By Wendy Plump
If Michael Oppenheimer has told the story once, he has told it a hundred times: Where he stayed, what he saw, and what he was thinking on that night in October 2012 when Hurricane Sandy turned the East Coast into a blast corridor.
Where he stayed—at his home in New York City with his family, at one point walking over to the South Street Seaport to look at the Hudson River from the pier.
What he saw—the river already risen to just below the height of the pier, hours before the hurricane peaked.
What he thought—well, that is another question altogether. Oppenheimer’s impressions are the sum of several decades of scientific inquiry into climate change, and they require more than a simple answer. They require a little background.
At his Princeton University office one spring morning, surrounded by the detritus of someone else’s research (a graduate student is sharing his space), Oppenheimer is relaxed, chatty, and surprisingly free of animosity for a man who has been called all manner of names by global warming “denialists.” He talks freely about climate change and his long professional life articulating it, first as chief scientist at The Environmental Defense Fund, and now as Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School.
He has authored a staggering list of books and papers on climate change, and edits the Climatic Change journal. He is associated with the faculty of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, and a myriad of other programs. He was a Guggenheim Fellow. He provides counsel to New York City’s panel on hurricane and storm surge mitigation. Most notably, he was part of a team of scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
An engaging conversationalist, Oppenheimer has a kind face and one of those large mustaches that puts you in mind of the actor Sam Elliott. Regardless of the claims of his blustery critics, however, Oppenheimer is no actor. He is an advocate on behalf of the climate and, to be frank, of the entire planet. It’s a rough job these days but he seems quite willing to do it. And keep doing it, and keep doing it until the essential point is sufficiently made and even the denialists accept the ominous evidence of global warming.
Not Exhausted, Yet
“I don’t find it exhausting to talk about this all the time, no. I’m an optimist. So anytime I find anybody who is really willing to listen, it makes me happy,” he says. “And frankly, who needs a bad news story? You pick up a newspaper and you could throw up. I mean, things are just terrible in a lot of different ways, and so, Poof! I don’t want to read about that.
“And then the average person—their jobs are not secure, they don’t have healthcare, they’re running into problems. So where does the climate fit in? For most people, it doesn’t. So if it is not in their faces today, they’d rather put it on the back burner. And I don’t blame them. You have to deal with life, frankly.
“Anyway, although there appears to be a struggle over people’s thinking on the climate right now, the debate probably would not exist at all had scientists not been pounding their fists loudly over what they know. We wouldn’t have enough observations. No one would understand. And then one day, someone would wake up and say, ‘Hey, some really bad shit is happening with the climate. Why didn’t somebody tell us about that?’ So I’m just one of a lot of people who are doing that.”
Scientists With A Purpose
Oppenheimer sees himself as following in the wake of that early generation of World War II scientists who “got their hands dirty” building the atomic bomb. (He is no relation to theoretical physicist and atom bomb scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer.) Many of them later came to regret that involvement, says Oppenheimer. But they also realized it created new opportunities to take part in public policy debates raging, then and now, about matters that affect us all. While most scientists still prefer to be in their laboratories, he says, they cannot ignore an almost evangelistic sense of their larger duty. That thinking would explain Oppenheimer’s very public, very outspoken profile.
Born and raised in Queens, New York, Oppenheimer came of age in a household brimming with political awareness. His mother was a chemist, and her father in turn had been a politician. “I was very alive politically,” he says.
Oppenheimer’s father was a diamond expert, and managed a jewelry firm in the Empire State Building. “My brother used to be a gem runner in the small hours,” he says, laughing at the memory. “I still can’t believe this. They would give him, like, thousands of dollars of gems to take up to the guys on 47th Street.” That brother, he adds, later earned a Ph.D. in chemistry.
Oppenheimer chose the maternal family business as well, going off to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the age of 16, his academic prowess already apparent. He was uncertain about whether he wanted to be a scientist. A career in law had an equal,early appeal. So instead of deciding, he took the “path of least resistance,” quite possibly the only individual in history to call MIT a path of least resistance.
“The atmosphere at MIT was suicidal. They set it up so that it was unrelenting pressure,” Oppenheimer says. “My grades were mediocre through my junior year, but I didn’t care. The chance to learn was incredible. It was like being in a candy store—all this new stuff that I had no idea existed. My courses were in philosophy, religion. There was a guy I took a course on Shakespeare with. The foreign language association just exploded there after the Vietnam War. I took a course in that. It was really inspiring.”
After MIT, Oppenheimer got his Ph.D. in 1970 in chemical physics from the University of Chicago. He worked with a chemist there on issues surrounding air pollution, his first real step into science and advocacy. Partly because one post-doctoral grant fell through and partly because there happened to be a Harvard astrophysicist standing next to him when he found that out, Oppenheimer ended up at Harvard, as an astrophysicist in the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
Years later, an eye-opening, one-month backpacking trip through the pristine splendor of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge convinced him to seek work on behalf of the environment at the Environmental Defense Fund. He spent the next two decades there.