The Other Climate Heretic

By Keith Kloor | February 5, 2011 1:35 pm

MIT Climate scientist Kerry Emanuel is becoming increasingly outspoken about his alienation from the Republican party. Yesterday, he was interviewed on NPR and he spoke candidly on many of the current hot button topics. Here he is, angst-ridden over the direction of the GOP:

I’m very distressed that Republicans, and I have always been a Republican, but I haven’t always voted Republican, I’m very distressed that a lot of them are entering this phase of complete denial about the validity of the science.

There are many issues in climate science that are completely on the table and open for discussion, but to simply deny what countless reputable scientific organizations have asserted is true, namely that we really are changing the climate, is to stick one’s head in the sand.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, climate science
  • Matt B

    I heard this yesterday & this interview was awesome! The conversation started pretty reasonably, Kerry E says he wrote to the WSJ and the reason was to present his side about a disagreement he had with a previous writer……all very reasonable….then BAM! Kerry brings up tobacco disinformation….special interest disinformation….40-50% of American adults don’t believe in evolution…..special interest money is driving people oppose the “mainstream” view on climate science……Repubs are combating scientists just to further their politics……he can’t vote for someone who doesn’t agree with his views on AGW because their judgement is fatally impaired……
    Halfway though the maybe 8 minute interview is the first use of “denial/denier” and it was Kerry E who opened that door; he ends up using “denial/denier” 7 times and Flatow used it 4 times. Also, Flatow was the one to link the whole “denier” side to ignoring the physics of CO2 IR adsorption……overall, this was everything one could want from a hard-hitting Science Friday climate science expose…….

  • Eric

    What is interesting about this interview is that Flatow repeatedly asks him why he thinks there is a political divide on the issue of global warming, and Emmanuel admits that he doesn’t really know. Emmanuel is one of the most renowned atmospheric scientists currently studying the physics of the atmosphere – but he is not a political or social scientist. Indeed, the question that Flatow asks is a very interesting one, and there are a whole host of political and social scientists who could answer that question with some authority.
    Flatow seems to miss the irony that he is part of the problem when invites an eminent physical scientist to discuss a question that is clearly in the domain of the social scientists.

  • Jack Hughes

    Emanuel makes an interesting point :

    …if they simply deny that there’s any problem at all they have automatically opted out of the conversation about what the solutions to the problems are going to be.

    We see this a lot: the practical and realistic people tend to reject the whole thing so the “solutions” are designed by emotional and irrational types. See windmills, solar panels in the arctic circle, electric cars, bio fuels, etc etc.

  • Bob Koss

    I wonder why they referenced figures from a 2009 poll. Before climategate? Surely there must be more recent polling.
    I didn’t listen, but the article doesn’t mention the figure for democrats. Was the figure for them so insignificantly different from the republicans that it didn’t fit their premise? Same goes for independents. What were their figures?
    Shoddily done.

  • Stu

    Another Colbert…
    One of the odd things about Emmanuel to me is the way in which he changes his professional title from meteorologist to climatologist and back again.
    Here is a video of Kerry as a climatologist (and disparaging of meterologists)-
    But Emanuel also sat on the (climategate) Oxburgh panel as a meteorologist- supposedly representing someone, as Lord Oxburgh put it
    “who were outside the field. This was quite important. It’s quite a small field. If you look at publications of CRU, they’d collaborated with almost everyone in every department around the world. It was quite difficult. We wanted people who had no formal position or as little as possible on any of these questions, but who understood the methods and techniques that were relevant to what was going on…”
    “…The other 2 people, who had professional knowledge in an adjacent area, were Huw Davies and Kerry Emanuel; both of whom were meteorological people, which is different from climate, but they understand the long words. That was how it was put together. It was ultimately my decision.”
    I don’t know where Oxburgh got the idea that Emanuel was a meteorologist, but I guess Emanuel didn’t mind the title when defending the climategaters. Whatever the case, Emanuel has certainly very strong known views on climate science and Oxburgh’s choosing of Emanuel as someone “with no formal position” is irreconcilable with Emanuel’s public statements on this issue, most notably during the MIT debate, which came almost directly after climategate first broke.

  • kdk33

    Emanual:¬† One of the things they’re trying to do is discredit scientists by claiming that scientists are driven by their politics.

    The irony, oh the irony!

  • TimG

    So what percentage of dems are anti-vaxers or 9/11 conspiracy nuts?

    I bet it is pretty close to the % of hardcore deniers in the GOP.

    The trouble with alarmists like Emmanual is they refuse to acknowledge that a large part of the opposition to climate policies comes from people that don’t dispute the science but think the “cure” is worse than the disease.

  • Eric

    TimG: I think that’s the point. An overwhelming percentage of conservatives refuse to agree with statements about climate change that are well grounded in the scientific literature, not because they truly know that the science is wrong, but because they disagree with the “cure”. Hence we get more than a decade of hockey stick wars instead of having a productive debate over the “cure”.
    BTW, I think you make a great point about anti-vaxers.

  • TimG


    What we have is a political game going on and scientists are collatoral damage.

    On one side we have the dems saying ‘we must adopt our pet economic policies because the science say we have to’

    The GOP responses by saying ‘the science does not tell us what kind of policies we should adopt’

    From there things get distracted by arguments over the sun, hockey sticks or whatever.

    What needs to happen is both halves of the tweeddle dum tweedle dee act need to stop insisting that this debate is about science or that resolving scientific questions will resolve policy questions.

    For starters doing nothing is a perfectly legimate choice if one feels the harms caused by limiting CO2 emissions will likely exceed the harms caused by any climate change. The dems need to accept this.

    On the GOP side they need to accept that CO2 is a plausible risk worth discussing even if we don’t know if it will really be a catatrophe.

  • Eric

    It seems that we are in agreement on most points, except for your characterization of the GOP response. Indeed the dems are guilty of arguing that their policies are right because the science says so, which is a bad argument. Unfortunately, the GOP response is largely of the form ‘well, your science is rubbish’, which is an unfortunate counter-argument. I would be much happier if they were saying what you say they are saying, as would many moderate voices from the scientific community, I suspect.
    Which leads me back to my first comment (#2). Flatow would have been a much bigger help had he invited a social scientist on to discuss the pathologies present in the public debate (such as those we are discussing) and how these pathologies just further facilitate polarization along idealogical divides. Instead, he had yet another scientist on to talk about GOP’ers sticking their heads in the sand. This moves the debate exactly zero steps forward.

  • TimG


    Every social scientist I have heard is completely oblivious to the pathologies on the alarmist side of the debate. Instead they seem to go on at length about why people to are too stupid to understand their betters know what is good for them. So I don’t think that would help.

    I also think you need to try harder to understand the perspective of a person who truly believes that government regulation is bad and the size of government needs to be reduced. Such a person is not going to quietly accept the pronoucements of people who claim they are experts. They will demand a much high standard of evidence than someone who thinks more government regulation is a wonderful idea.

    So when scientists and their lefty supporters respond to this demand for more conclusive evidence with name calling it is natural for people to suspect it is all a scam. Of course, that simply results in more name calling from the dems.

    Breaking the vicious circle at this point would requires good will from both sides. I am not sure what would make that happen.

  • kdk33

    Of course, it would help if there was less rubbish in the “science” – a posteriori attribution claims, for example and of late.

    just ssyin’

  • Tom Gray

    Does anyone else recall the great controversies about atomic energy. People of a certain political stripe would never accept any assurance that the technology was safe. people of other political stripes found these scientific assurances quite convincing. Back then there was no talk of political wars on science.
    The AGW issue is directly comparable except that the political sides have changed. The anti-nukes have now discovered the merits of science and regard all scientific pronouncements are indisputable if they agree with their own predilections. The pro-nukes now see scientists as part of a grand political conspiracy.
    People create¬†their¬†own science to meet their own ends. Paul Feyeraband described all of this in his books over 40 years ago.¬†More current versions of it are discussed in Kellow’s book “Science and Public Policy”

  • Tom Gray

    Of course I should also say that scientists as well as the general public create science to meet their own ends. There is no such thing as a pure scientific quest for truth as opposed to the self-interested machinations of others

  • Pascvaks

    Emanuel, ET a bunch of¬†ALs, would be wise to disassociate himself with both political extremes (parties) and make the Mighty Independent¬†Middle his pond.¬† Not only would he be better able to critize the idiots on both ends of the spectrum from a powerful vantage point, he would also¬†be able to better sway the outcome merely by leaning a little left or right.¬† I don’t think he’s far from it anyway.¬† In all but claim he’s one of us anyway.¬† Long live The Mighty Middle!

  • Eric

    And kdk33 (#12) succinctly illustrates why this radio program achieved nothing.

  • kdk33

    The possiblity warmists won’t face¬†is this:¬† they have been heard, over and over and over, they just don’t have a strong case for taking action.¬† Doing nothing, for now,¬†is our best strategy.¬†

    It’s not a complicated question for social or political scientists.¬† Simply¬†society’s (or US voters) sober cost/benefit analysis.¬† The certain costs of decarbonization¬†versus the uncertain GHG risk.¬†¬†

    Warmists are not doing themselves any favors by blaming every bout of bad weather and the latest socail upheaval on CO2.  Its silly and undermines their credibility.

    The question I’d like Emanuel to answer is this:¬† in what sense does he consider himself a republican?

  • harrywr2

    Jack Hughes Says:
    February 5th, 2011 at 4:12 pm
    Emanuel makes an interesting point :
    “¬¶if they simply deny that there’s any problem at all they have automatically opted out of the conversation about what the solutions to the problems are going to be.

    The republicans were going to be left out the discussion in the last session of Congress on every last piece of legislation no matter what.
    There is also the matter of nuclear power(the republicans favorite clean technology) having no first mover advantage. The ‘first’ of any design is going to have cost overruns. The Chinese are quite happy to be the first to build the Westinghouse AP1000. Why not just lay back a couple of years and wait for Westinghouse to work out any construction problems on the Chinese dime?¬† The whole ‘loan guarantee’ thing becomes a lot easier if there is a proven track record of ‘on time and on budget’.

  • Dave H

    > Simply¬†society’s (or US voters) sober cost/benefit analysis.
    I would not describe the action of political voters as a “sober cost/benefit analysis”. Indeed, this is precisely the kind of large-scale, long-term, high-personal-impact-for-minimum-appreciable-gain risk assessment that humans are notoriously bad at.

  • kdk33


    Ahh, yes.¬† I have heard this before.¬† I don’t buy it.

    I’ll humor you briefly…¬† if it were true, the tendency to misjudge long-term risk in light of short-term incentives applies equally to both sides in this debate.¬†

    It’s a wash.


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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