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Scientists have maintained for years that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses are causing climate change. In the face of deniers, scientists insist their answer is correct. We talk to Dr. Kerry Emanuel from MIT about what makes he and other scientists so certain greenhouse gasses are to blame and how the problem can be addressed to not only help our planet, but create new jobs for American workers.

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  • Dr. Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Links for more information:

Climate Change: Causes, Solutions, and its Impact on our Economy.

Gary Price: The Environmental Protect Agency has, for years, maintained the stance that greenhouse gasses are causing climate change. However, newly appointed EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, recently changed the course of the EPA saying we aren’t positive what exactly causes climate change. Pruitt even had this to say when asked by CNBC if he believes carbon dioxide is the primary contributor to climate change.

Pruitt: I think that measuring with precision, human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact. So no. I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.

Gary: However Dr. Kerry Emanuel, a Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, is one of many climate scientists who say he strongly disagrees with that statement.

Dr. Kerry Emanuel: He’s just wrong about that. 97% of the people who actually study climate, in the consensus documents which are represented by the intergovernmental panel on climate change, has concluded long ago that the signal of greenhouse gas warming, a signal predicted by physicists more than a 100 years ago is very clearly evident in the data. So, I’m sorry but Mr. Pruitt is just plain wrong.

Gary: But still some say that greenhouse effect is not the only cause of climate change. Emanuel says that they’re correct, but that greenhouse gasses are the most important for us to address.

Dr. Emanuel: There are many factors that contribute to climate change on many different time-scales. So if we’re talking about time-scales of tens of thousands of years, slight wobbles in the earths rotation around it’s axis and wobbles in the earths orbit around the sun cause changing distributions of sunlight over the planet. Those are what caused the great ice age cycles on the planet, but those are cycles that go on for about 100,000 years. Volcanic eruptions can cool the climate by putting material in the stratosphere and that happened famously with Mount Pinatubo in 1991 that erupted and led to a few years of cooling. Changes in the sun itself that we’re able to measure very accurately from satellites now, potentially can change the climate. So there are some climate scientists that think the so-called “little ice age” of the 17th century, where Europe was relatively cold, might’ve been caused by a temporary diminution of the sun. So there’s many things that cause climate change and changing greenhouse gases also played a role in prehistoric climate change.

Gary: As for the 3% of scientists who don’t agree carbon dioxide causes climate change, Emanuel says we should value the consensus of the few deniers.

Dr. Emanuel: You can find, if you go into the medical literature, you can find 3% of medical literature who don’t believe that HIV causes AIDS, so what? If you went to your doctor and weren’t feeling well and he said, “I’m sorry you got a dangerous cancer and we have to operate on you and it’ll be expensive and painful,” and you went to 96 other doctors who told you the same thing and you had a ‘feel good’ doctor who said, “don’t worry there’s nothing wrong with you” what are you going to do?

Gary: And it seems Emanuel is not alone in his disagreement with Pruitt. 491 EPA workers signed an open letter opposing the confirmation of Pruitt as the EPA administrator. Since his confirmation, the American Meteorological Society has written a letter of disagreement with Pruitt’s stance on greenhouse gases and another letter, opposing Pruitt’s statements, has been signed by 30 leading climate scientists including Emanuel. He explains the science behind climate change, like this:

Dr. Emanuel: Greenhouse gases are trace gases in the atmosphere which include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and a handful of others. And although they are a tiny minority of the gases in the atmosphere, they strongly absorb infrared radiation, which is the radiation emitted by the earth and the atmospheric clouds within it or so. And they radiate some of that up to space and quite a bit of it back down to the surface, so the surface of the earth receives much more radiation from the atmosphere and clouds than it does actually from the sun, averaged over 24 hours. And that makes it hotter, that’s the essence of the greenhouse effect.

Gary: Emanuel says part of what frustrates him and his fellow climate scientists is that treating the science of climate change, as a controversy is a distraction from what they want to be focused on.

Dr. Emanuel: The legitimate controversy is two things, first of all how much warming is going to happen for a given emissions and how risky is that, and what are we going to do about it? Those are the serious question. What science has established is that we’re running a risk; we’re running a risk for our children and our grandchildren. And this debate is legitimate scientific debate about how much risk there is.

Gary: When asked what would happen if Pruitt’s stance becomes the status quo in America, Pruitt says there are really two possibilities.

Dr. Emanuel: One is that the United States does nothing, but the rest of the world does and I think that’s the more likely outcome – the rest of the world, under China’s leadership, will figure out how to curb greenhouse gasses. And we’ll have been left behind economically, that’s to me the most probably outcome. If that doesn’t happen, if China and the rest of the world, Russia and so forth, just go along with the US then the sea levels are going to continue to go up. Places like Miami, which are already having trouble, are gonna have a lot more trouble. Coastal cities are going to be in peril every time there’s a mild storm. Perhaps more importantly, one of the effects we’re already beginning to see of climate change is in that it really affects the water cycle a lot. When it rains it rains harder – when and where it rains, when it’s dry it tends to get drier, so incidents of drought will go up and that is of great concern for example, for the Home Defense Department because when you have droughts and water shortages and as a consequence of that you have shortages of food.

Gary: And Emanuel says food shortage would naturally lead to a whole new onslaught of problems.

Dr. Emanuel: What we know from history is that societies that begin to suffer chronic shortage of food and water, there are two responses to that. One is emigration, there will be a lot more pressure on people to get out of these areas – we’re already seeing all kinds of problems that’s causing emigration from the middle east, causing Europe and to a lesser extent in the US. But the other response to it is armed conflict – you know a lot of wars have been started over food and water issues, so I fear that the problem we’re actually going to end up with are problems dealing with massive demographic shifts, immigration and so forth and war because those are consequences of food and water shortages that results from climate change.

Gary: But Emanuel says the threat American would most immediately face if the climate denying continues is the economic cost of not being a leader on energy.

Dr. Emanuel: Regardless of whether you think it’s risky or not, most of the rest of the world does. Why that’s important to us is that the global energy market is 6 trillion dollars a year US GDP is 17 trillion, so the global energy market is a big chunk of US GDP. China has taken lead in the transformation of this 6 trillion dollar energy market towards carbon free energy and the US, under this administration, has vowed to go backwards towards sources like coal. Essentially we’re giving up leadership in the transformation of the 6 trillion dollar energy market – that’s going to be very bad for economics in America, we don’t have to believe in climate change to understand that much.

Gary: Since the rest of the world does believe greenhouse gasses are a major problem, Emanuel says innovating on energy sources could bring about a major boost to our economy.

Dr. Emanuel: The big thing that’s happening in the world is that countries like India and China are lifting themselves out of poverty which we should celebrate and to do that they’re greatly increasing their per capita energy consumption. The average person in India is using a lot more energy than 10 years ago and will use a lot more energy 10 years from now presumably and we should celebrate that because that’s how you lift yourself out of poverty. But if they do that with carbon based fuels we are imperiling climate. Now it’s countries like Russia and China that are leading the way to providing countries like India with energy that does not depend on carbon, and that’s leaving the United State behind economically that’s what should be worried in the near time. We’re not participating in the transformation of a 6 trillion dollar market.

Gary: Emanuel says one thing America will need to get over, in order to be a leader on energy, is our persistent fear of nuclear power. Emanuel says that while nuclear implies “danger” to many people, our older energy sources aren’t all that safe themselves.

Dr. Emanuel: You always have to be terrorists, 13,000 people die prematurely in the United States every year as the result of the combustion of coal. Nuclear power has not killed anybody in the United States. But the other thing I would say that, we don’t have to rely on 1960s technology all of the existing light-water reactors in the United States are based upon designs that date back to the 1950’s and 60’s we can do a lot better than that – safer and much cleaner, less toxic fuel, waste and so forth. Working on next generation fission reactors is the sort of thing the United States ought to be taking leadership in, rather than denying that we have a problem to solve.

Gary: In the end Emanuel says he believes embracing the challenge could do wonders for our environment and American workers.

Dr. Emanuel: The most important thing is that, not only can we avoid this risk but we can help our economy by so doing. If you want to bring a lot of manufacturing jobs to the US, we ought to be participating in migration away from carbon-based energy.

Gary: You can find a link to the full letter Emanuel and 29 other scientists wrote about Pruitt’s comments on our website, ViewpointsOnline.net. You can also find more information about all of our guests and archives of past programs there. Our shows are also found on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.