Conservative for Climate Science, with Kerry Emanuel

January 26, 2015

Lindsay and Josh are off, but since the U.S. Senate recently voted 98-1 that climate change is not a hoax, and then failed to pass a resolution affirming that human beings are the cause of climate change, and with the massive blizzard about to pound the Northeastern United States, we thought it would be a good idea to revisit a classic Point of Inquiry from July 23, 2012. In this episode, atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel, a political conservative, talked about his attempts to bring his side of the aisle in line with reality when it comes to climate science.


Kerry Emanuel is a leading atmospheric scientist and a self-described conservative. As a result, lately he’s been at the forefront of trying to convince his ideological brethren that the science behind global warming is real.

We invited Emanuel on to talk about whether global warming is indeed influencing the extreme weather that is afflicting the United States—and also for the unique vantage point that he brings to environmental and energy issues.

Kerry Emanuel is professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He is an expert on global warming and on tropical cyclones—aka, hurricanes. In addition to his large volume of scientific papers, he is also author of two popular books: Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes, and What We Know About Climate Change.

This is point of inquiry from Monday, July 20 3rd, 2012. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. 

So we sometimes hear from you, from our listeners, that we don’t have enough political conservatives or Republicans on the show, although we’ve had some, we hear that we don’t have enough. This has been kind of a difficult issue for me to figure out how to navigate for the following reason. The goal here is not to advance liberalism or partizanship. It’s to advance science and critical thinking. But I also don’t want to, you know, just for the sake of balance, have on people who are going to espouse views that are outside the scientific mainstream or even that attack it on issues like climate change, revolution. And there’s no avoiding the reality that today this is quite prevalent on the American political right. And that is why I’m so happy to announce this week’s guest, Kerry Emanuel. He is a leading atmospheric scientist and a self-described political conservative. And I wanted to have him on to talk about both the science on this issue, which, as you’ll hear, it’s not contested, but also the unique political vantage point that he brings to climate change and energy policy issues. Kerry Emanuel is professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is an expert on global warming and also on tropical cyclones, a.k.a. hurricanes. In addition to his large volume of scientific papers, he is the author of two popular books, Divine Wind The History and Science of Hurricanes and What We Know About Climate Change. Kerry Emanuel, welcome to a point of inquiry. 

Well, thank you, Chris. Nice to be here. 

It’s really wonderful to have you. And I want to start off by talking with you about global warming. 

I know that you’re a scientist who provides, I think, a really good and measured view of things. So we have record setting heat, devastating drought, wildfires. And increasingly, the media, which has tended to shy away from this, is now actually talking about it in a climate context. What does the science say about whether this is a valid thing to be saying? 

Well, of course, the science can really only deal with the statistics of extreme events like heatwaves and droughts and so on. And what we see in the United States, what we’ve seen over the last 30 years or so, is statistics being increasingly weighted toward very hot, hot and dry events. So, for example, in 1980, if you looked all around the United States at minimum temperatures and maximum temperatures, we were setting about the same number of high temperature records and low temperature records. No records are always being broken if they only go back 150 years or so. But today, the number of high temperature records is about twice the number of low temperature records who’s been going steadily up. And that’s almost certainly a signal of global warming. Whether you can say any particular record high temperature record is because of global warming. You can’t say that. All you’re really saying is that you’re loading the dice toward more of these events. 

So is it fair for members of the public, especially ones who I think are not deeply enmeshed in the science, to look at the news, see that there’s a devastating drought, see that there have been devastating wildfires? Is it right for them to somehow have global warming in either the back or the front of their minds? Does that are you comfortable with that? 

Well, I think they should be thinking about these events in the context of climate change, being careful not to be able to say a particular event is due to a particular cause. We can say, well, gee, these seem to be becoming more frequent with time. That’s perhaps a more valid way to look at that. It’s also perhaps a glimpse into our future. We’ll go through a few more summers. We’ll go through many more summers where records aren’t broken and they’re perfectly normal. 

But the incidence of this kind of summer looks like it’s going to be increasing with time. 

What is your take on the argument from one scientist whose work I know you know, Kevin Trenberth, who actually goes farther, it seems to me, and he seems to suggest that global warming is kind of presence in every event in the sense that I guess what the atmosphere is holding more water vapor. So that’s there everywhere. I think that seems to be the argument. 

Well, it’s I don’t think he’s wrong about that. It’s a matter of what you have, the way you look at it. So let’s compare a typical day in January in New York City to a typical day in July. You might say that the idea that summer or winter present affects all the temperatures that you have. I mean, obviously, it’s going to be much colder in January, in July. On the other hand, there is weather and it’s possible to have a a cold front and go to New York City and have a minimum nighttime temperature, which is lower than the maximum temperature and a particularly warm January day. But everybody has a feeling for the fact that the fluctuations of the weather ride on top of the progression of the seasons. And that’s the way climate change should be looked at, except that, of course, the climate change we’re talking about is not as big as the difference between winter and summer New York. And it takes much longer to occur than six months. But it’s the same sort of thing. We have fluctuations of weather. We even have fluctuations that we call climate fluctuations, like progression of El Nino and La Nina, which affect the weather in certain parts of the country. Those are all present. And we have to look at it sort of as a statistical or probabilistic way. 

Well, I think that’s a good way of getting into some of the complexities of the weather climate issue, which is on everybody’s minds. The basics of climate science, of course, are sort of simpler or easier to understand. At least I would argue and I want to actually reference testimony you gave to the U.S. Congress. I think it was in March or something like that, 2011. And you said this struck me. You said that an M.I.T. atmospheric science undergraduate can demonstrate that global warming is happening. You know, just by jotting on the back of an envelope. Tell us what you meant by that. 

Well, I think what I said to Congress is that the essence of climate physics, including the greenhouse effect, is something that can be understood by, you know, an undergraduate student at M.I.T. fairly readily. And they can show basically using pencil and paper how the greenhouse effect works and why our climate is warmer because they’re greenhouse gases. That’s not to say that an undergraduate could predict exactly how the climate will change if we add greenhouse gases, but that the basic physics, the greenhouse effect are readily understandable and in fact have been understood since the middle of the 19th century. 

And this is why, you know, it’s been somewhat difficult on this show. 

And think about how to cover this, because my view of global warming is sort of similar to that of Chris Hayes. He’s the. Hosts of MSNBC and you actually made this statement on one show, he said he will not have global warming skeptics on. And the reason is essentially, he says, the viewpoint is so beyond the pale scientifically that he doesn’t want to give it an airing. Do you think that’s reasonable? As an editorial position for someone in the media to take at this point? 

Well, I. I think I put it in a different realm. I think that debate is good. But we should be debating points that are actually debatable. And there are a lot of debatable points. Balton climate science and in how to deal with climate change. Those are the debates. That ought to be interesting. You know, the journalists are rightly interested in debate. But the debate should reflect debate in the profession and not be manufactured. There’s no reason to manufacture debate. So I would agree that we should know more, put somebody on the air who flatly denies that there is any 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 or who believes that the earth is flat. On the other hand, there are legitimate debates within climate science, and they’re certainly legitimate debates about the politics of it as well. So, for example, there are those who think that we’re at a big risk of a large change in sea level because of the physics of ice in Antarctica and Greenland. And history of it suggests that maybe we’ll have a faster collapse of ice sheets than we currently think. Those who think that it’s not a problem, this is a debate that goes on in science. And it’ll be very interesting to hear those points of view. Likewise, on the political side of it. There are some really interesting debates about how we deal with this. What sort of energy should we do? Should we be promoting nuclear energy? Should we be putting a lot of resources and emphasis on renewables? Those are the debate that one hears about when one goes into the profession. Those are the debates I think journalists should highlight. They shouldn’t be manufacturing debates by taking real, you know, far out extremists and in letting them air their views. 

Why? I got to know you originally. It’s probably five, six more years ago around one of these contested debates, which was was global warming, changing hurricanes, which is, of course, your number one specialty hurricanes. And is that one still contested, would you say? 

Well, yes. I mean, there’s certainly elements of that that are contested and it’s a legitimate debate within science. And there’s no reason whatsoever why the public shouldn’t be exposed to that. So the science in that case is beginning to coalesce around a few points. We all pretty much agree that the incidence of intense hurricanes globally should go up as the climate warms. But there’s a lot of uncertainty about that regionally. And we debate about whether we’ve actually seen changes in the historical record of hurricanes. Those are all debates that go on in science. And I think they’re completely legitimate debates to to air in the public domain. 

You have talked about global warming increasingly publicly before Congress and also, I guess it was an event in New Hampshire and seemed to be closer to the Republican primary that happened, which led to this sort of big, big number of attacks on you. Tell us about what happened there. 

Well, I think more than anything else is a communications problem. 

I was interviewed by journalist who wasn’t satisfied with the response that I made to a question he asked toward the end of the interview. Most of the one hour interview was about science. And at the end, he said, how’s it make you feel when your fellow Republicans are denying that there’s any problem at all? And I said something that I think was perfectly legitimate, which is it makes me feel a bit sad. And the journalist was not satisfied with that and kept egging me on to making a stronger statement. And then I made a mistake. I said, you know, sometimes when I hear people carry on denying that there’s anything in climate change, it makes me ashamed to be an American in that respect. Well, that was a foolish thing to say because, of course, it got taken out of context and that was bad. Basically, the only part of the interview, the our interview that survived and I got creamed with hate mail and so forth. But it stopped just about as fast as it started. It’s no longer a problem. But I know that, my fellow, many of my fellow climate scientists routinely get hate mail. 

And I don’t know to what to attribute that whether the whole culture is gradually disintegrating in some respect or more likely is just that. The Internet gives people who’ve always been out there with attitudes like this a soapbox to stand on and scream. 

Well, I think the issue has become intensely. Tional, let’s go it cause. Because it’s a clash of world views. You know, at this at the core of well. So this event and let’s clarify because this events in New Hampshire was one where basically it was Republicans saying to Republicans, hey, you know, guys, the science is not this thing that you can doubt anymore. But you told me just before we did the show that you’re not officially voting Republican anymore. Clarify that for me. 

Yeah, well, I decided this past spring that I was more aligned with I felt more like an independent and a Republican. And I was I stayed a Republican longer than I might have simply because I thought it might be easier to change minds from within the party. 

But there are so many extreme voices out there saying things that I don’t agree with and saying them often in ways that I don’t think anybody should be using in this day and age, that I felt I could no longer call myself a Republican. 

So I became an independent. 

Now, do you still associate with conservatism as a philosophy? 

Oh, yes. In fact, you know, one of the things I’ve been trying to do is talk to a lot of conservative people, commentators, politicians and so forth, and get them to see something which I think is very important, that conservatives have a really important role to play in this whole business about how do we deal with this very important issue. And as long as they deny that there is an issue, they can’t they can’t play a role in its solutions. So I’ve been trying to get Republicans to understand that if they stick their heads in the sand on this, then the solutions are going to come from one side of the political spectrum. And I don’t think that’s good for anybody. It’s certainly not good for the country as a whole. So I’ve been I think after I talked to Bob Inglis, the former representative from South Carolina, and said, you know, the reason that conservatives are so apt to deny the science is they can’t or they haven’t seen a path for them on the policy side. And that’s that’s the tragedy. And so I’ve been persuaded by him that the thing to do is to get them to understand how much they could potentially bring to the table and trying to figure out how we deal with these risks. 

Well, unpack that for me. I mean, what what is the conservative solution? I mean, in one sense, when we say conservative, we mean Edmund Burke, conservative. And that means someone who respects tradition from the perspective that institutions that have lasted for a long time probably have something good about them, like they keep us from destroying each other. And so it’s probably wise not to just tear them down. Something I probably agree with. I mean, is that the kind of conservatism we’re talking about or is it something else? 

Yeah, that’s the kind of conservative we’re talking about. It’s conservative in this will see sense that most people mean when they say, well, a conservative family insures itself, for example, and doesn’t take risks, unnecessary risks and gambles. And that’s an important point, because what we’re dealing with here is risk. And a conservative approach to risk is to take out an insurance policy, for one thing. And that’s what the way we ought to be thinking about this problem. But I guess I also mean it a little bit in other respects. 

For example, historically, political conservatives in the United States have been fairly supportive of nuclear power, whereas the left has been mostly opposed to it. The people I talked to who are serious about energy in the United States and how we deal with it from a number of standpoints, including national security, think that nuclear power is terribly important in the mix of energy sources that we ought to be looking at. And unfortunately, many, although not all environmentalists are so viscerally opposed to any nuclear power, and I might say very irrationally opposed to it, not on any rational grounds that it’s not even on the table in many places. This is the sort of debate that conservatives should be having with liberals. They should be confronting them and say, you’re serious about about reducing greenhouse gases. Then we ought to be talking to nuclear power in the mix and not taking it off the table. This is the tragedy of conservatives not being involved in the debate. 

It was interesting about nuclear and I’m with you on that as a as a liberal, I don’t like anti nuke positions generally. I think that they definitely they sort of reek of this kind of emotion that makes me skeptical. 

But one oddity of that is that France is a country that we would think of as being, you know, overall the left of the United States, you know, much more social democratic, but it is at a longstanding nuclear industry and it’s much less controversial here. 

So there’s sort of this regional or are trans transatlantic difference in some ways. 

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. There’s a terrific irony in that France, which many Americans rightly consider to be somewhat more socialistic, the United States generates 80 percent of its electrical power from nuclear sources, 15 percent from hydro, three percent from wind, and only two percent from fossil fuels. There, there we could be there. And it’s it’s almost. Well, it is tragic that we’re not. So these are the sorts of things that we should be debating. Let me say also that on the energy side, there are a lot of things going on and have been going on in energy, the United States that aren’t conservative at all, that are at the heart of the problem. So is that conservative? Is it a conservative free market principle for the U.S. taxpayer to be massively subsidizing one industry at the expense of another? No, I don’t think it is, but that’s precisely what we’re doing with fossil fuels are huge tax subsidies. Is it a conservative principle to permit one business to pass on the major part of its cost of doing business to some completely different industry? Make them pay the bill. There’s nothing conservative about that. But we do that massively for the coal industry. The coal industry racks up somewhere around 180 billion dollars a year in health costs. That, of course, have to be absorbed by ratepayers of insurance policies and by taxpayers who are underwriting things like Medicare. These aren’t conservative principles. If you did away with a subsidized subsidies and you forced industries like coal to pay for their own externalities, at least it would be a level playing field and that would go a long way to promoting cleaner sources of energy. 

So you make this argument and what do you get in response? I mean, I’m buying it, but hey, I’m a liberal, so it doesn’t help. 

Well, you know, I haven’t made the argument publicly enough to really be able to gauge the sort of response I get. I think this is a good question to pose. For example, the Bob Inglis who makes these points all the time. 

I you know, I had an interesting dinner about a month, maybe six weeks ago, maybe a little bit longer with a syndicated very conservative columnist and her spouse. 

And, you know, it was a very nice dinner restaurant and it was just the three of us. 

And then one other person who was along who was sort of who had masterminded this event. 

And I said, well, just let me have it, you know, to raise all the questions you think should be on the table about climate. And they did. And they were point about it. And they said, well, you know, it’s been cooling the last 10 years. What can we do about it anyway? There’s nothing we can do about all the sort of conservative talking points. And I gently answered their questions. And I think by the end of the dinner, they you know, they weren’t unreasonable people. They come to see that, yeah, maybe maybe there really is a problem. And at any rate, we conservatives have an important role to play in steering the country away from potentially bad solutions to these risks and problems and toward better ones. 

Well, I hope we hear more of that, not just a little bit more about you, because still conservative, but not calling yourself Republican anymore. I mean, there was a time when you felt very comfortable calling yourself Republican. One of our prior conversations, you told me that in the 70s you felt that the on campuses, the political left, was sort of ideologically extreme. So talk a little bit about that and then tell me what you think changed. 

Well, I came of age in the 60s and 70s. One of the things I kind of rebelled against was the idea that ideology could trump reason. 

And in those days, I saw a lot of that going on the left, you know, utter denial of things that had become fairly obvious, like Pol Pot had murdered millions of its countrymen. But there were fellow students who said that couldn’t possibly be true because they were so wedded to the idea that a communist revolution was a good thing that they couldn’t bring themselves to condemn. Like that or stolen or Mousey took it, it was I thought it was crazy, it was, you know, checking reason at the door and in favor of your, you know, your team. But team a teammate, a communist team. Socialist’s team. Go Team A. I thought that was mindless. And I think that’s what led me in to being a conservative, because in those days, conservatives often spoke very reasonably. Take a man like William F. Buckley Junior who was very smart and very reasonable. I didn’t always agree with him, but he was reasonable. And and Reagan, you know, he had his ideals, but he understood compromise. And here’s a man who railed against taxes. But when confronted with a terrible deficit, passed the largest tax increase in the history of the state of California at that time. Here’s a man who railed against the Soviet Union as an evil empire but was able to do business with them and ultimately lead to the events of that we all know brought an end to the Soviet Union. 

Here is somebody who people were reasonable. But today, it seems to me that it is the fault of the far right wing of the Republican Party, the so-called Tea Party that is checked reason at the door in favor of ideology. 

Whenever I hear people rail against against global warming or for that matter, against the theory of evolution, I say, hey, wait a minute, you know, whatever happened to reason, whatever happened to evidence? And the evidence is trumped by ideology. It’s the same thing I rebelled against in the 70s. 

It’s just coming from a different, different side of the political spectrum. 

Besides nuclear power, what do you think the left’s other departures from science and reason that are actually pertinent in the present are? 

Well, I think that the left is up, at least the extreme left part of the Democratic Party has an agenda. 

They’ve always had an agenda and some of them see the global warming issue as a means of advancing that agenda. 

And it’s for more control by the government and more regulation, though, which is necessarily a bad thing, by the way. But they you know, they’re fascinated with so-called renewables, which legitimately will play and should play a role in any intelligent mix of energy going for the next few decades at least. But at the same time, they can’t be the the end of the story. They can’t be the backbone of energy for a lot of reasons. First of all, there’s not enough of it. Secondly, the supply is not constant in time. There are cloudy days. There’s night. There are times when the wind doesn’t blow. And so they, I think, are a bit unreasonable, as I said, for not considering things like nuclear energy or carbon capture and sequestration. You know, let’s talk about that for a second. If you look at current technology for capturing carbon from its source, when you burn coal and sequestering it, current technology at most. 

Doubles the price of electricity generated from coal. Doubles the price. Well, it sounds like a pretty big and unacceptable number. And tell you stop and think about the fact that the current price of coal via electricity is incredibly cheap. 

It’s about seven cents per kilowatt hour. You double that to 14 cents. You’re still competitive with nuclear and very competitive with wind and solar. So why aren’t we doing that? These are the sorts of questions I wish conservatives would be asking liberals rather than, oh, you know, all this global warming nonsense, which is a crazy way to deal with the problem. 

Well, guys are listening to all of this. If I can just editorialize. I’m just thinking like, well, why didn’t you stay and fight, man? Because you were telling this to them, not me. 

Well, yeah, I mean that there’s only so much I can stomach. 

I you know, I’m still quite willing to talk to anybody about this problem that wants to listen to it and talk about the fact that we really ought to be having debates, but we ought to be debating the things that are really debatable about these problems. 

The other one that I mean, it gets really out of energy. But I mean, I, I still believe in and people people argue with me about this because we don’t have good polling data to show that it’s a left wing phenomenon in a really, really predominant way. 

But the whole vaccine thing, I think, appeals to left emotions. And it seems to me to get into some of the depths of left irrationality. So I think that it really is out there. 

Oh, there’s no question about it. And I think what scientists who who specialize in the human reaction to risk have come to understand. What might be obvious to many people is that we are, as individuals and as a species, deeply irrational in the ways we respond to risks. I mean, it’s it really is. It is amazing. 

Well, you know, I think if we could just just wrap this up. I mean, where do you sit now? Looking at looking at U.S. politics? I mean, do you think or do you hope that the party on the right will sort of move back to what it was when you joined it? Or are you just, you know, happy to go it alone? Stick to your principles, regardless of what happens? 

Well, I think that the I think the Republican Party I’m hoping the Republican Party will regain its sanity and regain its former powers. The reason, at least in this sphere, 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 we’re just going to after some colossal number of climate catastrophes, heatwaves, hurricanes, whatever happens, we’ll 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 risk. Those are the debates we should be having. And I look forward to the day when we when we do have them. 

Well, I think that’s a good note to close on. So Kerry Emanuel. Thank you so much for being here on point of inquiry. 

It’s been my pleasure. Thanks, Chris. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to join the discussion about today’s show, you can visit us on point of inquiry, dawg. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry that. Org. We are on Twitter at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. 

One of inquiries bruised by atomizing in amrs New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s intro featured Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney