Freeman Dyson: Climate Change Heretic

On Sunday, the New York Times Magazine published a front cover profile of Institute for Advanced Study physicist Freeman Dyson outlining his doubts about the apocalyptic global warming predictions. Last year, Dyson made his skepticism clear in an essay in the New York Review of Books. In that essay, Dyson basically accepted the economic analysis of Yale economist William Nordhaus which concluded that ambitious proposals to cut greenhouse gas emissions such as those proposed by former Vice President Al Gore and British economist Nicholas Stern are "disastrously expensive" and counterproductive. Nordhaus' optimal policy is a gradually increasing carbon tax. Dyson therefore concluded:

The practical consequence for global-warming policy is that we should pursue the following objectives in order of priority. (1) Avoid the ambitious proposals. (2) Develop the science and technology for a low-cost backstop. (3) Negotiate an international treaty coming as close as possible to the optimal policy, in case the low-cost backstop fails. (4) Avoid an international treaty making the Kyoto Protocol policy permanent. These objectives are valid for economic reasons, independent of the scientific details of global warming.

Dyson went on to suggest one such "low cost backstop" technology--biotech trees: 

We do not understand the language of the genome well enough to read and write it fluently. But the science is advancing rapidly, and the technology of reading and writing genomes is advancing even more rapidly. I consider it likely that we shall have "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years.

Carbon-eating trees could convert most of the carbon that they absorb from the atmosphere into some chemically stable form and bury it underground. Or they could convert the carbon into liquid fuels and other useful chemicals. Biotechnology is enormously powerful, capable of burying or transforming any molecule of carbon dioxide that comes into its grasp. Keeling's wiggles prove that a big fraction of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes within the grasp of biotechnology every decade. If one quarter of the world's forests were replanted with carbon-eating varieties of the same species, the forests would be preserved as ecological resources and as habitats for wildlife, and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be reduced by half in about fifty years.

In the New York Times profile, Dyson believes that climate computer models are leading researchers astray and dismisses some as global warming true believers:

Among those he considers true believers, Dyson has been particularly dismissive of Al Gore, whom Dyson calls climate change’s “chief propagandist,” and James Hansen, the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and an adviser to Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Dyson accuses them of relying too heavily on computer-generated climate models that foresee a Grand Guignol of imminent world devastation as icecaps melt, oceans rise and storms and plagues sweep the earth, and he blames the pair’s “lousy science” for “distracting public attention” from “more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet."

According to the Times, Dyson argues that

...the history of science is filled with those “who make confident predictions about the future and end up believing their predictions,” and he cites examples of things people anticipated to the point of terrified certainty that never actually occurred, ranging from hellfire, to Hitler’s atomic bomb, to the Y2K millennium bug. “It’s always possible Hansen could turn out to be right,” he says of the climate scientist. “If what he says were obviously wrong, he wouldn’t have achieved what he has. But Hansen has turned his science into ideology. He’s a very persuasive fellow and has the air of knowing everything. He has all the credentials. I have none. I don’t have a Ph.D. He’s published hundreds of papers on climate. I haven’t. By the public standard he’s qualified to talk and I’m not. But I do because I think I’m right. I think I have a broad view of the subject, which Hansen does not. I think it’s true my career doesn’t depend on it, whereas his does. I never claim to be an expert on climate. I think it’s more a matter of judgement than knowledge.”

Dyson is also concerned that expensive restrictions on carbon emitting fossil fuels will derail the rise from poverty of hundreds of millions of people in India and China. The article notes that:

...the same man [Dyson] ... write[s] “we live on a shrinking and vulnerable planet which our lack of foresight is rapidly turning into a slum” and yet gently chide[s] the sort of Americans who march against coal in Washington. Dyson has great affection for coal and for one big reason: It is so inexpensive that most of the world can afford it. “There’s a lot of truth to the statement Greens are people who never had to worry about their grocery bills,” he says. (“Many of these people are my friends,” he will also tell you.) To Dyson, “the move of the populations of China and India from poverty to middle-class prosperity should be the great historic achievement of the century. Without coal it cannot happen.” That said, Dyson sees coal as the interim kindling of progress. In “roughly 50 years,” he predicts, solar energy will become cheap and abundant, and “there are many good reasons for preferring it to coal.” 

The Times article reports climate modeler Hansen's response:

Reached by telephone, Hansen sounds annoyed as he says, “There are bigger fish to fry than Freeman Dyson,” who “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” In an e-mail message, he adds that his own concern about global warming is not based only on models, and that while he respects the “open-mindedness” of Dyson, “if he is going to wander into something with major consequences for humanity and other life on the planet, then he should first do his homework — which he obviously has not done on global warming.”

Whole Times profile here.

Hat tip to Alan Vanneman.

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  • ||

    Burn the heretic! Burn the denier!

    heretics who question the dogmas are needed... I am proud to be a heretic. The world always needs heretics to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies.



    He even CONFESSED!

  • Nick||

    Smart man. Of course his proposals will be entirely ignored, and he will be labled a whacko. There is too much money and policy behind the "science."

    www.notoriouslyconservative.com

  • Psychotic Unicorn||

    Shun the unbeliever. Shun. Shuuuuuuuuuuuu-n

  • Kyle Jordan||

    You know, if we got cracking on a Dyson Sphere, we wouldn't have to worry about Global Warming... Er, I mean... Climate Change.

    With that amount of energy available, we could move people off this mudball to the Moon, Mars, and who knows much easier.

    I wants me my own asteroid. Asteroid N! One better than Magneto.

  • T||

    Hmm. Career bureaucrat or certifiable genius? Who to choose, who to choose. Especially given that the genius proposes a common sense approach. Hmm. Tough call.

  • ||

    Kyle,

    The energy and mass expenditure for a Dyson sphere really only makes sense in order to create the living area. For energy, all we need to do is cover Mercury in solar panels.

  • lunchstealer||

    For energy, all we need to do is cover Mercury in solar panels.

    And make one really big extension cord.

  • ||

    Astrochicken

    Has Hansen ever come up with anything half as interesting as this?

  • ||

    lunchstealer,

    Don't be silly. We'll just plug a bunch of small ones together.

  • Y2Yay||

    he cites examples of things people anticipated to the point of terrified certainty that never actually occurred, ranging from hellfire, to Hitler's atomic bomb, to the Y2K millennium bug.

    The Y2K bug did occur. It wasn't the catastrophic event prophesied, but I bet that could be because companies had programmers working for years to correct the problem before the rollover occurred.

    It was a known problem in the 60s, and it had an obvious solution.

    Other than that, I am not worthy to shine Mr. Dyson's shoes.

  • ||

    This paper on the role of dust etc in ocean temperature increases was published in Science quite recently, and was quite interesting:

    The Role of Aerosols in the Evolution of Tropical North Atlantic Ocean Temperature Anomalies
    Amato T. Evan 1*, Daniel J. Vimont 2, Andrew K. Heidinger 3, James P. Kossin 4, Ralf Bennartz 2

    1 Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706, USA.; Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706, USA.
    2 Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706, USA.
    3 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)/National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS)/Center for Satellite Applications and Research (STAR), 1225 West Dayton Street, Madison, WI 53706, USA.
    4 NOAA/NESDIS/National Climatic Data Center, Madison, WI 53706, USA.

    * To whom correspondence should be addressed.
    Amato T. Evan , E-mail: atevan{at}wisc.edu

    Observations and models demonstrate that northern tropical Atlantic surface temperatures are sensitive to regional changes in stratospheric volcanic and tropospheric mineral aerosols. However, it is unknown if the temporal variability of these aerosols is a key factor in the evolution of ocean temperature anomalies. Here, we elucidate this question by using 26 years of satellite data to drive a simple physical model for estimating the temperature response of the ocean mixed layer to changes in aerosol loadings. Our results suggest that 69% of the recent upward trend, and 67% of the detrended and 5-year low pass filtered variance, in northern tropical Atlantic Ocean temperatures is the mixed layer's response to regional variability in aerosols.

    Published Online March 26, 2009
    Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1167404

  • ||

    If this was a post I missed, I apologize...

    Poking around the related link on the Dyson story, I found out that a British jury accepted an affirmative defense for environmentalist vandals. WTF? That drip-stain Hansen testified on their behalf.

  • ||

    Link: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/1167404

  • ||

    Freeman Dyson is a very smart fellow. He deserves all the credit for making Feynman Diagrams comprehensible to the physics community beyond RPF himself.

    I've never been very impressed by his original work. Dyson spheres are so much "grand vision" science fiction. That makes it interesting that here he's critical of the "grand vision" climate change crowd.

    This gave me a giggle:
    I don't have a Ph.D.
    I'm actually surprised to learn that he doesn't. As a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, his credentials are much loftier than mere "doctor".

  • Kyle Jordan||

    "That drip-stain Hansen testified on their behalf."

    "Seeking no truth

    Winning is all

    Find it so grim, so true, so real"

    He's a Global Warming Fundamentalist. They have to win. At all costs.

    It's best for all of us...

  • ||

    Interesting global warming factoid: the CO2 from coal mine fires in China is roughly equal to the CO2 from all the cars and light trucks in the US.

  • svf||

    Also of interest to Reason-ites I would imagaine: In that same NYT Mag was a "they're all a bunch of kooks" profile of the "tax denier movement" that referneced Ron Paul and the Libertarian Party several times... "no such thing as bad publicity"....?

    Hell Nay, We Won't Pay
    On Monday, April 16, 1990, millions of Americans sent their tax returns to the Internal Revenue Service. Peter Hendrickson sent a bomb. He was 34 years old, and since graduating from high school, he'd cobbled together an unremarkable career that included a stint as a video-arcade manager and other odd jobs. The only realm in which he showed direction - even distinction - was fringe politics. He was a Libertarian Party activist with a flair for the dramatic. On several occasions, he hired a plane to tow a "Ron Paul for President" banner over the University of Michigan football stadium during Paul's otherwise-little-noticed 1988 presidential campaign.



    Etc...




  • robc||

    SugarFree,

    Is the lack of obvious von Neumann devices digging up the earth to reproduce proof that their is no intelligent life in the universe?

  • T||

    Don't be silly. We'll just plug a bunch of small ones together.

    Only if they're union-made extension cords. That way we guarantee premature failure and an endless need for jobs making space extension cords.

  • ||

    Is the lack of obvious von Neumann devices digging up the earth to reproduce proof that their is no intelligent life in the universe?

    The Berzerkers killed them. Don't worry, they'll be here soon.

  • ||

    robc,

    A few people think so. But I think a lot of that idea is wrapped up in anthropomorphizing alien psychology. To us sending out small self-replicating probes makes sense, and so we assume it make sense to aliens as well. Maybe no one else would be stupid enough to want to send out machines that can make copies of themselves. Maybe the proof of concept doesn't work out over interstellar time and distance frames. Maybe they are programmed to avoid planets with life so as to not disturb them. Maybe they haven't got here yet to our backwoods spiral arm. Maybe they work so well, they come and go without us knowing it.

    The Fermi Paradox

  • Taktix®||

    I consider it likely that we shall have "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years.

    Uhh, yeah, good luck getting that past the enviromental-cultists in 50 years...

  • ||

    robc,

    Dude, it's us. We're the von Neumann machines.

  • robc||

    Pro Lib,

    I thought we were Pak Protectors.

  • Vermont Gun Owner||

    Is the lack of obvious von Neumann devices digging up the earth to reproduce proof that their is no intelligent life in the universe?

    Maybe they're too shy to get it on in front of us.

  • ||

    I thought we were Pak Protectors.

    I'm Captain Kirk.

  • Kilroy||

    Good ideas, and a common sense approach is typically a good one.

    However, he ALMOST lost me completely with "I think it's more a matter of judgement than knowledge." . . . ouch, that's a particularly difficult pill for a libertarian to swallow. Nonetheless, I understand it's a point about Hansen's bias that could have been worded better, so Dyson still gets a thumbs-up in my book.

  • T||

    I'm Captain Kirk.

    You're more Duck Dodgers.

  • ||

    Been snortin' Tree-of-Life again, robc?

  • ||

    I don't appreciate your blithe negativity, T.

  • ||

    The Shat. He gives, and he gives, and he gives. We just had to make Sulu/Takei Urkobold's Friday theme, didn't we? Do you know how hard it is to keep Takei relevant on a weekly basis? Monthly, sure. But weekly?

  • T||

    I don't appreciate your blithe negativity, T.

    Sorry, it's about all I've got to offer the world today.

  • Suki||

    On the coal thing, anybody ever think about running the exhaust through a tree farm?

  • Tim||

    Avoid ambition proposals and replant 1/4 of the world's forests with GE super trees within 20 years? Um.... what?

  • ||

    I'm not sure it's a good idea to be tinkering with the climate on a large scale. What if this warming trend is just a passing thing and the next Ice Age starts soon? Those carbon eating trees will have fucked us over big time.

  • JB||

    Hansen is a loony. The guy is not serious. If he was serious, he would do the moral thing and kill himself.

    But he is not serious; even he doesn't believe in his crackpot ideas.

  • ||

    crimethink,

    Ah, but you fail to consider the adjustable carbon-eating tree.

  • Suki||

    Pro Libertate,

    Ah, but you fail to consider the adjustable carbon-eating tree.

    Yea, some people are just behind the times.

  • T||

    Ah, but you fail to consider the adjustable carbon-eating tree.

    Besides, that's good work for all those AmeriCorps kids. They can go through the forest and adjust the tree settings.

  • ||

    If the carbon trees are working too well, just chop them down and burn them. Duh.

  • ||

    T,

    Exactly. Dyson really is a genius.

  • ||

    I'm not sure it's a good idea to be tinkering with the climate on a large scale.

    I think everyone's in agreement on that one. So now that we have already fucked with the environment on a large scale, what are we gonna do about it?

  • jtuf||

    We should just burn fossile fuels until scarcity makes it more expensive than solar power, then switch to solar power. If anyone wants us to switch to solar sooner, he should invent a more efficient solar panel.

  • Suki||

    If the carbon trees are working too well, just chop them down and burn them. Duh.

    That was the trade secret adjustment you just spread to the whole wide world. Thanks Mr. Destroyer of Fortunes!

    Should have gone for the patent :(

  • ||

    Because obeying Econ 101 insights into supply and demand is more important than saving the planet!

  • ||

    The planet is fine, dude. The people are fucked.

  • ||

    Given the hyperbole behind your use of the words "saving the planet"... Yes. Very much so.

  • ||

    Should have gone for the patent :(

    Another million dollar idea down the drain. My wife's gonna kill me.

  • ||

    Up in the ethereal plane of the HFCS thread, I proposed a taste simulation device that will allow people to eat anything but taste whatever they want. I figure that's worth a few hundred billion.

  • Sam||

    Ronald -- Your thoughts on the article would be much appreciated. I hope you'll write a follow-up post.

  • ||

    I agree largely with Freeman Dyson's four objectives. I do, however, differ with him on...

    (3) Negotiate an international treaty coming as close as possible to the optimal policy, in case the low-cost backstop fails.



    When you look through work such as Nordhaus's, you find that the optimal policy is indeed the best policy in terms of costs versus benefits. But you also find that the second best policy is to do absolutely nothing. And the difference between the two over the future is, frankly, fairly modest. It is significantly less than the difference between the optimal policy and the loony policies being promulgated by Gore, Stern, et al. In fact, the optimal policy is best viewed as a fine-tuning of the policy of doing nothing.

    Given that government, again and again, and especially in the current economic downturn, proves it can't fine tune anything, I think the modest gains are far too meager to compensate the losses due to giving governments new powers of carbon taxation and global economic control.

  • Suki||

    Another million dollar idea down the drain. My wife's gonna kill me.

    If she is cute I can help.

  • Syd||

    Tim | March 31, 2009, 1:07pm | #
    Avoid ambition proposals and replant 1/4 of the world's forests with GE super trees within 20 years? Um.... what?


    Super trees we don't even know we can create yet. It's like setting all our energy policies on the future development of fusion reactors.

  • ||

    The human body is 18% carbon. The Little Forest of Horrors is coming.

  • ||

    I wonder what Ron Bailey, as a gushing convert to the great religion of AGW, has to say about Dyson's comments?

    I canceled my subscription to Reason when Bailey became a cheerleader for the Warmies. I can't be bothered by a magazine whose authors are unable to distinguish between actual science and the political nonsense generated by Gore, Hansen, IPCC etc.

  • NolongerTofuSushi||

    DRINK!

  • Angry Mob||

    We have found a denier! May we burn him?

    Burn him! Burn him! Burn him!

  • Angry Mob||

    "He turned me into Newt Gingrich!"

    "Newt Gingrich?"

    "...I got better."

    "Burn him anyway!"

    Burn him! Burn him! Burn him!

  • wizard of oz books||

    With many new announcement about the wizard of oz movies in the news, you might want to consider starting to obtain Wizard of Oz book series either as collectible or investment at RareOzBooks.com.

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