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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. 101
    Peter Wood says:

    Re #96: “quantity regulation is better than price regulation if the marginal benefit curve [to reducing climate change] is steeper than the marginal cost curve [of mitigation measures].”. This is based on Weitzman’s 1974 paper Prices vs. Quantities. My interpretation of this paper is that if there was no uncertainty it would not matter whether you regulated a price or a quantity, because you would know what quantity related to what price and so on. Weitzman shows that the above proposition holds when there is an uncertainty parameter. He assumes that this parameter is small, which may not be case, as suggested by his recent work on uncertainty and catastrophic climate change. I’m not sure what implications this has for the prices vs quantities question.

  2. 102
    Chris Colose says:

    #98 on the lifetime of CO2

    It takes around 500-1000 years for the ocean to remove 80% of the CO2 pulse, but there’s in fact a tail that extends for at least 10,000 years. Only a small part is removed relatively rapidly.

    Dr. Archer has a paper on this

    and also

  3. 103
    S. Molnar says:

    Re #98 (jvoe): The “hundreds of thousands of years” assertion is explained here.

  4. 104
    Fernando Magyar says:

    Re #89 Ike Solem,

    There’s a very good reason that economists never set foot in physical science departments, after all.

    LOL,funny you should say that.
    March, 2008
    The Economist Has No Clothes
    Unscientific assumptions in economic theory are undermining efforts to solve environmental problems

    By Robert Nadeau

    The strategy the economists used was as simple as it was absurd—they substituted economic variables for physical ones. Utility (a measure of economic well-being) took the place of energy; the sum of utility and expenditure replaced potential and kinetic energy. A number of well-known mathematicians and physicists told the economists that there was absolutely no basis for making these substitutions. But the economists ignored such criticisms and proceeded to claim that they had transformed their field of study into a rigorously mathematical scientific discipline.

  5. 105
    David Ahlport says:

    re: Biochar

    Except when Biochar has the opposite effect, and actually increases carbon emissions by speeding up decomposing bacteria growth.

    And ultimately, it doesn’t really represent a significant long term storage method, unless you we’re going to propose “reverse coal mining” with charcoal. Which of course would be ludicrously expensive due to the cost of transporting bulky material.

    Even more expensive than CCS, which already looks to be a “castles in the sky” approach.
    Which would transport a liquid through pipelines.


    re: Nordhaus

    As for putting Nordhaus in the same category as Lindzen, I’d say that’s entirely appropriate.

    [edit – wrong Nordhaus (see below)]

  6. 106
    Andrew says:

    I heard on NPR (I’ve searched for a link to the story but haven’t been able to find it) that part of the rise in the cost of commodities like food can be traced to the recent build up in wealth (sovereign wealth funds, pensions, etc.). So much wealth now exists that investors are having trouble searching for something to invest in. Apparently the value of these investible funds exceeds or is approaching the total value of the world’s infrastructure. My experience with economics is limited, but I recall that most efforts to place a dollar value on natural resources and biosphere services develop a number far short of the cost of the human-built world.

    So, I guess at some point someone could give us a great deal on the planet earth. We’ll have to vacate the premises as soon as we mine enough lead for what, 6.5 billion bullets? But I’m sure the economists will be able to explain how killing ourselves today will pay off in the long run.

  7. 107
    Ric Merritt says:

    #3 Richard Pauli

    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.

    Editors of the NY Review of Books seem to be up to speed on climate issues. Recent publications include an extended major statement by James Hansen.

  8. 108
    Peter Wood says:

    Re #105:

    The Nordhaus mentioned in the gristmill stories is Ted Nordhaus, a different person to William Nordhaus, whose book is being reviewed.

  9. 109
    Jon Gradie says:

    Re: #106 The May 9th broadcast of NPR’s This American Life with Ira Glass is the likely source: “The Giant Pool of Money” (see to download the podcast). Indeed, there is a problem of too much investment money chasing too few viable deals. The venture world is beginning to see valuations of fringe technology companies rising rapidly without recourse to investment reason (as money swings away from mortages to other investments). One case in point is a small (marginal technology) firm which we valued at $5M just attracted a $25M investment for 50% share in equity. The source of the investment was “very recent oil money” (at the time $75/barrel) who today has almost 100% more to invest than he thought he would at this time — for the same amount of oil shipped!) Ah! The toils and travails of the oil producer!

    What does this mean in terms of CO2 and AGC? I don’t know — perhaps put economics to work in ways not previosuly considered. Maybe some genetic engineers might want to see if their fringe concept for genetically engineered trees might get funded (now as opposed to later) at a sufficiently large amount that it might be made to work sooner than later. Or, better yet, some investment in solar, wind, etc., technologies that compete with coal.

    Keep up the great articles and the fiesty discourse.

  10. 110
    Lawrence Coleman says:

    Does freeman dyson actually take himself seriously..hope not! I’ve never heard such misinformed garbage in my life..well actually i have..and the garbage pile is getting deeper by the week unfortunately. Does he know just how many trees there are on earth..ok 40% less than 100years ago..but still shitloads..and does he understand the meaning of biodiversity..not for nothing we have 100s of thousands of species of trees and shrubs..they support more than 100s of thousands of animals and organisms. So that idiot thinks we are going to gentically alter each of these species..yeah right! Trees take too long to extract the CO2 from the air..we aint got the luxury of that time frame. I avearge tree extracts 1 tonne of CO2 from the air in it’s lifetime..1tonne..that’s the weight of the truck and branches and twigs minus existing leaves minus how many leaves it lost during it’s lifetime. We will need to plant billions of trees yesterday..well 20 years ago actually. Might be better to genetically engineer heat (warmer waters) restistant plankton that can sequester a much greater amount of CO2. At least that can be done on a shorter timeframe than trees. What do you guys think?

  11. 111
    pete best says:

    I just cannot help thinking that the Earth Science community has to be careful when confronting particle and atomic physicists who have a lot of quodos with the public through the big bang theory, space rockets, missions to mars, Cosmology, Astronomy – all of which appear to be big sciences with a lot of public admiration and awe.

    This gives them a lot of leeway and clout when it comes to talking about anything scientific and especially anything political such as global warming. There are two videos on youtube interviewing freeman dyson where he discusses global warming and gives he reasons for not being a believer.

    I am presuming he is retired now and hence someone from the earth sciences community ought to engage with this man and attempt a dialogue with him on this subject otherwise it could get a bit messy silly.

    He speaks of Alvin Wineburg and Oakridge regarding CO2 in the atmosphere 20 years ago and he was invited there to do some work in this area. It was the only place worrying about CO2 apparantly back then but he gave it up when it became fashionable. He is not impressed with the computer models and is more interested in real world data much like James Hansen. He seems to be basing his opinions on his own experiences rather than subsequent work done in the earth sciences. We do not know what is going to happen to the carbon in the atmosphere untl we know what is currently happenning. In Brasil Co2 is being absorbed and in Canada it is coming out (from the earth or vegetation). I guess he thinks that this is important and the models do not cater for this !!!!????

    Is Oakridge a big player in the computer modelling of earth systems ?

    In the second video he speaks of the cooling stratosphere.

    Global warming is a midleading phrase, stratospheric cooling is more important. We cannot measure average ground temperature. Rainfall is more important. Ozone disappears due to ice crystals forming and is more serious apparantly.

    Computer models take all of the money, real world results are not given proper credence or finance and we do not known nearly enough. He cites land management as the key to regulating CO2 and not the stopping using coal or oil.

    Any merit in any of what he says ?

  12. 112
    Lawrence Coleman says:

    re: 107 my phrase should read.. ‘1 average tree extracts 1 tonne of CO2 from the air in it’s lifetime..1tonne..that’s the weight of the truck, roots, branches and twigs plus existing leaves plus how many leaves it lost during it’s lifetime’ ..had a long day!

  13. 113

    Bob Murphy writes:

    it is a fact that there are people we know are dying today from poverty. Their efforts to climb out of poverty will be hampered by mitigation proposals.

    Who says? Maybe mitigation and a switch to renewable resources will be the way they climb out of poverty. The assumption that fossil fuels are the only way to climb out of poverty is not convincing.

  14. 114
    Eric (skeptic) says:

    The Dept of Energy recently announced projects for burying CO2, at a bit less than $100M per Mton of CO2 (

    This works out to $600B to bury the annual US emissions or $2.7T to bury annual global emissions (of CO2). Of course we would not need to bury or spend that much. And no need to plant any frankentrees!

  15. 115
    Ike Solem says:

    Econometric models… can any economist posting on this thread give a single – just a single – example of, say, a basic statistical analysis of the accuracy of econometric models. Take a look at the many, many discussions of climate modeling and data comparison here at realclimate, and use that as your template. This has not been done – because econometric models are nonsensical. They are nothing but a bad joke – and yet they are used as the basis for policy decisions by government leaders?

    JonP above says this:

    Basic point: discounting is justifed if we can be reasonbly confident that future generations will be more affluent than the present one (and also to allow for the small risk of species annhilation). But over anything other than the short term this seems to point to a relatively low discount rate (a la Stern, who, as several people have pointed out, does NOT argue against discounting in general). Discounting for impatience looks “iffy” at best. And the critical issue is the risk of catastrophe (short of species annhilation). If there is a big risk of this occuring from climate change (relative to other risks such as asteroids, diseases, etc), then a very low discount rate might be justified. This issue represents the boundary between science and economics, and should be a top priority for future research.

    Let’s see – how would we apply this “discount” notion to simple physical systems? Goods and services are like matter and energy, let’s say. What is a “discount” in a physical system? It has no meaning. Basically (as the poster agrees), economics is not a science, any more than astrology is. Economists don’t even have to learn basic thermodynamics – it has far more to do with marketing and advertising than anything else, and has little if any scientific merit whatsoever. The field seems to have stopped progressing around the early 19th century (they’ve never accepted basic thermodynamics, after all).

    Look at the leading “econometric indicator”, the GDP. What is the effect of destructive hurricanes on the GDP? There was a lot of damage and destruction of property, but also a lot of rebuilding – and if you tot it all up, I imagine you could “prove” that Katrina was actually good for the national economy -as long as you use this random indicator, the GDP, which has no relation to any real physical quantity whatsoever. Destruction of coastlines and rising sea levels will also make existing land more valuable – so, “logically”, we’ll all just get wealthier and wealthier as global warming progresses.

    This kind of ludicrous statement seems to make perfect sense to economists, who justify it using the modern equivalent of astrological reasoning. Astrology is not completely unscientific, and neither is economics, but neither has ever shown much predictive value.

  16. 116
    Eli Rabett says:

    There has been a real shift in the economic community’s view of the Stern report. They may not love the methods, but they are accepting the conclusions.

    As to Nordhaus W. delayers club, and his nephew Ted has taken up the cause.

    While Eli has more faith in economic models than Gavin, his faith is in short term economic models. The long term ones are not even wrong, basically because of their extreme sensitivity to assumptions. A major difference between economic models and climate models is that the later are constrained by physical principles, the former not.

  17. 117
    Eli Rabett says:

    After posting a comment (still in moderation) I found raypierre’s excercise in graph cooking which is an excellent example of how if you ignore the physical restraints that limit climate models you get garbage. Economic models do not have such limitations on their assumptions.

  18. 118
    Douglas Wise says:

    An all party committee of MPs has just advised the UK Government to allocate a fixed annual carbon allowance for each citizen as a method of GHG mitigation that would be superior to carbon taxes. One would be permitted to use more than one’s allowance if one could purchase the unused allocation of someone else. Apart from the administrative joy for bureaucrats that such a scheme would engender, I wonder what answers the climatologists and economists who have so far commented on this thread could give me as to other questions which the all party proposal brought to my mind.

    Should my allocation be fixed at the current annual individual usage rate or at a fraction of said rate? If I reproduce, should my child receive its own allowance (instantly or at what age?). If my neighbour breeds offspring at five times my rate, should each of his offspring receive allowances equal to those of mine? Should my Government allocate equal allowances to immigrants as to the indigenous population? If I volunteer for euthanasia, should I be able to transfer my allowance to an heir?

    I ask these questions because various correspondents to this thread have touched on ethics. Until your website dissolved my AGW scepticism, I thought I already had enough to worry about. I had rather hoped that growth in global human population would stabilise (as it has in Europe) and then start to decline before we had exhausted all of our finite resources and doomed most wild species. This doesn’t now seem to be an option. The peaking or imminent peaking of oil and gas will vastly add to the costs of developing renewable energy sources. We seem to have very little time to fix the climate before global human carrying capacity drops precipitously. Meanwhile, population is on track to grow by 50% in about 40 years and the UN tells us that Africa is predicted to be capable of producing only enough food for 25% of its poulation by 2025.

    I understand that about 50% of all R and D spending on non fossil fuel energy has been lavished on fusion energy which seems further away from practical implementation than ever. Without a quick and cheap way of doubling energy production (and, it seems to me, that fusion energy was the only hope), a discussion will be required on the best method of addressing population decline (not just stabilisation).

    I would guess that the climatologists among you would be opposed to reverting to coal (without CCS) to compensate for static or falling oil and gas supplies and I suspect that use of CCS (and retrofitting) would make solar and wind energy preferable anyway in economic terms. We may, of course, use everything available to stave off mass starvation in the short term with scant regard to climate consequences. It appears that the green revolution, dependent largely upon fossil fuel and over abstraction of fresh water, enabled food production to more than double. This allowed extra population growth but appears to be leading to ever more hungry people and a degrading planet. Is it more ethical to repeat this exercise by rushing into dirty coal and tar sands for immediate energy needs than to allow mass deaths through starvation now to prevent worse in the future?

    Are my choices too stark? Does anyone who believes in AGW and peak oil believe that we can prevent dangerous climate change while allowing population to reach 10 billion by 2050 even were it to decline to, say, 3 billion by 2200? If you do, please explain how and I’ll be very relieved but please leave me (or my surviving genes) with some wild animals to share the planet with.

  19. 119
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Interesting discussion. I have run up against some quasi-similar issues in my day job doing risk assessment for radiation-induced failures in satellites. Basically, the problem becomes coming up with a monetary cost for failure when not all of the costs are monetary–indeed when some of them cannot be monetized.
    The main problem is that in order to do a risk assessment at all, you must come up with at the very least an upper bound for possible loss. Since we cannot currently rule out that climate change could spell the end of human civilization (especially if CO2 sensitivity is more than the 3 degrees per doubling we expect). In my experience the way you have to treat such a risk is by taking immediate action to reduce its probability and/or consequences, while at the same time trying to better quantify the possible loss. In other words, such a risk always justifies immediate action even if only to buy time to find out that the potential loss was not as devasatating as the worst case analysis initially suggested.

    Another problem as many have pointed out is discounting. It’s not all that mysterious. You assume that money that could have been profitably invested instead goes to mitigation. However, this presumes that the profit made exceeds the loss failing to mitigate the risk would incur. The situation wrt climate change is more like doing maintenance on a car or replacing a leaky roof on a house. Failure to mitigate the error early may result in catastrophic failure down the line.

  20. 120
    BillS says:

    “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.”

    Souds remarkably like this story from New Hampshire Public Radio,

    Square Trees Grow in New Hampshire Amy Quinton’s picture By Amy Quinton
    on Tuesday, April 1, 2008.

    The Society For the Protection of New Hampshire Forests unveiled a new development today that may revolutionize the timber industry.

    Forest research scientists say they’ve created a new type of tree [square] that is ideal for harvesting and beneficial for the environment.

    But as NHPR’s Amy Quinton reports, the new tree has already sparked a huge outcry from some businesses and environmental groups.

  21. 121
    Craig says:

    Greg (#99):

    I don’t think that its not a matter of seeing trends and then looking to global warming to explain them. Rather it’s a recognition that i) humanity is ramping up the concentrations of CO2 and other gases, ii) atmospheric physics predicts that this will inevitably cause the atmosphere to heat up, and iii) scientists have therefore been prompted to investigate the oceans, atmosphere and biosphere to see if phenomenon are occurring that is consistent with the predictions, and which may reveal the likely impacts.

    Yes Australia has a very variable climate. There have always been droughts and floods and there always will be. However the increasing CO2 levels and the consequent temperature rise are likely to make things more extreme and less comfortable for people and for nature.

    You are trying to argue that our highly variable climate is an argument for skepticism and inaction. I’d argue that it means that we should be even more concerned than other nations, and therefore more eager to begin acting very quickly to address this issue.

    The key plots you should note on the Bureau of Mets website are the temperature and density of high pressure systems plots. The temperature trend is clearly up and is therefore as the physics predict. Even if our rainfall remain within the historic range of variability, the rising temperature is increasing evaporation, and thereby reducing the amount of water running into our river systems. Yes damming and and water extraction are having a severe impact, but this is in addition to the reductions to inflow that the temperature rise is causing. The steady increase in frequency/density of highs is bad news as it is these that give us dry weather.

    The South-eastern Climate Initiative is worth watching for a synthesis of what climate scientists are finding about our climate. The “Researchers are looking for patterns in oceanic and atmospheric conditions over and around Australia that will provide clues to present and future climate change, its impacts on water resources and lead to improvement in the quality of seasonal forecasts,”

    Some of their findings so far are:

    • There are firm signals in the current drought that correlate with future projections of reduced rainfall in southern Australia.
    • There is clear evidence of a clear north-south rainfall divide on either side of a naturally occurring band of high pressure (known as the sub-tropical ridge) roughly on a line running east to west through Adelaide and Canberra.
    • Mean sea level pressures have been found to have the strongest (inverse) correlations with rainfall across South Eastern Australia.
    • As a result of the strong influence of increasing mean sea level pressures over southern Australia, there may be a weakening of the influences of tropical climate features such as the El Nino-Southern Oscillation and the Indian Ocean Dipole on the climate of south-east Australia
    • Reductions in rainfall south of the sub-tropical ridge occur in late autumn to winter and in summer to autumn to the north. In the south, the rainfall decline started in the early 1990s but has become apparent only since 2000 in the north.
    • The intensity of the subtropical ridge has been rising since the 1970s and that can be translated into a sizeable rainfall decline.
    • The intensity of the subtropical ridge previously peaked in the 1940s at the time of a particularly dry decade in the south-east.
    • During the 20th century, changes in the intensity of the subtropical ridge have largely corresponded with changes in global temperature. This correspondence means that there is a high likelihood that the current rainfall deficit is linked to current global warming, through the intensification of the subtropical ridge.

  22. 122
    jonp says:

    #115 (Ike Solem) and #116/#117 (Eli Rabett). Just as economists should exhibit a degree of caution in making judgements on climate science (unless they have studied it in great depth), so should climate scientists on economics (which of course encompasses much more than econometric modelling). Most economists would, I think, be extremely sceptical about the “skill” of econometric modelling for forecasting (or even projecting). But the statistical methodology adopted in seeking to test those models is generally pretty sophisticated (my impression is that it is more advanced than in climate science, but I could easily be wrong about this.) This is not an argument for an exlusive priesthood in either area – outsite commentary is potentially highly beneficial if well informed – which is why transparency in respect of methodology and a willingness to engage with non-experts is valuable.

    Incidentally, the Scientific American “critique” of economics was feeble in my view – real straw man stuff. I think economists are usually pretty well aware of the limitations mposed by their assumptions – and try to relax them when they can. But I recognise that is simply an assertion.

  23. 123
    Lawrence McLean says:

    Re #99, Greg
    Unless you know something the Bureau of Meteorology do not know, then you are wrong. Check out the Rainfall Anomaly:, plus the 2007 report:

    In the links that you provide, the 11 year running averages finish in 2001, missing the disastrous last 7 years. Do you realize that the Australian rice crop from the Murray irrigation area has been massively reduced?

    You should also note that it is the first time that below average rainfall has occurred in the Murray-Darling during a La Nina event.

    A recent paper on the issue that you raise can be bought at:

    an overview of the same:

    Or are you better qualified or more carefully researched than Dr Wenju Cai to judge this issue?

  24. 124
    pete best says:

    Re #118, Douglas, the means exists to curtail climate change (AGW) but I am concerned that the economic and political will does not exist at the present time in the UK or elwewhere for that matter to implement what is required in order to do it. Do a search for desertec on google and you will find part of the means to achieve this solution. If our grid was renewable then we could start using electric cars such as the ones tesla and Nissan-Renault are going to start producing soon. It is all possible but we are being let down bu our governments and our economic system which wants to leave it to market forces.

  25. 125
    David Ahlport says:

    ==The Nordhaus mentioned in the gristmill stories is Ted Nordhaus, a different person to William Nordhaus, whose book is being reviewed.==

    Arg, thanks for the clarification.
    Thats about as confusing and Roger Pielke, and Roger Pielke.

  26. 126
    George Tobin says:

    As for the rest of your comment, it appears completely divorced from the reality of what anyone is seriously proposing. If you are of the opinion that nothing could possibly work and therefore there is no point trying (whether that is a carbon tax, cap-and-trade, mandates to improve energy efficiency, a switch of subsidies from fossil fuels to renewables etc.), then say so and then we can ignore you. – gavin

    I did not claim that any or all particular proposed carbon reduction programs such as cap and trade could not work. They are all clever and lovely models that are just as persuasive as any IPPC temperature graph. My point is that as a matter of political reality nothing like that will ever actually be implemented on a global scale. Ever. That is why I said that any solutions will have to be far more technological than political. If you don’t understand that political reality just say so and those of us who have actually worked in the environmental legislative arena can ignore you.

    The political reality can be see in the current UN credit program which is a corrupt joke and a paradigm for government-directed emissions control programs–no reductions and massive cash transfers. Similarly, the US will eventually pass tough symbolic laws but will include ’emergency exit ramps’, grandfather clauses and a thousand weaselly loopholes all of which will be well-used.

    In sum, magical trees that eat all excess CO2 are a damn sight more realistic than the belief that international political mandates will actually be implemented, honored and enforced such that they actually impact CO2 levels.

    [Response: It’s definitely a challenge – and there is clearly much to learn on how to make these things work efficiently. But mandates/cap-and-trade/pigovian taxes have worked in the past and so it isn’t a priori obvious that they can’t be made to work in the future. To class that kind of optimism with a completely un-thought out techo-utopian scheme is on a par with comparing the London congestion charge as a traffic calming measure with an ideal of personal jet packs. And without some kind of carbon pricing where is the incentive for the technology breakthroughs in any case? – gavin]

  27. 127
    cynthia says:

    There’s no doubt that Dyson knows a lot about the Universe, but apparently he doesn’t know very much about Earth. For instance, in a public lecture not too long ago, he mentioned that all fossil fuels (not just natural gas) are formed by abiogenic processes. Now I can only speak for myself, but I’m having a hard time believing that “fossil” don’t precede “fuel” for nothing!

    At any rate, using this argument that fossil fuels aren’t derived from lifeforms, Dyson goes on to argue that there’s little, if any, risk of this fuel source ever becoming scarce. For this reason, and this reason alone, I must take whatever Dyson says about Earth as it relates to science with a huge grain of salt.

  28. 128
    Lawrence Brown says:

    Re 98 on CO2 cycling through the atmosphere, a short answer is given by John Houghton in “Global Warming-The Complete Briefing” Third Edition (p.39):”Suppose, for instance, that all emissions(of carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere from human activities were suddenly halted. No sudden change would occur in the atmospheric concentration, which would decline only slowly. We could not expect it to approach its pre-industrial value for several hundred years.”

    This doesn’t take into account the “long tail” discussed in the Archer paper cited in comment #102, but seems to be a practical answer for general purposes.

  29. 129
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Hi Doug and Pete, Although I am not quite as sanguine as Pete, I am not quite as pessimistic as Doug.
    Doug, you very rightly point out that climate and poverty are related issues. As you and I both know from our travels, people living on the edge will try to survive however they can. If that means burning the last tree or lump of coal, so be it. If we solve our own CO2 emissions problems while ignoring development issues, our efforts will be undone as China, India, Brazil,… continue developing with whatever technologies are economical and available for them. Likewise, if we concentrate on development with a view toward resolving climate issues when the Global economy is on a stable and more or less equitable footing, environmental degradation will undo your economic progress and then some. Moreover, it is not just a matter of reducing human population. Decreasing population poses very serious economic challenges in itself, as we can see if we study areas that have suffered serious, prolonged population declines–e.g. Africa from ~1600-1900, Europe in the Dark and Middle Ages, etc.
    Nor is it just a matter of replacing fossil fuel energy with renewable energy. Petroleum is a particularly versatile, transportable and useful energy resource. As yet, there is no substitute for it–and certainly no substitute that is carbon neutral. Even if there were such a substitute, the problem of developing a global infrastructure for its use is daunting in itself.
    The economic infrastructure is also problematic. Markets tend to be very efficient mechanisms for resource allocation, but they tend to be brutally efficient, and they tend to only work over timescales that humans can visualize and with threats that are conprehensible. Unfortunately, nobody has come up with anything that works better. “Planned” economies suffer from the same shortcomings of markets–as well as tending to be susceptible to corruption or short-sightedness of the planners.

    Douglas and I have discussed this previously. It really is a pity that there is no site devoted to climate mitigation that has the calibre and hospitable nature of RC. For those of us who understand the science and want to look at the challenges it poses, that is a real lack. Anyone have suggestions?

  30. 130
    Ray Ladbury says:

    George Tobin, I’ve noticed a trend. Those whose day job tends more toward the political/economic sphere despair of a political/economic solution and look to a technical fix–either they hope the science is wrong or they posit some technological fix–e.g. carbonivorous trees. Meanwhile, those who understand the science and technology despair of a technical fix. We know the science is sufficiently correct that we won’t get out of the soup that way, and we know that technological fixes take time (and investment) and often have unintended adverse consequences. I suspect that we are both right–some sort of political/economic action will be necessary to buy time needed to make any technical fix work and to disseminate it rapidly enough to make a difference. Yes, like any political solution it will be plagued by corruption. Like any crash technological program, there will be waste and inefficiency. These undesirable and distasteful aspects need not preclude success, and when we consider the alternative… the price is not too high.

  31. 131
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Re Barton’s comment in 113:

    Maybe mitigation and a switch to renewable resources will be the way they climb out of poverty. The assumption that fossil fuels are the only way to climb out of poverty is not convincing.

    This is indeed that path taken by the UN in its Millenium Development Goals. Sustainable development and environmental restoration are explicitly mandated:

    UN Millenium Development Goals

  32. 132
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Jim Galasyn, Hmm. Somehow given the track record the UN has of achieving its goals, I would not take much comfort if I were a dirt poor farmer in Africa.

  33. 133
    Neil Pelkey says:

    Paleoscience folks can predict amazing things about an extinct species from a partial skeleton. Climate science folks can take 1.7 million or so data points and whittle them down to a hundred or so that will predict the weather 200 years from now. Miss Cleo can predict your love life by talking to you on the phone. If Freeman Dyson wants to predict carboniferous trees in the next ten years or so, what is the big deal?

  34. 134
    CL says:

    There is a thoughtful consideration of future scenarios here

  35. 135
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Niel Pelkey–In two of five cases (your contribution, included) those doing the analysis actually know what the heck they are talking about. Do not assume that because you don’t understand things that your ignorance is shared by all.

  36. 136
    David B. Benson says:

    David Ahlport (105)— Collection, pyrolysis, transportation to and burial in a carbon landfill could be done in the United States (and Canada as well as Europe) for a net cost of about $100–135 per tonne of carbon. As much of the effort is in collection of the biomass, the cost would be significantly less if conducted in Africa or South America.

    This is about the same price and much less risky than the carbon diosxide based CCS proposals.

  37. 137
    Martin Vermeer says:

    #136 David B. Benson:

    Collection, pyrolysis, transportation to and burial
    in a carbon landfill could be done in the United States (and Canada as
    well as Europe) for a net cost of about $100-135 per tonne of carbon.

    How much would collection and conversion to fuel cost? That would leave carbon in the ground that’s already there.

  38. 138
    David B. Benson says:

    Martin Vermeer (137) — I’ve seen the ppt of a presentatiion for torrified wood, a different process which appears to produce no heating oils (as I recall). The claim was that otherwise waste wood could be collected, torrified and then sold to utilities to co-fire with coal (about 10% of the total in South Carolina). The claim was made this could successfuly compete with Appalachian coal at $80 per ton. The spot price for Appalachian coal is now upwards of $90 per ton.

    The net price for biochar via pyrolysis ought to be about the same.


    keeps one informed. It is where I found the ppt on torrified wood (sometimes called “biocoal” in The Netherlands, which is confusing because hydrothermal carbonization actually exothermically produces coal within 24 hours, i.e., actual biocoal).

  39. 139

    I want you to know, I sent an email to Prof. Dyson’s Princeton home-page, asking him why he puts more stock in economic models than in climate models, and why he ignores the fact that even moderate climate change seems very likely to accelerate the extinction of wildlife species in fragmented habitats. If I get a reply, I will report back…

  40. 140
    Ray Ladbury says:

    I would not expect that you will hear back. Dyson has always prided himself on being a “visionary”. In his eyes he is just seeing the “big picture”. Technological optimism is an article of faith with him. I think I agree with him that technology is the only way to get us out of this mess. I’m just less optimistic that such technological advance will come with sufficient rapidity to allow a business as usual approach. Conservation and increased use of renewables are a way of purchasing time for the technology (both adaptive and mitigatory) to evolve.
    Dyson is not a denialist. He accepts that climate change is occuring and that we are causing it. He simply fails to understand the risk calculus. That is not surprising for a theoretical physicist, but it does not take him outside the realm of science.

  41. 141

    Ray Ladbury, I did not expect to hear back. But I already cannot be more annoyed. Dyson’s last several articles evince a blithe certitude about economics without acknowledging the problems at the foundations of the subject regarding the supposition of human preferences, the mysteries of economic growth, and the ignorance of space- and time-saving by non-market institutions when they are not monetized to show-up in the GDP. The results of course are the rather preposterous and self-fulfilling conclusions rampant in the newspapers that everybody is a free-rider, nobody works for the common good, creativity doesn’t exist, and the overriding determinant must be market calculation. Half the time, this is nonsense. On top of all that, the fact that any cost-benefit analysis of climate change vs. mitigation will not adequately record the destruction of God’s creation or Darwinian evolution (take your choice) because you are NOT allowed to put the dollar-figure “$500 quintillion” on your contingent valuation questionnaire under the question “what would you spend to save it all?” is mere icing on the Stupid Cake. Because if you take a different path with the economy, there may be no NET cost; indeed you might have even better economic growth. Economists can’t tell you one way or the other. They can’t predict creativity; nobody can. I am a technological optimist and I think we should institute a very broad range of fairly low-cost policies to reduce carbon use, explore sequestration, and seed alternative energies. And do it now! Dyson’s greatest failure is that he doesn’t say this. It is an intellectual abdication. The United States is going to spend $3 trillion on its current war; the Fed is accepting billions in flaky paper as collateral and has opened a short-term lending operation printing hundreds of billions of dollars more to bail-out the financial crooks who would otherwise sink the economy; the petro industry and the rest of corporate America receives hundreds of millions annually in tax breaks; the nuclear industry hopes you don’t notice that they could not exist in the free market without the billions of dollars in the indirect subsidy of being absolved from having to carry full liability insurance. Any economist who holds forth on climate change without owning up to this, without mentioning it all every time, ought be tarred and feathered. And I like economists!

  42. 142
    Neil Pelkey says:

    Dear Ray Ladbury,

    [edit – no they are not]

    you should understand ever so clearly that that we do not really know what we are talking about. We patch a few holes in the fabric of our understanding every couple years. Climate is a high dimensional system with a shipload of noise and canoe of signal. The serious climate researchers all preface their results with this knowledge.

    The Pielke-Schmidt letters may be collected and studied some day for both their scientific content as well as their social context. (Note that this is case for the Clements-Gleason debate)

    Paleo folks argue vigorously in opposite directions about the same data.

    Dyson made an unsupported conjecture–so what! Will Senator Imhoff use that to convince the ever-more-democratic congress to cut Goddard’s funding?

    Why are you so peeved about it that you need to belittle others?

    I look forward to your post on the calculations of the VaR for investments in CO2 reduction. Some very good financial engineering and risk metric people are physicists. I am sure you have the background.

  43. 143

    Dyson is not a denialist. He accepts that climate change is occuring and that we are causing it. He simply fails to understand the risk calculus

    Put more accurately, if you understand climate *and* risk calculus, and actually calculate things, you will come to much the same conclusions Dyson has with respect to the economics of mitigating climate change. Much of what he suggests in his article is consistent with most economic analyses of various options.

  44. 144
    pete best says:

    Re #129, daunting but not impossible, indeed as oil is a finite resource we must develop a new liquid energy infrastructure in order replace oil wether now or in 20 to 50 years time.

    The same applies for Gas and Coal but in terms of electricity we can replace gas and coal fired power plants easilyl with nuclear, hydro, solar, pv, wind, wave etc. Storage might seem to be a problem but heat storage via CSP or compressed air and batteries is quite feasible now in fact CSP is perfect for that.

    Hydrogen can be used to fly to and it can be produced by clean means. We can make a superconducting grid in part now (albeit at a large cost) and mayeb use supercritical hydrogen to keep it superconducting. We can even tap off the hydrogen in our homes for heating purposes and eventually for fueling our cars.

  45. 145

    Ike —

    Can’t agree with you about economics. There may be a lot of dispute in it, but it is an empirical science. Eocnomists may not know how to perfectly control an economy, but they know what will help and what will hurt. The theory of marginal utility in the determination of commodity pricing was a real scientific advance, and as a result a lot of things can be predicted which could not be predicted before.

    I don’t want to see people who accept climate science become deniers of economic science. That would be as big a mistake as the reverse.

  46. 146


    The all-party proposal seems like a horrible, repressive, bureaucratic nightmare. It sounds like it was thought up by AGW deniers to parody realistic proposals for carbon control. I hope to God it doesn’t pass, or the UK will go denier en masse.

  47. 147
    Douglas Wise says:

    Many thanks to those of you who responded to my queries in post #118. Pete (#124) provided a link towards the possibly most hopeful solution – solar generation/desalination from desert or high sunlight regions. I was already aware of the potential claimed for this approach and was impressed by the fact that no fundamentally new technologies would be required for implementation. Given current oil prices, it probably wouldn’t take much political effort to create a situation which would encourage the free market to invest in the suggested EU-MENA programme. In fact, I would be tempted to invest a chunk of my own meagre savings in the project if I were to 1) be assured by the more technical among you that I haven’t been seduced by an unrealistically over optimistic sales pitch and 2) that the transmission lines were reasonably secure against terrorist attack.

    Theoretically, therefore, we may still be just in time be able to switch alternative energy scenarios before the atmospheric CO2 level rises sufficiently to create dangerous climate change. However, we may also need to consider active steps to reduce it through air capture. From what I have read and in the absence of expert knowledge of my own, carbon sequestration through biochar seems the most hopeful prospect, particularly if, when combined with ammonia, it can first be used to remove CO2, NOx and SO2 from flue gasses of coal plants and turned into a valuable agricultural fertiliser. In the short term, we may also have to consider a geo-engineering approach to increasing albedo.

    I have dwelt so far on optimistic scenarios but, as Ray mentioned in #129, there may be insufficient time to reach global agreement over the necessary steps for action. 80% of global population resides in Asia and Africa which also have, with the exception of China and Japan, faster reproductive rates than elsewhere. It seems to me that, though we probably need carbon taxes to push the market towards production of renewables, these in themseves will be insufficient. Perhaps I could make a provocative suggestion to see what sort of response it might generate? Should we consider taxing births and longevity, currently subsidised by democratic governments? Frankly, I am terrified that a medium term soft landing with respect to peak oil and climate will merely result in more population growth and a bigger and inevitable crash later.

    Ray suggests that managing a population decline isn’t easy and cites historical examples to back his proposition. I am surprised he didn’t mention China which is currently serving global interests (and its own) by effecting decline with some but not insurmountable difficulties. Obviously, against this global benefit, we must balance its growing exploitation of finite resources and the accompanying pollution. I accept that much of the latter arises as a result of manufacturing for the developed world but whether this is in other than the very short term interests of the population of the developed world is extremely debatable. It will clearly become necessary, therefore, to control international trade in such a way as to minimise, at least, atmospheric CO2 emissions. Have any such schemes been formulated? Would it not also be sensible to encourage population stabilisation with similar international trade agreements? How would adjustments be made so that countries (e.g. UK, USA) which grow their populations through immigration rather than increases in natural indigenous fertility are not penalised by such trade agreements? Obviously, it would be in all our interests to aid poorer countries with technological transfers aimed at reducing their CO2 emissions but it won’t help in the long run unless their populations stabilise immediately rather than in 50-100 years time.

    CL (#124)refers me to a link which discusses future scenarios, the author of which clearly considers that no soft landing is remotely possible. Thus, in answer to my initial question as to whether the choices I posed in #124 were too stark and brutal, Pete and Ray have said maybe and CL, no. Meanwhile, the great majority of people in the world are going about their day to day business without considering the question at all, probably quite sensibly in the absence of political leadership – what else could they do? Even if people know that there is a significant threat in the future, they will put it out of their minds if there is nothing practical that they can do about it.

    Finally, Ray (#129)stated that “it really is a pity that there is no site devoted to climate mitigation that has the calibre and hospitable nature of RC.” I know that it is a big ask but is there a possibility that the climate scientists that run RC could arrange for a regular monthly thread on this topic even if the lead article were to be written by an invited outsider? I note that “Air Capture” was an example, albeit an apparent one off. Could it be used as a precedent? After all, isn’t climate mitigation a component of climate science? It would be good to think that this science could move from diagnosis to treatment. If my doctor tells me that I have a condition that is likely to kill me but then refuses to discuss the possible responses that might lead to a more favourable or less dire outcome, he will be very likely to depress me and hasten my demise. I do accept that, given my age and earlier comments on taxing longevity, that I am, perhaps, being hypocritical with the chosen analogy.

  48. 148
    Lloyd Flack says:

    If I understand Nordhaus correctly he discounts expenditures the same way that he would discount any other investment in the economy. Money spent on climate change mitigation is money that cannot be invested in economic production where it would have provided income that could have been invested in more production. With compound interest over a long period this leads to the future income forgone being many times the the initial expenditure. So far as this goes I think he is right. However there are some other things that have to be considered. First of all expenditure on climate change mitigation is likely to mostly come out of funds that would otherwise be spent on consumption rather than on investment. This means that expenditure on climate change mitigation will reduce wealth available to future generations from investments but the loss will only be a fraction of what he is suggesting.

    And of course one can ask whether money is the appropriate measure for some of the costs. But for some of them it is and his discounting if scaled down appropriately seems to be a reasonable way of dealing with financial costs involved.

    As for Dyson’s suggestions of genetic engineering of trees to sequester carbon I think other commenters have dealt with the difficulties of that one adequately. However there is a major way in which biotechnology can help us. We are not far from being able to economically produce biofuels from algae , especially if petroleum prices stay at he current level. This is a technology we can reasonably expect to provide much, perhaps all of our vehicle fuel needs in a few decades.

    However the main problem is the use of coal to provide electric power. We have to develop alternative sources. There will be no one solution. In the long term I expect solar power to provide most of our electricity needs. But this technology is not economically viable yet. In the next few decades we need to expand the alternatives that are economically viable now or at least are viable with affordable subsidies now and are likely to have their costs reduce with further development. No single source will meet our requirements. The main ones that we can expand now are geothermal, wind and nuclear. In general the preferred one should be geothermal wherever it is practical. In many other areas wind can make a significant contribution. And widespread building of nuclear power plants will almost certainly be necessary. It is only part of the solution but probably an essential part. I don’t think we can count on the other power sources to supply enough power in all areas. If you reflexively reject nuclear power then I don’t think your environmental concerns can be taken very seriously.

    All the alternative energy sources have environmental costs. We just have to minimize such costs. We cannot eliminate them. One of the obstacles is going to be the opposition of nimbys. People will and have been objecting to alternative energy sources being located near them. Local considerations must not be ignored but cannot be allowed to have overwhelming weight. We have do do ballancing acts.

  49. 149
    Alan says:

    RE #61.

    The average rainfall over ALL of Australia has changed little in 100yrs. However the introductory page to the graph you show has the following text…

    “Since the middle of the 20th century, Australian temperatures have, on average, risen by about 1°C with an increase in the frequency of heatwaves and a decrease in the numbers of frosts and cold days. Rainfall patterns have also changed – the northwest has seen an increase in rainfall over the last 50 years while much of eastern Australia and the far southwest have experienced a decline.”

    Sure the land has been poorly managed, however pointing to average rainfall for the whole continent and ignoring the worst drought in at least 600yrs occuring slap bang in the middle of our breadbasket does not make any sense.

  50. 150
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Neil Pelkey, like it or not, science works. It takes in evidence and information from multiple sources, synthesizes it and draws reliable conclusions. Your comments suggest that you do not understand how this is done, and so you distrust it. However, the fact that you do not understand the methodology does not invalidate it. The scientists who do work in climate and paleontology do understand what they are doing, and they understand it better with each passing year.
    Dyson’s carboniverous trees are a demonstrably silly idea. Even if we could devote huge swaths of territory to sucking up carbon, such storage would be short-term. And such developments are a long way off if they are to come at all. I think that Dyson’s humanitarian streak may prevent him from having a realistic understanding of our current predicament. I attribute only the best of motives to Professor Dyson, but the best of motives are the enemy of progress when divorced from realistic appraisal or our problems.

    As to VaR calculations, that ain’t my day job. Yes, I do risk analysis, and I do have the background, but such calculations at present would be premature. In terms of mitigation, it is still early days.