Taking The Politics Out Of Climate Science

According to a 2009 Pew survey, only 35 percent of Republicans say they saw solid evidence of global warming, the lowest number of any political group. Climate scientist and conservative Kerry Emanuel discusses why he thinks political views shouldn't sway scientific thinking.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, when politics first met science and why they should stop seeing each other, at least according to my next guest. And he is a rarity these days, it seems. He's a self-described conservative and a climate scientist, and he believes that manmade climate change is happening and that we should do something about it.

But he might not get that much support from Republicans in Congress. According to the group ThinkProgress, more than half of the freshman Republicans elected last November don't stand with the majority of climate scientists when it comes to climate change. Here are a few examples of what some newly elected senators had to say on the subject.

From Wisconsin's Ron Johnson: I absolutely do not believe that the science of man-caused climate change is proven, not by any stretch of the imagination. I think it's far more likely that it's just sunspot activity.

Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey says: There is much debate in the scientific community as to the precise sources of global warming. And Missouri's Roy Blunt: There isn't any real science to say we are altering the climate or path of the Earth.

What's a Republican climate scientist to do? Can minds be changed? Or should scientists just stay away from Congress?

Joining me more to talk about - joining me to talk about it more is Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at MIT in Cambridge. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor KERRY EMANUEL (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): It's nice to be back.

FLATOW: You know, when we have you on the show, it's usually, you talk about your research. This is sort of a bit unusual.

Prof. EMANUEL: I much prefer talking about my research, to be honest.

FLATOW: But you did decide to enter the fray. I saw that you wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal criticizing one of your colleagues who had written about climate change for the newspaper. What made you decide it's time to jump in?

Prof. EMANUEL: Well, in that particular case, I thought my colleague was just plain wrong. And I thought it was necessary to point that out. That's all. It wasn't so much of a political thing as simply disagreeing with his science.

FLATOW: But it appears that science now has become just another opinion in many circles.

Prof. EMANUEL: I think it's become another opinion in certain people's minds. And let me say that I think that there is a campaign of disinformation going on about this, and there has been before. We saw it before with the attempts by the tobacco industry to throw cold water on the notion that there was a connection between cigarette smoking and cancer.

What's different about this time is that the suggestion is being made that the scientists, the climate scientists doing this, are being driven by their politics. That's very pernicious, and I'd like to try to stop that.

FLATOW: Do you think you can stop that?

Prof. EMANUEL: No. But I think we have to try. And one of the reasons I allowed myself to be interviewed by the Los Angeles Times a few weeks ago is I thought - I saw it as an opportunity to try to tell people: Look, you know, scientists do science for many of the same reasons that professionals do their profession. We do it because we love it. We enjoy it. We're not motivated by politics. Of course we have politics, just let everyone else, but it's not driving or science.

FLATOW: You know, when you poll children, and you ask them who they really admire - doctors, scientists, engineers like that - they come out on top. What happens somewhere down the line?

Prof. EMANUEL: Well, I don't know if you - you know, if you polled them today, I don't think it would be any different. I think what's happening here is just the early phase of an attempt by special interests in their sort of larger-scale campaign to disinform the American public about climate.

One of the things they're trying to do is discredit scientists by claiming that scientists are driven by their politics.

FLATOW: And why is that?

Prof. EMANUEL: Why do they claim that?

FLATOW: Well, why is there this divide, I guess?

Prof. EMANUEL: Well, are you asking why is there a divide amongst politicians about their - the extent to which they believe climate science?

FLATOW: Well, I'm asking why - yes. Why are not carbon dioxide molecules carbon dioxide molecules and facts about them, you know?

Prof. EMANUEL: Well, you know, I wish I knew the answer to that question. And if you - there have been all kinds of polls of the American adult public on the degree of their belief in the theory of evolution. And somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of American adults just plain don't believe the theory of evolution in any form.

Now to the best of my knowledge, this is not really a political issue, it's a scientific issue, and yet there are all these people who don't believe one of the cornerstone theories of biology. I am completely at a loss to explain that.

FLATOW: And when did you see the - speaking of global warming, you know, we can go back ages, and, you know, at least 80, 100 years, going back to the Scopes trial about evolution. But what was it about climate change or global warming that created the divide?

Prof. EMANUEL: Oh, I think money did. I mean, there's not a whole lot of money riding on the outcome of a debate about evolution, but there certainly is about the debate about climate change. And you have lots and lots of organizations and people that perhaps stand to lose a lot of money or think they stand to lose a lot of money if people start getting serious about doing something about the climate.

FLATOW: You don't think that it may have gone back to Ronald Reagan taking the solar panels off the White House roof or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. EMANUEL: No, I don't think so.

FLATOW: Anything like that, making a statement, separating his party, his conservative philosophy, from the liberal Jimmy Carter that came before him?

Prof. EMANUEL: Well, of course, it certainly isn't the first time in history that politicians have tried to use science or combat science to further their politics. I think what's different about this is the extent of it and the sort of new business about claiming that the scientists, the overwhelming majority of scientists either don't know what they're talking about or are basically carrying on politics by another means.

FLATOW: Do you think that science and global warming, and science is going to go on trial in this Congress?

Prof. EMANUEL: Well, I hope not. I sort of harbor the idea that most of the people, among those you quoted, most of the Republican politicians who publicly claim they don't believe this, I think they must private harbor doubts about this. And it may just be that they're grandstanding. I don't know. We'll just have to see what happens.

FLATOW: We've asked almost all of them to come on SCIENCE FRIDAY. You still have an open invitation, if you're listening, to come on and talk about it. But we have yet to get anybody to agree to do that.

And that is also something new when it comes to talking about science is people are circling their wagons, you know.

Prof. EMANUEL: Yeah, that's true. I mean, the whole thing has become very fractured, and we live in an age in which information has become very fractured. You know, we used to be, even 20 years ago, most of us in a major city read a common newspaper, or maybe one or two common newspapers. We watched the nightly news.

Now people can go and get reinforced in the opinions they already have, and they're not necessarily being exposed to other opinions, and I think that makes it easier for people to circle the wagons.

FLATOW: Well, you believe in evolution, you believe in global warming. Does that make you rethink your credentials as a card-carrying conservatives?

Prof. EMANUEL: Well, you know, I think most adults have a variety of opinions and that are formed from information and from thinking about it, discussing it with friends and so forth.

And I like to think that in any particular issue, they've arrived at that from careful deliberation, and it's not preordained by what particular party they happen to belong to.

I'm very distressed that Republicans, and I have always been a Republican, but I haven't always voted Republican, I'm very distressed that a lot of them are entering this phase of complete denial about the validity of the science.

There are many issues in climate science that are completely on the table and open for discussion, but to simply deny what countless reputable scientific organizations have asserted is true, namely that we really are changing the climate, is to stick one's head in the sand.

FLATOW: And how do you feel about people who have changed their opinion, even as the evidence gets stronger, like Senator John McCain, who used to be a great defender of global climate change?

Prof. EMANUEL: Well, you know, I think it's perfectly justified to change one's opinion if it's what the evidence warrants. I myself changed my opinion. I mean, back 20 years ago. I said, you know, the evidence really isn't there yet. We really need a lot more before we can say that.

But 20 years have gone by. A lot more evidence exists now, and I changed my mind about it. I think that's fine. I don't know why anybody in this particular issue would change their mind in the opposite direction.

FLATOW: And that's really what science is about, isn't it, is the ability to change your view as new evidence becomes...

Prof. EMANUEL: That's right. I mean, you used the word belief a few minutes ago: Do I believe in global warming, I believe in evolution? I think most scientists would shy away from the use of the word belief when it comes to science.�It's a question of what you think the weight of the evidence suggests.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. What is interesting is that it's sad to hear that you don't think things are going to change, that you think that things might even get more entrenched.

Prof. EMANUEL: Well, they might. I mean, it's impossible to predict how these things might evolve. We might have some real climate catastrophes over the next few years which may be blamed on global warming, rightly or wrongly, and it might change people's minds. I don't know. But I'm a little bit pessimistic at this point.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And could - do you think you could ever vote for a climate change denial?

Prof. EMANUEL: My feeling is that at this point in history, if a politician simply denies that there's any human influence in the climate, in face of all the evidence, it so much casts doubt on that person's ability to weigh evidence and come to a rational conclusion that I can't see myself voting for such a person, no matter what they say about other issues.

FLATOW: Michael in Fayette, Alabama. Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL (Caller): Good afternoon. I'm the one who used to call on SCIENCE FRIDAY asking about robotics and artificial intelligence from the point of view of cartoonists and toy designers and so forth. My - where we live, I'm really grateful that there are some church denominations who believe in the existence of global warming because, sadly, where we live, religious broadcasting is dominated by conservative protestant talk radio and they are dead set against the existence of global warming.

My first question is, is there a place for those of us who believe all the -what is it called - evidence that global warming has existed but those of us who doubt that it's necessarily all by manmade causes because of cycles in the atmosphere and temperature over the various centuries? For example, the little ice age during the 1700s, because I know that there is a place for people in the middle ground who believe in a theistic evolution, that it took billions of years but there is a supreme mastermind behind it. But you don't hear that enough in the news media. And is there a place for those who have a middle road on global warming?

Second, and then I'll hang up and let you all answer, has anybody every considered how credible the people are who finance and fund both sides and those who advocate it? Remember, it's the fossil fuels industry and the American Petroleum Institute who financed the skepticism on global warming, no matter how many scientists they hire.

Michael - and on the other side, even though I vote like Michael Moore - you ought to see his - I've heard about his mansion, how rude he is to some people who try to interview him. Al Gore had a scandal recently. And 20 years ago or so when there was a big environmental - movement return around 1990, it was largely paraded around, glorified by celebrities who don't - who didn't have all of their facts straight. Celebrities, whether a political issue or non -apolitical, nonprofit sharing...

FLATOW: All right.

MICHAEL: ...to be icing on the cake, not the whole (unintelligible).

FLATOW: I want to get your answer...

MICHAEL: Thanks big time and I'll hang up and let you answer.

FLATOW: You're very welcome.

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

I'm Ira Flatow on - with Kerry Emanuel. Kerry, any - can you answer that gentleman?

Prof. EMANUEL: Yeah. Actually, I'm very glad with the question. There - if you look at the last hundred years of climate history, almost all climate scientists see the operation of all kinds of influences on climate, even something as simple as a global mean temperature, conceptually simple. Volcanoes influence it. Changing sunlight influences it, greenhouse gases, which are manmade and also manmade aerosols.

So if you want to look at the climate of last hundred years, there's no simple solution that you could put on a bumper sticker that says it was this or that. It's really only in the last 30 years that the CO2 signal has emerged from the natural variability of the background. You have to take into account both because they're both going on. It's not either-or.

FLATOW: But the signal is strong enough that it sticks out from the background.

Prof. EMANUEL: Well, that's right. And the signal is strong enough and that coupled with just very elementary theory, theory that goes back to the end of the 19th century - I mean, there were predictions at the end of the 19th century that burning fossil fuels would warm the climate. I think there's a false notion that everything we understand about it depends simply upon time series of temperature and upon enormous black box computer models. That isn't true. There's very, very elementary, well-tested, well-understood theory behind this as well.

FLATOW: And if we're having CO2 levels higher than we've seen and they're rising, and CO2 is known as a greenhouse gas, that's sort of a fact that's hard to deny.

Prof. EMANUEL: Absolutely. And so we have several lines of evidence. We have the actual temperature records. We have computational models and we have theory, and they all point in the same direction. And that gives us confidence that we're seeing signal. Where most of the uncertainty lies is going forward. And there is a lot of uncertainty. And everybody in the field, I think, that I know of is completely open and honest about that. So you have a spectrum of possible outcomes...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. EMANUEL: ...that range from the benign to the catastrophic and everything in between. And so there's plenty for fodder for politicians. But what we cannot do is simply deny that there is any possibility of risk here.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And yet, you have an incredibly cold winter like this and the snowstorms and you'll have deniers saying, look, you see, this is global warming?

Prof. EMANUEL: Well...

FLATOW: And they use that as evidence against...

Prof. EMANUEL: Yeah. Yeah, that's right. I mean, April 30th here in Boston can easily be colder than April 1st. But nobody would use that fact to deny that summer is coming. And it's that same problem. We have weather noise. We have the signal of the annual march of the seasons. And, you know, we've got both going on.

FLATOW: And so it comes down to whether you want to keep an open mind about things or you're not - just going to deny any of the evidence that somebody might give you.

FLATOW: I think it's actually what it boils down to. It's an open mind. Let's look at the evidence, weigh it. And what we're faced with is a problem, a very colossal problem of risk assessment and management. We've got to look at it that way.

FLATOW: Being a conservative, do you think you can get any of your conservative friends to join you in this...

Prof. EMANUEL: Well, I think I have. I think there are institutions, the American Enterprise Institution comes to mind, who take this problem seriously. One of the things that conservatives are in danger of doing is if they simply deny that there's any problem at all they have automatically opted out of the conversation about what the solutions to the problems are going to be. And what they're going to do is to find that solutions to these problems or are going to be dictated by the other side of the aisle. And they may not like that at all.

So as soon as they stop denying that we might have a problem and start participating in the discussion about how we go about dealing with it, the better off we'll all be.

FLATOW: Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.

Prof. EMANUEL: You're quite welcome.

FLATOW: Kerry Emanuel is a professor of atmospheric science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology there in Cambridge.

We're going to take a break. And when we come back, we're going to switch gears and talk with Mike Brown, author of "How I Killed Pluto" - and listen to this, the other part of the title - "Why It had it Coming."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Stay with us. We'll be right back. We also going to talk about these new planet - the extrasolar planets they've been finding all week. Mike will be able to talk about that with us too. So stay with us. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Tweet us @scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I. We'll be right back after this break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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