Dyson’s fear

I hate when non-clerics apply the word “heretic” to a scientist. Clerics at least have an excuse, albeit a catastrophically wrong and childish excuse, but when journalists, say, call scientific dissent heresy it makes me cringe. Too many people already think of science as some kind of secretive, dogmatic society, and combating that incorrect view is already hard enough. Last Sunday’s cover article of the New York Times Magazine featured the eminent and famously iconoclastic physicist Freeman Dyson, who the writer presented as a “heretic” of science, based on Dyson’s open skepticism of legislating public policies based on the threat of climate change.

Freeman Dyson

Freeman Dyson

Dyson is not a global warming denier. There are real global warming deniers out there, just as there are Holocaust deniers, evolution deniers and round-Earth deniers, and I have little doubt that the lunatic fringe will seize on Dyson’s interview as proof their feeble delusions have some merit, but they’d be mistaken. This is my principal reason for objecting to the article author’s fairly sensationalistic characterization of Dyson as a heretic… it’s such easy red meat to the psychotic paranoids.

The prevailing view of many who advocate preventive action on global climate change can at times seem, with apologies, overheated. There is a quality of moralizing to much of the political rhetoric surrounding climate change, where the actual scientific issues in question are neither moral nor immoral, but empirical. Whether or not climate is changing (it seems to be), whether or not humans are a predominant causative agent in observed climate shifts during the past century (we appear to be), and what the measurable impacts of climate change will be on objective parameters such as regional temperature, rainfall and sea level are basic scientific questions that have no legitimate political or moral dimension. We can choose to assign moral value to such events, or not, and we can choose to apply political power to responding to climate shifts, or not. But our feelings about climate change have no more bearing on the underlying physics, chemistry and biology of the topic than would a moral crusade against the rest mass of an electron.

Climate-change deniers claim there is no global climate change, but they are demonstrably wrong. It is really that simple. That said, what the deniers are probably really meaning to claim is that action on potential future climate change is unwarranted, a priori, because they hate gays and hippies and the government. Deniers might not put it that way themselves, but nonetheless there it is. Denial, in this case, is a political position unconcerned about facts.

On the other side, many people who are not deniers perceive advocates of substantial preemptive climate-change response as haters of free enterprise, indiscriminate foes of business, and opportunists seizing on an emergency to further their one-world agenda. No doubt a few climate change advocates are just that. Either way, that too is irrelevant to proximal scientific questions of radiative forcing and long term feedback responses to the tropospheric heat budget.

In the middle, as is the fashion in modern politics, are many others who say we should just split the difference and enact “moderate” responses to climate change that appease “both sides”. Striking a “middle” response for its own sake is the epitome of intellectual laziness, and is just as worthless as what the screamers on both “sides” advocate. Dyson’s position is more intelligent than that, as one might reasonably expect of an intellectual paragon of the human species. In Dyson’s interview he openly acknowledges the reality of anthropogenic CO2 additions to the atmosphere (as would any person dwelling firmly in reality), and he doesn’t hedge or waffle on the self-evident fact that such greenhouse gas additions to air are causing a shift in the atmospheric heat budget. Dyson’s only heresy, as far as I can tell, is his nuanced, complex and eminently grownup response to the facts so far accumulated: that anthropogenic climate change is real, it might progress much further than it has so far, but that human civilization can probably take such changes in stride. That last part is supposed to be the heresy, I think.

He’s probably right. Sea level rise will continue as warmer surface-ocean water expands and land ice melts in Greenland and Antarctica, but the rich nations can probably deal with that. It took us only about half a century to build the present incarnations of our major coastal cities, so I’m not particularly intimidated by the idea of gradually moving shore-fronts inland over the next 200 years. Poor nations will suffer terribly, but coastlines will creep no faster for them than for us, and if we can help those nations modernize in the meantime, they can better help themselves as problems arise. Rainfall will shift as a result of climate change, turning farms into deserts in some places. That is bad, no question. The geopolitical strain of shifting agricultural zones will probably be the worst problem humans will face from climate change, exceeded only by a potential shutdown of the Atlantic thermohaline current, which would convert Western Europe into Labrador.

But Dyson insists, I think reasonably, that humans are frighteningly clever and can probably address major threats from climate. We have the technological capability, if we choose to use it. Right now we’re still using carbon fuels, but I doubt that will be true in 50 years, despite the nervous graveyard-whistling of the coal industry. Coal – as Dyson notes – is useful because it’s cheap for poor nations to use, but once we have other cheap options such as efficient wind and solar energy, coal will wither. Coal, unlike petroleum, has no other practical use than electricity production, and unlike natural gas, coal can’t be mass produced from garbage and corn stubble. If you hate coal as I do, don’t worry, because it won’t be around for much longer as a primary energy source. Coal is, as Dyson notes brilliantly, only kindling. Humans needed that cheap energy to kindle the light of technology, but just as you don’t build and maintain a bonfire with bark, leaves and lichen, we can’t seriously expect to maintain a planetary technological civilization with childish things like coal. We need solar and wind electricity, algal methane, uranium heat, and – one day, hopefully – factory-scale captive suns.

We also need biotechnology and genetic engineering. Dyson suggests we engineer carbon-thirsty trees to suck down CO2 as fast as possible, and he’s right. Normal plants can only be fertilized so much with extra CO2 before they weaken, but we could engineer fast-growing, carbon-eating trees that supply wood for buildings and carbon-neutral fuels. We’re already engineering optical communications networks, smart power grids, distributed power generation, hybrid cars, wind turbines made with high-tech polymers, and next-gen photovoltaics that mimic chloroplasts. I support cap/trade on CO2 because it quantifies waste. I oppose geologic carbon storage because – aside from it being a massive scam – it wastes brainpower and capital on giving us a fancy way to clean up the blood after using chicken entrails to predict the weather… in other words, it’s an expensive, high-tech decoration on something we need to abandon totally as soon as possible.

No, Dyson’s no heretic… he’s a thinker. Dyson realizes that intelligence and empirical data are the only things separating us from our ancestors in the Dark Ages…. both the Medieval one and Bush’s. Dyson advocates quantifying the threats of all the different problems we face, and dealing with them appropriately. Starvation from climate change in 50 years might be real, but so is starvation today. Island nations might vanish in a few decades, but the Darfuris are vanishing now. Afghans have nothing but stupidity, sand and hate today… but what if they had roads, schools and the income from hundreds of square miles of solar hydrogen farms selling power and product to the EU? I doubt the Taliban could get much traction, then.

Dyson asks simply that we learn things, deal with reality on its own terms, and grow up. Dyson’s advice seems to be: study climate as much as possible, adapt where we can, mitigate where necessary, and try to stop being so primitive and idiotic. I think that’s good advice, not heresy.


~ by Planetologist on March 31, 2009.

5 Responses to “Dyson’s fear”

  1. nice blog,
    what about link exchange with me? let me know… via mail or comments at my site…

  2. But what will Santa leave in the stockings of bad boys and girls?

    What about that, Mr. Smarty Pants?!

  3. Good post – it’s nice to hear, from both Dyson and yourself, a measure of optimism and faith (har har) in reason. Don’t know what the NYT Magazine is thinking, calling him a heretic.

    One minor quibble – is coal coke not necessary for the production of high-quality steel?

    • Yes, coal is used to make steel, but the actual reactant needed is elemental carbon. Coke can come from charcoalified wood, as it used to in the early days of the industrial revolution. Coal is an easy source of coke, but the amounts needed to make steel are pretty small… utility-scale mass mining of coal is only required for electricity production. Coal can also be used to make primitive plastics (Bake-lite) and transportable gas/liquid fuels, but there are better and more sophisticated means of doing both today on an industrial scale, sourced from complex hydrocarbons (petroleum) and light hydrocarbons (natural gas).

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