Kerry Emanuel: Bringing global warming science from the classroom to the world

For decades, Professor Emanuel has educated students, politicians, the media, and even climate skeptics about the science behind climate change

Vicki Ekstrom June 10, 2014 MITEI

Climate change is widely recognized as one of the foremost challenges of this century—one with major repercussions for energy, health, agriculture, and more. Kerry Emanuel, MIT’s Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science, therefore feels it is his duty as a citizen and scientist to educate a broad audience on the possible impacts of climate change.

Emanuel is no stranger to the task. For decades, he has educated students, politicians, the media, and even climate skeptics about the science behind climate change. Named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2006, Emanuel recently wrote a book geared toward educating the public on the subject: What We Know About Climate Change. He is also a co-founder and director of the Lorenz Center, a climate think tank housed within MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.

In spring 2014, Emanuel took his role as public educator one step further with the launch of 12.340x Global Warming Science, a new massive open online course (MOOC) from MIT’s edX platform that aims to provide a solid scientific foundation for understanding what is really happening with climate change.

The class is aimed at sophomores and juniors from all over the world, in particular, those who have taken electrodynamics, classical mechanics, and some thermodynamics. It’s a serious science course, says Emanuel, which distinguishes it from the handful of other online courses currently being taught beyond MIT on the subject of climate change, most of which have a large policy component.

Emanuel’s approach to teaching the class maintains a clear boundary between the science and the policy of climate change. “Part of the problem is all the publicity on global warming has sent out a message that global warming is highly politicized and has nothing to do with science,” he said in a recent interview. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Emanuel is pleased with the number of students who have shown an interest in the course: More than 10,000 are registered this semester.

He says one of the benefits of the online class is that students can sign up and take the class wherever they live. This semester, he has students from all over the world, including India, Bangladesh, and several African countries.

“It allows me to reach people who might be very bright, very engaged, possibly future leaders in the field, who otherwise don’t have the opportunity to take a real college course at a real college because of financial, political, or other reasons,” Emanuel says. “This opens up a world to them. If they’re motivated, I think they can get just as much, if not more, out of the edX platform as someone taking it in the classroom.”

In addition to helping Emanuel reach future leaders in the field who don’t have the means to attend MIT, the online course has special features intended to enhance the learning experience beyond what a traditional physical classroom can support. One of those features is an online discussion and help forum where students working on problem sets can ask other students or teaching assistants for help. The answers to questions are then voted on by other participants, providing a natural system of selecting the best comments.

Another notable feature of the class is the opportunity for students to work with a simple, interactive climate model that takes inputs such as solar radiation and atmospheric greenhouse gas content and calculates the temperatures of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere. Users can change variables such as the intensity of sunlight, the time of year, the greenhouse gas concentrations, and more to see how they affect climate change and learn by comparing scenarios they generate themselves.

What has stunned Emanuel about the edX class is that it has spurred interest in the physical classroom version of Global Warming Science—a class within the Energy Studies Minor that Emanuel and his co-teacher, MIT Professor of Physics and Planetary Science Sara Seager, decided not to offer this spring after enrollments had been low for several years.

“Ironically, it seems that the MOOC is drawing more MIT students to have an interest in the classroom course,” Emanuel says, surmising that he will probably offer the physical classroom version of the class again next year.

Striking balance

Throughout his time educating politicians and the public about climate change, Emanuel has found himself side-by-side with climate skeptics on multiple occasions. Most recently, he was invited to give a talk at an event hosted by conservative Christians, who often find themselves at odds with other conservative groups because of their yearning to protect nature.

To address the concerns of climate skeptics in the room, Emanuel did what he normally does when in such situations.

“You can’t give them a climate education in 30 minutes,” he says. “But what you can do is talk to them about the way scientists look at the problem, from a societal standpoint, and that’s by framing the problem in terms of risk assessment and management….How much insurance are you willing to pay out to avoid a low probability but very, very high impact event?”

Emanuel also encourages Democrats and Republicans alike to fight the fights worth fighting—the ones that are rational and need action from lawmakers. He gives nuclear power as one example of a fight that leaders should take up. Last year, Emanuel and three other top climate scientists wrote an open letter to world leaders in support of the development of safer nuclear power systems.

“I’ll say to [conservative skeptics], if you want to fight the left, don’t fight this battle, fight other battles. You should be out there fighting for nuclear power, which the left is opposed to, irrationally. You should be out there fighting to get research on carbon sequestration,” Emanuel says. “I’d rather see someone fighting those battles than trying to deny that there’s a problem, because those battles might become a bipartisan, intelligent conversation about our mixture of energy sources. But if we keep fighting the old fight, nobody is going to do anything at all.”

He comments, “I’m always horrified when ideology trumps evidence and reason.”

Emanuel has always been guided by a strict adherence to reason. When he was growing up in the 1960s and 70s, he found that those who argued irrationally tended to be on the left. So he became a Republican. But over the last decade or so, he switched to become a registered independent.

“All the excesses, as far as I can see, are on the right now. I didn’t change so much. They changed,” Emanuel says.

But it wasn’t politics that attracted Emanuel to the challenge of climate change to begin with, and it surely won’t be politics that keeps him battling for more public awareness. As always, Emanuel remains focused on the science and hopes decision makers will as well.

“We have people wholly ignorant of science who are making important decisions in this country. And their constituents aren’t necessarily any better educated on this subject. That’s going to be the downfall of us,” Emanuel says. “I do feel a duty as a citizen to try to get education on the subject to a much broader audience.”

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. Subscribe today

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