Leading MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel, a Republican, drew a crowd in Wayland at the Walden Forum last Thursday. I wrote this piece for the Town Crier this week.
“People like to call us alarmists,” said Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at MIT, speaking to more than 150 audience members at First Parish Meeting House in Wayland Center last Thursday at the Walden Forum.
“I would say that history shows the exact opposite. Not just in climate science, but across science, we tend to be conservative.”
Emanuel was pointing to a graph showing various projections of the rate at which arctic sea ice, already receding rapidly, will disappear in coming decades. He noted that even the most “liberal” (that is, alarming) predictions made by climate scientists are proving to be far too conservative.
“Arctic sea ice is disappearing somewhat faster than the most liberal estimate of all these models,” Emanuel said. “Things actually seem to be changing faster.”
But Emanuel, unlike most of his colleagues, is also conservative in another sense of the word – the political one. A lifelong Republican, he has made national headlines in the past year speaking out strongly, including in Congressional testimony last spring, in defense of climate science and the integrity of his fellow scientists.
“The reason I admitted I was a Republican,” he told the Wayland audience, “is that I was tired of people accusing scientists of doing their science because of their politics. And nobody can accuse me of that. If I wanted to side with my fellow Republicans, I’d go the other way.”
He should have said “most” of his fellow Republicans. Not all are dismissive of climate science. Indeed, he began his Walden Forum presentation by mentioning that he had just returned from South Carolina, where he had been invited by the Christian Coalition to talk with the GOP candidates about climate change.
During the question-and-answer period following his presentation, Emanuel was asked what a “conservative” approach to climate change would look like, given the magnitude of the risk to our children and grandchildren if society fails to act urgently to address the problem.
“There are a lot of things in this for conservatives,” Emanuel said. “For example, one thing I like to say to them is, you know, maybe you don’t believe that global warming is a problem, but the rest of the world does. They’re transforming their economies, their energy, don’t you think we, as a purely business matter, should be out front with the technology? Shouldn’t we be investing in the technology? Even if we don’t use it ourselves, we sell it to India, China, and so forth. There’s a huge economic opportunity in this.
“The other thing we all need to understand,” he continued, “is conservatives and Republicans are painted as uniformly reactionary on the climate change thing, but they aren’t … A lot of evangelical Christians are very worried about climate. It was the Christian Coalition that brought me down to South Carolina. They’re all on board. They’re trying to convince their fellow Republicans that they ought to take this seriously.”
Perhaps even more to the point, Emanuel noted the U.S. military’s focus on the issue.
“When I was in South Carolina,” he said, “one of the other people there was a four-star Navy admiral who commanded the USS Nimitz. Not exactly a wacky, leftist something-or-other. He’s very worried about climate. And the whole military establishment in the U.S. is taking this very, very seriously.
“I recommend to all of you, if you don’t believe what I’m saying, to read the last serious report on the state of the world by the military, called the Quadrennial Defense Review. It’s full of, you know, ‘we’ve got to do something about climate.’ And what the military is worried about is rapid political destabilization, in places like northern Africa. They were worried about it five years ago, and it’s actually starting to come to pass, being driven by agricultural and water shortages that are due to climate change.
“So the military takes this very seriously,” Emanuel said. “Evangelical Christians, a lot of them, take it very seriously. It’s just that we have a very noisy, I think, minority of Republicans who want everyone to believe that it’s all a hoax.”
Asked what role the fossil fuel industry is playing with that “very noisy minority,” Emanuel replied, “That’s complicated, too, because that’s not monolithic, either. British Petroleum, in spite of the fact that they didn’t do a very good job in the Gulf of Mexico last year, has always taken climate change very seriously and tried to do something. Other companies have fought it, including funding disinformation campaigns.”
Those campaigns are based on the notion that the science of climate change is uncertain. And it is, of course, as Emanuel notes. Although more than 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists agree the earth’s climate is rapidly warming, and that humanity’s carbon emissions are the major cause, any predictions of the future impact remain uncertain. But that is hardly a reason to take comfort.
“I don’t know of any scientist who ever says, about any science, that
the science is settled,” Emanuel said. “It’s never settled. And that’s
“We’re very uncertain about the future,” he said. “We cannot state with confidence that the warming is going to be what we project it to be. It could be a lot less. It could also, with equal probability, be a lot more. It’s a double-edged sword. Uncertainty doesn’t translate to ‘no worries, mate.’ It’s the opposite. We have, on the high end of the probability curve, we have some pretty scary scenarios.”
In the end, Emanuel noted, “We’re not just risking ourselves. In fact, the risk to most of the people over 40 in this room is probably very minimal. It’s our kids and grandkids whose livelihood we are risking. And we have to decide how much we’re willing to sacrifice ourselves to avoid that risk.”
He concluded, “And if we want to act, we have a very narrow window of opportunity.”