The Politics and Economics of Climate Science – Kerry Emanuel

I’m Kerry Emanuel. I’m a professor of atmospheric
science here at MIT. I’ve been at MIT for 36 years. Before that, I was at
UCLA for three years. And I’ve been interested
in the atmosphere since I was a young
child, and dreamed that I might make a
profession of it some day. And I have. Over my professional
career, my interests have shifted a little
bit more in the direction of tropical meteorology
and climate. Most of the scientists
who study these things tend to ignore or brush
aside the politics. There are a few
of us, and I guess I’m included in this, who
try to make politicians, policymakers, and so
forth aware of the risks that we’re incurring
going forward, so that they,
hopefully, some day, will pass intelligent
legislation and other policies to deal with those risks. Politicians need to understand
that we scientists are really trying to understand how
the climate system works. And some of us are also
trying to quantify the risks associated with climate change. We don’t have a
political agenda. We’re simply trying to
understand the risks. It’s very important for
people working on solutions– and that includes the
[INAUDIBLE] political scientists, social scientists– to understand
fundamentally where the science is in terms
of the assessment of risk going forward. What are the risks? What is the time
frame over which we must deal with those
risks to be effective? In other words, that sets
the foundation for everything they would do to try and deal
with or mitigate that risk. There are some potentially very
large risks to civilization. Those risks have to do
mostly with the consequences of sea level rise and the
fact that the distributions of rainfall favor both more
droughts and more floods. And historically,
in human history, whenever we see climate change
that leads to food and water shortages, that, in turn,
leads to political instability. And political instability
in a nuclear armed world is something that
ought to be avoided. The good news is that we can
transform our energy economy very quickly to get
away from carbon and/or extract carbon
from the atmosphere. We need to very rapidly put in
place policies that encourage innovation in those directions. And if we did that, I’m
confident that science and engineering would very
rapidly solve these problems while probably
improving the economy. Let me say this. Two numbers on the table– the global energy market
is $6 trillion annually. US GDP is $17 trillion. So energy is more than
a third of the US GDP. Right now, the energy
markets are transforming away from carbon toward
innovative new sources. And right now, China
is leading that charge, with America talking about
going backwards to coal. We can’t afford to
cede a $6 billion market to the rest of the world. We should be the leaders
in that innovation. And we should be capturing as
much of that market as we can. This is good and necessary
for our economic well-being, even if you don’t particularly
care about climate change. There are whole
other disciplines in science and
engineering that are trying to understand, what
are the solutions that are out there that could
help us mitigate the risks? I don’t think we’ve been talking
nearly enough as a society about those solutions. Because some of them
are really exciting. Unfortunately,
they’re portrayed, in the media and elsewhere, as
sort of economic armageddon– that we’re going to have to
go back to the Stone Ages, where we don’t have electricity,
or it’s very expensive. On the contrary, there are some
interesting alternative energy sources– and I don’t
just mean renewables– that could drive the price down
and could make power even more plentiful than it is today. I think there will be bipartisan
unity if policies are proposed that make sense economically–
if they improve the economy. And I think that’s where
the focus should lie today. How can we best transform
our energy, not just to solve the climate problem– although that, to me, is very
important, but to give us a competitive edge in energy? There are many reasons
to think that we ought to be transforming
our energy economy, even if climate were
not on the table. First and foremost,
eventually we will run out of fossil fuels. The projections on
the table now is that oil and gas
will be exhausted at the current
rate of consumption and projecting forward about
the end of this century– coal a little bit
later than that. So eventually, we have
to transform away. If we can get a 50-year head
start on that transformation, not only might we solve
the climate problem, but we might, as a
nation, get an edge in this very, very
strong market of energy. That’s what I think
we need to be doing. And rather than holding
that innovation back by subsidizing old means
of energy production, we should encourage, perhaps
through carbon pricing, the development of new sources.

  1. What might it mean for the United States' economy if we are no longer leading in innovative technology for a period of say 30 years (particularly with renewable energy)? How serious of an economic position will we be in?

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