Michael Oppenheimer: Relaxing on Island, Reflecting on Choices and Cautioning the World

Tue, 09/02/2014 - 11:30am

Though it’s been many years since I first sat down with Michael Oppenheimer on the open porch of his West Side island home, finding him there several weeks ago felt quite natural. The familiarity of the setting allows us to fall easily into conversation while looking out at rolling hillsides dissolving into an expansive view of ocean and summer sky.

For all intents and purposes, he is just an average summer-home owner spending time at a place he, his wife (Leonie Haimson) and their two children have loved since the family discovered the island in the mid-1970s. The not-exactly-average component is that he is a world-renowned climate scientist and Nobel Laureate, immersed daily in the science of climate change and in the policies that may finally bring the seriousness of the issue to the attention of the world. 

In terms of making choices, Oppenheimer says long ago he realized the importance of joining his science to efforts at influencing governmental policy. Those joint efforts have largely come to define his life’s work. 

The truth is I have had many conversations with Michael Oppenheimer but with the exception of the first, most were over the phone — reaching him at his mainland home in New York City or office at Princeton University, where he is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs. He has generously shared his time with The Block Island Times and kept us up-to-date on the progress of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and on the general status of international efforts to combat global warming.


Taught early to 

pay attention to nature

Settling into the comfort of his island porch permits some digressions into nostalgia and the chance to explore the earliest influences in Michael Oppenheimer’s life. His mother was a nature lover and a chemist, “which was unusual for her generation,” he says, recalling that it was she who taught him “about animals and to pay attention to nature.” 

He adds, “Science runs in our family. My mother was a chemistry teacher and my brother has a PhD in chemistry.” As to other familial influences, he adds, “My dad was a diamond expert, who was intensely interested in politics.” So, as it turns out, was his maternal grandfather. Thus, Oppenheimer came to identify his own passions in what he calls the “natural systems” of science and politics. 

He says, “One thing I do recall — an epiphany of a kind — when I was seven or eight years old, we were visiting my father’s employer in the Cos Cob section of Greenwich, Connecticut.” They were there to go clamming off the cove, he says. “But one day,” he adds, “I was wandering through a freshwater stream close by, and I found an oyster bed, but when I wanted to eat [the oysters] they were grabbed away.”

Even as a child, he couldn’t believe that such a remote and pristine area could be so spoiled. He admits the memory may be so strong because he was forbidden from eating the oysters he very much desired. However, he recalls from a very early age, he says, “The pollution drove me crazy!” 


Coming of age in the 60s

 “But I came of age in the 60s,” he says. During that decade, there was a great foment of ideas — scientific and societal — and there was a climate of much soul-searching. “Vietnam was well under way,” and Oppenheimer says, like colleges across the country, “the University of Chicago [where he was a graduate student] … was torn apart by dissent.”

It was a time in which many moral issues were being raised, Oppenheimer notes, very publicly: “What do scientists (who as a group) develop weapons owe the public in terms of working to avoid their use? What responsibility and obligation do scientists have toward the public? If they have concerns, should they articulate them in the public arena or stick to the lab? Or should they continue such work but [doing so] publically to make sure their discoveries are used in morally defensible ways.”

In the midst of his graduate studies at the University of Chicago, Oppenheimer found that a number of the Manhattan Project scientists were on the faculty there. Though there was a sense that many were in conflict over their participation in the development of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer does not recall their individual views “on their own wartime work.”

He explains many were “not involved in publicly expressing their views on such subjects after the war.” Rather he recalls them as “just very good people and excellent teachers with a tinge of sadness about them.” He adds that he “probably interpreted that as an overhang from the Manhattan Project, but I really don’t know.” 

On the issue of regret, Oppenheimer feels it was “complicated” because the Manhattan scientists were concerned lest Germany get the Atomic Bomb before the war ended. He saw them as moved by “their determination … to assure adequate control of these weapons ( A-Bomb and H-Bomb) after the war so that they would not be used again.”

It was a determination leading to “active involvement in public policy” that Oppenheimer believes was “forward-looking” with many becoming active in the peace and disarmament movements. Of those — Manhattan scientists and others — who spoke out candidly he says, “The important point for me was to see scientists make difficult, very public and courageous moral distinctions and talk about them loudly and clearly.”


Making choices

 Oppenheimer earned his PhD in Chemical Physics from the University of Chicago in 1970, a year that also saw passage of the Clean Air Act, later amended in 1977 and in 1990. While he was experimenting in spectroscopy, which “develops and investigates the spectrum of light emitted by atoms and molecules,” he began to think his work would not be useful. Much of his research was funded by the Pentagon and related to weaponry, which raised ethical questions for him.

Oppenheimer’s thesis advisor (R. Stephen Berry) — not a Manhattan scientist — had “an early interest in applying his knowledge of chemistry to air pollution and energy problems.”

He says, “Although my research did not immediately go in that direction, [Berry’s] work was a powerful influence on my later career trajectory. Here was a top scientist working on problems of great importance to the large social good.”

In fact, as a young graduate student having grown up in a family of progressives, Oppenheimer says he was drawn to scientists going in that direction. He found himself significantly affected by the growing environmental interests of the time and of his own growing need to do work that would be meaningful in its global effects.

At the time, the direction of the science community was changing as well. Physicists were discussing molecules in outer space. Many papers were being published every week. Just as the field was exploding, Oppenheimer took a post as an astrophysicist at Harvard University at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

While modeling molecules in comets, in clouds, he felt some part of the work “wasn’t really satisfying.” He adds, “It was too detached.” He didn’t want to spend his life just on the theoretical. “I wanted to merge my interest in science with a [desire to work] on environmental issues — from both the scientific and political points of view.”

He says that a friend who knew of his inner turmoil pointed him to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Before taking up a post there, Oppenheimer had the breathtaking experience of being dropped into and back-packing in Northern Alaska for a month, seeing grizzlies in the wild.

It was before the pipeline, before the Arctic National Wildlife Range was given the National Wildlife Refuge status it now holds. In a series of Congressional hearings, Oppenheimer testified to protect Alaskan lands, including testifying on behalf of the Sierra Club for passage of the Alaska Lands Act, to separate private lands from government lands.  

With the EDF involved, Oppenheimer notes, “We reached an agreement, in matters relevant to energy and air pollution, specifically in acid rain.” He took up a post at the EDF, where he eventually became chief scientist. That affiliation continued for 21 years.


Science and advocacy

He says the EDF allowed him to do theoretical work — his science — at the same time giving him access to the public. “It was such a great organization; it was perfect for allowing me to be both a scientist and a political advocate.” He notes with pride, “We had an effect on the way the Clean Air Act was amended.

However, at the start of his tenure at the EDF, there was a great deal of skepticism about the problems of acid rain and global warming — a general outlook that “these problems were too big to do anything about.” For that reason, Oppenheimer thought the EDF “a very strong environmental movement, as they began targeting climate change, rather than acid rain.”

Under the auspices of the EDF, Oppenheimer was in on the ground floor of directing global attention to the critical issue of climate change. In the 1990s, he and other scientists helped develop workshops leading to the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and to the Kyoto Protocol, dedicated to helping the nations of the world commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

For years since, Oppenheimer has been an ongoing participant of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In fact, he was one of the lead authors of the Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, which boldly asserted that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and that “most of the observed increase … since the mid-twentieth century” was attributable to human influences. For that work, he and his panel colleagues shared the Nobel Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.

Oppenheimer says he met Gore when he was “invited to fly with him in his Air Force Two helicopter to the bottom of a glacier.” 

He recalls starting that day in Maryland, “It was crazy.” However, what he takes away from an experience like that is “the feeling that you’ve made a difference, that you’ve influenced someone, or the press, that you have good ideas and that they get taken up. That is very satisfying.”  

Though Oppenheimer has himself been the target of those who deny the dangerous rise of greenhouse gases in the earth’s environment, he believes that nay-saying is going out of fashion. He points out, “It’s no longer credible to be vocal against science.”

Observing President Barack Obama and his administration’s handling of issues related to climate change, Oppenheimer says he is pleased the President “is making up for a slow start.” He credits the President with currently proposing strong regulations and with “keeping the issue in the public consciousness.” Oppenheimer believes Obama “has put his prestige on the line as no other President has done.”

With China emerging as the largest of the world’s polluting countries — producing 50 percent of the emissions on the planet — Oppenheimer sees building pressures on that country to reduce them. He believes the dramatic effects on China’s food, water and coastal systems are practical incentives for China’s government to act to reign in its emissions.

He also believes it is necessary for the United States “to step up and take a major role. If [we] provide leadership, others will follow.” With the serious effects of advancing climate change, Oppenheimer sees potentially significant global repercussions if emissions of greenhouse gases continue unregulated. He anticipates extreme weather events and patterns to continue with more and more frequency — bringing more global episodes of coastal flooding, reductions in crop yields, as well as increasing death rates due to extreme heat. 

However, while understanding the disastrous global outcomes inherent in unmitigated global warming, Oppenheimer is a profound optimist. That is, he takes hope that the realities on the ground in China may become the catalyst for change, and from the strengthening of regulations within the United States and its capacity for leadership in the world. He believes that the countries of the world will ultimately curb emissions. “We’ll muddle through [in spite of] our standard human behavior.”

Still, Oppenheimer feels “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” breathing down our collective backs, and he warns, “We don’t have any more time left to mess around. This is it!” 

Years ago, when Charlie Rose asked him in an interview if he thought global warming would ultimately “go out of control,” Oppenheimer replied, “I don’t think humans are that heedless. I see in us the capacity for dealing with big, challenging problems.”

We can only hope we live up to his faith in us.

From the September 2014 Block Island Summer Times