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They were friends as global warming skeptics, but then their minds and lives diverged. That these MIT experts now see the facts, and each other, so differently shows how hard climate consensus will be.

It is no surprise they grew to be friends. Richard Lindzen and Kerry Emanuel are both brilliant and convivial. Both study the atmosphere and climate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where their offices overlooking the Charles River are one floor apart. In an academic world often dominated by liberals, both have strong conservative streaks and once agreed that the evidence for catastrophic man-made global warming just wasn’t there.

But then the climate changed between them. Friends became intellectual foes, dueling icons in one of the world’s most acrimonious political debates.

Friends had a hard time staying friends.

Lindzen, a leading specialist on atmospheric physics, has emerged as one of the most prominent climate change skeptics in the world. At age 70, he speaks at home and overseas, arguing that there is little to worry about from emissions of heat-trapping gases from power plants, factories, and cars. We should “go back to dealing with real science and real environmental problems such as assuring clean air and water,’’ he wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Earth Day.

Emanuel, an equally respected researcher, emerged as a preeminent voice on climate change’s potential dangers after he published a paper three weeks before Katrina that suggested global warming might be making hurricanes more powerful. Named one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine, Emanuel, 55, says he has been persuaded by the evolving science that man-made climate change is a real threat.

“I don’t see how a climate scientist can look at the evidence and not see risk,’’ he said recently.

Emanuel thinks Lindzen’s key theories don’t hold up, and just two weeks ago went public with his criticism, penning a tart letter to the editor rebutting Lindzen’s Journal piece — “irresponsible and misleading,’’ he called it, “advancing spurious hypotheses.’’

Lindzen has implied that Emanuel is hyping the evidence and making a play for fame and funding in the age of Obama and Gore. In a letter savaging an opinion piece by Emanuel in the Globe, he branded the reasoning “more advocacy than assessment.’’

In the Ivory Tower, these are fighting words.

The story of the scientists’ relationship is much more than a curiosity. The fact that these serious-minded colleagues and longtime friends disagree so vehemently highlights the immense difficulty of finding common ground on human-caused global warming. That’s because their disagreements are not just about interpretations of scientific data, but about how they assess the risks, amid the uncertainty over global warming’s future impact.

Their divide mirrors a much larger political split, as the US Senate begins to debate a climate bill written in large part by Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry. All parties to the debate have the same evidence to draw on; their conclusions are another matter. Lindzen and Emanuel’s collision spotlights the ultimate sticking point: What steps should we take, and at what cost? That is: How much insurance against the possibility of catastrophe should a prudent planet buy?

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