RESEARCHER HIGHLIGHT: Emanuel on Climate Change and the Body Politic

Wednesday, May 2, 2012
New York Times   (Browse all news)

By: JUSTIN GILLIS

The latest installment in our Temperature Rising series, just published, is about an argument between mainstream climate researchers and contrarians over how clouds will change on a warming planet. As their many other objections to climate science have been undermined by the growing evidence, the contrarians have settled on clouds as a kind of last-resort reason that the scientific majority just has to be wrong.

In the course of reporting the article, I had some intriguing conversations with scientists who had thought hard about how to frame the problem of climate change in the public mind.

Kerry A. Emanuel

Among the most thoughtful insights came from Kerry A. Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We sat in his office and talked for hours about clouds and their role in the climate, moving from that to larger topics as we looked out his window at a dazzling cloud display in the skies over Cambridge.

Part of our discussion centered on rhetoric. A favored tactic of contrarians, and especially skeptic bloggers, is to set up what scientists like Dr. Emanuel consider to be straw-man arguments that they can then knock down.

We routinely read, for instance, that climate scientists are predicting imminent catastrophe, the deaths of millions, mass starvation, galloping sea-level rise and so on. The goal seems to be to paint the scientists as alarmist so that when a catastrophe does not materialize right away, they are made to seem foolish.

But Dr. Emanuel and some of his colleagues argue that the case scientists are making to society is a lot sturdier than that. Not only do most scientists not predict imminent catastrophe as a result of the warming of the planet, they formally acknowledge a wide range of uncertainty in the potential outcomes. Catastrophes of all sorts are among those possible outcomes, but few scientists claim these are certain, much less imminent.

What they say they are quite certain of is this: Society is running a risk.

“I can say that my field is almost unanimous in saying that we are facing serious risk,” is the way Dr. Emanuel put it to me. “Things could turn out to be fine — I hope they do. But there’s no evidence at all that would support an assertion that we’re not facing serious risk at this point.”

Scientists like Dr. Emanuel argue that the exact magnitude of the risk cannot and will not be quantified until it is too late to head off the potential ill consequences. Until society learns to think of the problem that way, the political discussion about climate change is likely to remain paralyzed.

Oddly enough, people do manage to think this way every day, and act accordingly. The chance of any given house burning down is far less than 1 percent a year, yet people routinely cough up hundreds of dollars a year to protect themselves against that possibility — by buying insurance.

Yet, as a society, we do not seem to be able to manage the same trick. We formally committed ourselves 20 years ago to take out some insurance against climate change by lowering our greenhouse emissions, but we have yet to close the deal, to adopt a comprehensive set of limits.

It would seem that our national policy, in effect, is to cross our fingers and hope that the majority of scientists, that is, 97 percent of them, turn out to be wrong, and the small band of contrarian climate scientists turns out to be right. Perhaps, as the contrarians claim to know for certain, clouds on a warming planet will indeed shift in such a way as to offset most of the warming.

And if that proves to be a vain hope, where will we be? We will have been warned, at least.

As he contemplates the seeming inability of the body politic to heed that warning, Dr. Emanuel has been repairing lately to a study of history. He has been reading, for instance, about the mass delusion that settled over Germany in the 1930s. Without drawing any moral comparison between the issues posed then and now, he points out the willingness of many people today to believe that climate scientists are engaged in some sort of hoax, and wonders if we are seeing another instance of mass delusion at work.

“You know, it’s a crazy idea, that thousands of scientists are corrupt,” Dr. Emanuel said. “But some people believe that.”

Perhaps it is simply easier and less mentally taxing to conjure conspiracy theories than it would be to accept the findings of climate science, with all that would entail about the changes needed in our economy and energy system.

“People only believe crazy ideas, in the end, if they get something out of believing crazy ideas,” Dr. Emanuel said. “The ‘get,’ in this case, is that they don’t have to worry so much.”

Like many other scientists, he acknowledges that asking people to sacrifice something today for the sake of generations yet unborn is asking a lot. He wishes that society would focus on that issue specifically – how much sacrifice, if any, is the right amount for the present generation to make – but in this country, the discussion has simply not matured to that point. And in the meantime, a clock is ticking as greenhouse gases continue to rise.

“Is there an example from human history of a culture taking action with the intended beneficiaries being two or more generations downstream, when there’s no benefit or maybe even sacrifice to the current generation?” Dr. Emanuel said in the interview.

“I haven’t been able to come up with one, and I suspect we’re just not genetically programmed to worry about two generations downstream,” he said. “That may be the heart of the problem.”

Media Requests

For help finding a researcher, or other requests, please contact:

Vicki Ekstrom
Communications Manager
617-253-3411

Stay Informed

Join our Mailing List

Stay Connected