prevent science becoming a matter of argumentation in the political process so much that it pushes aside the political negotiation of a solution to climate change. In other words, I’m not saying that there should be a separation between science and public policy, not at all, but leave the arguments about what the factual basis is to the experts, at least so that there can be a consensus level of agreement of what we know, what we don’t know. Those uncertainties sort of surround the terrain on which policy will be built. The policymakers have to get informed about the issue, but they shouldn’t be arguing about which scientist is right and which scientist is wrong. That’s the job of IPCC. So I got involved in IPCC right at the beginning. I was skeptical about it because the governments controlled the process in a way. It sort of was a joint process between the governments and the scientists. It turns out that that mixture, which I thought would be unstable and fall over in favor of the governments, turned out to be stable with the scientists digging in, essentially, every time the governments tried to go too far and mess too much with the language in the reports. Instead, it’s turned out to be a very useful process - what’s called co-production - where we get a summary for policymakers out of these reports which is usually made better, not worse - with a few exceptions - by the participation of governments in the writing of the document. There’s a whole long story about the pluses and minuses of IPCC. From my own point of view, I’ve spent thousands of hours of time on IPCC since 1989. I was a contributing author, which is the lowest level of author, on the first report and a reviewer, and gradually over time I became what’s called a lead author, then a coordinating lead author which I’ve been three times and now I’m a review editor. But I’ve seen the whole authorship function inside and out, and it’s a terrific institution which was put together kind of on an ad hoc basis but has changed and adapted. Still got a ways to go; it’s never going to be perfect. Nothing ever is, but among the climate institutions, it’s one that’s been among the most helpful.

Zierler:

Michael, sort of a broad question. As you were becoming increasingly involved in international negotiations, from your perch at EDF, right, not being in the government but being domestically based, what were some of the advantages and some of the disadvantages coming from the EDF framework?

Oppenheimer:

Among the advantages, I became recognized because of the public exposure it gave me, that platform, as someone who could explain science cogently in language that policymakers and the average person would understand. I was in the media a lot, all the time.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Oppenheimer:

You know, I knew how to do-- My wife will tell you a funny story, which was in the late 1970s when I was first thinking about joining EDF, I said, “Listen. My one big ambition in life is to get mentioned once in the New York Times.” It seems kind of funny, you know. Especially these days anybody can get their name in the media, and I’ve been mentioned hundreds of times in these so-called elite media. That was basically a naïve version of what I wanted to be able to do. I wanted to be able to talk science plainly. It always bothered me that most scientists could barely articulate what they were up to in a conversation with their colleagues, much less with someone from a sort of totally different culture. So I was good at it, always have been, and this gave me-- my perch in EDF gave me a platform which I would never have had. In fact, I didn’t complete that story about my leaving Harvard when they said, “You’re burning bridges.” One thing they tried to do to get me to stay was they said they would let me create an environmental institute at the Center for Astrophysics. Now at that point, at the point I started thinking about EDF, I was 31 years old. I had no idea. I didn’t have enough experience in the world to know how to create anything, and it just seemed to me like they were offering me something which seemed like it should be enticing, but I didn’t have the vaguest idea how I would turn it into anything. Maybe if I’d been smarter at that point or more mature, I could have figured out what to do with that offer, but I couldn’t at that point. But EDF offered me the kind of platform that such an institute would offer but I wouldn’t have to build it! And what I would be able to do was the infrastructure would be around me that would raise money for this. At EDF, the infrastructure was around me that had people who were media-savvy. The infrastructure was around me, most importantly people who had connections immediately in the political arena, and all I had to do was be the best scientist I could, but talk English and use some of the good sense that I had developed over time by being interested in politics to be able to be rational about what’s a sensible policy and what was-- Obviously on that dimension I had a lot to learn, but it was just I stumbled into something that in the long term was perfect for me. Let’s put it that way. We changed executive directors around 1984, and the executive director who we hired—and I was on the committee that hired him and was influential in getting—was Fred Krupp, who’s still head of EDF 37 years later. I have the math right, right? He’s a good leader and a brilliant fundraiser for the organization. Nobody does it like Fred. That created this zone in which I could operate and not worry about a lot of things that even scientists have to worry about usually. I was good at fundraising, but I didn’t have to initiate contacts. I didn’t have to go begging. Fred and the staff would do the hard work and then they’d bring me in to make the convincing argument. Because I was the scientist instead of merely an activist making an argument about how important the climate change problem was, people believed me, and they were right to believe me. So that element of my life-- Again, there’s a lot of luck in that, as we said before. You’ve got to be lucky. You can’t just be clever to get anything done. So that was the platform, and then I started being introduced to people who were not just influential the way EDF eventually became on this issue, but were actually-- They had power, not just influence. They were making decisions. So, I met a lot of people at the top rank of various governments and again used that opening to try to convince them about climate change if they were at the ready to listen. That’s another thing that that platform provided me. Probably the pinnacle of that moment was when I met Margaret Thatcher, who set aside an entire day—six and a half hours, I think it was—to apparently educate herself on climate change, but in fact justify a policy that she already decided on for various reasons. She had most of her cabinet plus herself with a bunch of scientists, 25 or 30 of them, in 10 Downing Street, and I was invited because—it wasn’t actually so much to do with the EDF connection, but because I knew the British UN ambassador, Sir Crispin Tickell, who had met me at the climate negotiations. Well, this was before the climate negotiations. No, he had met me through some of the preliminary activity. He knew me and I was the-- I and Bob Watson who was born in Britain but was an American citizen; we were the only Americans at that meeting. We spent all day with Margaret Thatcher giving her the ammunition so she could go out and talk about the importance of doing something about climate change. That was 1989, I think.

Zierler:

Michael, as the COP framework into the 1990s was coming into focus and the idea being that the diplomacy and the regulations and the buy-in would get better and better year after year, at what point was there a sense of the end view that obviously we’re not there yet, but what was the timescale for thinking about climate diplomacy in x number of years, meaning we’ve achieved our benchmarks and so now it’s not, you know, looking to the future in terms of how can we get better, but we’ve achieved that and now it’s a matter of maintaining the commitments that we’ve already achieved?

Oppenheimer:

You mean in the sense of dealing with climate change regularly, as part of the normal policy process like clean air is? It’s the Clean Air Act model, and it just happens there are deadlines in the act. There’s a mechanism for updating, depending on what the science says about which levels of air pollution are dangerous. Is that what you mean?

Zierler:

Yes.

Oppenheimer:

Yeah. So that’s been my aspiration all along, that climate change should get to that point.

Zierler:

Right.

Oppenheimer:

The other feature of that is so what does that say about the way policy needs to look? Climate change is so pervasive. If you look… You know, there’s a lot of framing now around the Green New Deal type of approach, which basically is climate change not only affects everything, but decisions we make about all parts of the economy affect our greenhouse gas emissions. So, we need to think about solving the greenhouse problem in an integral fashion with solving everything else in society. Now usually that’s a rulebook for making no progress because you can usually just solve one relatively narrow thing at a time, but in this case, it might be the only way to solve this problem because you have to find ways to buy in multiple constituencies and because it’s such a-- You know, it’s just recently that it’s come into people’s faces by all the stuff that’s going on in the climate system which is manifesting itself in a way that people think is due to climate change, and in fact a lot of it is, and scientists are able to stand up with a serious sense of certainty and say 80% of the intensity of this heat wave was due to climate change, something like that, or an intensity of a tropical cycle. So, we’re just getting to that point. But way back when I wrote Dead Heat in the late ’80s, I have a chapter… I think it’s the name of a chapter. Maybe I just used the term organizing principle, which is a term that others have used in this context also, including Al Gore. I think actually it was George H. W. Bush who used it first in the sense of international policy when the Cold War ended, but since my book precedes that, maybe I’m getting things a little off in terms of who used what when. But in the book, what it meant was all decisions about the economy, about trade, about infrastructure need to be looked at through the lens of climate change. I thought that we would get to the point where the climate aspect of it (not the case, but ideally in some sense) would disappear and you would just be doing things which automatically were of high energy efficiency. You would be doing things which would take advantage of the availability of renewable energy for foreign policy reasons, if nothing else. You’d have the various rationales for working on different parts of the problem. The thing that holds it all together is climate change, but it’s so embedded in the regular carrying on of business of the government and of the private sector that it would just sort of its own inertia automatically happen. We haven’t gotten there, but the ideas that are now propagating in the Biden administration about how to combine COVID recovery, as we said before, and dealing with climate change and this Green New Deal idea basically at their heart are the same idea.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Oppenheimer:

And I know Al Gore, in his 1992 book, also talked about that idea, and I don’t remember-- I used to see Al Gore a fair amount in that era, so I don’t know who stole the idea from whom or whether it was just in the air. But my book preceded his. So, I think that’s what you mean: how can you just get that decision and then create a system for governance which is automatic in its adjustment, depending on how the risk changes? Maybe 30 years from now we discover 2 degrees was wrong; things aren’t quite that dangerous. We’ll know more. Or maybe they are more dangerous and you either let up or get more stringent on emissions constraints. The Clean Air Act operates that way, so my model has always been let’s build something like the Clean Air Act. Now how you do that on an international level is a bit more complicated yet because you’re dealing with 200 states all with different governance approaches, and something like the Clean Air Act doesn’t exist in most of those systems. But at least domestically we would be able to get a structure going which would give us the-- not just give us the security that we’re doing the best we can over time, but get buy-in from the public because the public would understand it as an issue that needs to have that sort of constant level of attention. The public doesn’t worry about clean air very much because (a) air is a lot cleaner, but (b) they think the government’s on top of it, and the government has been largely on top of it, with the exception of the claims related to environmental justice, which is basically that we don’t worry enough about emissions in areas where people that we, in general, don’t worry enough about, are living.

Zierler:

Right.

Oppenheimer:

And there’s a racial component to that, too, of course. So that’s where in the ideal world I’d like to get a fair and comprehensive solution to the climate problem.

Zierler:

Michael, sort of a broad question. I’d like to ask how much energy have you expended over the decades taking on maverick scientists who are either-- You know, they doubt the theory of greenhouse gas entirely. They sow doubt. They’ve obviously, while they’re in the distinct minority in the scientific community, politically they have taken on a hugely outsize role because Republicans, climate change deniers, that’s who they go to say, “There’s no concern here. There’s nothing to worry about.” So, both in your role as a scientist, but also as a policy intellectual deeply enmeshed in these issues, how closely have you tried to convince your fellow scientists who believe these things that they’re just way off?

Oppenheimer:

Well, the true contrarians are contrarians and you’re not going to-- I discovered a long time ago you’re not going to convince them. Each has their own motivation and reason, and they’re not the same in each case, but they add up to the same thing, namely, they’re not very circumspect about only talking about things where they actually have some scientific knowledge. You know, the word “scientist” implies a credential, a permit to make an assertion that’s probably true, but you can have somebody who’s an expert on this much and yet making claims about that much. Scientists are too subject to actually doing that, by the way.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Oppenheimer:

They’re not careful about boundaries. They care about other people not violating their boundaries; they’re not careful about other experts’ boundaries. Because it was part of my job at EDF to know as much about the whole sweep of the problem as I could, I’m one of the few people I know of who actually bothered to try to keep up on something that at one point was an approximation, in broad sweep, of the whole literature that was relevant to climate change. It’s impossible today. The literature has exploded so much. That’s a losing proposition and I can’t do it anymore. It’s not that my brain has slowed down; it’s just the literature has gotten too big. I can’t read every relevant and interesting paper. But for a time, I knew enough about all parts of the problem so I knew and was careful about what areas I shouldn’t try to exclaim on. I knew times when I should say, “Look, I’m not an expert in that. Talk to Joe Blow over there,” but I knew enough about a whole wide swatch of the problem so that in the public arena, if I was careful, I couldn’t really be challenged. The trouble with the contrarians is they’re too lazy to bother to do that and they make claims all over the place, including about public policy. I figure I have a right to talk about public policy because I lived and breathed it for a long time while I was also living and breathing science. You have people popping off, and they have a right to pop off as citizens—everybody can talk, First Amendment—but as scientists, as professionals, as experts they do not have a right to use their PhDs in one thing to deceive people into thinking that they are equally smart when they talk about something else. Uh-uh [no]. You should have to turn in your badge if you do that, and there’s a lot of that among the contrarians. But then there are others who do know, who stick fairly narrowly to what they actually know (up to a point, at least) but either distort or have blinders and choose-- give half-truths, don’t acknowledge some of the evidence, or aren’t as smart as they think they are, is another possibility. There are those who have probably been influenced by support from industry, but then again, you can argue I was influenced by having a job in an environmental organization. I think it went the other way around. Namely, I brought the issue to the organization.

Zierler:

Yeah! [laugh]

Oppenheimer:

You know, there are those who just like attention. They’ll do it for the attention. There are a couple of those I could tell you about. There are those who are dumb. They don’t even know their own field very well, and they’re just too stupid to know what they don’t know. And then there are those who are purely malevolent who are smart, who know a bunch of stuff, and are willing to be deceptive just because they’re not good people. You’ve got all of that, which is why I don’t like to start naming names—

Zierler:

Right.

Oppenheimer:

—because all of it isn’t true of any one person.

Zierler:

Sure, sure.

Oppenheimer:

There are some well-intended people who have just wandered off because they’re misguided.

Zierler:

Michael, while the basic theory of greenhouse gases and carbon emissions is simple, of course the science of climate change is fantastically complex.

Oppenheimer:

Right.

Zierler:

So on that point, you’re not going to assert that we understand all of the mechanisms of climate change. That’s not the point, right? So within that basis, what are some of the areas in the science that are still poorly understood, not so much that it would lead to questioning the entire theory, but just honestly saying, “These are areas that we understand well and here are areas where we really still have a lot more work to do”?

Oppenheimer:

Let me finish what I was saying about contrarianism. There’s been a particularly virulent form of it in the physics community. It’s not like it’s true of most physicists, but it’s true of far too many that they’ve been convinced because-- Certain individuals got convinced that because they have a PhD in physics and received a lot of respect for complicated and important work they did in one field that that gives them the right to make assertions with some authority about anything related to climate change and other stuff, too, and that’s just wrong. It’s cheapened physics and a lot of it is ego-based. You know, physics is not quite at the top. Mathematicians are above you guys, you know, but it’s near the top of the pyramid, the imagined pyramid in terms of brilliance and intellectual respect. But I’m sorry. That doesn’t buy you the right to lose sight of what you really know and what you don’t know, and there have been far too many times when a few too many people shot off their mouths about aspects of the problem that they didn’t understand or where they were using the respect they get out of being physicists to say something that even in some cases they know isn’t true. That happens sometimes. And sometimes it’s gotten ugly and it’s been counterproductive. Saying that, most physicists are not like that, but you would think that a discipline that respects itself for its high level of intellectual rigor compared to other disciplines would know better than to shoot their mouths off about things where they should instead be listening until they-- or do their homework and really gather the expertise, which because of the complexity of the problem is not so easy. Let me see some of those people publish something in the scientific literature before they render their judgments on the problem. There have been a few that have, and then they go off and say things that are wrong anyway sometimes, but that’s life. Anyway, that’s my speech.

Zierler:

So, to go back to that question, if there are any real gaps in our knowledge…

Oppenheimer:

And I’m a card-carrying member of the American Physical Society.

Zierler:

Oh, yes.

Oppenheimer:

So, I consider myself a physicist, too.

Zierler:

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Oppenheimer:

I’m saying they’re my brethren.

Zierler:

So that question, you know, the idea is the theory behind greenhouse gas emissions and climate change—that might be simple on balance, but the science of climate change as a planetary problem is extraordinarily complex. So just to give a range, what are the things that we understand rock solid, and what are some of the areas of climate change where there’s still fundamental understanding and work to be done?

Oppenheimer:

Well, we understand the radiation balance rock solid, at least at a global level. When you get to the regional level, we have a lot of measurements, but because the radiation balance is affected by small-scale phenomena like cloud cover or ground cover, as you get to smaller and smaller scales—this is true of almost the entire problem—you lose certainty. The problem is, again going back to something we said earlier, that building up from the micro scale to the macro scale is a nasty issue throughout the whole problem, and of course it intrigues me because that’s, as I said, going back to my early days in astrophysics. That’s what I’ve been interested in. Particularly to answer your question about what’s the hardest part of the problem, well, it’s the cloud problem and building from the micro scale… It’s actually back down. You know more or less what’s going on at the macro scale because you can see clouds under various conditions, but understanding how they got to be where they are, why they are, what the process at the micro scale is that got them there, so that you understand enough so you can project forward under different physical conditions. A process-based model is the gold standard in physics and it’s the gold standard in climate science for projection forward. It’s the best way if you have a model which incorporates all the relevant physical, chemical, biological processes. But in the physical part of the problem alone, which is largely what the cloud problem is, we don’t know a lot of the details of these physical processes as they occur in the real atmosphere. Part of the problem is just there isn’t enough money. It’s hard work to do. Part of it is a lot of the most interesting stuff goes on in convective clouds, which you don’t want to be flying through the active areas of convective clouds because nobody will ever see you again, and part of it is just the damn-- You need a lot of computer time to do it right. So there’s been very, very slow progress on that. Another problem which is kind of analogous is the ice sheet problem. We know at a large scale what’s going on because you can look at ice sheets just like you look at clouds, from the top down, but you don’t know what’s going on at the bottom of the ice sheet. You can do some radar echo studies, and there are some other ideas about what to do. You can get indirect information from how fast the ice is flowing, in order to say something about what the base must look like, but fundamentally we don’t know what the micro scale processes are at the base that are causing, say, friction or the lack thereof and therefore accelerating or slowing the motion of an ice sheet toward the sea. It turns out that’s some very small areas, smaller than a few square kilometers, are enough to cause problems for an ice sheet’s motion. Maybe the ice flow encounters such a rough patch and can neatly flow around that and resume its previous flow on the other side. Or maybe that patch is much more disruptive and by encountering a region of high friction or high lubrication at the base, the flow of the ice on the other side is disrupted. That’s important because ice sheets… Taken together, the two major ice sheets in Greenland or in Antarctica contribute a third to the rate of sea level rise, and that amount is growing and it’s projected to continue growing throughout this century. The loss of ice from the ice sheets is causing in large measure the acceleration of the rate of sea level rise. Those, to my mind, are the two big problems where we know a lot of the science and we can say a lot of it from a combination of observation and some modeling, but where the modeling, which is really what you need to project into the future, is difficult to improve because we don’t know enough about the small-scale processes.

Zierler:

Your move to Princeton: what were the motivations there?

Oppenheimer:

By the way, that’s just on the physical science side.

Zierler:

Right.

Oppenheimer:

I just simplified this for physicists. When you include the human side, when you include how humans are going to respond to this, when you include why humans move into areas that are vulnerable and how do you get them to move out, when you think about policies that will cause humans to do things to restrain emissions, that’s very important and it’s impossible at this point to model most of it. It’s, again, the same problem that if you know something about individual human behavior, it still doesn’t add up to tell you what they’ll do as a group, the collective action problem.

Zierler:

Right, right.

Oppenheimer:

Anyway, go ahead.

Zierler:

Michael, the choice of yours to move to Princeton in 2002—how did that come about? Did you feel like you accomplished all that you could at EDF?

Oppenheimer:

Once the Kyoto Protocol was signed, I felt that I had had a significant effect on the development of the climate regime on both the science side and the policy side. I’d had a significant impact on the US resolution of the acid rain problem. I’d contributed to, although I wouldn’t necessarily say in a significant way, the solution to the ozone depletion problem. My public speaking on that was probably more important than the science I did, although again I tried to be the expert in the environmental community by keeping up on that literature. And yeah, I accomplished a lot and I thought the way forward was going to be somewhat less interesting to me, partly because, as happens in almost every job, a lot of what I was doing was starting… Well, no. Let me go back a little bit. I told you two papers that I had written at EDF which I thought were very important. There was a third paper. That paper is a review paper in Nature called “Global Warming and the Stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.” The ice sheet community was split, with the stabilists dominant. For a variety of reasons, I thought it wasn’t convincing that they were necessarily right, and I wanted to open up the issue and see what I could conclude for myself. So I spent a year at EDF mostly doing the research on that review paper, and I didn’t do it with a paper in mind. I did it in the idea of educating myself so that I could then go out and influence the public debate and the scientific debate about the ice sheets and sea level rise in a sensible way. That was one of the beauties of EDF: I could do that. But after I got done with that-- toward the end of it, I realized as I wrote it up into a report for myself that it was a review paper, and I called up the editors at Nature and I said, “Would you be interested in this?” and they said, “Well, let us see it.” You know, it got reviewed well and it got published. That paper sort of-- The writing of that paper connected me up with a new community, the people who do ice sheet work. I went to their meetings for quite a while, and I met a lot of them and I got friendly with a bunch of them. You know, I really enjoyed their company, and the combination of that-- Oh gee, maybe I do like hanging around scientists, which one of the reasons I left academia is I didn’t find it that much fun in the early days. At the same time, I enjoyed the act of closing myself off partly from the politics and working on a purely scientific question. It wasn’t 100%, but a disproportionate amount of my time went to doing what I used to do before going to EDF, thinking about the science and trying to understand it and make progress on it. I think that, combined with the fact that when the Bush administration came in, it was clear that nothing much would be done on climate change for quite a few years in the political arena—for the US at least—that my mind opened up to the question, do I want to spend the rest of my career doing advocacy? Then the environmental community was falling into some level of internal confrontation. There were disputes about things like, oh, EDF had forwarded the idea and successfully pressed for the idea of cap-and-trade in the Kyoto Protocol. A lot of the environmentalists didn’t like emissions trading. There were some brutal internecine battles about that, and so more and more time… Since I had excellent relationships with people outside EDF in the environmental community, more and more of my time was taken up kind of mediating, and that wasn’t so much fun. And in general, when you stop making progress for a while, it’s hard in activist movements. You know, you get up every day thinking you’re going to save the world. That’s basically your job, and a lot of people are like that. I’ve always been more level-headed than that, but a lot of people do get up-- But at least you have an objective. But when you get up in the morning and your objective on the policy side has been closed off, well, I had the ability to go back and retrench into doing science. A lot of other people didn’t, but I started to think, well, maybe I don’t need the rest of this headache for the time being. As I was starting to think that way, my colleague David Wilcove—who was a wildlife scientist at EDF, he’s an ornithologist—called me up and said-- He was in the Washington office and he said, “Look. A friend of mine at Princeton had called me and said that the head of their science and policy program just left and they’re looking for someone to lead it. Do you have any ideas of someone you would suggest?” You know, we talked about it a little bit and then he said, “I’m thinking of throwing in my own name,” David said. Then I thought about it a little bit and I said, “Yeah, all right. Throw in my name, too.” That was it. It was that simple, and both of us had the kind of weird combination of skills. David had written some very excellent papers on biodiversity. He was a leader in the field, and yet he was working for an advocacy organization. I had continued to publish, not intentionally for that reason. The reason I was continuing to publish all those years at EDF is because it was a way to keep that scientific network together that I talked about earlier, and my reputation and my ability to access people who knew things I didn’t know was dependent on that network. So, Princeton all of a sudden being interested in both of us seemed weird, but let’s give it a try and yeah, they bit. It took a while. You know, I didn’t want to change careers just on a whim, but they offered David a job and me a job at roughly the same time. David was more certain he wanted to go, and I wasn’t sure. Well, I was already in a good situation at EDF, but in some ways what Princeton offered was a better situation, just speaking superficially. I used it for some leverage at EDF for some things I had wanted and basically made sure that the financial arrangements were similar enough so I wouldn’t be making the decision based on money either way. I just decided the time is right. I had always loved teaching. I didn’t have the time for it while I was at EDF. The part of me that liked to do the academic sort of work/live in your head a while clearly was still alive. The West Antarctic ice sheet paper proved that, and so that was that. I just made a change. I think at that point-- I think my wife was opposed to that one, but I won that argument.

Zierler:

Michael, I can’t help but ask. To go back to your waning days at Harvard where you had a “to hell with it” approach to academia, right, you’re still the same guy. You’ve had many new experiences over the course of your career since, but I get the sense that the same barbs that you had in terms of academia had not gone away. So how might you have recalled that to think about what your appointment would mean at Princeton and how you might minimize having that process start all over again?

Oppenheimer:

Well, at Princeton-- Well, no. Let me go back. Before I went to Princeton, yeah, I had trepidation to some extent. First of all, when I tried to put together-- I started teaching right away, and I tried to put together a course before I left EDF on acetate overheads—you know, the old days before PowerPoint. Boy, the idea of putting together a course was hard. It’s still hard, by the way, as anyone will tell you. So I had some trepidation about that. I had trepidation about walking into a classroom and all of a sudden not knowing how to fill an hour or an hour and a half. I didn’t know how my colleagues would receive me, so it was a very pleasant surprise when I got there that they seemed thrilled to have people like me and David around. So, pretty quickly, the only negative part of Princeton became that it’s in Princeton and I live in New York City and that meant a long commute which takes me-- I don’t go there every day even when I can travel, which I can’t now because of COVID. But it means there are times I’d rather be on campus when I can’t be because I’ve got to be headed home and vice versa. It’s not an unmixed blessing, but Princeton has been… The thing about Princeton is it has an… It’s small. For a big university, it’s small compared to Harvard or Columbia or Stanford. Its only professional schools are the policy school and the engineering school, but there is no medical school or law school. There’s no big presence of any kind. It’s a much more equally distributed campus in terms of numbers of people that you can interact with, and we interact with each other all the time. It’s very easy to just walk across the street and plop yourself down and cross disciplines just by crossing the street, and that’s been terrific. And the attitude is very flexible on interdisciplinary cooperation, despite the fact that the departments are shaped like traditional departments by and large. So being in that atmosphere has been terrific, and I get to have my cake and eat it, too. I never really did leave EDF. I’m a scientific advisor to EDF. I maintain my contacts and participation to some extent with EDF. I’m on their scientific advisory committee of the board, and it’s allowed me to exploit the connections through EDF with the policy arena and benefit from those, and they need me also because they don’t have a senior climate scientist. Since I left they haven’t-- They had one for a while, but it didn’t work out. It takes a special type of intellectual peculiarity to want to do what I did, and they haven’t been able to actually reproduce me. If they’d been really eager to reproduce me, maybe they would have found a way, so I don’t want to be too egotistical about this. But I was doing something unusual which hasn’t been easy for them to redo, so they’re glad I’m still available to them. So, it’s a two-way street. So, I always felt like I didn’t completely leave activism. I talk to the press, to the media, maybe not as much as I used to, but still quite a lot. You know, I get to do research and most important, I get to teach and I get to pull the next generation into this mess of a problem or set of problems we have to deal with. So, I feel like I got lucky again, basically. At each point in my career I got lucky.

Zierler:

Michael, what opportunities have you had since joining the faculty at Princeton for advisory work, either for the US government, internationally, or for even corporations that want to be more environmentally responsible?

Oppenheimer:

Yeah. So, I’m careful about corporate involvement because there are certain companies that I just won’t be involved with. I’ll never get involved with the ExxonMobil Corporation in any financial relationship because they spent too much of their effort supporting the contrarians, and I thought that goes over a line. If you don’t stick to the truth, I don’t care. I don’t want anything to do with you. I did have a relationship where I was a paid consultant to Cummins Engineering at a time when they were trying to figure out—they make diesel engines. They were trying to figure out not only how to clean up diesels under regulatory pressure, but what they would do about greenhouse gases. It was an interesting and enjoyable experience. I was hauled in there by John Deutch, who you know the various career…

Zierler:

Of course. Yeah!

Oppenheimer:

Well, one thing you don’t know is, he was my instructor in thermodynamics in 1965 at MIT. He didn’t remember that, but he knew me by reading the things I spouted off about at the press. So, he was head of this advisory committee to Cummins in the early 2000s. He reached out. He wanted some climate change knowledge on it, so he pulled me onto the committee. Also on there—it was interesting to me; I learned a lot—was Ernie Moniz, later Secretary of Energy and someone who was Defense Secretary under Carter.

Zierler:

Harold Brown.

Oppenheimer:

Harold Brown. Right. And a bunch of other interesting people, including another one of my instructors! Of course, Deutch was at MIT, which was… George Whitesides—he was my organic chemistry instructor, the field I hated. He was a good instructor, but I just hated the material in like 1964. [laugh] So it’s like golden oldie week on that committee, and I learned a lot about diesel engines in the process. I think I gave them some useful advice, and I learned a shitload about the corporate structure and how it makes decisions in technical areas, so that was a good experience. I’ve had… You know, government will reach out to me periodically for some advisory role.

Zierler:

For example, were you involved with the run-up to the Paris accord?

Oppenheimer:

Was I involved in the run-up to the Paris accord? It depends on what you-- I didn’t have any formal relationship with the US government. I had a lot of interaction with people from the US government, but whether-- I don’t want to claim I had a significant role. That would be wrong. I had a much more significant role in the run-up to Kyoto.

Zierler:

Right. Right.

Oppenheimer:

And part of that might be that I’m not at EDF anymore, and part of it might be that there are so many people now offering advice in the climate area that my particular strength and the reason I spend a lot of time with IPCC is my ability to integrate across the scientific borders, boundaries. I do that better than a lot of other people, and IPCC is the type of organization that needs that. So the way I can provide advice indirectly to governments through IPCC is where I now spend that energy, but I do get asked periodically to do certain other things for governments. Since I’m working more and more on climate adaptation, requests from local governments are especially interesting. For example, I served for about 8 years on the New York City Panel on Climate Change which advised Mayor Bloomberg and now Mayor de Blasio on technical aspects of sea level rise, coastal flooding and other climate risks for the purpose of rebuilding from the Hurricane Sandy disaster and defending the city in a way appropriate to the growing risk from climate change. Among other things, we made future flood risk projections for the city and this influenced new guidelines for what can and cannot be built in low elevation areas. I was recently appointed to the board of trustees for Governors Island, which the city took over from the federal government a few years ago and plans to use largely for a large park and educational facilities, along with some commercial development. They asked me to serve because part of the educational mission is development of a climate solutions research center with an emphasis on adaptation. Given the pace of urbanization and migration toward coastal cities in particular…combine that with the increasing risk from sea level rise and extreme heat and you have an ideal location for such work. And of course, NYC is my home so what better opportunity for public service.

Zierler:

Michael, since you’ve had your pulse on public perception of climate change and the immediacy of the danger, are you satisfied that we are where we need to be as a society, at least in terms of recognizing the problem as a precondition to enacting the kind of regulation and policies that are necessary to mitigate climate change, or are we not even there yet?

Oppenheimer:

We’re almost there. I think that the revolution that’s occurred in communicating climate science, partly because there’s a lot to communicate now, the manifestation of the predictions of climate science in the here and now beyond saying the Earth is warming, but saying things like extreme events are already happening and part of some of these events is due to the buildup of the greenhouse gases—that is a critical threshold for public education we have already passed. People see this stuff on their TV screens, and sometimes they infer things have to do with climate change that don’t, of course, and we need to be clear about that. But in general, they’re getting the right message that things are happening with an intensity and a frequency that didn’t occur before, that the system is getting warmer, that by and large these changes are due to the buildup of the greenhouse gases, and it’s going to continue and get worse until we do something about it. That’s enough for the average person. So we’ve gotten to that threshold. However, the society is riven. We know that, and there are certain parts of society that will never accept it, and that’s why you go back to Planck’s assertion, to paraphrase, “Progress one funeral at a time,” you know. It’s true in science and it’s definitely true in anything that has the political implications that this issue does. I’m an optimist and I’m glad to see we’re there—that we’re almost there. I think we have a little further to go on that. And I wish the political situation were a little more stable so we could get a solution that looks like a Clean Air Act in place that is its own engine and will propagate progress on its own at the appropriate level, consistent with what the science tells us, not just the science, the economics. And ultimately, we’re in a democracy. Thank God we’re still that, and that’s critically important… You have to take account of what people can tolerate at any one time in terms of doing something that’s big and changing the framework. But you know, I’m convinced that the things that need to be done are by and large things that will make people happier, of course, on a variety of fronts. So yeah, I think we’re-- The path forward is not going to be easy, and it won’t be all pleasant. You know, humans have this capability to make a mess and then clean up afterwards before everything goes totally to shit—usually, not always. The analogy I like is what happened with our handling of the threat from nuclear weapons. We were foolish, foolhardy about that. We let the genie out of the bottle and then we haven’t really stuffed the genie back in the bottle—

Zierler:

No.

Oppenheimer:

—but we are now far safer than we were 50 or 60 years ago. We’ve got him cornered. It could have been a lot worse. Let’s put it that way. There were losses, but we muddled through to a situation which is hopefully stable and can be made better over time. I think we’ll get to the same place with the climate. There will be losses. People will die that didn’t have to die. There will be ecological disruption in many places, but I don’t think the whole system will spin out of control. I think we can get ahead of the problem, and so that’s, to me, the same kind of muddling through. Will we really stabilize the climate and be able to negotiate the issue of an appropriate temperature to stabilize at? Gee, that’s a long way off and I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I at least can see a situation where people can say, “I’m glad I had children” instead of “I’m not going to have children—a world with climate change is too big a mess to put them in.”

Zierler:

I like to hear that! [laugh] Michael, just to bring the narrative up to the present, in terms of the science, what are the things that you’re involved in right now that are both just interesting to you as a scientist, but also because the policy implications are never far from the back of your mind, the science and the research that you’re doing that will continue to have the highest impact in continuing to foster the proper action that’s necessary on a political, a regulatory, and an economic level?

Oppenheimer:

I’ve trimmed the range of science that I try to pay attention to. I no longer feel that I’m one of only a few scientists out there who can tell the story. There are a lot of good communicators now, and it’s a good thing. That means I don’t have to pay attention to every corner of the problem because some reporter might ask me something about it and somebody’s got to say something intelligent. Instead, I’m focusing largely on two research areas: one, the effect of climate change on human migration, which has immense policy implications; number two—and I’ve been doing this for 25 years now—the effect of disintegration of the two major ice sheets-- the future of the two major ice sheets and their potential effect on sea level rise and on extreme events—that is, flood levels during very high tides or storms. That’s a problem that interests me because the physics is very complicated and very uncertain. The whole issue of deep uncertainty arises, that is… There are parts of the problem where there are just multiple views which cannot be reconciled yet. There is no single good model that can project the future, and then the policy implication of that: how do you make decisions about how much warming is too much if you’re going to key this target in part to the fate of the ice sheets? Policy makers will not be in a position to “know enough” about the ice sheets for a long time, yet they have to make decisions. That decision-making process is also interesting to me as a physicist: how should I express to them and other stakeholders what we do and do not know? So those are the two things that I’ve decided are going to be the centerpiece, till I get bored with them and do something else, of my climate research, and they’ll be the centerpiece of my teaching. Both of them have both-- The science on the migration side really has a lot to do with linking the social science side of how humans respond to the physical and biological side of what will climate change do to, say, crop yields, and what will climate change do to sea level? One of my more interesting projects is the relationship between sea level rise and human migration where there’s a lot of interesting stuff coming out. So, I haven’t really given up things. You know, I said a minute ago I laid aside many scientific questions, but I get sucked back into it too because everything’s connected to everything else. But basically, the migration and sea level problem and the related policy development issues are what I’m focused on now most, and each of them is rich enough so I could throw one of them away and be, I think, happy doing the other, except I inevitably need to be doing more than one thing at a time, I guess.

Zierler:

Michael, now that we’ve worked our way up to the present, I’d like to ask for the last part of our conversation a few broadly retrospective questions and then some looking forward. The first is you’ve been involved in this for so long, and we’re now at a point in climate change where the human toll is real. It’s large, and it’s tragic. So with that in mind, looking back, do you see any missed opportunities in terms of where you could have beaten the drum harder or where you could have applied your energies differently or where you might have talked to different people? Were there any missed opportunities, not just with you specifically, but with the people that you worked on where you said, “We would be in a better place now if x had happened as a result”?

Oppenheimer:

You know, I like to do retrospectives, but I don’t like to dwell too much on mistakes made because as I said, in politics you don’t know. But going back and thinking about it, I’m glad-- One thing I’m glad-- I want to say one thing that we did right. I’m glad in the mid-1980s that I got involved with the push for a framework convention and had some effect and was too stupid to understand how complicated solving the problem was going to be. If I had been less naïve and the people working with me had been less naïve, we wouldn’t have probably gotten started, you know? [laugh] We had a certain success, but things ran into political reality where we tried to bring that back home, with the Kyoto Protocol. So, what should have been done there? As I said earlier, somebody, some set of people should have been including more effort into grassroots organizing in each of the developed countries to try to make sure that as the international negotiations made some progress, that it wasn’t all floating, levitating above nothing, and that the groundswell of public support for doing something about climate change was really there. There were very few countries where there really was a consensus as of the early to mid- ‘90s. In the European Union, there was in some countries like Germany, and-- It wasn’t the EU then. It was the EC. So that was a mistake. If more… You know, you could say it would have been a waste of time, that it wouldn’t have happened. You had to wait until, because of obvious impacts, the world felt it was in a race. Until we’re racing against the effects being so miserable that people wouldn’t have a choice but to believe it, and that’s kind of where we’re getting to now. Maybe there was nothing we could do. Maybe all the effort we spent on building the international and diplomatic infrastructure was what we should have been doing at that time, and there’s beautiful international infrastructure now on all parts of the problem from IPCC to UNFCCC to the funding for emission mitigation and adaptation that is getting large enough to help the developing countries. There’s never enough money, but the machinery is there. The relationships are there. It’s a consideration at the highest levels of government. So that’s the argument and the counterargument. Yeah, we should have been-- My colleagues should have been paying more attention to political organizing at home. On the other hand, it’s not like the time was totally wasted, and maybe there was nothing we could have done. Maybe human beings are just what they are, basically, which is if there’s a complicated future-oriented problem, it’s hard to get them active and hard to want them to sacrifice anything. So that’s number one. Number two, I’m now-- I guess I didn’t say this. I should have said this. Actually, one of the biggest parts of it-- There’s a third leg of my agenda, and the reason I didn’t mention it is because it’s embedded in the other two, and that’s climate adaptation—you know, understanding how societies can interact with foreknowledge of the climate problem and do things in advance that will protect people becomes more and more important as we build more climate change into the system. Early in my career, I and all my colleagues were focused almost entirely on emissions mitigation, and the reason for that was that we hadn’t reached the point where climate change was killing anybody yet as far as we knew. We thought that if we focused on adaptation, that’s in conflict with emissions mitigation. Not enough effort will be done on the mitigation side because people will relax and assume that we can adapt to everything. Now it turns out we got onto this too late. The thing that changed my mind about that really was watching what happened in Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy where we just weren’t prepared. Hurricane Sandy—you know, I live in an area that was affected strongly by the hurricane, and seeing how undefended one of the richest places in the world was, that shocked me and I changed my research agenda around at that point to start focusing on, well, how can we anticipate in advance? How can we protect ourselves? That in turn is tied into both the sea level rise and the migration problem because migration is a human adaptation in most cases, and the sea level problem is going to become a large part of why we’re either going to have to defend the coast at a high price or leave large parts of the coast, leave it to go back to the sea, essentially, or turn back into marginal areas like wetlands which provide natural barriers. So those efforts have become paramount in my mind. After spending the first 20 years, 25 years on this problem, in 2005 watching what happened in Katrina and then in 2012 Sandy, changed my research agenda around tremendously. What else did I do wrong, or did others do wrong? You know, on the political side, you could argue that we didn’t hold Bill Clinton’s feet to the fire enough. They talked big and got very little done, but Newt Gingrich took over the House in 1995 and I don’t think anybody could have gotten anything done for the next six years that required legislation. And then George W. Bush took over, and George Bush just wasn’t interested in doing anything about this problem. We tried – while still at EDF, I organized a small group of scientists, including Sherry Rowland, Mario Molina, and Jane Lubchenco, to go down to Atlanta and chat with Gingrich in April 1998, when he was Speaker, a few months after the Kyoto Protocol was signed. It was a long meeting – two hours. An amicable meeting: he seemed receptive to the necessity of dealing with climate change, but outside the Kyoto framework. He asked us to be his “brain trust” on this. Of course, the brain trust thing was probably what he said to any academic he thought was worthy of his attention. Then, 6 months later, he lost his Speakership and that apparent route to progress evaporated.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Oppenheimer:

So, a lot of time in the US has been lost, more than simply what was lost under Trump!

Zierler:

Right. Right.

Oppenheimer:

The difference being, of course, by the time we got to Trump there was machinery in place to actually get things done. Again, you could argue that was time the American public spent educating itself on the problem, but on the other hand, if you look at belief in the problem through that period, it kind of oscillated up and down and didn’t spike upward the way it has recently. So no, I don’t know that we could have done anything. I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. One could argue that the one difference between the US and Germany, say, is Germany developed a very vital and strong Green Party which can be influential, but part of that is because it’s a parliamentary system and you don’t need to get a majority to be very influential. In fact, the Green Party won 9% in the 1986 election, I think, and that was enough to give them the balance of power in a parliamentary system. It was easier to do over there. Within the context of the US system, there are arguments that, you know, the whole system critique like Naomi Klein’s critique that we really should have been thinking bigger. Forget about things like emissions trading which just buys into capitalism. You have to throw away the whole system. Well, I don’t believe that. I’ve been waiting for the revolution since 1968 and I’m still waiting for the revolution and it’s still not-- And it turns out the other guys are doing the revolution this time! You know, it’s not a way to run the world, so I dismiss that critique. So should the environmental movement have been more leftward-oriented? I don’t think it would have helped, but there are things that could have been done, I mean in retrospect. It’s not clear that could have been done, either. The other argument is corporations have too much political influence because of the influence of money and all that’s true, and that maybe we should have been putting more effort into campaign finance reform. But then again, the Supreme Court got in the way of that also. So the world worked out the way it worked out. I don’t feel any personal regret at all. I feel like I accomplished far more than I ever thought I would in trying to help humanity. There are a lot of people who did more than I did. There were a lot who did less. I’m just a cog in the wheel, but at least I played my cog effectively, you know. I used the skills I had which were on certain things. At one point I decided as a scientist I could help make progress on the policy and political front by using my scientific tools and I did that and I got lucky in the process. If I had never decided to write that paper on the west Antarctic ice sheet that was published in 1998, Princeton University might never have hired me in 2002. They definitely took note of that article. So things happen, and sometimes you make your own luck and a lot of times it’s blind luck, as happened to me a lot. You know, I could have been unlucky and done nothing.

Zierler:

Michael, this is as much a reflective question as it is a retrospective question. To go back to that formative thought process when you were at Harvard and you thought to yourself, “Do I have anything more to contribute than studying the makeup of comets,” right, I’d like to ask you to reflect generally on your understanding of morality, because this is a fundamental part of the story, your concern as a scientist, as a citizen, that there’s a problem that has a moral dimension to it. How do you understand that moral dimension broadly conceived with regard to climate change mitigation?

Oppenheimer:

Climate change is like almost everything else in the world. People with a lot of resources wind up either winning or being hurt less than people with few resources who get screwed. It’s no different.

Zierler:

Like COVID.

Oppenheimer:

Like COVID. It’s the same thing, and it’s unfortunately the way the world works. So, I partly view climate change as a problem that’s going to make the plight of those who can least afford to deal with it worse. One of the reasons, by the way, I work on the refugee part of the problem is that my father was essentially a refugee from Nazi Germany, and I have incredible sympathy for people who see the United States as a way to make their lives safer and better. Whether those people come over here documented or undocumented, they have a motivation which is at the core of all human motivation, and they are—in my book, they-- especially, if they’re running from violence or if they’re running from worsening environmental conditions or if they’re just running from the inevitability of poverty for them and their children, human beings have a right to move and a right to get where they need to go to have a better life. That has to be organized within certain generous and flexible legal constraints in some cases, so the pace is orderly and people already there can accommodate to the immigrant flows. But in life-or-death situations, whether it’s politically motivated extermination or death by climate disaster, I say let them come. As the climate changes, those issues are going to become more and more pointed. So, to me, that’s one reason I got involved in that part of the research. I wouldn’t be here if the US weren’t at least minimally attentive to a refugee’s plight. I’d have never been born. My father would have been murdered in one of the death camps before I was conceived. I can’t forget that, and I can’t let other people be treated that way if I can avoid it. The US has never been perfect, but at times, we’ve done our share to make it possible for people to be able to come here, and I think that’s an important and very morally-laden aspect of the climate change problem. What are we going to do when a lot of people in a lot of places in the world, including our own country, want to move? How do we handle it? You’ve got to think about that in advance. So there are multiple moral dimensions on this problem. That’s just one that I’m particularly engaged with. You know, there’s the question of how much should India do—the one we talked about before—as compared to the US. There’s the question of whether there’s a situation developing where people are moving into climate-risky places because there is, for the time being, economic activity, what do we do? Do we prevent them from moving into those places? There are just-- The moral dimensions compound themselves again and again and again, and the policy issues cannot be considered from a coldly economic perspective or a coldly scientific perspective. They have to be considered with a moral dimension in mind as well. I’ll answer another moral question which you didn’t ask since we’re talking in a scientific context. I’m often asked whether, you know, how do I square having definitive opinions about questions which are technical in nature at their root and yet feeling comfortable advancing policy as well, and what’s the moral obligation of scientists on that score? Should everybody be doing what I’m doing? I would be satisfied if all scientists just were aware that there are ways for them to participate in the public arena which will be helpful to everybody else and helpful to society as long as they’re honest, as long as they stick to what they really know, as long as they don’t pretend to be a policy expert when they don’t know anything but solid state physics; educate themselves and then learn how to talk to the average person and get out there and participate. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think-- I’m not sure that there’s a moral obligation to do it. What I do think there is kind of a moral obligation is if you’re doing research on a problem that has substantial implications for society and you know it and the society doesn’t yet know it, I don’t think you can just let it transpire. I think there is a moral obligation to announce it, to talk about it, to let it be known. Then others who have skills that can carry it forward in the policy arena and can talk intelligently about the scientific aspects too, like my late friend Stephen Schneider, a very, very good scientist who also understood policy. But we need people like Sherry Rowland and Mario Molina—who discovered something Earth shattering, ozone depletion, and let it be known widely. That’s what they did. I’m not saying that Sherry and Mario were eager to do it, I honestly don’t know, but they felt they had to do it. I think all scientists should take that into their work because in this world, there are implications for almost everything we do all over the place, and you have to keep aware of that. So that’s another moral dimension.

Zierler:

Michael, we’re far enough along in the history now where your youngest undergraduates were actually born after 9/11, which is just a mind-blowing thing to me, right? [laugh] I’d like to ask, for those young students who have grown up with the reality of climate change being a part of their existence—it wasn’t something that they needed to be introduced to as a new external concept, right? So for them, what have you found as a teacher and as a mentor to be the right mix of communicating the severity of the situation without turning them into pessimists who look at their future with nothing but despair?

Oppenheimer:

Well, first of all, I think optimism and pessimism are inborn characteristics that are also reinforced or not by experience and that they’re a lot more personal than anything I can do to change a student’s judgments in that regard. I think the best thing I -- You know, I’m an optimist. I said it a million times, and so I don’t want other people to be pessimistic; I want them to be hard-headed and skeptical, but that’s different than being a pessimist.

Zierler:

Right.

Oppenheimer:

So, the best thing I can do for my students is give them the truth as I see it and teach them how to distinguish strong from weak evidence—you know, be a scientist—and then draw their own conclusions and mold those conclusions into an attitude based on, or in opposition to, what their predisposition is. I can’t teach them to fight their predispositions, they have to learn how from experience; You know, I’m an environmentalist when it comes to the nurture/nature thing, but for whatever set of reasons, some people just are optimistic and some pessimistic, and I never saw anybody talk anybody else out of anything that deeply embedded. Maybe if I were a shrink and making $450/hour doing it I’d be smart enough to figure out a way to do it, but I’m not. It’s not the way I chose to lead my life, so that isn’t what I consider my job. I consider my job to be to teach students, particularly people who have scientific abilities, how they can use their science to solve problems that are partly policy-laden and partly science-laden. I can’t tell them in the end how they’re supposed to view the question of “Can we get out of this, or is it just fruitless?” Maybe that’s my limitation and maybe they can become optimists by learning from how I approach the problem, but I don’t think I can intentionally convince anyone to be optimistic. The deeper lesson is that even if they are deeply ingrained pessimists, that’s not an excuse for not trying because their pessimism could be misplaced.

Zierler:

Michael, looking to the--

Oppenheimer:

I also think it’s too much of a burden. I know what I’m good at and what I’m not, and that’s not one of the things I’m good at. Maybe if I can convince people to be optimistic, I do it by example, but it’s probably the closest I can get.

Zierler:

Michael, as a window to the future in terms of cutting-edge research at the interface of science and policy, you’re so well positioned simply by looking at all the things your graduate students are doing right now. What are you most excited about in terms of the way that the next generation of scholars is looking at these issues?

Oppenheimer:

Well, you said it. Essentially, they’re breathing the air. They’re breathing the climate issue in all the time. It’s part of the cultural atmosphere that they’re operating in, so the students are very different in a lot of ways. It may be who gravitates to our Center at Princeton and to me and my colleagues, but these are people who want to solve the Earth’s problems. They’re people who came to Princeton in order to do that. They’re by and large convinced, and I don’t have to convince them that there’s a serious situation and that they have the skill to do something about it. They already figured that out. My job is to show them how they can apply the skills that they have and how they can learn additional skills which will give their ability to contribute to solving these problems an even wider scope than it has, but I don’t have to go around convincing students that these are serious problems. They grew up with it. They got it in the kid show that they watched when they were six years old. It’s an entirely different world, and that’s why… That’s a reason for optimism. I know we’re going to win this fight because the facts on the ground have taken over and we now have a whole generation that largely grew up in a situation where they know there are things that are wrong that have to be fixed. They’re smart and they’re serious and they’ve got a certain moral disposition so that they’re going to go out and fix them. It’s also true that a rebellion against that will develop and that the next generation will be rebelling against this one and so on, so who the hell knows? But I’m a believer in progress, and I think over time the sensible direction will win, and sometimes it’s a long time. But you know, progress is not monotonic. It goes in epicycles. I’m just convinced that the epicycles going in the progressive direction have greater reach than the other ones, the ones going the other direction, and that the biggest circle is an arc that doesn’t bend fully backward.

Zierler:

Michael, for my last question, I’d to ask. A theme of our conversation has been academically--

Oppenheimer:

Let’s put it this way. Most of human history was pretty miserable, and the 20th century had certain particularly miserable aspects, so anything looks good compared to, say, the two World Wars. But progress occurred, nevertheless. I thought that before COVID and the Trump administration struck, so I have to reevaluate a little bit, but I think my theory still holds.

Zierler:

[laugh] I was saying, Michael, a theme of our conversation and of your academic career has been you’ve used boredom to great effect, right? You have not spent too much time on any one topic before you went on to something next, so it’s clear I can’t ask you to predict what you’re going to do for the next part of your career. It is clear, though, that you have derived a certain amount of satisfaction that there are now sufficiently good numbers of people working in your field, in the relevant field, where you don’t feel that particular pressure to be as involved as you once were. So on that basis, let me ask. Knowing that you’re going to move around, knowing that there are good people where you feel secure that these things are going to maintain a high level of appropriate interest, what are the things that for the rest of your career you are confident are going to remain intellectually compelling for you, and what is it about your resume, all of your experience where you feel the things that you’ve accomplished are something to build on where you still have something unique to offer?

Oppenheimer:

So, I spent a lot of effort—fewer papers, but a lot of effort because I teach a course on environmental treaties—on thinking about international relations. I’m self-taught as far as the political science side of that is concerned, but I still find myself engaging with other academics on the question of how countries can come together and cooperate on an issue that’s this variegated from place to place and this complicated and where the benefits of cooperation aren’t always crystal clear to each and every country. Situations change, complexity evolves. For instance, the trade regime. It looked robust but is now fragmenting, so the benefits are no longer that clear to each state—I think I have things to contribute on such questions, things I learned from my experience on climate change that can yet help solve that very problem. On the science, I have a lot to contribute still on the issue of impacts on humans, impacts on society, how we make the physical science relevant to the question of what’s actually going to hurt human beings. Despite my disclaimer about having a short attention span intellectually on the science, one issue I spent a lot of time on, the most time probably overall thinking about since the late 1980s has been the question of, simply put, how warm is too warm—the question related to Article 2 of the Framework Convention, the question related to the 2-degree or 1.5-degree targets. What does the science tell us about that? How will that evolve? That’s something I’m going to stay engaged in. Some of the work I did had a lot to do with fleshing out that target over time. It’s one of the things… There’s a paper I published in 2002 in Science that we haven’t talked about, a short paper, but it basically lays out what we thought at that time, I and my coauthor Brian O’Neill, what the global target should be. We presented three choices. Your choice depends on which impact you’re most concerned about. We didn’t want to say, “This is the one answer,” but we laid it out. If you’re concerned at 1 degree, you’re concerned about coral reefs and ocean ecosystems. At 2 degrees, it’s the ice sheets. At 3 degrees or higher, it’s the ocean circulation. That way of thinking about the problem, how to engage the science with what’s needed on the policy side has always been interesting and important to me ever since it was written into the Framework Convention in 1992, but we were actually thinking about it even earlier. So, I know I’m going to stay engaged there. I think with the migration problem, in some sense the tools there are the most alien to me because they involve not physical modeling so much as modeling of human behavior. They involve a lot of kinds of models economists tend to use, econometric models as part of it, also agent-based models. There are integrated assessment models. I’m working now with a very capable postdoc on a network model. Any problem you have to attack with four different modeling types is complex and interesting and I’ll never get sick of it. Whether I’ll… You know, how much progress I’ll make in the ways of doing it I don’t know, but right now I’m very much engaged in it. It’s an interesting and growing part of the discipline. So there are the areas. I can’t see forward, like put myself in 1974 and say, “Yeah, in ten years I’m going to be working as an activist scientist.” I can’t do that. Ten years from now, hopefully I’m going to be partially retired. I’m 75 years old almost. I’ll probably ten years from now want to slow down a little bit, but we’ll see. Maybe not.

Zierler:

[laugh] Michael, it’s been a great pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much for spending this time with me. I really appreciate it.

Oppenheimer:

It’s been fun. It’s been great getting to know you, so stay in touch.

Zierler:

Thank you.