Conservative scientists take on climate change deniers
As a politically conservative climatologist who accepts the broad scientific consensus on global warming, Kerry Emanuel occupies a position shared by few scientists.
Tribune Washington bureau
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. —
Kerry Emanuel is an oxymoron. He sees himself as a conservative. He believes marriage should be between a man and a woman. He backs a strong military. He almost always votes Republican and admires Ronald Reagan.
Emanuel also is a highly regarded professor of atmospheric science at MIT. And, based on his work on hurricanes and the research of his peers, he has concluded that the scientific data show a powerful link between greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change.
As a politically conservative climatologist who accepts the broad scientific consensus on global warming, Emanuel occupies a position shared by few scientists.
"There was never a light-bulb moment but a gradual realization based on the evidence," Emanuel said. "I became convinced by the basic physics and by the better and better observation of the climate that it was changing and it was a risk that had to be considered."
In much the same role that marriage and abortion played in previous election cycles, denial of climate change has become a litmus test for the right. The vast majority of Republicans elected to Congress in November doubt climate science, and senior congressional conservatives — Republican and Democrat — have vowed to fight Obama administration efforts to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions.
In only their second day in power, House Republicans on Thursday introduced three bills that would hamstring the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from moving forward with regulations to reduce heat-trapping pollution from factories and other sources, despite a 2007 Supreme Court decision that authorized action.
One measure would prohibit the EPA from using any money to implement or enforce regulations to limit greenhouse gases. Another would change the Clean Air Act so the EPA no longer could use the law to control greenhouse gases. A third would delay for two years any EPA effort to regulate carbon dioxide.
While some politicians are going on the attack against efforts to fight climate change, scientists such as Emanuel are rattling the political pigeonholes. Some are speaking out, using their expertise and conservative credentials to challenge what many researchers consider widespread distortions about climate change.
Texas Tech atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe is an evangelical Christian who travels widely to speak to conservative audiences and wrote a book with her husband, a pastor and former climate-change denier, explaining climate change.
A physicist by training, John Cook is an evangelical Christian who runs the website skepticalscience.com, which seeks to debunk climate-change deniers' arguments. Barry Bickmore is a Mormon, a Brigham Young University professor of geochemistry and the blogger behind Anti-Climate Change Extremism in Utah, where he recently rebuked Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, for his climate views and posted editorials mentioning his Republican affiliation.
Emanuel waded into the fray last year. He wrote a letter to The Wall Street Journal criticizing a friend and colleague for dismissing the evidence of climate change and clinging "to the agenda of denial." Emanuel then added his name to the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, a website run by scientists to provide accurate information from top researchers in climate fields.
"I've always rebelled against the thinking that ideology can trump fact," said Emanuel, 55. "The people who call themselves conservative these days aren't conservative by my definition. I think they're quite radical."
Paradoxically, conservative Republican administrations in the past four decades pushed through the creation of the EPA and the signing of the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act.
But most conservatives today have lined up against the scientists — and transformed what was a technical issue into one dominated by ideology and sometimes religion.
Climate scientist Michael Mann calls Emanuel "a leading light" in the field. "But that has no bearing on his view that human-caused climate change is a reality — that, after all, is a scientific issue, not a political issue," Mann said.
A 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that only 6 percent of scientists call themselves Republicans, compared with 55 percent who identify as Democrats. A separate Pew survey showed a marked decline from 18 months earlier in the number of people who accept global warming, with only one-third of Republican respondents saying they saw solid evidence of climate change.
Emanuel dislikes applying the word "skeptic" to those who deny climate change. He says all scientists are skeptical; that's the nature of the field. His innate skepticism meant it took him longer than his colleagues to be persuaded of climate change, Emanuel says.
He remembers thinking it ridiculous when a noted climatologist told Congress in 1988 that he was all but certain that the climate was changing. Yet, as analyses of climate data advanced through the 1990s and Emanuel found a relationship between hurricanes and climate change in his work, he came to see a link between greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change.
Climate-change deniers, including many in Congress, contend that, because the science is not "settled," the government should not act to curtail greenhouse gases.
"Scientists are being asked to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that there is an imminent danger before we as a society do anything," Emanuel said. "The parallel to that is saying, 'You won't buy property insurance unless I can prove to you that your house will catch on fire right now.' "
Although more scientists are pushing back against climate-change denial, Emanuel is not convinced it can help, given corporate interests and the weight of the GOP arrayed against them. All this is making him reconsider his political loyalties: For the first time in his life, he voted for a Democrat, Barack Obama, in 2008.
"I am a rare example of a Republican scientist, but I am seriously thinking about changing affiliation owing to the Republicans' increasingly anti-science stance," he wrote in an e-mail. "The best way to elevate the number of Republican scientists is to get Republican politicians to stop beating up on science and scientists."
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.
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