IN THE NEWS: An Antidote for Climate Contrarianism

Tuesday, January 15, 2013
New York Times   (Browse all news)

By Justin Gillis

I would guess a few Green readers had the experience, over the holidays, of arguing yet again about global warming with a parent or brother-in-law who thinks it’s all a big hoax. Maybe there’s some undiscovered substance in roast turkey that makes people want to pick fights around the dinner table. 

Fortunately, the M.I.T. climate scientist Kerry Emanuel has provided us with a solution to this problem: an updated edition of “What We Know About Climate Change,” his 2007 book explaining the science of global warming.

I’m happy to report that the new edition of this slender volume is an improvement — perhaps even the single best thing written about climate change for a general audience. It is a little longer than the first edition, 93 pages instead of 85, but it’s still an easy read — most people will get through it in a single sitting.

The new version updates the science to the latest numbers, of course, but it also adds a couple of chapters about the potential solutions to climate change and the bizarre politics that have cropped up around it in recent years.

The book is dead accurate, not only presenting scientifically what we know, but also leveling with readers about what we don’t. It conveys the risks posed by that ignorance. Yet Dr. Emanuel manages to keep the language so taut and simple that nobody is likely to be intimidated by the book or to feel put out at being asked to read it.

The point, he said in an interview, is to give people some ammunition when they encounter the kind of contrarianism about climate change that has become pervasive in the United States.

“Young adults who are disputing this problem with their own parents or an uncle or something — they can hand the book to them and say, ‘Will you at least read this?’ ” Dr. Emanuel said. “One at a time, you might change minds.”

The book is officially scheduled for publication on Tuesday, by M.I.T. Press, but it has long since moved into retail channels and is widely available in hardcover for $11. At Dr. Emanuel’s behest, the publisher set an especially low price, $7.50, for the digital edition.

He does not talk much about this in the book, but for anybody who plans to give it to a political conservative, it might be worth pointing out to them that Dr. Emanuel spent most of his adult life as a registered Republican. He changed his registration to independent recently, but he told me that his convictions have not shifted much — he was driven out of the Republican Party by its embrace of global warming skepticism, among other recent positions.

“I came of age in the 1960s and ’70s,” Dr. Emanuel said. “A lot of what was actually going wrong in the country was because of rigid ideology, and a lot of what I considered rigid ideology was on the left. Now I think it’s the right that’s guilty of that, that’s really gone off on this ideological tangent.”

Conservatives will find a few points in the book that especially resonate. For instance, while Dr. Emanuel assails the irrationality of dismissing an entire branch of science as some kind of elaborate hoax — many Republicans have done lately — as he also takes green groups to task on certain points, including their skepticism about nuclear power.

He sees nuclear energy as one of the few ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to global warming, on a large scale. And he is doubtful that renewable energy sources like wind and solar power can be ramped up fast enough to meet the challenge.

If Dr. Emanuel has been talking about his politics more lately, so have some of his colleagues, like Richard Alley of Penn State, one of the country’s most notable explainers of climate science, who describes himself as a churchgoing Republican.

These scientists are hoping that their conservative credentials will help open some otherwise closed minds, but their ultimate point is that the science itself has nothing to do with politics — and everything to do with physics.

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