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Freeman Dyson’s selective vision

Filed under: — david @ 24 May 2008

In the New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson reviews two recent ones about global warming, but his review is mostly shaped by his own rather selective vision.

1. Carbon emissions are not a problem because in a few years genetic engineers will develop “carbon-eating trees” that will sequester carbon in soils. Ah, the famed Dyson vision thing, this is what we came for. The seasonal cycle in atmospheric CO2 shows that the lifetime of a CO2 molecule in the air before it is exchanged with another in the land biosphere is about 12 years. Therefore if the trees could simply be persuaded to drop diamonds instead of leaves, repairing the damage to the atmosphere could be fast, I suppose. The problem here, unrecognized by Dyson, is that the business-as-usual he’s defending would release almost as much carbon to the air by the end of the century as the entire reservoir of carbon stored on land, in living things and in soils combined. The land carbon reservoir would have to double in size in order keep up with us. This is too visionary for me to bet the farm on.

2. Economic estimates of the costs of cutting CO2 emissions are huge. In an absolute sense, this is true, it would be a lot of dollars, but it comes down to a few percent of GDP, which, in an economic system that grows by a few percent per year, just puts off the attainment of a given amount of wealth by a few years. And anyway, business-as-usual will always argue that the alternative would be catastrophic to our economic well being. Remember seat belts? Why is it that Dyson’s remarkably creative powers of vision (carbon-eating trees for example) fail to come up with alternatives to the crude and ugly process of burning coal to generate electricity?

3. The costs of climate change are in the distant future, and therefore should be discounted, in contrast to the hysterical Stern Report. I personally can get my head around the concept of discounting if the time span is short enough that it’s the same person on either end of the transaction, but when the time scales start to reach hundreds and thousands of years, the people who pay in the future are not the same as the ones who benefit now. Remember that the lifetime of the elevated CO2 concentration in the air is different from the lifetime of CO2 to exchange with the biosphere. Release a slug of CO2 and you will increase the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere for hundreds of thousands of years. The fundamental tenet of civil society is to protect people from harm inflicted by others. Are we a civilized species, or are we not? The question is analogous to using economics to decide whether to abolish slavery. I’m sure it was very costly for the Antebellum Southern U.S. to forego slave labor, but it simply wasn’t an economic question.

4. Majority scientists are contemptuous of those in the minority who don’t believe in the dangers of climate change. I often find myself contemptuous of efforts to misrepresent science to a lay audience. The target audience of denialism is the lay audience, not scientists. It’s made up to look like science, but it’s PR. We have documented Lindzen’s tortured and twisted representation of the science to non-scientists here and here. If Lindzen had a credible argument to support his gut feeling (and apparently Dyson’s), I can promise that I for one would take it seriously. I’ve got kids at home whose future I worry about. If Lindzen were right, no one would be happier about that than me. But I do get contemptuous of BS.


596 Responses to “Freeman Dyson’s selective vision”

  1. 1
    KamatariSeta says:

    Dyson is a good physicist, but far too often his predictions and analyses of thing’s strictly beyond the realm of physics seem far too speculative and don’t seem to address current problems. Dyson Spheres, Dyson Trees, and genetically engineered plants for Carbon Sequestering all make for good thought experiments and “what-if” scenarios, but none of this stuff addresses current problems in any meaningful way.

    Of course, Dyson also seems to think the costs of global warming are only in the distant future, so I suppose this deficiency in his “dyson vison” doesn’t bother him that much.

  2. 2
    tico89 says:

    Are we a civilized species, or are we not?

    I am beginning to have severe doubts on that score.

    Good point with #4. I’m not contemptuous of deniers per se, just of the misleading ‘facts’ they use. Anyway, fight fire with fire. If they’re going to go out of their way to insult their ‘opposition’…

  3. 3

    You do a great service by this discussion. I hope the NY Review of Books can reprint or note the link for their readers.

    It is crucial that media editors get up to speed on these issues.

    Many thanks for responding.

  4. 4
    Doug Heiken says:

    It’s nice to recognize the carbon storage value of trees and forests, but genetic engineering may have unacceptable unintended consequences or won’t obtain the desired results. In response to warming, below-ground biological activity will increase and with it the rate of turn-over of old soil carbon pools, so the “extra” carbon that may be pumped into the soil by genetically altered trees may not stay for long. See María Jesús Iglesias Briones, Nicholas J. Ostle and Mark H. Garnett. Invertebrates increase the sensitivity of non-labile soil carbon to climate change. Soil Biology and Biochemistry. Volume 39, Issue 3, March 2007, Pages 816-818.

    In addition to modifying trees to pump more carbon into the soil, some have suggested that we should take genetic engineering in another direction as well – to weaken the cell walls of plants so that the cellulose can be more easily converted to biofuels. I hope we are thinking through all the unintended consequences, such as structurally weakened trees that are less able to grow to great size and consequently less able to store carbon.

    For more information on the carbon storage value of forests (*not* genetically altered), see the recent report of Oregon Wild., here: http://tinyurl.com/2n96m5

  5. 5

    Thank you for the excellent words. Freeman Dyson is way too smart to ignore, but everybody makes mistakes.

  6. 6

    My heartfelt thank to David for his comments on Freeman Dyson, not only for rebutting Dyson’s utopian ideas but for showing us non=-scientists that science is not all bad, that there are honest scientists, and that debate and dissent constitute progress, not obstruction or fundamental disagreement . Too many otherwise progressive people make too little effort to listen to these debates. If they did, they would stop being suspicious of science and realize that science is not our enemy but one of our most powerful tools to counteract ideology, propaganda and the conspiracy theories that inhabit our society and the internet in particular.

  7. 7
    Alan says:

    Dyson accepts the consenus and refers to his predictions as “a story, not science”, from what I have seen he likes to play the devils advocate. No different in motive and moral, or less confusing in content, than some of the ‘rantings’ of Lovelock. To write either off as malevolent/uniformed/stupid/senile would be foolish. BTW: I don’t accuse realclimate of having done that, but my own prediction is that others will.

  8. 8

    Very useful post.

    Dyson jumped the shark on global warming a while back. See
    http://climateprogress.org/2007/08/15/freeman-dyson-climate-crackpot/

    Then again, although a brilliant ‘theoretical’ scientist, he’s never been all that practical. He was, after all, one of the “geniuses” pushing Project Orion — the incredibly absurd idea of creating a rocket ship powered by detonating nuclear bombs (you can Google it).

    Finally, the discounting issue, while important, is not as important to cost-benefit analyses as the serious prospect of catastrophic outcomes, as Harvard’s Weitzman has shown:
    http://climateprogress.org/2007/09/11/weitzman-economics-climate-change-catastrophe/

    That said, the mainstream economic policy think tank — Resources for the Future (RFF) — wrote a major report, “An Even Sterner Review,” that concluded, “we find no strong objections to the discounting assumptions adopted in the Stern Review”! And RFF is about as middle of the road as you get.

    See also http://climateprogress.org/2007/06/18/dont-discount-the-stern-review/

  9. 9
    Al Crawford says:

    David

    “The problem here, unrecognized by Dyson, is that the business-as-usual he’s defending would release almost as much carbon to the air by the end of the century as the entire reservoir of carbon stored on land, in living things and in soils combined.”

    I am certainly not an advocate of “business-as-usual”. And I am a strong advocate of energy sources that do not use carbon. But I am wondering if there is enough recoverable carbon to release quite as much carbon to the air you suggest here. I really don’t know one way or the other.

    Al Crawford

    [Response: There is about 5000 Gton C of coal, compared with about 500 (trees) + 1500 (soils) on land. Of oil and gas there are only a few hundred Gton each. Coal is the real issue. David]

  10. 10
    JCH says:

    I think the 4% discount rate is fruitloooooopy.

    I don’t see how he can claim 4% is conservative. Holocene economists appear woefully unprepared for the Anthrocene. How could they be? It’s a wheat field today. It was a wheat field 100 years ago. In many cases it was a wheat field a century ago, or much longer.

    I wonder what discount rate an Australian agricultural economist would recommend?

    “Farmers are now asking whether much of the outback that supported their forebears can still sustain them. A report this week by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, a government body, gave little hope. It predicted less rain, more droughts and temperature rises of more than 1° C by 2030. But Mr Peart quotes a friend who has stopped believing in climate change, because “It hasn’t rained in eight years”

    The Economist

    Under the “warming is going to be peachy keen” notions, some newly warmed place else is going to grow replacement wheat, right? Did the Canadians forget to plant their new fields?

  11. 11
    Ray Ladbury says:

    I think the “discounting” argument is particularly fallacious in this case. What if we applied the argument to cancer or to an epidemic? Clearly, the worst costs are well down the road, so if we do nothing now, we will be in a better position to pay those costs later. Discounting does not do a good job when a system has positive feedbacks that ensure greater damage if nothing is done.
    Unfortunately, I think that there are a lot of scientists (non-climate scientists) who do not like the idea that we will have to divert so many of our resources in the near future to mitigating climate change instead of making progress in other (their) areas of science. However, it won’t do us much good to know the mass of the Higgs Boson if our civilization cannot feed itself.

  12. 12
    Lamont says:

    I’m still waiting for my jetpack, flying car and robot servant, I’m not holding my breath until genetics magically solves the carbon problem.

  13. 13
    Roger Albin says:

    Dyson has a long standing preoccupation with bioengineering plants to do remarkable things, like providing space habitats. It is unfortunate that he used this public forum to inappropriately ride his hobby horse. As for his comments on Lindzen and Rahmsdorf, I wonder how he would feel about individuals claiming that quantum electrodynamics, a remarkably successful theory to which he made major contributions, is wrong.

  14. 14
    Cat Black says:

    Dyson suffers from the same mental blinders as a lot of dreamers, who can only dream of a better world. I suppose this is entangled with the Judeo-Christian view that “things will get better just you wait” thing, played out in the world of physics and science for the pleasure of a secular audience. Of course, 50 years of seemingly endless progress would seem at first to prove them right, it really is upwards all the time. Until one realizes that the progress was based on the unleashing of stored energy to drive the pistons of industrial might, and almost nothing more.

    Successful dreamers, the ones who make a living at selling dreams, usually have a happy vision to share. They will write you a book about that. People like to buy their books and read them to feel better about the vague terror that is creeping into their days and nights. Nobody wants a sad book about nightmares, catastropie and individual responsibilty. Nobody wants to think about rolling back 600 years of “progress” to some other world that feels uncomfortably like the Middle Ages. No not that, surely technology will pull us out of this. Think Happy Thoughts. Buy something shiny.

    We are asleep, walking. Almost 7 billion, oblivious. Genetically engineer us a clue if you can.

    cb

  15. 15
    Brett says:

    Re: the notion that costs of cutting CO2 emissions are a few % of GDP. Global warming is only a symptom of our collective disease of striving for ever greater growth. Other symptoms include massive extinction of species, resource exhaustion (e.g., peak oil), reducing the long term carrying capacity of the planet, etc. The list is long. If global warming doesn’t get us, then one of the other upcoming problems will.

    The notion that our economy will grow ad infinitum is absurd. We might be able to sustain economic growth for another 20-30 years at best, and then things get ugly. We should be thinking about how to preserve the habitability of the planet for future generations. Right now, your kids’ future (and mine, too, regretably) is looking very bleak.

    The point is, forget about GDP. Don’t even engage in the argument, because it trivializes the challenge we face. This is about saving Mother Earth, and arguing over dollars and cents obscures the real issue.

  16. 16

    Dyson is talking through his “sphere” (in a manner of speaking).

    Biochar seems to be an important process in permanently removing carbon in the atmosphere while increasing crop/plant growth:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biochar

  17. 17
    Björn S. Einarsson says:

    On point 3. Your final argument about economics and slavery is weak. The derogatory term “the dismal science” for economics comes from Thomas Carlyle who attacked economists such as John Stuart Mill for supporting the emancipation of slaves and argued for the reintroduction of slavery in the West Indies. And the “idea, that people are just people, can be traced from Mill back to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.”
    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dismal_Science and http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/LevyPeartdismal.html

  18. 18
    Lou Grinzo says:

    Brett: Speaking as a card-carrying economist (no throwing of rotten tomatoes, please), I have to say that we have little choice but to express such things in dollars (meaning currency, not necessarily US$). We have to make economic decisions, by which I mean the allocation of scarce resources, and the only way to do that is by trying our best to measure the costs and benefits (including avoided catastrophes) in some common unit. Since many of the things we’ll do, like impose a price on carbon or move people away from flooding coastal areas or find ways to replace farm land poisoned by encroaching salt water, will be measured in dollars already, that’s probably the right choice.

    Yes, it’s very distasteful, and yes, it seemingly trivializes almost every aspect of the GW challenge. But because we have so many options to choose from, we need a way to rank and combine them to make the most of our scarce resources to achieve the desired goal.

  19. 19
    Tim McDermott says:

    Hmmm…

    How is it that economic analyses that end up deciding that we need do nothing now because it will be cheaper using some theoretical new technology, never come up with how much we need to be taxing ourselves now to invest to pay for what our grandchildren are going to have to do? When I start seeing the delayers proposing tax rates, I’ll start to take them seriously.

    Oh, and how do we compensate the folks that are being harmed by AGW now?

    Tim

  20. 20

    David, thanks for calling the thing by its right name. It’s time the press stepped up to the plate and acknowledged that much of the public controversy is traceable to deliberate nonscientific efforts to mislead.

    Also I agree that discounting is the wrong way to think on very long time scales. On the other hand I also agree with Lou Grinzo (#18) that our circumstances are sufficiently complex that we need some sort of quantitative way of expressing our choices. Whatever model we construct will be far less reliable than any climate model, but quanlitative understanding may emerge from the right quantitative models. However, I very much doubt that the correct measure of long-term well-being is commensurable with currency at all.

    Will my descendants in a hundred years be better off with $100 in Scenario A or with $90 in scenario B? Clearly that depends on the rate of exchange between scenario A and scenario B. But, as far as I know Chase bank does not buy hypothetical dollars from, say, the universe where Karl Rove was a successful used car dealer in Amarillo and left the rest of us alone. When you consider the matter, you will see that there really is no medium of exchange across hypotheticals. It is very easy for me to imagine cases where the $90 in scenario B is in fact not only preferable but vastly preferable to the $100 in scenario A.

    I conclude that money is intrinsically a short term measure. In a sense, that is what the discount rate is trying to tell us. It’s not that the future is worthless; it’s that its worth isn’t meaningfully measured in 2008 dollars at all. Insofar as economics reduces all decisions to a medium of exchange at a particular, such a theory cannot be useful in long range planning. This doesn’t release us from our moral obligation to our distant descendants or the world they will inherit.

  21. 21
    Mark J. Fiore says:

    I tend to read a lot of press releases about global warming in my spare time. The most recent ice core samples were extended from 600,000 years ago to 800,000 years ago. The story hit the news about two weeks ago. The core samples showed that co2 is now higher than at any time within the past 800,000 years.We are at 385 ppm , with no end in sight to a rapidly increasing ppm figure. In fact, I’ve read that 450 to 550 ppm is forseeable. My research indicates that the Siberian peat moss, Arctic tundra, and methal hydrates(frozen methane at the bottom of the ocean) all have an excellent chance of melting and releasing their stored co2.Recent methane concentration figures also hit the news last week, and methane has increased after a long time being steady.The forests of north america are drying out and are very susceptible to massive insect infestations and wildfires, and the massive die offs-25% of total forests, have begun.And, the most recent stories on the Amazon forecast that with the change in rainfall patterns one third of the Amazon will dry and turn to grassland, thereby creating a domino cascade effect for the rest of the Amazon.With co2 levels risng faster now that the oceans have reached carrying capacity, the oceans having become also more acidic, and the looming threat of a North Atlanic current shutdown(note the recent terrible news on salinity upwelling levels off Greenland,) and the change in cold water upwellings, leading to far less biomass for the fish to feed upon, all lead to the conclusion we may not have to worry about NASA completing its inventory of near earth objects greater than 140 meters across by 2026(Recent Benjamin Dean astronomy lecture here in San Francisco). Note: Tungusta blast in Siberia 100 years was an object only 30 meters across. I’ve said it before on this most excellent website, RealClimate, and I’ll say it again:I’m not a scientist, but I know what I read. 385 ppm, and climbing rapidly. End of story.Period.Falling 80% below 1990 levels by 2050?Lieberman- Warner bill needs to be “fall 80% below 1990 levels right now” for there to be any chance at all. I’ve got the guts to say it, so I’ll say it again. Humans, fall right now 80% below 1990 levels of worldwide manmade co2 output, or you’ll go the way of the dodo, dodo.Then, according to this cool new book I’m reading called “The World without us”, by Alan Weisman,the Earth will gradually be recovered with forests and grassland, and new species will arise.Where are those crystal skulls when you need em, Freeman?
    Mark J. Fiore, Harvard 1982, Boston College Law School, 1987,often hikes in Western Marin County, CA, where there are still some redwoods not yet shriveled.
    markfiore50@hotmail.com

  22. 22
    Fred Jorgensen says:

    Kudos to 18. Lou Grinzo. Investments needed to combat AGW need to
    pass economic muster, by economists, not climatologists.
    No matter how morally righteous environmentalists may feel, the
    best allocation of resources belong to economists and politicians
    that represent the public, balancing current and future human needs.
    How much should we sacrifice for future generations?
    How about as much as past generations gave us?

    Re. 15-Brett states that the idea of infinite economic growth is
    absurd. Nonsense! Economic growth is a function of the human mind
    and its capacity for knowledge. It’s as large as the universe!
    Peak oil in a few years will be as important as peak whale oil 120 years ago. Environmentalists frequently sound like Malthusians
    full of todays limitations as absolutes.
    Society will always change, the climate will always change, and the
    human mind will find a way to adapt and prosper.

  23. 23
    Cat Black says:

    [#18] “Yes it’s distasteful” No it’s not distasteful, it’s folly. “Distasteful” is when you need to take some medicine or other for your future good, though it is unpleasant at the time, and you do it anyway because you know you will feel better. “Folly” is taking the wrong medicine or none at all because you don’t understand the threat of your illness, and then you die.

    Climate change has the potential to change ours into a different planet, different in significant ways from the planet on which we evolved and our civilizations put root. Using modern concepts of economics IN ANY FORM to weigh a problem of such vast and terrible scope is folly. Just because the last 200 years was all about economics does not alter the looming reality that economics as we have recently known it might be at an abrupt, perhaps permanent, end.

    We need a new language for this. I am told that the Inuit have 20 different words for “snow”. Modern thinkers seem to have a very tiny vocabulary for discussing “progress”, stuck in a linear space of percentage increases and per capita consumption. This even at the moment that we desperately need to define the idea of progress in a much more rich language to include resource progress, individual progress, spiritual progress, sustainable progress, retro-progress, intelligent progress, deranged progress, progress that-hurts-us-now-but-preserves-future-generations, progress-that-builds-on-past-lessons, JIT-progress, and what have you.

    Economics simply cannot be about growth of the GDP when the carbon output of the GDP is poised to erase our very civilization. There is no product, gross or domestic or otherwise, once Earth is a different planet and humanity is one moving, wretched mass of refugees.

    cb

  24. 24
    John Mashey says:

    I’ve read Stern [which uses numbers from IPCC, which came from World Bank, etc], the MIT study and its Appendix C, and the NRDC report, among others.

    People seem to:
    A) Specify a scenario, and project GDP forward by applying a CAGR, usually around 2% [but varies]. At 2.2% (as in NRDC], US GDP would be ~7X larger in 2100 than now.

    B) Then costs of mitigation or damage are computed in some bottom-up manner.

    C) Then C = B/A by year gives the fraction of GDP.

    CONCERNS:
    The standard economic projections appear to totally ignore Peak Oil+Gas. Contrary to them, a few biophysical economists seem to think that economic growth is actually influenced by work = efficiency * energy, and that in fact, that’s a pretty good model for the 60% of GDP growth usually attributed to “Solow Residual” or “Total Factor Productivity”. If that makes any sense, the downslide of Peak Oil+Gas over the next few decades might just impact that nice growth CAGR. For example, the last page of Ayres shows 3 curves depending on efficiency. [Effective message to US: either get more energy-efficient (and build renewables) *really* fast or see GDP stop growing and even shrink. Other message: stretch oil&gas as far as we can.]

    We all know that predicting trends based on past trends can get clobbered by surprise inflections in underlying factors if they are not properly accounted for. For instance, if one ignores laws of physics, one can predict Moore’s law goes on forever … but nobody in the semiconductor business does that.

    We’ll probably find out by 2020 whether the happy CAGRs are real, or whether the biophysical economists have a real issue.

    The other concern, as with the NRDC, is that the damage costs might be substantially underestimated. Local government people around the San Francisco Bay Area already have concerns with preparation for sea level rise. We have a massive amount of infrastructure built at or near sea level, and built with $20/bbl oil, i.e., cheap energy.

    In 2100, if someone is building dikes or steel+concrete sea walls, they will have little or no petroleum. They will have electricity and biofuels, but phyiscal work gets really expensive, especially when you don’t know how high the water is going to get before it stops – it’s *not* quite like the Netherl;ands dike-building efforts.

    So, it may well be that later damage costs are underestimated as well, because the *replacement* costs of coastal facilities will be very high, as will costs of water infrastructure, and pumps, and such.

    So, especially for the economists out there:
    a) Can you help me understand why the standard GDP models are immune to peak Oil+Gas?

    b) Why won’t post-petroleum damage costs be much higher?

  25. 25
    Franko says:

    Dyson is a visionary, I like his ideas.
    A tree that is a biodiesel pump in your back yard ? that I want !
    Modify the Maple Syrup trees ?
    Carbon credits pumping cash back ?

    Biodiesel trees will need a lot of CO2
    Greenhouses run over 1,000 ppm CO2.
    The last thing you want is to make CO2 biologically unavailable.

  26. 26

    Cat Black above, said it so well, I just want to repeat his/her words:

    “Dyson suffers from the same mental blinders as a lot of dreamers, who can only dream of a better world. I suppose this is entangled with the Judeo-Christian view that “things will get better just you wait” thing, played out in the world of physics and science for the pleasure of a secular audience. Of course, 50 years of seemingly endless progress would seem at first to prove them right, it really is upwards all the time. Until one realizes that the progress was based on the unleashing of stored energy to drive the pistons of industrial might, and almost nothing more.

    Successful dreamers, the ones who make a living at selling dreams, usually have a happy vision to share. They will write you a book about that. People like to buy their books and read them to feel better about the vague terror that is creeping into their days and nights. Nobody wants a sad book about nightmares, catastropie and individual responsibilty. Nobody wants to think about rolling back 600 years of “progress” to some other world that feels uncomfortably like the Middle Ages. No not that, surely technology will pull us out of this. Think Happy Thoughts. Buy something shiny.

    We are asleep, walking. Almost 7 billion, oblivious. Genetically engineer us a clue if you can.”

    Time will tell. Not the magazine Time, but time itself. Writ large.

  27. 27
    ScaredAmoeba says:

    [Quote]
    “that the business-as-usual he’s defending would release almost as much carbon to the air by the end of the century as the entire reservoir of carbon stored on land, in living things and in soils combined. The land carbon reservoir would have to double in size in order keep up with us.”
    [/Quote]

    Have I have missed something? Because, presumably this means that assuming the “business-as-usual” scenario, that the carbon off-setting industry, is more about off-ripping and making promises that are impossible to keep. All in-order to make money while deceiving the public that offsetting offers a realistic prospect of successfully combating climate change.

    Of course this ignores the following probable but naive mindset: “So I can now increase the size of my carbon footprint, because It’s all offset!” – which would be even worse than the “business-as-usual” scenario.

  28. 28
    Steve Horstmeyer says:

    One (of many) questions that must be answered is, “Is it possible to sustain the increasing wealth of a growing world population and not damage the natural environment past the threshold where it can support life?

    Our economic system is based on unending growth, and as world population increases the only way that can be done is by increasing the rate at which we use natural resources.

    The “reduce, reuse, recycle” approach can help, so can more efficient manufacturing and advancements in material sciences (allowing fewer resources to be used in manufacture and production of products of the same or better quality).

    But can anyone doubt that if it is business as usual for the forseeable future that we are headed for a Malthusian limit?

    That limit, if reached, will of course hit some sooner than others. The others are the “haves” while that “have nots” will be the first reduced to a subsistence existence. Maybe we are seeing the approach of that limit now?

    Is a “steady state” world economy possible? I do not know. But you would think that obviously intelligent, informed(?) and educated people like Dyson would acknowledge there is a problem that can be fixed.

    If my son and daughter-in-law choose to have children they deserve a world that is as good as we can hand to them for their years of stewardship.

  29. 29
    pat n says:

    Conrad Lautenbacher, head of NOAA, continues to misrepresent the science of global warming to lay audiences, in what he said recently, below:

    Whether there is warming or not, no one doesn’t want solid, scientific information,
    NOAA chief urges creation of a new National Climate Service to coordinate information
    By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID , Associated Press, May 13, 2008
    http://www.startribune.com/nation/18899439.html

  30. 30
    George Collins says:

    I am a great fan of Freeman Dyson, but in this instance I believe your comments are largely correct. He has some imaginative ideas, but they are for the future and they may be needed to get to James Hansen’s goal of 350ppm of CO2. But as Joseph Romm points out in “Hell and High Water” waiting for tomorrow’s technology to solve today’s problems is an invitation to mass extinction. We will have to go to a WWII footing if we are to have any chance of saving the planet. There is no way we can convince the rest of the world that we believe this to be a serious problem without substative action on our part. “It is hard to preach abstinance while sitting on a bar stool.”

  31. 31
    Goedel says:

    Why should we turn to economists for this? They are the ones who have been discounting environmental damage for well over a century. The paradigm of eternal growth is outright insane, and the dismissal of society-wide negative impacts has been disastrous time and time again. Any attempt to assess the “economics” of climate change should be scientific. It should not be the god-awful pseudoscience that has helped bring us to the climate problems we have today.

  32. 32
    R.Michaels says:

    On a related note, there is an article on the Economics and Ethics of Climate Change in the June 2008 Scientific American, authored by John Broome. He discusses the economic forecasting of the impact of global warming by N. Stern and by W. Nordhaus. The author points out that economists cannot avoid making ethical choices in formulating their advice. It’s a good article, but I was hoping for a summary of the physical science, something SciAm would do well. As for Dyson, he’s a big hero of mine. Nice to see he’s doing well at 85. And I love the idea of those carbon-eating trees. It’s obvious that the cheapest solution would be a major breakthrough in technology.

  33. 33
    Chuck Booth says:

    Re # 22 Fred Jorgenson:

    ” the best allocation of resources belong to economists and politicians that represent the public, balancing current and future human needs.”

    I suppose it depends on which humans you are referring to. Seems to me the political fortunes of the decision-makers tend to play a major role in this.

  34. 34
    El Cid says:

    Let us not forget that very soon we will be developing some sort of quantum nano technology which will make all our dreams come true instantly at no cost whatsoever so therefore we can do anything we want right now.

    Meanwhile, I am a Sober Minded Realist and all you Gloomy Enviro-Whackoes need to chill out.

  35. 35
    Donald Oats says:

    Before the experimental proof of Dyson’s favoured Quantum Electrodynamics, what would have been the result of a cost-benefit analysis using a 4% discount rate? My guess is that noone would have bothered continuing work on verifying QED. The reason is simple: the consequences of successful experiments, in terms of economic benefit, would have been unimaginable to economists of the day. The costs, however, would have been easier to determine. A similar situation exists with QCD, extra-solar planet discovery, Mars missions, GM, NASA, CERN, CSIRO, and so on.
    While a discounting argument is helpful on shortish time scales during which technological change is guesstimatible, it is unfortunately questionable (ie “the science is not settled” on discounting methodology) over long run time scales involving inter-generational populations – IMHO.

  36. 36

    In response to that article’s #4 point.

    Whenever someone says something silly like that, I point out that there are now ZERO scientific institutions that say that manmade actions aren’t a primary cause of the warming we’ve experienced in the past few decades.

    Even the American Association of Petroleum Geologists now agrees.
    http://greyfalcon.net/whatwouldittake

    If there was so much disagreement, that person should be able to find at least 1 institution in the entire world that says otherwise.

    And if they can’t find one, then you’ve got to admit, that’s a pretty overwhelming agreement within the scientific community.

  37. 37
    Jim Eager says:

    Re Fred Jorgensen @ 22: “How much should we sacrifice for future generations?”

    Verses how much should we sacrifice future generations?

  38. 38
    Marcus says:

    #24, John Mashey: The models _do_ have finite resources of oil and coal. If you look at page 20 you will see that in the reference case, oil and coal prices go up over time despite the improvement in technology happening simultaneously. What you do see is a lot of oil shale and tar sands use. Also, biofuels start being used even in the absence of a carbon price.

    Mind you, one can argue that the reference reserve of oil and coal may be too large. And certainly, if today’s oil prices hold for the next decade it will be evidence that the model severely underpredicted oil prices in general. Though one can also argue that we don’t see investments in oil shale and tar sands because of anticipated future climate policy.

    In any case, returning to Freeman Dyson’s vision: what he doesn’t get is that without a carbon price, there is no more incentive to develop good carbon eating trees than there is to reduce emissions. So why not place a carbon price on society (either through a tax or a cap) and let society solve it either through bioengineering, conservation, or renewables? Rather than trying to pick the winner now and leaving it up to government to develop it…

  39. 39

    re: #16
    ==Biochar seems to be an important process in permanently removing carbon in the atmosphere while increasing crop/plant growth:==

    But what if Biochar does not work?
    What if it has the reverse effect?

    http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2008/5/2/211036/2352
    http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2008/5/21/15367/8993

  40. 40
    pete best says:

    Re, Re#9, David, do you mean conventional oil or all oil inlcuding the so called unconventional heavy oils also known as tar sands and shale ? Some people are stating that estimates here are in the 3 to 5 trillion barrels and alos hard to extract will not stop people trying at $200 a barrel of oil when the light crude begins to top out.

    [Response: I meant conventional. You’re right, if you count the tar sands and what not the number goes up considerably. David]

  41. 41
    JCH says:

    ‘If you look at page 20 you will see that in the reference case, oil and coal prices go up over time despite the improvement in technology happening simultaneously. ….”

    In which year of his model does the barrel price hit $138?

  42. 42
    Tim Joslin says:

    The Scientific American article referred to in #32, + discussion, is at:

    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=the-ethics-of-climate-change

    I too am bothered by the use of discounting in the GW context. John Broome in Sci Am begins his explanation of the logic of discounting by asserting that: “The costs of mitigating climate change are the sacrifices the present generation will have to make to reduce GHGs”. This seems incorrect to me. Surely we should be considering the GHGs we’re emitting now to represent a growing debt that will have to be repaid in the future (in economic losses due to rising sea-levels etc and/or the costs of actually removing GHGs from the atmosphere), and seeing whether we should discount this debt. Since it’s not usual to write off international debts (e.g. government bonds) even when the generation that created them and benefited from the expenditure has passed away, an analysis based on the idea of a debt being run up by the present generation suggests to me that we shouldn’t be discounting at all. Surely the idea that we can freely emit GHGs now because in the future we’ll be rich enough to deal with the consequences is like the pre-credit crunch logic that we can all afford to take on huge mort-gages because our houses will be worth more in the future. Debts have a nasty habit of getting out of hand.

    Prompted by the Sci Am article, I posted more detailed discussion of this idea a few days ago at:

    http://unchartedterritory.wordpress.com/2008/05/21/sternly-bemused/

    and

    http://unchartedterritory.wordpress.com/2008/05/23/still-sternly-bemused/

  43. 43
    Rod B says:

    Cat Black (23) says, “[#18] “Yes it’s distasteful” No it’s not distasteful, it’s folly. “Distasteful” is when you need to take some medicine or other for your future good, though it is unpleasant at the time, and you do it anyway because you know you will feel better. “Folly” is taking the wrong medicine or none at all because you don’t understand the threat of your illness, and then you die. …”

    Your rage is blinding. That’s not what Lou said at all.

  44. 44
    Bob Murphy says:

    Like Lou above, I also am a card-carrying economist, so you may want to discount what I say (ha ha)…

    For the people who think economists have nothing to contribute to this issue, I guess all I can do is remind them that the various solutions being proposed to tackle climate change involve things economic. E.g., a tax on carbon or a cap-and-trade program. The hard sciences alone don’t tell us how many dollars per ton a carbon tax should be, just as it would be ridiculous for an economist to try to calculate that figure without asking help from the climatologists.

    As far as discounting for future generations: You need to use a discount rate to make sure you’re helping them as much as possible. It seems that some posters here are objecting not to the discounting per se, but to the conversion of everything to dollars and cents. I have no problem with that objection.

    However, if we’re going to quantify future damages from climate change into dollar terms, then we need to discount those numbers to sensibly determine how much it’s worth spending today to try to mitigate those damages. The reason is simple: We could take the money and invest it, giving a larger inheritance to future generations. Discounting makes sense even if the recipient isn’t alive yet. Presumably our grandkids would rather get something worth more than something worth less. And so that’s why it would be silly, say, to spend $900 today to avert $1000 in damages in the year 2100. It would make more sense to take that $900 and buy T-bills, and keep rolling them over for our descendants.

    Again, if that talk sounds crazy to you, because “you can’t put a number on climate damage!” OK fair enough. But your problem isn’t with the discounting per se.

    [Response: My problem is with discounting over long time frames, longer than a human lifetime. What if the ancient Greeks two thousand years ago had come up fossil energy, allowing them to thrive for a couple of hundred years? Would we thank them for leaving us a degraded world? Or do you think there would be some bank account somewhere where we could get all the invested money back, with interest, in compensation? David]

  45. 45
    Blair Dowden says:

    I have been hoping that RealClimate would discuss the ideas of William Nordhaus. Unfortunately this review pays more attention to easy targets such as carbon eating trees and Richard Lindzen.

    Dyson does a reasonable job on Nordhaus, although I agree that the rest of the review is largely, well, fanciful, factually inaccurate, or maybe the rather unprofessional last word that David used. Dysan does not mention that Nordhaus proposes a $30 per ton carbon tax starting now, increasing to $100 per ton. This is hardly the position of a denialist; it is a lot more than anyone is doing now. It is totally wrong to place him in the same category as Lindzen.

    A serious critique of Nordhaus will ask how the costs of climate change are calculated, on which climate change scenario are they based, what are the uncertainties, etc. There is a problem with limiting the timescale to a century when the more serious effects of climate change take place after that. The choice of discount rate can be questioned, but I think it is unrealistic to wish it away to zero, as Stern did.

    Nordhaus provides us with a model to evaluate climate change strategies. It is an improvement over the hand waving that is usually done. Climate science uses models to make more rigorous predictions, Economics must do the same. We can criticize the content of the models, but we should not reject the competence of climate science or economics to do their respective jobs.

    I hope that RealClimate will make a more serious attempt to deal with this issue. Perhaps you can invite Nordhaus to do a guest commentary.

    [Response: There is a lot of guesswork involved in that sort of modeling, but the really big question, as I understand it, is the issue of discounting. David]

    [Response: Actually, discounting is not the whole picture. There is considerable difference in the ways damages are calculated (they were higher in Stern). Mike Hanneman from Berkeley has many interesting things to say about this. – gavin]

    [Response: So do Don Brown, Nancy Tuana, and others associated with the Penn State Rock Ethics Institute and climateethics.org. For those interested in such matters, I would urge you to check out the site. – mike]

  46. 46
    Marcus says:

    Tim Joslin (#42): The theory behind discounting is that you are choosing between two uses of your dollar: do you spend the dollar mitigating climate change today, so that you save X dollars in some future time period, or do you use the dollar to invest in some other area with some payback, such that you will be Y dollars richer in the future.

    In this case, the future generation will be both the recipient of the X dollars of saving resulting from mitigation, or the Y dollars in income generated from investment, and therefore, there are times when you want to incur a debt of climate damage because of a benefit of a stronger economy.

    Of course, this includes a number of assumptions:

    1) a dollar saved by not mitigating today does indeed lead to greater wealth in the future. It might also be spent on immediate pleasure: eg, I will pay you tomorrow for a hamburger today (particuarly apt given the role that our demand for beef plays in GHG production). And it has to lead to greater wealth for the population incurring the damage (eg, no fair having America save by less mitigation at the cost of Africa in the future having famines).

    2) that mitigation is actually expensive. Some would claim that energy efficiency will actually pay for itself.

    3) that the damage in the future is not of catastrophic proportions: eg, it isn’t acceptable to use discounting to argue that saving 1 billion dollars today, at a 5% discount rate, is worth the destruction of the economy in 400 years (if that future economy is worth less than 300 quadrillion dollars). I’ve seen suggested in at least one place (Weitzmann, perhaps?) that the discount rate should be tied to the overall rate of economic growth of the economy: for small perturbations, therefore, assuming the world economy grows at 4% a year, then you discount at 4% per year. However, for perturbations that actually reduce the economic growth rate, you have to start changing the discount rate: if the economic growth rate turns negative, you’d actually start reverse discounting. And of course, if you think that the world economy cannot sustain 4% growth forever, then you’d have to adjust the future discount rate appropriately.

    4) That you appropriately value natural resources. What’s the economic value of a lost mountain ecosystem? Not only today, but in 100 years, when presumably the population will be more ecologically sensitive than today’s, if we extrapolate environmental trends?

  47. 47
    Chris says:

    re #45, Blair, you state re Nordhaus and his proposals for substantial carbon taxes, that “this is hardly the position of a denialist”.. Quite right, but who has indicated that Nordhaus is (or might be) a “denialist”? I don’t see any indication of that in the article at the top of this thread. I haven’t read Nordhaus’s book (that Dyson reviews), but the question that Nordhaus addresses relates to some sort of “cost-benefit” analysis that incorporates consideration of present costs and benefits and those of future generations. That all seems very reasonable and is exactly what economists should be considering. There probably aren’t any easy answers.

    In Nordhaus’s recent Inagural Article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Geography and macroeconomics: New data and new findings; William D. Nordhaus Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 103, 3510-3517 (2006)] he concludes:

    “Finally, using the G-Econ
    data to estimate the impact of global warming, we estimate that an
    equilibrium doubling of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas concentrations
    will have significantly more negative impacts than was
    found in earlier studies.”

    That also doesn’t sound like a “denialist”!

    I agree with you that it would be valuable to have a “guested article” by Professor Nordhaus or other economists. Clearly these are issues that physical scientists can impact by careful presentation of data and interpretations concerning changes to the physical environment in a warming world. While the economic impacts might appear obvious in a qualitative sense, policy decisions require an interplay of expertise involving physical science and economic science (or “science”!) and it would be very useful to have some expert insight into the latter as a guest article here.

  48. 48
    Lamont says:

    Correct me if I’m horribly wrong, but don’t you get increased economic activity from manufacturing and selling compact flourescents, solar panels and wind turbines?

    Why can’t mitigating climate change and GHGs produce economic stimulus, rather than be a drag on the economy?

  49. 49
    John Mashey says:

    re: #38 marcus
    “#24, John Mashey: The models _do_ have finite resources of oil and coal. If you look at page 20 you will see that in the reference case.”

    a) can you point at exactly which page 20 you mean?

    b) But, when I said the “standard economic projections appear to totally ignore Peak Oil+Gas”, maybe that was not sufficiently clear, although I thought there was enough context. Let me try again:

    The *economic projections* (of GDP) appear to just use some more-or-less constant CAGR… out through 2050 or 2100, whether they say anything or not about finiteness of resources. That seems to imply that real GDP grows with zero impact from having to redo the majority of the world’s energy infrastructure in the next century, just to keep the energy/person from dropping, and world GDP will be 7X higher in 2100. I’ve cited one of the economists who does think that (work = energy * efficiency) matters to GDP.

    So, let me try asking one more time, especially of the economists here:

    A) DO people (especially the economists) believe that US (world) GDP growth over the next century is essentially unaffected by Peak Oil+Gas? I understand that seems to be the mainstream position, and I do not lightly reject that.

    B) If so, can you explain to me why Ayres+Warr, and Charlie Hall are wrong in thinking that energy (or work = energy*efficiency) actually matter for economic growth? Or what high-EROI energy sources you’re expecting to seamlessly replace fossil fuels? I.e., see Charlie Hall’s Balloon Chart on EROI. Two of our friends are ex-Chairman of Shell and ex-Vice-Chair of Chevron, and *they* are seriously worried about what it will take to replace oil fast enough.

    =====
    MY FEAR IS THAT THE REAL ISSUE IS:

    Arguments about discount rates and mitigation cost percentages are less important than:

    “Can we go all-out on efficiency and renewables *fast enough* to keep world (US) real GDP at least flat… and not end up, out of desperation, burning a lot more coal to keep the lights on and do CTL synfuels … with bad results.

    A really bad scenario could be:
    a) We burn fossil fuels *as fast as we can*, rather then *investing* them.
    b) And then, it turns out, energy actually matters to real wealth, and the people of 2100 might end up being *poorer* than now, and have to deal with worse climate change.

    Anyway, I’d really love for somebody to ease my mind, with *serious* pointers to energy/economics data/papers on this. Thanks.

  50. 50
    David B. Benson says:

    Lamont (48) wrote “Why can’t mitigating climate change and GHGs produce economic stimulus, rather than be a drag on the economy?” It can. I opine that it largely will be, due to ingenuity and innovation.


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