A physicist by training, Seitz is a past president of the National Academy of Sciences and of Rockefeller University. He is chairman emeritus of the board of the George C. Marshall Institute, a think tank that has long been skeptical of global warming. Here, Seitz discusses his continued dismissal of climate change as a serious threat and his financial ties to the tobacco and energy industries. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted April 3, 2006.
... When you became the president of the National Academy of Sciences, did you have to give up science for fundraising?
Fundraising was a part of it. What it did was cause me to expand my range of interests; I always had them. ...
Did that become more important at about the time that you became the president?
That fundraising was a big deal.
No; fundraising was always a big deal for presidents. ... I would say about half of my waking time was devoted to money and the other half to science.
Same thing when you became president of Rockefeller University?
Oh, yes. In that time, we had a particular need because inflation was hitting, and it was important. I started the private giving. Before that, we had not looked for private money.
So, that was a change in the relationship between private money and science?
Except that our start was with private money; namely, Rockefeller money. ...
Did it matter to you where the money came from?
As long as it was green. When money changes hands it's the new owner that decides how it's used, not the old. ...
Part of the reason that we've come to talk to you today is because we are trying to sort out science from politics in the issue of global warming and carbon emissions. And so I wanted to begin by asking what your position today on global warming is.
If I was asked to bet -- and this is recognizing that the answer isn't really known scientifically -- I would say it's unlikely that we face serious danger from global warming.
In the 1980s, you were even more strident. You said, "Global warming is far more a matter of politics than of climate."
That's still true. ... Of politics and emotion. Emotion plays a great deal. ...
It seems now, when you read the studies that are coming out, that there are many, many scientists who disagree with you.
And there are many, many who agree with me.
I think that the numbers actually are on the side of disagreement.
No, no, no, no. Look, we sent out a questionnaire to 5,000 scientists and engineers; we got back [17,800]. Their friends in a similar field asked if they could have a Xerox copy to send back.
You're talking about the Oregon [Institute of Science and Medicine] mailer?
When that was over, however, your own organization disavowed those findings. Why do you think that happened? That was very unusual.
[There were a few fakes]. How they happened, I don't know. They were either fake names or whatnot returned. What we expect is that people were so emotionally involved that they voted against these false names. ...
But wasn't it unusual for the National Academy [of Sciences (NAS)] to say that their former president, you, was wrong in the way that you handled those signatures?
I wasn't part of that committee. I think that tells it all. The committee was particularly chosen at the time. The new president was the leader of it. He's going to lead a new program, and we'll see. It will take about a year.
Most scientists are Democrats. I think, what is it, 93 percent? And there's got to be a political issue. I think it's simple as that.
And you think they fake that science?
The most strident ones would. This is a long story. I've met many environmentalists who said personally, in private, "I would take your side, but I would cease to be funded if I did."
And do you think that scientists who say that the jury is still out are also political?
Some of them are, sure.
Is your science, when it comes to global warming, political?
I don't think of it as such. What I was influenced by is this, and it's a very simple thing, which any technical person would understand: The rise in CO2 [carbon dioxide] is monotonic; the variation in temperature is not monotonic. There is a monotonic constituent, but it is completely different; it doesn't match the curve in the rise in CO2 as it is.
My friends who follow these things closely tell me that is still true. The Norwegians pointed out that the closest correlation -- and this is true now over nearly a decade or more -- is with the solar variation. This is what has influenced me [to believe] that we're having a natural change, whatever that means, due to natural causes as yet unexplored.
So you would still consider yourself in the camp of skeptics?
Skeptic, yes. ...
And so you are not buying that this is a manmade problem?
I have an open mind. ...
When did you become the chairman emeritus of the George C. Marshall [Institute]?
About two years ago.
Do you know how much money the George C. Marshall [Institute] takes from the oil companies?
They probably get some. There's nothing wrong with oil money.
... Do you think that oil money, though, had some influence on the positions of the George --
You apparently have pretty well made up your mind, and I wonder why.
I haven't; I'm asking you.
Well, no. You made some very positive assertions. You said, "Most scientists believe in the human source of global warming," and that means you've been influenced somewhere by someone.
I'm looking at the numbers, and the studies are rolling out of --
Like I said, there are many people who would like to take the same attitude, but [are] afraid they won't be funded.
So you think I'm being influenced by politics and not science?
Is it possible that oil money at the George C. Marshall [Institute] influenced positions --
Not a bit, not a bit. ...
I saw, during the Clinton administration, you authored a paper that said that global warming and ozone depletion were exaggerated threats by environmentalists.
And that is true. We're not in hazard from an ozone problem at the moment.
Are we in hazard from CO2 emissions?
I just don't know.
What if you're wrong?
Look, I'm a strong advocate of nuclear power, and why the people who worry about this so much don't also advocate nuclear power and expansion of it, I don't know.
You think that's the answer?
One answer. Certainly for electric power that would help.
But if you don't think that there's a problem, why do we need a nuclear answer?
We have more control over the cost of nuclear power. The Muslims can raise the price of oil to any level they want. ...
Does it solve two problems? Does nuclear power also solve a CO2 emissions problem, or is that not part of your thinking?
It's part of the thinking.
It is part. So you do think that we should begin to address the CO2 problem?
For many reasons, yeah. ... Any good scientist would recognize that it cannot be ignored, but I think, under present circumstances, the only thing we can do is proceed as we are and wait to see what the result is. See, your mind is made up: We're in a dark tunnel, and it's getting very much darker.
I'm not a scientist; I'm a layman, and so I am trying to sort out what I think.
For example, a few weeks ago, we went to see Jim Hansen, who is an eminent scientist with NASA.
Yeah, I know Jim. ... I think he's found his way of getting publicity and enjoys it.
Do you think he's wrong?
I think he's gone overboard. In his position, I wouldn't talk like he does. ...
You mean, as a government employee?
As a government employee he's clearly out of line, but that's another matter. I wouldn't raise that. ...
But he's a scientist, and he feels that his science tells him something. ... Do you think that he's wrong?
I think he's gone overboard [for] publicity.
But that's a different issue than the science, isn't it?
I don't think he has the right scientific base. ... He gets stronger, more vociferous. Can you imagine Einstein trying to sell the theory of relativity in that manner?
But you're a man of science, and you recognize that Dr. Hansen has seen a set of figures that he believes leads to a conclusion --
Well, he should publish them. It's --
Which he did.
I don't know where this end is leading. There are bound to be extremists in any area, and he is one.
You think Jim Hansen is an extremist?
Yes, in this direction. I don't think he has the evidence or has really unfolded the whole story sufficiently.
I suppose the reason that I say that there are many, many scientists who do disagree with you, if you look at the U.N. [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] study -- the first one was in 1995 -- that was more than 1,000 international scientists. ... You were pretty vocal about the IPCC. Why did you take them on?
That's another story. The IPCC is run by a group of people who have a mission; namely, to prove [climate change] if they can, and they handle it in a peculiar way. They have study groups of, in most cases, very respectable climatologists. They write reports of their opinions. If you read their reports and compare it with the summary reports, you find a complete gap. ...
Why would scientists use their good names for the politics of global warming if they didn't believe that there was a danger ahead?
Look, there is a danger; anyone would be foolish not to admit it. The question is, how serious is the danger in the light of the present scientific information? That is the problem, if you recognize it: You're going to ruin the economy if you try any violent action fast.
Do you think that there are people who are advocating violent action?
Of course. The Kyoto Protocols [sic] I regard [as] violent action. ... The people who so gleefully accept it, recognize it, particularly the Europeans, are beginning to find that the economic bite is very serious if they just blindly proceed.
When George W. Bush came into office, he almost immediately changed tack on CO2 emissions. ... Do you think that he did the right thing changing tack so quickly in the beginning of the administration?
I think he saw the hazards; namely, saving the economy. I think he decided that if he blindly followed the Japanese prescription, he was going to get into trouble. He'd have to shut down coal-burning power stations. Remember, the Senate voted [95-0, on the Byrd-Hagel Resolution] at that time, against it. ...
I think that the sensible thing for the countries to do is, among other things, wait while looking for alternative sources of energy, one of which would be nuclear. In the meantime, see if a correlation, a strong correlation, develops.
But, Dr. Seitz, what if waiting puts us in a position of being too late -- that it is irreversible?
Life's a hazard. If you cut back on the economy intentionally, you run into enormous troubles. ...
But what if you're wrong?
Well, what would happen, tell me, this disaster you're speaking of?
I'm not speaking of any disaster; I'm just saying, what if you're wrong?
What if I'm right? It's a two-edged issue. If I'm right and have the influence of keeping our system going as it is while we look for alternatives, if you want them, fine. But if it wrecks the system, then I'd rather be right than wrong.
So you acknowledge that there is a problem.
Yes, sure. And I've examined the data, and I find that I see no cause for short-term worry.
That means in the next 25 years?
For the rest of the century.
That's a long time.
It's a long time.
There are other scientists who say we are reaching a tipping point, and if we don't take action now, we will have to live with the consequences.
Yes, we will. I don't think those consequences, at the moment, appear to be hazardous enough.
Not the permafrost melting, not the polar ice caps melting -- none of those are hazardous?
There are two views on all these things. People just don't know that much about the climate. No one can claim they do. See, you're taking the view, or at least supporting the view, that even if there's a minor chance they're right, we should act now, crash. That's foolish. ...
It's harmless as far as you're concerned?
That's a different question. Is the change in temperature of the planet harmless or not? The Russians say it's a glorious thing. We may actually be able to use the Arctic Sea again.
Do you believe that?
It could happen.
That global warming is a good thing?
It could be. If I were Russian I'd think so. We'd be able to send people to live in Greenland again, as we did during the period 1,000 years ago when the Scandinavians settled it.
But you're a scientist. Do you believe that it is a good thing that global warming will open up parts of the country in ways that we haven't had for 1,000 years?
Could be. Canadians would like it; Russians would like it. Do you think it's bad that the Scandinavians settled Greenland? ...
In European capitals they have taken a different position, which is that prudence may be the best policy; that it is time to --
Yes, I know the argument. It's not the one I would take.
But they have, and their publics back them in doing that. In this country, that is not the case. Do you think that you've had a hand, as a skeptic, in keeping that debate off the table in this country?
I don't know if I've had any influence.
You have written many editorials. You have been a prominent skeptic for years.
Well, I've expressed my views when asked, as I'm doing now. ...
But, Dr. Seitz, as long as you and other scientists say that we don't know yet, it allows politicians to say, "We don't have to act yet."
I doubt if they pay that much attention. They listen to I don't know whom.
But you give them what is called political cover: "You see? The president, the ex-president of the National Academy of Sciences says, 'The evidence is still out; we just don't know.'" It makes it very easy for politicians to take no action at all.
That's interesting. That isn't the feeling I get, that they are always on the verge of doing something radical and then regretting it later.
On this issue? Have you seen them?
The Europeans are in that state right now. They're suddenly beginning to realize that signing the Kyoto Protocols was serious business. ...
I want to change the subject just for a minute and ask about how it happened that you and R.J. Reynolds had a relationship. How did that come about?
Oh, very simple. The CEO of R.J. Reynolds was on [the Rockefeller University] board -- chosen by the board. He was a prominent person, and he got to exploring this place, and he said, "This is a wonderful institution." At that time we had 20 Nobel Prizes, which for the size is unique.
He said, "This is the kind of work we ought to be supporting," and he asked me, "Would you be willing to form a committee of experts to spend $5 million a year of our money?" And I said yes, and I formed the committee. ... We distributed $5 million a year for about 10 years, until he retired. One of the people actually won a Nobel Prize; namely, the man [Stanley Prusiner] who discovered the origin of mad cow disease. ...
Was it odd for an institution that had done so much work in cancer research to take money from a tobacco company?
No, it was green. As a president, a responsible president, of an institution that can devour enormous amounts of money usefully, I would take any green money for that cause. It's who spends the money that's important. At the same time, I would tell people to stop smoking, as I did.
I can't imagine that R.J. Reynolds wanted you to do any specific research on the links between tobacco and cancer. Did they?
No. I was asked at one point to see if I could find a group that would look into this question: How serious is cancer? The answer has actually been known for a long while. ...
Did this institution do any direct studies linking tobacco and cancer?
I took it for granted. People are educated enough that they knew it was a hazard.
This was at the same time that the tobacco companies were also skeptics who also claimed that scientists didn't know; that there was still some doubt.
Yes. Well, that wasn't the case here.
Did it bother you that they were using skeptics who said that science wasn't sure?
The blame for smoking should be placed upon smokers. ... If they buy them, it's their responsibility.
But as long as the tobacco companies could say that science wasn't sure, that there were skeptics, then the consumer could reasonably say, "Well, we don't know."
I don't know where you're getting. The evidence was out; it's been out for over a century. Remember, the French used to call cigarettes "coffin nails." My father drilled this into my head, although I became a smoker.
But you know that in the '60s, the tobacco companies very clearly said that there wasn't a direct linkage. It took a long time for them to say --
The people wanted to believe that; it was their own doing.
But do you think that was also political on the part of the tobacco companies?
Well, they wanted to keep up sales.
Was it irresponsible on the part of the tobacco companies?
It was irresponsible on the part of the smokers. You see, you have a situation, again, somewhat like that you described. Wasn't it wise to stop smoking even though it may be only a tenth of a percent chance? And yet people didn't.
Although I could make the same argument about the carbon emissions: Even if there was a 10 percent chance, should we not do something about that?
Yes, you could. It's a little different, however. In one case, you affect the health of the economy; the other case, you affect the person's health. Each of us should look after our health. ...
I wanted to know if you got a stipend from R.J. Reynolds.
Well, we got travel expenses; that was all, as I remember.
Just travel expenses, although there are company documents, now public, that say you actually got more than travel expenses. You got about $65,000 in the time of that relationship.
Quite possible. At the time, if it was true, [it was] just cash flow-through; I had other problems.
But those documents say that money went in your pocket.
And you don't remember that?
But you remember travel expenses?
Did that relationship shape your ideas about smoking? ... In terms of science, you were very much against those studies that were beginning to link secondhand smoke and cancer. ... Have you changed your mind about secondhand smoke since then?
No. I think if you were to smoke a cigarette in this room, I wouldn't be at hazard.
You have, in your career, been involved in two of the biggest issues that pull together science and public policy: One is global warming and the CO2 emissions, and the other is the relationship between cancer and smoking. In both cases, you have taken money, from the oil industry in one case and the tobacco industry in another. Can you separate --
Where did I take money from the oil industry?
In the George C. Marshall Institution. Exxon gives quite a --
Yes, that was to support an institution that was doing what I regard as important work.
But it was funded by Exxon in part. You took money from the oil companies.
The question I have is, how can you say to your critics -- and there are plenty of them -- that there isn't a relationship between the money that supported your work and the scientific positions that you took?
Well, you have to take my word for it. If you want to call me a liar, well, that's that.
It's the charge that you make against scientists who have taken positions different than yours.
I have never discussed the origin of money [going to] any other group. You raised the issue of whether a federal scientist should take strong political positions, and I said, "Well, that's his business." ...
So is there any science that's not wrapped in politics?
Oh, there are some things. The disappearance of the frog -- as you know, the frog is dying worldwide. ... I don't think that has had any political repercussions other than the fact that that is happening.
The ones in Costa Rica who are dying, actually that is part of the CO2 emission argument, is it not?
I haven't heard that. That's new to me. ... They blame everything on the CO2 -- hurricanes, whatnot.
You think there's no connection between that and, for example, Katrina?
What your critics say about you is that you took money from the tobacco companies; you gave them cover. They were able to say: "Look, we are doing research. We are doing our best. There's still some doubt about the connections between cancer and our product --"
Look, sticks and stones will break my bones. You have to be yourself, and we're all complex human beings.
Did you feel that at the time, that there might be a conflict of interest?
Well, I had decided long ago that to support this institution, I would accept almost any money. I don't know whether I would have accepted from Hitler, but that's another matter. ... You're always exposed if you're president of an institution. Look at the president of Harvard [Larry Summers]; he was driven from office.
[That's a] little bit different: You've taken some very hard stands about specific scientific issues at the same time that you have been associated with institutions that have taken money from the oil companies who have a direct interest in the answer to that question --
Oil people are some of my best friends; this institution was created by oil money. When I came here, I was the one who started private contributions. We got lots of oil money then to support this institution.
Then, the issue of CO2 emissions wasn't such a big deal. It's become a big deal since the '90s.
Well, if you're going to stop the use of oil, God help you. You're really going to put the economy in a ditch. I've got to be practical somewhere along the line. There are people out there working, have jobs --
Does your concern about practicality affect your thinking about science?
Not that I know of. ...
I think the question is, scientists should tell us what science tells them. It's the politicians that have to decide if we should act slowly, fast. You, as a scientist, are actually advocating policy. Should you be doing that?
Well, I do: Go slow; be practical; don't ruin the economy in the process, but do something.
But those are policy prescriptions. That's not science.
I spent about 10 years working with a group that pursued the return to nuclear power, and we didn't have much effect so far. But the residual is there, and it will get picked up, I think.
There's another report coming out this spring, again, from the IPCC.
Yes; they used to send it to me to review, but they don't anymore.
Again, this document will charge that human beings are responsible for CO2 emissions.
That's their game. ... There are people on that who I lose respect for, for staying on it.
Do you think that there are no credible scientists who disagree with you?
Oh, sure, sure. There are people [who are true believers].
So the answer is that there are no credible scientists, in your opinion, who disagree with you.
I do not agree with all of them. There are some people I figure are not very credible.
And no one has made a convincing argument that dents any of your doubts?
No. Within the standards of logic that I use -- and this is "wait and see" -- none. As you say, I've been saying the same thing for 10 years. ...
The chairman of British Petroleum [John Browne] sees things differently, and that oil company --
That's his view, and you should quote him.
And we will. And he has taken action to change the way that the company operates; he reads the same scientists as you do.
Everyone will have their opinion.
Do you think that he is wrong?
I don't know him, what his scientific background is. Presumably he's an engineer. I would like to talk to him ... and tell him about the lack of good correlation and how does he explain it. It's strange to me that so few people have pointed out this lack of correlation, and the good correlation with solar activity. Once in a while it's mentioned by someone, but it is, to me, a deciding factor. ...
So until somebody takes that on, you're not buying it?
Until it becomes the central attention.
Why do you think that more science hasn't been done on that correlation?
It would have to be funded, presumably, by a federal agency. ...
So you're saying that this particular government is ignoring the most important, in your mind, scientific fact. This is a government that has actually embraced your position. Why would they do that? Why wouldn't they look in the very place that you think --
I don't think they've heard it. No one has asked me. ...
How, then, is the public to decide?
I don't know. That's another question. You know, one-third of the public questioned believes that the lunar landing was faked by Hollywood in the Arizona desert. When you have to deal with a population that is at that level, you can expect almost anything, including confusion. ...