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July 25 2012

14:19

If Conservatives Were Really “Conservative,” They Would Want to Do Something About Global Warming

Originally, when I asked MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel to be a guest on the Point of Inquiry podcast, my goal was simple. I wanted someone who could give an expert take on the relationship between climate change and all the freakish weather we’ve been seeing. As for having this individual also be a self-described conservative and onetime voting Republican, and someone who fell under attack from Tea Party types because of his stance on climate change…well, that it was kind of icing on the cake.

As the interview progressed, though, I came to feel something quite different. I felt, ever so tentatively at least, that there is a real persuasive case to be made by conservatives to other conservatives about climate change, one that just might help bring them around to seeing the need for real policy solutions. What’s more, such a case might even prevail if conservatives in the U.S. today truly embraced the principles of their Burkean intellectual forefathers—which one can conclude almost by definition that they don’t, since they largely deny the science of global warming.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

At the start of the interview, Emanuel expertly detailed why we know climate science is reliable, how climate change manifests itself in extreme weather—statistically, of course, and not anecdotally—and why outright skepticism of global warming caused by humans just isn’t a credible intellectual position for one to hold any longer. So far, so good.

But where things got really interesting was around minute 14, where the conversation shifted towards policy and Emanuel made a conservative case for taking the science of climate change seriously, and finding a solution to the problem. “The thing to do is to get [conservatives] to understand how much they could potentially bring to the table in trying to figure out how we deal with these risks,” Emanuel explained.

What did he mean? Well, if one is a Burkean conservative, then one by definition wants to prevent risk to the existing order of things. One wants to conserve, to ensure stability. And since climate change is clearly a grave risk to economic, ecological, and overall planetary order, Emanuel naturally sees addressing global warming as a conservative idea. As he explained at minute 16 or so of the podcast:

It’s conservative in the little C sense that most people mean when they say, a conservative family insures itself, for example, and doesn’t take 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 the way we ought to be thinking about this problem.

Are you listening to that, conservatives?

But that was only the beginning of Emanuel’s conservative argument that today’s U.S. conservatives are doing global warming all wrong. Emanuel then went on to explain how the current state of affairs on energy policy is anything but…conservative:

On the energy side, there are a lot of things [going on] that aren’t conservative at all, that are at the heart of the problem. 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. There are huge tax subsidies.

Is it a conservative principle to permit one business to pass on a 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 of health costs, that have to be absorbed by ratepayers of insurance policies, and by taxpayers who are underwriting things like Medicare.

These aren’t conservative principles.

I have to confess that at around this point in the interview, I wanted to cry out, preach it Brother Emanuel. I was getting pretty darn fired up. It all makes so much sense that a conservative wouldn’t want to put up with this kind of stuff. Subsidies? Come on.

But of course, it doesn’t really help for me to have some weird out of body experience and get all psyched up on behalf of conservatives being principled. After all, I’m still a liberal at the end of the day. It’s not me who needs psyching or convincing.

The question, then, is why today’s U.S. conservatives don’t listen to people like Emanuel, despite the fact that he speaks to them in a language that they ought to understand, and furthermore, speaks as one of them?

This is, of course, a question that takes us very deep into the Republican brain. Emanuel, in our the interview, basically blamed it all on the extremism of the Tea Party—the very same extremism that pushed him out of the Republican Party and made him call himself an Independent (although philosophically still a "conservative").

But I’m not so sure it’s that simple. I think that the natural conservative tendency to want order and stability tends to travel along with a lot of other tendencies—to want find such stability in the group, the tribe, the team; to more adhere to dogma and religious beliefs; to staunchly defend the tribe and banish outsiders (like Emanuel)—and an overall tendency towards closure and fixity of beliefs, rather than openness to new ideas. In other words, psychological conservatism all too readily undermines sensible intellectual conservatism—leading to a situation where someone like Kerry Emanuel makes a whole lot of conservative sense…and so-called conservatives want nothing to do with it, because they've gone all in on a worldview that won't allow it.

So perhaps Emanuel’s response, when I bluntly asked him why he didn’t stay around and fight to reclaim his onetime political party, makes sense. He laughed, and then frankly added,

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 ought to be debating the things that are really debatable about these problems.

Here’s hoping Emanuel will find a lot of conservative people to talk with. At least in a former incarnation, I think Mitt Romney is just the sort of conservative who would have listened.

Which…yeah. Which gets at the very root of the problem.

To listen to my full interview with Kerry Emanuel, click here.

January 19 2012

17:24

Who’s Afraid of Kerry Emanuel? Why Republicans Are Attacking a Republican Climate Scientist

Last week, MIT climate scientist and hurricane specialist Kerry Emanuel received email threats for his view on climate change. These were quickly and appropriately condemned by the progressive and environmental blogosphere—as they are condemned by me—but I want to go a bit further and contemplate why Emanuel’s views in particular appear so menacing to some elements of the conservative base today.

The answer may seem deceptively simple on the surface: Unlike most climate researchers, Kerry Emanuel describes himself as a long time Republican. And he’s been speaking out lately. The precise catalyst leading to the emails was a video posted by Climate Desk, capturing Emanuel at an event in New Hampshire organized by maverick Republicans who actually accept global warming and don’t like the way their party is headed. They want to turn it around (hey, good luck with that).

So Emanuel is presumably seen as a turncoat by some Republicans and conservatives—and you might just leave it at that. But I think it is deeper. It is the kind of Republicanism that Emanuel represents—merged with his identity as a scientist, and a premiere one at that—that really presents the biggest challenge.

You see, Emanuel is what you might call an “Enlightenment Republican.”

He joined the party in the 1970s because he personally viewed it as the home of “reason” at a time of left wing excesses. As I wrote after I interviewed him for the American Prospect magazine (Emanuel is also a featured personage in my book The Republican Brain):

In the early 1970s, as an undergraduate at MIT, [Emanuel] remembers feeling surrounded by the "liberal excesses" then prevalent in the "People's Republic" of Cambridge, Massachusetts. "I remember hearing fellow students defending Pol Pot and Mao Zedong and Stalin, and I was so horrified," he says. But now Emanuel sees the situation as reversed: The extremes are on the Tea Party right, the Democrats are centrists and pragmatists, and Emanuel—really always a moderate—finds not so much that he has moved but that his party has. "I'm turned off by those people for exactly the same reasons I was turned off by the ideologues of the 1970s," he says.

Emanuel also made these comments to me:

"I don't like it when ideology trumps reason, and I see that the Republicans are guilty of that in spades at the moment," he says.

"I've been toying with the idea of officially switching to independent status," he adds.

In our interview, Emanuel also spoke of his admiration for the late William F. Buckley, Jr., the kind of person that today’s right sorely lacks—a sophisticated and nuanced intellectual in a position of leadership.

In other words, Emanuel’s story tells us just how much American politics have changed in the last three decades, and just what a cliff the GOP has fallen from in its relationship with science and reason.

In the 1960s and 1970s, if you thought the anti-war leftists on the campuses were overdoing it and you disliked ideological extremes, the Republican Party was a great place for you to go. Or at least, so it may have appeared at the time.

Even in the Reagan years, while there were certainly abuses against science there was also much more Republican rationalism and moderation—epitomized by Reagan’s joining the Montreal Protocol to curtail harmful stratospheric ozone depletion from CFCs.

This history, this legacy, led many people of reason—like Emanuel—to feel very comfortable within the Republican ranks. And once you forge a relationship with a political party and develop a loyalty, it is very hard to change it.

But the injuries to Republican reasoners have steadily mounted—from Newt Gingrich presiding over the destruction of congressional science advice in the mid 1990s, to the George W. Bush administration’s undermining of science at every turn, to the Tea Party and the near monolithic rejection of climate science by today’s GOP presidential candidates—and rationalists like Emanuel have a harder and harder time hanging on. Indeed, at this point they’re hanging by a thread.

What’s more, deep down, a lot of the right wing science deniers kind of know that they are pushing these people away.

Don’t get me wrong: They don’t actually believe that they’re factually incorrect. They don’t view themselves as “deniers.” But they definitely know that there is a huge amount of knowledge, intellect, and expertise that they’re flying in the face of. And they feel that disdain, as well as that bafflement, coming from the acknowledged centers of science and learning.

So when one of their “own,” Kerry Emanuel, comes along and states—from an expert scientific perspective—that they’re abandoning reason…the cognitive dissonance is just too great. And because they can’t admit the truth about themselves, they can only lash at the messenger.

Here’s the thing, though. Emanuel may have been a Republican for a very long time. But he and those New Hampshire moderates seeking to reclaim the party for science are, in my opinion, in for a “long wait for a train don’t come” (to quote a really awesome sci-fi movie).

I fully understand their feelings of loyalty—and their desire to rescue what once was. But at the same time, I think they themselves probably recognize that the 60s and 70s—a time when, among other things, the Christian right was not fully integrated into the GOP—will never return. Heck, even I might have been a Republican in that era; I certainly find Frank Zappa’s songs making fun of hippies pretty hilarious. 

But that’s not the world we’re living in today—Republicanism and science just don’t go together much any longer. And the Republicans or conservatives who do stand up for rationality today—people like David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, and Kerry Emanuel—are most easily identified today by one chief characteristic: their banishment and alienation.

November 27 2010

03:13

2010 In Review: Scientists and Journalists Take Stock and Share Lessons Learned

 

There's no doubt about it. It’s been a challenging year for climate science and climate scientists, for journalists, and for the public. A string of legislative and regulatory disappointments coupled with dizzying political spin have left many more confused than ever about the overwhelming scientific consensus of climate change. 

It's been a particularly grim year following the Citizens United decision that ushered in a new era of rampant electoral spending on climate change denial; the U.S. midterm elections produced a Senate filled with climate change skeptics and deniers; a failed climate bill or two, and after the Copenhagen talks failed to produce any real results.  In addition, many pundits and analysts are giving us good reason to believe the U.S. won't see a climate bill for two years, and little reason to believe that real climate progress will be made in Cancun next week. it seems there's a lot of reason to feel distressed.  

Last week marked a year since the so-called Climategate "scandal" sent climate change deniers into an echo chamber frenzy.  Bud Ward and John Wihbey aptly note that to even call it “climategate” lends it credence that is undeserved.  But, it is important that we try to learn lessons from it.   This certainly won't be the last difficult year for the climate change movement; an increasingly challenging political environment promises more interesting times ahead, both for the science and for the scientists who devote their lives to the subject.  In a nutshell, we've got our work cut out for us. <!--break-->

In this great two part series from the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, Ward and Wihbey explore what climate scientists have learned in the last year, and share what the reporters whose responsibility it is to share and help evaluate their findings have learned. 

Peter H. Gleik of the Pacific Institute writes,

...there is an improved realization of how impossible it is to keep the climate science questions and debates separate from the political and ideological debates. And I hope we’ve learned the importance of communicating accurately and constantly. Being passive in the face of political repression, ideological misuse of science, and policy ignorance moves us in the wrong direction. I would like to think the community has learned that depending on the “honesty” and “impartiality” of journalism is not enough … that without strong input from climate scientists, the wrong stories get reported, with bad information, and ideological bias.

Similarly, Andrew Revkin writes, 

If science media tried to sustain coverage of science (including climate science) as a process, including the ugly parts, the public might be less apt to be surprised by occasional revelations of conflict like those illuminated through the batch of hacked/liberated (pick your adjective depending on your worldview) e-mails and files.

Beware the lure of the front-page thought in gauging developments in complicated science pointing to a rising human influence on climate, lest you end up giving readers whiplash. Try rigorously to include context on the overall state of knowledge when framing stories on science around conflict, given that conflict is a constant in science.

Develop patience. The story of humanity’s entwined climate and energy challenges will outlive you. No single treaty, meeting, e-mail hack, IPCC report, or climate bill is a keystone.

Read on about climate scientists' and journalists inspiring and thoughtful lessons and ruminations on the 'climate' of climate change in the last year at the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media (Part IPart II). 

 

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