The other day the New York Times ran a brief and rather half-hearted story on page A26 about a “sting” run by Greenpeace, which is desperately trying to gin up outrage against “climate deniers” in the scientific community. One of Greenpeace’s victims was the distinguished physicist William Happer, now a professor emeritus at Princeton, who has been outspoken for years in arguing that increased levels of carbon dioxide are a blessing to the environment, not a curse. (See this article at First Things for an accessible version of his argument.) Inside Higher Ed also published a longer story about it, and the student newspaper The Daily Princetonian today has the longest—and predictably most tendentious—story about it so far.
Here’s how the “sting” worked: a Greenpeace operative e-mailed Happer, pretending to represent a Middle East-based company in the fossil fuels business, and asking if Happer would author a “short briefing paper” saying, well, pretty much what he has said for ages. Before Greenpeace Guy even mentioned a fee, Happer remarked that if there were to be an offer of reimbursement for his work, he wanted it to go to the CO2 Coalition, a nonprofit educational group from which Happer receives no remuneration other than occasional travel expenses. Greenpeace Guy then said his (nonexistent) client would not want its name attached to whatever Happer produced. Happer said that he could of course say truthfully that he received no compensation for producing the paper, and that as far as he knew—but he would check—there was no legal requirement that a payment to a 501(c) 3 like the CO2 Coalition would have to be reported in the publication.
Throughout the e-mails, Happer made it clear that he was not going to embark on fresh new research of a primary or experimental kind. He would simply be writing a reiteration of his long-held interpretations of what is known about the action of CO2 on climate and the environment. And he took pains, repeatedly, to be clear to Greenpeace Guy that he had real concern about various other pollutants that come from fossil fuel combustion, but was more than willing to say again what he has said many times about the harmlessness (at worst) and probable benefits (at best) of CO2 emissions.
Have you detected the scandal here yet? Neither have I. Full disclosure: I happen to know Will Happer, and he ought to be nicknamed Professor Incorruptible. Here are all the conclusions that can be reasonably drawn from this pathetic attempt at a “sting”:
1) Happer made no offer and entered into no agreement to tailor research to a paying client’s interests.
2) The discussion did not even concern any fresh research enterprise for academic publication but only a white paper for making policy arguments.
3) Happer accepted the offer of a payment on condition that it go to a nonprofit he supports, not to himself personally.
4) He clearly indicated to Greenpeace Guy what he was willing to say and not say, based on a long-established history of what he has always said on this subject.
In short, Will Happer can’t be bought. But he will take your money and send it to his favorite climate science nonprofit in return for your publicizing what he has said for years! Who among us, possessing views he thinks are correct and should influence public policy, approached with a seemingly honest offer to help give those views wider circulation, would turn it down? It cannot be scandalous to take such help from people whose interests are served by the propagation of your views—interests that you naturally agree it is harmless to serve. Guess what? Any of us who can find an audience for our point of view will usually take money for agreeing with ourselves. Except in Happer’s case, he doesn’t even pocket the money!
Outside the precincts of excitable college-student journalism, this “scandal” is getting no traction whatsoever, and rightly so. But it reminds us what an ideological mindset typically prevails on the modern university campus.