Michael Oppenheimer

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Michael Oppenheimer (Climate Scientist) is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Department of Geosciences at Princeton University. He is the Director of the Program in Science,Technology and Environmental Policy (STEP) at the Woodrow Wilson School and Faculty Associate of the Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences Program, Princeton Environmental Institute, and the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.

Oppenheimer has taken leading role in various environment and science policy related activities, e.g. with regard to acid rain, in contributing to 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act. He was a major author of the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report and a coordinating lead author of the Fifth Assessment Report.

Oppenheimer is as well a prominent public figure and has e.g. discussing various aspects, effects and even the psychology of global warming in the media. He has been a guest on many television and radio programs and talk shows, including ABC's This Week, Nightline, Alcove, The News Hour, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Charlie Rose, ABC News and The Colbert Report. Oppenheimer is the author of over 100 articles published in professional journals.

His only book so far was Dead Heat: The Race Against The Greenhouse Effect written together with Riverkeeper environmental activist Robert H. Boyle and published in 1990. Oppenheimer is co-foundeder of the Climate Action Network.


Oppenheimer (born February 28, 1946 in NYC) joined the Princeton faculty after more than two decades with The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a non-governmental, environmental organization, where he served as chief scientist and manager of the Climate and Air Program. Prior to his position at The Environmental Defense Fund, Dr. Oppenheimer served as Atomic and Molecular Astrophysicist at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Lecturer on Astronomy at Harvard University. He received an S.B. in chemistry from M.I.T., a Ph.D. in chemical physics from the University of Chicago, and pursued post-doctoral research at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center. He continues to serve as a science advisor to EDF. Oppenheimer has been a member of several panels of the National Academy of Sciences and is now a member of the National Academies' Board on Energy and Environmental Studies. He is also a winner of the 2010 Heinz Award and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Research interests[edit]

His interests include science and policy of the atmosphere, particularly climate change and its impacts. Much of his research aims to understand the potential for "dangerous" outcomes of increasing levels of greenhouse gases by exploring the effects of global warming on ecosystems such as coral reefs, on the ice sheets and sea level, and on patterns of human migration. He has e.g assessed linkages among climate change, crop yields and Mexico–US cross-border migration. Oppenheimer studies the process of scientific learning and scientific assessments and their role in developing public policies to respond to global change.

Role in global science policy[edit]

Oppenheimer is a long-time participant in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, serving recently as a lead author of the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report and now as a coordinating lead author of the Fifth Assessment Report as well as a Special Report on climate extremes and disasters. In the late 1980s, Dr. Oppenheimer and a handful of other scientists organized two workshops under the auspices of the United Nations that helped precipitate the negotiations that resulted in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (signed at the 1992 Earth Summit) and the Kyoto Protocol. During that period, he co-founded the Climate Action Network. His research and advocacy work on acid rain also contributed to the passage of the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act.

Assessment of the IPCC process[edit]

He states major current (2011) uncertainities in the IPCC assessments regarding e.g. climate sensitivity and a potential_collapse of of large ice-sheets.[1] and large uncertainty about the similar important evolvement of socio-political-economic systems.[1]

2009 he wrote about limitations of the IPCC consensus approach[2] in Science Magazine. The current central assessment role of the IPCC allows for "communication in a monolithic message" but risks "ossification and eventual irrelevance" of the IPCC as an institution.[1] According him, the problem of creating, defending and communicating consensus results as well as departures from the consensus has been discussed but not adressed till the AR4.[1] Oppenheimer states important recent major changes within the IPCC, including a stronger focus on uncertainty since the InterAcademy Panel IAC 2010 IPCC review and the involvement of risk management deliberations based on fundamental conclusions in the AR4 Synthesis Report.[1] With regard to the IPCC double role as trying to communicate its results both to the governments and the general public()s, he sees the organization not being entirely successful at either.[1] The IPCC needs, according Oppenheimer et al, to decide wether it intends to communicate with general public(s) at all.[1]

Together with Jessica O'Reilly and Naomi Oreskes, Oppenheimer discussed the case of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet assessment of the IPCC reports in a Social Studies of Science paper 2012. The possible disastrous outcome of a disintegration of the WAIS for global sea levels has been mentioned and assessed in the IPCC Third Assessment Report but was left out in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. IPCC authors were less certain about potential WAIS disintegration not only due to external new science results. As well pure internal "cultural" reasons, as changes of staff within the IPCC and externally, made it too difficult to project the range of possible futures for the WAIS as required.[3] Mike Hulme saw the issue as a showcase to urge for the integration of minority views in the IPCC consensus and other major assessment processes.[4]

Recent awards and honors[edit]

Selected publications[edit]

  • BA Bradley, M. Oppenheimer, and DS Wilcove (2009) Climate Change and Plant Invasions: Restoration Opportunities Ahead?, Global Change Biology, 15, 1511–1521, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2486.2008.01824.x
  • RE Kopp et al. (2009) Probabilistic assessment of sea level during the Last Interglacial stage, Nature 462, 963-868, doi:10.1038/nature08686
  • J. Smith et al. (2009) Assessing dangerous climate change through an update of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reasons for concern, PNAS doi 10.1073_pnas.0812355106
  • D Morrow, R Kopp, M Oppenheimer (2009) Toward ethical norms and institutions for geo-engineering research, Environ. Res. Lett. 4 (2009) doi:10.1088/1748-9326/4/4/045106
  • T. Searchinger et al. (2009) Fixing a critical climate accounting error, Science 326, 527–528, doi:10.1126/science.1178797
  • M.Oppenheimer, BC O'Neill and M Webster (2008), Negative learning, Climatic Change 89, 155-172 doi:10.1007/s10584-008-9405-1
  • Donner et al. (2006) "Global Assessment of Coral Bleaching and Required Rates of Adaptation under Climate Change", Global Change Biology, 11, 1–15, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2486.2005.01073.x
  • M Oppenheimer 1998. "Global warming and the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet" Nature Vol. 393, pp. 325 – 332. 28 May 1998. full text PDF
  • CB Epstein, M Oppenheimer 1986. "Empirical relation between sulphur dioxide emissions and acid deposition derived from monthly data" Nature v. 323, 245-7
  • TW Hartquist, A Dalgarno, M Oppenheimer 1980. "Molecular diagnostics of interstellar shocks" Astrophysical Journal v. 236, no. 1.
  • M Oppenheimer, A Dalgarno 1974. "The Fractional Ionization in Dense Interstellar Clouds" Astrophysical Journal v. 192, no. 1, pp. 29–32.

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Evaluation, characterization, and communication of uncertainty by the intergovernmental panel on climate change— Introductory essay by Gary Yohe and Michael Oppenheimer, in Climatic Change (journal) doi 10.1007/s10584-011-0176-8, Published online: 13 August 2011
  2. ^ Michael Oppenheimer et al., "The limits of consensus", in Science Magazine's State of the Planet 2008-2009: with a Special Section on Energy and Sustainability, Donald Kennedy, Island Press, 01.12.2008, separate as Michael Oppenheimer, Brian C. O'Neill, Mort Webster, Shardul Agrawal, "CLIMATE CHANGE, The Limits of Consensus"", Science 14 September 2007: Vol. 317 no. 5844 pp. 1505–06 doi:10.1126/science.1144831
  3. ^ The Rapid Disintegration of Projections: The West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Jessica O'Reilly Naomi Oreskes, Michael Oppenheimer Social Studies of Science June 26, 2012, doi: 10.1177/0306312712448130
  4. ^ Mike Hulme, "Lessons from the IPCC: do scientific assessments need to be consensual to be authoritative?" in (eds.) Doubleday, R. and Willesden, J. March 2013, page 142 ff
  5. ^ "Michael Oppenheimer". The Heinz Awards. Retrieved 18 August 2013.