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Lumbee climate scientist on global warming and Mark Robinson's false climate claims

Ryan Emanuel is a Lumbee and a climate scientist who teaches at Duke University.
Duke University

This story first appeared in WFAE climate reporter David Boraks' weekly newsletter. Sign up here to get the news straight to your inbox first.

"Pseudoscience" is how North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson described climate science during a campaign speech in Hickory in July. For him, climate denial is a talking point as he seeks the Republican nomination for governor.

I've reported on Robinson's views, but one other comment in that speech caught my ear and seemed worth a fact-check. Robinson also claimed that the history of North Carolina's Lumbee Tribe helps prove that global warming is not a crisis.

"You can go all the way back in history, reading the history book about the Lumbee Indians and they talked about how the natives first got here." Robinson said. "And the very beginning of the book says long, long ago — and I wish they had put this in parentheses — before cars, SUVs and jets and factories . . . long, long ago, there was a great period of cooling. And people decided to take advantage of that and walk across something called the Bering Strait land bridge that froze. They found themselves trapped many years later, when there was a great period of warming. Long before there were cars and jets and SUVs and factories and Right Guard and gas ovens and gas lawnmowers. Long before that, there was these great periods of warming and cooling."

I wondered: Does Lumbee history actually help disprove modern climate science? I put the question to Ryan Emanuel, who is both a Lumbee and a climate scientist at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. Emanuel is a hydrologist who studies how climate change affects water resources. He also has written about Lumbee history and the tribe's current environmental challenges.

He called Robinson's "pseudoscience" remark "a completely ridiculous claim." And he said Robinson's use of Lumbee history to question climate change is "frustrating and troubling."

"Lumbee oral traditions don't mention periods of cooling or warming long ago, nor do they tell about our ancestors’ ancient migrations to North America. I am also not aware of any Lumbee-specific history book that covers these topics, so I don’t even know what book Robinson is talking about," Emmanuel said.

Past climatic changes also are not mentioned in the tribe's official online history, either.

Robinson is not wrong to note that Earth has seen past cycles of heating and cooling. But Emanuel said you can't compare the past with what's happening now, where human activity is the main driver of rapid global warming.

"The thing that troubled me about what Robinson said is that he contrasted (the past) with climate change that we've experienced in the past 100-150 years, as if these are the same. And we know that they're not the same at all," Emanuel said.

"And the principal difference is because the climate change that we have seen in the recent century or two is at a drastically accelerated rate compared to climate changes that have happened throughout most of human history, and indeed, through most of geological history. So I think that's a completely false comparison," he said.

Emanuel has a book due out next spring titled "On the Swamp" — a phrase Lumbee people use to describe being back home, in the neighborhood, in southeastern North Carolina's Robeson County. Although Emanuel moved to Charlotte when he was young, he visited "the swamp" often and his family and friends still live there.

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Emanuel said the book centers on environmental justice and Indigenous rights in eastern North Carolina.

"And one of the questions that I tackle is how do Lumbees and their Indigenous neighbors steward their traditional lands and maintain ties to landscapes and waterways in a world that's radically changing underneath their feet?

"Some of that change is driven by development activities, deforestation, industrialized agriculture, but some of that change is also driven by climate change. So we see drastic changes and flow regimes on rivers and wetlands. And we know that these things are linked to human-caused climate change.

"And so those two poles of human land-use activities and global climate change really impact the landscapes of eastern North Carolina at pretty rapid timescales," he said.

As both a Lumbee and a climate scientist, Emanuel said it's wrong for Robinson to use the Lumbee to support his argument against climate change.

When somebody like Robinson uses his platform to say something about us that has no basis in our own history or our own stories, that's replacing factual information that Lumbee people could be sharing about themselves. And then as scientists, it's frustrating to see what Marshall Shepard and other great climate scientists call these 'zombie ideas' about climate change, that are continually debunked by climate scientists and science communication experts, and yet they continually arise and are circulated again and again," Emanuel said.

David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.
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