Kerry Emanuel: the role of reason

By Bryan Walker 01/08/2012


The reign of climate change denial in the US Republican Party is an extraordinary spectacle, hard to credit in an educated modern democracy. It’s also a very sad spectacle in view of the prominent role the US plays in contributing to climate change and the potential leading role it could play in mitigating it. I often wonder what members of the party who take science seriously and understand climate change make of the phenomenon. A recent podcast interview with noted atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel, a former registered Republican, indicates that for him at least it has meant becoming an Independent of conservative inclination.

Emanuel was a keynote speaker last year at a New Hampshire conference run during the Republican primaries by a group of Republican voters upset by their party’s anti-science rhetoric. As a result he was subjected to a torrent of particularly nasty hate mail, as reported on Mother Jones.

The interview I’m reporting in this post was conducted by Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain. On the science Emanuel says the kind of things we hear from many climate scientists. But it’s always worth being reminded that such statements represent a very wide body of scientific opinion. I’ve picked out a couple of examples from the interview.

Asked about the relation of recent extreme weather events to climate change:

“What we’ve seen in the United States, what we’ve seen over the last thirty years or so is statistics being increasingly weighted towards very hot and dry events…Today the number of high temperature records is about twice the number of low temperature records, and that’s almost certainly a signal of global warming… you’re loading the dice towards these particular events.”

Asked to comment on his testimony in Congress last year when he said that an MIT atmospheric science undergraduate can demonstrate that global warming is happening just by jotting on the back of an envelope.

”The essence of climate physics, including the greenhouse effect is something that can be understood by an undergraduate student at MIT fairly readily and they can show, basically using pencil and paper, how the greenhouse effect works and why our climate is warmer because of greenhouse gases. That’s not to say that an undergraduate could predict exactly how the climate would change if we add greenhouse gases but the basics of the greenhouse effect are readily understandable and in fact have been understood since the middle of the 19th century.”

Mooney moved on to ask whether it was reasonable for media to refuse to give time to climate change deniers:

“I think debate is good but we should be debating points that are actually debatable and there are a lot of debatable points both in climate science and in how to deal with climate change…I [Media] debate should reflect debate in the profession and not be manufactured … I would agree that we should no more put someone on the air who flatly denies that there is man-made climate change and that there’s any risk at all – that’s a very extreme position – any more than we should put on a reasonable scientific show someone who denies that there’s anything at all to the theory of evolution.. On the other hand there are legitimate debates within climate science and there are certainly legitimate debates about the politics of it as well.”

It was very apparent during the interview that one of Emanuel’s concerns is that by denying the science conservatives are also foregoing participation in the debate about how best to tackle the problem. As a strong advocate of nuclear power playing a significant role in reducing emissions he regrets that fellow conservatives, whom he considers are likely to be more comfortable with nuclear energy than some on the left, are not there to advance that solution.

There’s clearly an irony when he reports rejecting the left for its irrationality in his younger days, only to find that the right is acting in the same way:

“When I came of age in the 60s and 70s one of the things I rebelled against was the idea that ideology could trump reason and in those days I saw a lot of that going on on the left – utter denial of things that had become fairly obvious, like Pol Pot had murdered millions of his countrymen, but there were fellow students who said that couldn’t possibly be true and they were so wedded to the idea that the communist revolution was a good thing that they couldn’t bring themselves to condemn someone like that or Stalin or Mao Tse Tung …I thought that was mindless and I think that’s what led me into being a conservative because in those days conservatives often spoke very reasonably …but today it seems to me that it is the far right wing of the Republican party, the so-called Tea Party, that has checked reason at the door in favour of ideology and whenever I hear people rail against global warming or for that matter against the theory of evolution I say hey, wait a minute, whatever happened to reason, whatever happened to evidence? The evidence is trumped by ideology. It’s the same thing I rebelled against in the 70s, it’s just coming from a different side of the political spectrum.”

Is there any hope that will change?

”I’m hoping the Republican Party will regain its sanity … and deal with these issues in a reasonable way. I think that will happen. It may not happen for the right reasons, it may be that after some colossal number of climate catastrophes, heat waves, hurricanes, whatever happens will be rightly or wrongly blamed on global warming. There’ll be such a demand for action that people will begin to change and I hope that at the time that happens that we can have really interesting and useful debates about how to deal with the risks. Those are the debates we should be having and I look forward to the day when we do have them.”

Mooney reflects on the interview in a DeSmogBlog post, hoping that the reasonableness of Emanuel will earn him a hearing in conservative circles, but also sensing intractable elements in the psyche of many conservatives which make reason a minor player.