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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. 151
    JCH says:

    Don’t worry about Dyson’s silly trees.

    I’m going to email him my goofy idea of using stem cells to grow mountains of gigantic sea shells. That way he can at least have a goofy idea from the right century.

  2. 152
    Geoff Wexler says:

    Bob Clipperton (UK) Says

    “other scientists who also assumed 60 years ago that Physicists like him would crack the nuclear fusion problem in a few years !”

    They got the time constant wrong but not the rapid rate of progress. As far I can see Freemon Dyson’s little discussion about 4%/annum growth in real terms for a century is based on assuming Moore’s law (exponential growth) for everything! But the only example apart from megaflops per person, for which this is valid is nuclear fusion. A key parameter for success is the Lawson number which has been growing faster than Moore’s law (ref.below). So nuclear fusion and huge computer calculations are the only two examples I can invoke to justify the use of future discounting as simplified in the book review. (I have not read the serious arguments and may have misunderstood the book review ).

    Incidentally I am completely naive about economics, but I do not understand why these simplifications about growth should apply for as long as a whole human generation? In addition there may be some hidden ideology involved.

    Reference: Pitts et al,March 2006,Physics World,p.24.

  3. 153
    Hank Roberts says:

    >goofy idea
    I put mine at ~/prometheus/archives/climate_change/001442a_familiar_pattern_i.html
    It seemed the appropriate place.

  4. 154
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Geoff Wexler, There is also Rosenfeld’s Law:

    This states that energy needed to generate a given increase in GDP decreases by ~1% per year. This has held since ~1845, but it would be interesting to see if it also extended into the past, when animal power was dominant.

  5. 155
    Robert Southworth says:

    It seems to me that the assumption of a 4% discount rate is hiding a bad case of circular reasoning. The argument (in say #44) is that we can invest the money we save on climate mitigation now, and since it will grow at 4%, use it to buy a lot more mitigation in the future. But this 4% investment rate is an a priori assumption. Indeed, if we’re confident that our wealth will continue to grow exponentially–that we’ll all be 50x richer in 100 years, and 2500x richer in 200 years–then why should we worry about the climate?

    But the whole point of the discussion is that we may _not_ be 2500x richer in 200 years: that due to the effects of climate change on agriculture, sea level, and biodiversity, we may in fact be less well off than we are today. In that case, your stock market investments are unlikely to grow over the long term, and a _negative_ discount rate would be more appropriate.

    (I’ll skip over the effect of the chance of a giant asteroid strike on the discount rate; I think that’s too minimal to be more than a distraction.)

    [Response: And moreover, the use of discounting in the traditional way assumes that the damages incurred by waiting can be fixed by spending the money made through investing. So, we are a lot richer now than when the last Moa was eaten. Can we use that wealth to bring back the Moa? –raypierre]

  6. 156
    JCH says:

    “This has held since ~1845, but it would be interesting to see if it also extended into the past, when animal power was dominant. …”

    Animal power remained a significant contributor to US agricultural production until the WW2 era – 1945, not 1845.

    This website has some interesting ways to learn about GDP, etc. It has a calculator that goes way back.

  7. 157
    catman306 says:

    Ike Soloman at 115:
    Good one! Thanks for saying well what needs to be said.

  8. 158
    tidal says:

    Further to #155 and raypierre’s inline response…

    Part of the embedded problem with intergenerational discounting is the assumption of substitutability of manufactured & intellectual capital for natural capital. For instance, assume future aggregrate welfare were, on balance, enhanced by the development of new vaccines. Raw discounting of simple metrics like GDP implies that the increased welfare from the medical advances can be traded off against, say, degradations in the the ozone layer or marine fisheries, etc. Another way of looking at this is to look at the actual capital stocks themselves. Are human-made capital & natural capital primarily substitutes for one another, or complements? Do they matter individually or is it only the total, combined stock that is important? Think fleets of fishing trawlers versus fish populations.

    Even acknowledging that there are examples of substitutability – e.g. chemical pesticides substituted for natural predators – one has to also account for how much that substitutability may change as you exhaust increasingly larger amounts of natural capital. We may be able to use humans to pollinate orchards at the margin, but couldn’t likely find a wholesale substitute for natural pollinators globally. So, even to the limited extent that substitutability may hold, it cannot be scaled endlessly.

    If human-made capital and natural are more accurately complements rather than substitutes, and that the costs of natural capital degradations are potentially catastrophic and irreversible, it seems to me that the natural capital “costs and benefits” should probably be discounted at very low rates, and human-made capital at more traditional rates. I’m not sure how this would be modelled in a Nordhaus-type framework.

  9. 159

    The comments here about discounting strike me as very naive and begging the key question of what we should do. DICE models aside, the basic issues are how much do we spend (or how much wealth do we forego) on mitigation, when do we spend it, and on what? We will address these questions whether we do it haphazardly as suggested here, or more analytically as suggested by Dyson and others. Dyson and most mainstream economists reasonably suggest that we should spend modestly on mitigating CO2 in favor of using those resources to mitigate current catastrophic conditions and saving them to use on more effective mitigation measures of the future.

    So, we are a lot richer now than when the last Moa was eaten. Can we use that wealth to bring back the Moa?
    No, we cannot, but what if we use those *extra* riches we would not have today to keep 10 species from extinction? Without looking at both sides of these equations we lose our ability for reasoned analyses.

    [Response: You are assuming there would be enough left to save 500 years from now that you could make up for what goes extinct in the meantime. But, nonetheless, if somebody wants to do a variant of cost-benefit analysis where you ask — and quantify — whether you can save more biodiversity by deferring some spending to later, that would be a step in the right direction. Keeping different accounts for different kinds of harm would be a good thing. In contrast, the traditional cost-benefit analysis of Nordhaus aggregates everything into money, which puts you into the absurd position of allowing money made by easier Arctic oil drilling to be aggregated with some abstract cost attributed to polar bears going extinct in the wild. Note that even if theoretically more biodiversity could be saved by deferring expenditures, there still needs to be a mechanism in place to assure that those investment gains are actually expended on biodiversity preservation when the time comes. –raypierre]


    I’d be interested in hearing where people here would draw the line in spending to mitigate warming? The number *must* be between 0% and 100% of global GDP.

  10. 160
    tidal says:

    #159 Joseph Hunkins Says: I’d be interested in hearing where people here would draw the line in spending to mitigate warming? The number *must* be between 0% and 100% of global GDP.

    Well, the Stern report – the one with outrageous costs and an hysterically low discount rate, allegedly – suggests the number would around 1% of global GDP.

  11. 161
    Richard Ordway says:

    New interagency government report on climate change effects on United States agriculture:

    “Climate changes – temperature increases, increasing CO2 levels, and altered patterns of precipitation – are already affecting U.S. water resources, agriculture, land resources, and biodiversity (very likely).”

    “Climate change has very likely increased the size and number of forest fires, insect outbreaks, and tree mortality in the interior West, the Southwest, and Alaska, and will continue to do so.”

    The U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) “Synthesis and Assessment Product 4.3 (SAP 4.3): The Effects of Climate Change on Agriculture, Land Resources, Water Resources, and Biodiversity in the United States.”

    Shorter (very incomplete) summary:

  12. 162
    SecularAnimist says:

    Joseph Hunkins wrote: “I’d be interested in hearing where people here would draw the line in spending to mitigate warming? The number *must* be between 0% and 100% of global GDP.”

    The nations of the world currently spend over one trillion dollars per year on the military, more than half of which spending is the USA alone.

    According to a January 2008 report from the United Nations, as reported by the Associated Press, “Global warming could cost the world up to $20 trillion over two decades for cleaner energy sources … UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warns in a new report … In his 52-page report, Ban says that global investments of $15 trillion to $20 trillion over the next 20 to 25 years may be required ‘to place the world on a markedly different and sustainable energy trajectory.'”

    So at least one estimate places the cost of mitigating anthropogenic global warming at no more than what the world is already spending on militarism and weapons.

    I don’t mean to start an off-topic controversy about the wisdom or value of military spending vs. the wisdom or value of preserving a habitable planet, but only to suggest that the economic resources needed to mitigate global warming are available and comparable to those we already devote to other purposes that those in a position to allocate such resources deem to be important.

  13. 163
    Phillip Shaw says:

    Re #159 Joseph Hunkins:

    I think a strong case can be made for setting the mitigation spending equal to defense (war) spending. The US alone will spend roughly 700 billion dollars during 2008 on defense, all of it justified as necessary to protect the country from threats to its security. The threats from Climate Change are just as real and just as serious, if not more so, so why shouldn’t they they be addressed with the same level of spending?

    At that level of spending it would take less than a year to grant every major city in the US a billion dollars for renewable energy power generation and infrastructure upgrades. With money left over for R&D. Can anyone seriously say that we wouldn’t see any reduction in our CO2 emissions within a decade if we put that level of support into mitigation?

  14. 164
    Ike Solem says:

    One of the main issues with any economic projection is the past failure of all such efforts at economic prediction. However, that’s not the only problem with economics. Their basic descriptions of economic systems seem to leave out some very critical components.

    First, for a sample of how economists attempt to project “economic variables” onto the structure of 19th century physical theory, (after comment #104) see this:

    The understanding of relaxation to equilibrium, including when equilibria are possible and whether they are unique, has grown in economics and in physics together. In both fields mechanical models were used first, followed by statistical explanations. Some recent work has shown which subset of economic decision problems have an identical structure to that of classical thermodynamics, including the emergence of a phenomenological principle equivalent to entropy maximization, while the more general equilibration problems usually considered by economists correspond to physical problems with many equilibria, such as granular, glassy, or hysteretic relaxation. The idea that equilibria correspond to statistically most probable sets of configurations has led to attempts to define price formation in statistical terms. A related observation, that income distribution seems consistent with various forms of entropy maximization, recasts the problem of understanding income inequality, and interpreting how much it really tells about the social forces affecting incomes.

    If ecologists tried to do this, they would be loudly ridiculed. Ecology, as it is, suffers the reputation of being very “fuzzy” because things like animal behavior come into play, but ecological models of the very base of the food chain are on more solid ground – but they are nowhere near as advanced as the physical models of the oceanic and atmospheric circulation.

    In reality, ecological models do depend on the physical circulation. The classic examples are the offshore upwelling regions driven by the surface winds, which bring nutrients up to the photic zone. This is why these regions are highly productive, both ecologically and economically. Collapse of upwelling would devastate both ecological food chains and fishermen’s incomes, and would lead to higher food prices for all. What we need to do is to convince all economists to take science lessons in ecology, and to get rid of their artificial variables (i.e. GDP) and their dependence on outdated pseudoscientific “rational choice theory”.

    The fundamental fact is that all of our economic systems are entirely reliant on a basic level of ecological cohesion. If the crops all fail, everyone goes hungry – there is no magic wand that will automatically turn the consumer’s desire for food into food. There are ecological limitations to all economic systems, and that’s where we are at right now.

    Speaking of upwelling, this recent data should not be to reassuring:

    Just to illustrate the complexity of including ecology in physical models, here is a quote:

    There is a strong correlation between recent hypoxia events off the Northwest coast and increasing acidification, Hales said.
    “The hypoxia is caused by persistent upwelling that produces an over-abundance of phytoplankton,” Hales pointed out. “When the system works, the upwelling winds subside for a day or two every couple of weeks in what we call a ‘relaxation event’ that allows that buildup of decomposing organic matter to be washed out to the deep ocean.
    “But in recent years, especially in 2002 and 2006, there were few if any of these relaxation breaks in the upwelling and the phytoplankton blooms were enormous,” Hales added. “When the material produced by these blooms decomposes, it puts more CO2 into the system and increases the acidification.”

    This is also yet another argument against dumping tankers full of iron into the oceans as a means of earning carbon trading credits – it won’t sequester CO2, but it will help acidify the oceans. This acidification and hypoxia of the oceans is proceeding apace, and predictions are that it will not be good for ecologies or economies.

    This can’t all be blamed on global warming, however. Humans have also vastly increased the natural rate of nitrogen fixation, and much of the tonnage of nitrogen fertilizer applied to crops eventually makes its way into rivers and watersheds and the ocean, where it can fuel phytoplankton blooms. Ocean hypoxia is thus going to be a synergistic result of global warming and fertilizer dumping, with each playing different roles in different regions.

    It gets even more complicated than this, because more recent research has shown that some algal overgrowth in rivers and lakes is due not to fertilizer inputs, but rather to the killing off of small invertebrate herbivores by toxic metals and pesticides, which the algae are highly resistant to.

    One final note: oceanic hypoxia and anoxia are going to be increasing for the next 50 years, because the upwelling water coming up now was last in contact with the atmosphere around then, on average. Water in contact with the atmosphere today will be even more acidic.

  15. 165
    Hank Roberts says:

    If we’d been smart enough to protect the moa, we’d likely have been smart enough to protect the rest of the then biosphere as well.

    No amount of money can come remotely close to replacing the biological services that were free (and thus ‘worthless’) a century ago in the oceans, or three centuries ago in North America, or a millenium ago in Europe, or four millenia ago in China, or six millenia ago in the Tigris-Euphrates ‘fertile crescent’.

    What’s appalling is the waste of about 95% of what the world came equipped with, to turn five percent of it into money.

  16. 166
    Jim Dukelow says:

    In #145, Barton Paul Levenson wrote:

    “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.”

    I tend to disagree. Modern economics is highly theoretical, rather than highly empirical. One of the best examples is the assumption that market volatility can be modelled using the normal distribution — a ‘thin-tailed’ distribution. This assumption, folded into portfolio management theories, won Markowitz and Sharpe Economics Nobel prizes. One can find in Benoit Mandelbrot’s book, Misbehavior of Markets, or in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s books, Fooled by Randomness and Black Swans, copious evidence that market volatility ought to be modelled using power law distributions — ‘heavy-tailed’ distributions with extreme market perturbations being much more frequent that predicted by a normal distribution model.

    I don’t want us to accept theoretically-based recommendations from economists that we NOT take present action to prevent and mitigate future damage from climate change, without critically questioning the consonance of that theory with the real world — its empirical basis.

    Downloading and studying Nordhaus’ DICE model and its documentation is a really useful and enlightening exercise. Its crudeness and simplicity are stunning.

    Best regards.

  17. 167
    SecularAnimist says:

    Hank Roberts wrote: “What’s appalling is the waste of about 95% of what the world came equipped with, to turn five percent of it into money.”

    And to concentrate ninety-five percent of that money in the hands of five percent of the population.

  18. 168
    pete best says:

    Looks like the Arctic Sea Ice is proving interesting this year. Will it drop off a clif come mid june as it did last year I wonder. Maybe Prof Dyson should attempt to explain the accelerated warming of the Arctic sea ice without GHG and AGW theory?

  19. 169
    pete best says:

    human error and global warming. A paper published in nature to explain 1945’s temperature dip.

  20. 170
    Marion Delgado says:

    The most objectionable part is the idea that we are, in any sense, gloating about this. I’ve been concerned about global warming since before things like “Earth in the Balance,” e.g., came out. It worked its way up my list of environmental concerns precisely because it’s long term and easily obfuscated, and because the earlier you deal with things the better they turn out.

    But that doesn’t mean I don’t wish that it wasn’t a consideration. For one thing, I have asthma and bronchitis. Where’s the incentive for me to acknowledge that cleaning up some of our choking pollution actually increased the climate problem?

    I would much rather deal with other problems, shorter term, more personal, and more immediately rewarding. I also am not fond of how the response to climate change gets derailed into treating people as unserious if they don’t jump on the nuclear boondoggle wagon, for instance.

    I think that’s a very telling accusation. It means the denialists and their followers are constantly at the level of equating the messenger with the facts, if the facts are unpleasant. It’s a real validation for the “Inconvenient Truth” title. Moreover, every thing still being said along these lines should be archived and brought out in the future.

    By the way, we all know prevention is better than cures, that a stitch in time saves nine, that if you measure twice you cut once, etc. etc. It amazes me that denialists can even pretend to folk wisdom here.

    It’s time that the gloves come off and the self-contradictory nature of their behavior is made clear. They claim that fixes are catastrophically expensive and also want to delay as long as possible even though that’s what makes fixes catastrophically expensive.

    They want to kill the planet then get leniency because they’re orphans.

  21. 171

    Few sights afford more innocent merriment than a catechist defending his text to the limit of his rhetorical ability . David Archer lets fly four points

    1.”if the trees could simply be persuaded to drop diamonds instead of leaves, repairing the damage to the atmosphere could be fast, ”

    When did charcoal become thermodynamically less stable than diamond? If the guileless Dyson has left something out, it’s the risk of forest fires .

    In 2. the problem is Archer’s own selective memory: ” 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?”

    Er, David, you’re talking about perhaps the most eloquent and astute advocate of advanced nuclear power of his generation.

    In 3., Anachronism bites back : “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…”

    Just so. Given what science does for technology, and technology for economics, expect them to be thinner and richer , independent of what the environment does to evolution.

    4. ” I often find myself contemptuous of efforts to misrepresent science to a lay audience.. I’ve got kids at home whose future I worry about.”

    On that base note , the dueling tuba concert continues. Too bad the kids have to listen- if only their parents had read Dyson’s 1977 article :


  22. 172
    David B. Benson says:

    I had missed seeing David Rutledge’s essay on peak oil and peak coal here:

    entitled “The Coal Question and Climate Change”. It seems he did not consider tar sands and other unconventional sources of fossil fuel. Baring that, the analysis is of interest in that by his projections, there simiply are not enough useable reserves of fossil fuels to even get up to the lowest of the IPCC projections that he considered.

    Provocative, at least.

  23. 173
    David B. Benson says:

    Russell Seitz (171) — Plants utilize carbon, including carbon in the soil. So far, no diamond-eating organisms have evolved. :-)

    Seriously, AFAIK, only coal persists for millions of years. I know of no other carbonaceous soil horizon older than a few thousands of years, maybe ten thousand. I will admit that I haven’t searched the literature directly on this point, but see

    for a review which includes this particular matter.

  24. 174
    Geoff Wexler says:

    re #155 Robert Southworth

    “a 4% discount rate is hiding a bad case of circular reasoning.”

    Roughly speaking , the input of the argument is global warming denial and the output is inactivity; thats slightly different logic. The reason that this is non-trivial is that the people who are in charge of mitigation tend to be economists and I have been told that there is a tendency for more of their arguments (not just future accounting)to contain a sort of inbuilt global warming denial.

    Although this is not about mitigation, there might be a related example of flood prevention in the UK , I get the impression that much of the government’s advice is based on past experience unmodified by climate projections. Is that unwise?

  25. 175

    I’m sure David Benson is aware there are no charcoalor grahite munching carbonivores either- carbon sequestration , not diamond stockpiling is at issue.

    The larger question the biogeochemicalcycle of carbon presents is the long term accumulation of C – as little as we know about carbon preservation in paleosols and peat , the sheer mass of coal that David Archer notes in his earlier 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.”

    illustrates that a lot of it escapes both oxidation and soil organism metabolism only to end up suffering the un-ecological rigors of metamorphic geology. This gives rise to so large a variation in the hydrogen to carbon ratio of coal that it seems scandalous that the variable reality of coal composition is ignored by Greens when it could figure significantly in the debate about real-world CO2 policy.

  26. 176
    David B. Benson says:

    pete best (169) — Thank you very much for providing this link.

  27. 177
    David B. Benson says:

    Russell Seitz (175) — Read the report I linked. By some process, highly carbonaceous materials ,i.e., incorporating considerable charcoal, tend not to survive very long in soils. I’m perfectly prepared to suspect soil micro-organisms (and possibly even plants) metabolise the SOC (Soil Organic Carbon), this possibly taking up to thousands of years depending upon the particular soil.

    I don’t know about graphite. That might possibly provide a long-term sequestration possibility, but one which does not appear to have been much researched.

    I recommend you also read the article I linked in comment #172, since it pertains to the important question of coal.

  28. 178

    Dear David :
    Thanks for the link-I’m aware of the terra preta phenomenon The larger question is what limits the rate and extent of aerobic subsoil degradation of organic molecules in general. All those coals and lignites ( well ,maybe not shungite and the other algals ) were once kilo- instead of megayears old.

  29. 179
    Greg says:

    Alan (#149):
    ” 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.”

    Strange that they focus on the last 50 years. Yes, eastern and southwest have experienced a decline, but a decline from an unusual high in the middle of the century. The early 20th century was drier than now. Everywhere in Australia. It’s there in the time-series.

    “worst drought in at least 600yrs occuring slap bang in the middle of our breadbasket does not make any sense.”

    Wrong. Hyperbolic nonsense. We have returned to the same levels of rainfall we saw from 1890-1950.

  30. 180
    Greg says:

    And in case any Australians are still being hoodwinked, someone has run the numbers for us here

  31. 181
    Rod B says:

    SecularAnimist (162) says, “…I don’t mean to start an off-topic controversy about the wisdom or value of military spending vs. the wisdom or value of preserving a habitable planet…”

    But of course you do with the obvious implication to stop military spending and put it into mitigation.

  32. 182
    Hank Roberts says:

    Dr. Seitz writes:
    > If the guileless Dyson has left something out, it’s the risk of forest fires .

    Entirely true, and that’s the killer fact in this proposal. Any severe forest fire burns everything organic in the soil layer and leaves gravel and soot above a waxy layer. It’s one of the classic reasons for needing small cool fires often.

    If Dr. Dyson can get involved with the American Chestnut Foundation, bringing back those forest giants, he can do a good bit toward his proposal. He doesn’t need to wait for

  33. 183
    John Mashey says:

    1) Economics and economists are really important, because many real arguments have moved from the climate science domain into the economics and policy domains. Anyone not already familiar with economics might want to go get educated, if only to be able to talk with the economists.

    2) I still haven’t seen answers from economists for questions in #24 or #49. However, if you haven’t been reading up on economics already, I suggest reading some (biophysical) economists that actually make sense (to me, a non-economist, anyway):

    Charles Hall, et al, The Need to Reintegrate the Natural Sciences with Economics.

    Robert Ayres & Benjamin Warr, Accounting for Growth: the Role of Physical Work.

    and any of Vaclav Smil’s recent books.

    and then compare with Solow Residual.

    Hall&co, and Ayres+Warr have this minority opinion that economic growth has something to do with energy (or better, work = energy * efficiency), i.e., it’s a big chunk of the Solow Residual (or total factor productivity or whatever you call it. As part of my job, I used to worry about rapidly-changing exponential trends. If you have a straight-line on a semi-log graph (like Moore’s law), the temptation is to project the straight line, but if there is underlying physics that says otherwise, you’d better know it. Otherwise, some unpredicted inflection point leaps up and bites you, or puts you out of business.

    If mainstream economics is right, and energy is relatively irrelevant to GDP growth, then we have this nice happy 2-3% CAGR growth indefinitely, and calculations of modest costs for mitigation may be right, and costs of large costs for adaption may be right, and the idea that the world will be 7X richer may be right. I.e., there is no inflection point in growth.

    If the biophysical economists are right, and if the Peak Oil+Gas folks are right, then we’re entering a major inflection point, in which we have about 50 years to do a major rework of the world’s energy infrastructure.

    – Over the next few decades, flattening and then shrinking oil+gas drag down world GDP growth well below the CAGRs used in all the climate-change studies. At some point, world GDP (and especially American GDP) might actually shrink, but in any case, 7X in 2100 seems *very* unlikely. In the Ayres reference in #24 are scenarios where GDP shrinks.

    – Under those circumstances, the pressure to use a lot of coal will be enormous. The really bad outcome is that in a futile attempt to keep the economy going, we then burn a lot of coal, then it Peaks, and that leaves 2100 and 2200 to deal with climate problems, with a lot of stranded, totally useless assets, and insufficient energy/money to deal with the climate problems. In the SF Bay Area, people are already trying to come to grips with the expense of “adapting” to even a +1m sea level rise by 2100.

    – on the other hand, if we stretch oil+gas as far as possible, and invest it in efficiency and renewable energy, while we have the money, maybe we use all the oil+gas, but can avoid (unsequestered) coal. Kharecha and Hansen discuss this in some detail. Personally, I suspect the US will eventually drill for oil (offshore, Alaska), and if that helps fend off coal, it’s a good trade, although I hope it doesn’t start for decades, since it’s like the kiddies’ piggy bank. (“Daddy, will you adults leave us any oil?” “Not much.”)

    But really, one cannot dismiss all economists, and if people don’t learn enough about economics to engage them, you will not like the results, as a whole lot of policy discussion is based on economics arguments. As an exercise, if you live near a good university, go the bookstore, visit the Economics section, and look for books that incorporate, in a believable way:
    – peak oil+gas, and energy in general
    – climate change
    – economics models
    and please tell me. I went through that exercise last summer, and was not happy with the result.

  34. 184
    mg says:

    Re 49 “DO people (especially the economists) believe that US (world) GDP growth over the next century is essentially unaffected by Peak Oil+Gas?”

    On this matter, useful texts to consult are the two books by Angus Maddison (Phases of Capitalist Development and Dynamic Forces in Capitalist Development), who I would regard as one of the world authorities on GDP measure.

    The second of the two texts quoted gives a very clear description of the elements of GDP performance. It would be somewhat troublesome to explain why peak oil and peak gas would not fundamentally trigger a restructuring across both the ultimate and proximate elements of the performance functional as described by Maddison.

    With regard to peak oil and gas, the matter requires convolution with that of SLR-induced destructuration of global production and supply configurations.

  35. 185
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Hank, Thank you for the plug for the American Chesnut Foundation. My wife and I have been involved with a project to establish a grove of blight-resistant chesnuts in Maryland. So far, so good. They’re amazing trees–but way too slow growing to dig us out of the hole we’re in.

  36. 186
    Ray Ladbury says:

    RodB and Secular Animist, Actually, the issue of military spending vs. mitigation is not completely off topic. As the environment worsens and population continues to increase, competition for resources may fuel conflict and therefore military spending (especially in developing nations that can afford it least). It is one more trap that we must negotiate

  37. 187
    Chris says:

    Re #171 Russell Seitz

    Your criticism of David Archer’s point 1 is doubly misplaced. In fact you rather help to make his point which is a criticism of a pie-in-the-sky, sciency-fictiony approach to dealing with this issue when there are rather more established and well-founded approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

    First, Dyson wasn’t talking about charcoal production. We can do that already and it may have some limited use (see below). Dyson is proposing something quite different – that we wait for genetic engineering approaches that will result in the sequestration of carbon in soils via genetically-modified trees. According to Dyson this is a certainty. However, if one considers present generation genetic modifications of plants, it’s obvious that we’re far from Dyson’s notion of genetically modified carbon sequestering trees. So far genetically-modified plants have a gene introduced heterologously into the genome in order to produce a protein that confers some property (resistance to a herbicide; secretion of an insecticide) or in the most advanced cases (e.g. golden rice) insertion of a 2 or three genes that will introduce or supplement production of a metabolite (e.g. vitamin A).

    So what molecule of sequestered carbon are the GM trees going to produce from CO2? Trees already convert CO2 into a massive wealth of metabolites from sugars to proteins to fats and so on (even methane). But none of these is chemically or metabolically inert, and the biosphere has evolved such that every last molecule produced by plants is a fuel or a nutrient (CO2 returned to the atmosphere). Are trees going to be designed to produce pure carbon? That’s unlikely. There isn’t a known metabolic process, no known enzymes, no genes and so on. So it’s not going to happen.

    The second problem relates to your question “When did charcoal become thermodynamically less stable than diamond?”

    The answer is that it’s always been so. Charcoal is oxidized in soils both by physical and biological processes. There is a significant literature on this now, and it’s a real consideration with respect to long term carbon sequestration by soil dispersion of charcoal [e.g. ***]. Likewise as described in Science earlier this month, increased incorporation of charcoal in soil can result in loss of soil carbon (via oxidation to CO2) through the stimulation of soil microbial activity [*****].

    The bottom line is that there aren’t easy solutions to the problems of atmospheric CO2 emissions, and pinning one’s hopes on comfortable magical science fiction solutions at the expense of existing technologies that can make significant inroads into the problem isn’t that helpful.


    Cheng CH et al (2008) Natural oxidation of black carbon in soils: Changes in molecular form and surface charge along a climosequence Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 72, 1598-1610

    Hockaday WC et al (2007) The transformation and mobility of charcoal in a fire-impacted watershed Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 71, 3432-3445.

    Cheng CH (2006) Oxidation of black carbon by biotic and abiotic processes
    Organic Geochemistry 37 1477-1488

    Hamer U, et al (2004) Interactive priming of black carbon and glucose mineralisation
    Organic Geochemistry 35, 823-830


    Wardle D. A. (2008) Fire-derived charcoal causes loss of forest humus Science 320, 629.

  38. 188

    Rod B #181

    But of course you do with the obvious implication to stop military spending and put it into mitigation.

    For the part that went to the Iraq fiasco, the pay-off in terms of real security would have made that a great bargain. (But no, no wish to start an off-topic controversy :-) )

  39. 189
    JCH says:

    The US had a very respectable GDP before the age of oil.

    From 1790 to the year the first oil well was “drilled” the US real GDP was 4.44%. From 1790 to the year the Standard Oil Trust was formed, the US real GDP was 4.47%.

    In the 120-plus years of ExxonMobil’s bloodline, the US real GDP is 3.3%.

    Perhaps “Giddyup” can better hold its own against “put the pedal to metal” than Yale economists realize.

  40. 190
    SecularAnimist says:

    Rod B wrote: “But of course you do with the obvious implication to stop military spending and put it into mitigation.”

    Not at all. I intended no such implication. I only wanted to point out that estimates of the investment required to move humanity to a post-fossil fuel energy economy over a couple of decades, are comparable to what the world currently spends on the military, which suggests that the cost of mitigation is not an insurmountable obstacle. The world’s trillion-dollar-per-year military budget demonstrates that humanity is able to martial that level of resources towards ends that we consider important. If we can do so to defend against perceived military threats from our fellow humans, surely we can do so to defend against the threat of climate catastrophe.

  41. 191

    Just to thank Bob Murphy for his clarity, plus an invite to you guys at RealClimate to write or host a specific blog about discounting and climate change mitigation. I am not sure how many people have the patience of reading all the comments all the time, so there are useful points buried in the long list above, that could and should be made available to all readers…

  42. 192
    Ray Ladbury says:

    John Mashey, You bring up a very interesting point–really, except for a few academic studies of pre-industrial economies, all of our economic data come from an era of coal/petroleum. It may be very difficult and risky to extrapolate to an epoch where said resources are in short supply–or undesirable for reasons of climate effects. Indeed, this fear of flying blind may be one of the reasons for the reticence of many economists to accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change and its consequences.
    The question, as we come to the end of the Industrial Revolution, is whether it is in fact the end, or whether it will be succeeded by a second industrial revolution based on renewables and free of the strictures imposed by the hydrocarbon supply chain infrastructure (and its concommitant political instability and concentration of wealth). The question for economists is whether any of them will be bold enough to envision how that will come about. One thing about Dyson–at least he is not afraid of being wrong. A good thing, too.

  43. 193
    Tim McDermott says:

    I am bemused by the constant repetition that reducing carbon emissions will hurt the economy. Consider these numbers from 2004, of GDP (in US$) per metric ton of CO2 emitted:
    Switzerland 8902
    Sweden 6591
    France 5373
    Denmark 4500
    Ireland 4332
    Italy 3842
    UK 3670
    Japan 3663
    Germany 3393
    Spain 3160

    and the US 1936

    Other mature industrial societies get nearly twice as much money as we do from our carbon emissions. This is not a technical issue. This is the result of long-standing policies to keep the price of energy low. Policies can change, and energy use will follow. Talking about economic damage is just more smoke.

  44. 194
    Chris says:

    Re #171 and:

    the sheer mass of coal that David Archer notes in his earlier 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.”

    illustrates that a lot of it escapes both oxidation and soil organism metabolism only to end up suffering the un-ecological rigors of metamorphic geology.

    It’s more realistic to say that “a lot of it escaped….”. Because a very large chunk of the massive amount of coal was laid down during the Carboniferous under circumstances that were unique to that period. This seems to be a period when lignin was “invented” by trees and they used lots of it (bark to wood ratios of 8 to 1 or 20 to 1 cf typically 1 to 4 in modern trees), and there’s evidence that the fungi that degrade lignin didn’t evolve until a long period afterwards. Combined with the low sea levels and extensive low lying swamps the Carboniferous was a never-to-be-repeated opportunity for massive sequestration of carbon into the depths. [e.g. see the nice little article by Jennifer M Robinson: Geology 15, 607-610 (1990) “Lignin, land plants, and fungi: Biological evolution affecting Phanerozoic oxygen balance”]

    I expect there’s rather more detailed information available on the nitty gritty of your question about the rate of sub-soil degradation of organic molecules. However we do know that the rate of sequestration of carbon in the soil [on the possible pathway towards “permanent” (if only!) sequestration as coal] is very slow. For example, peat takes around 10 years to “grow” one centimeter, and a one foot coal seam is the product of around 10,000 years of peat accumulation. Each year we burn an amount of coal equivalent to around 100,000 years of carbon sequestration.

    Alternatively we can look at the paleoCO2 record and see that the atmospheric CO2 levels were not much higher than current levels right back to the end of the Ologocene 25 million years ago. So there hasn’t been a steady “pull down” on carbon through the soil (and into the underworld!) at an appreciable level throughout this vast period.

    So if we are going to attempt CO2 pulldown and carbon sequestration in lieu of efforts to set some limits on fossil fuel burning, we need to come up with something extraordinarily efficient and bounteous. Let’s get those magic trees onto the drawing board!

  45. 195
    Lawrence McLean says:

    Re #179 and #180, Greg,
    The quote from the BOM regarding the recent drought in south eastern Australia is:
    “The combination of record heat and widespread drought during the past five to ten years over large parts of southern and eastern Australia is without historical precedent and is, at least partly, a result of climate change”.

    I am not aware of any credible analysis from Climate scientists that are in agreement with your assertion that the current rainfall has nothing to do with Global warming. I do not consider a cherry picking statistician (the someone) as a credible Climate scientist.

    Your logical mistake is to assume that the rainfall patterns are just the result of random fluctuations. They are not just random, they are the result of particular forcings. Climate scientists understand these forcings, and as a result are in a better position to understand trends over a statistician.

    Finally, if an observation doesn’t make sense it is because you are observing objective reality filtered through your own preconceptions.

  46. 196
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Maurizio Morabito, Wow! We agree on something ;-) It would be a useful service for someone to collate the main points. In addition to the discussion of discounting, I think John Mashey’s point about the effect of Peak Oil, etc. is quite important. How can we extrapolate future growth when we have zero data for a non-hydrocarbon based economy. JCH’s point notwithstanding, I think that you would find a strong correlation between US GDP growth and coal comsumption–especially in the North of the US. The level of industrialization in the North was a critical factor in the North’s victory in the Civil War- [edit]

  47. 197
    tidal says:

    Ray Ladbury Says: “except for a few academic studies of pre-industrial economies, all of our economic data come from an era of coal/petroleum.”

    Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published c. 1776. Watt’s steam engine went into production in 1775. Intriguingly, the first use of the steam engine was to…? A. Power water pumping from… coal mines…

    A curious confluence of events…

  48. 198
    Rando says:

    No need to genetically modify plants to remove/regulate atmospheric C02. The steadily increasing price of fossil fuel will take care of the problem – in northern Canada the cost to heat my home this year will be about double from last year (please contribute more to global warming – I need the ‘free’ heat), and I just payed $1.55 for a litre of gas ($5.86/gallon) which I understand is still pretty cheap in many parts of the world. With across the board fuel costs pretty much guaranteed to continue to rise, I do believe that the thermostat will be significantly turned down in my house this winter, and I certainly won’t be driving my Dodge Quad-cab 4X4 across the country on my summer vacation.

  49. 199
    Hank Roberts says:

    > chestnuts

    Chestnuts and hazelnuts. This fellow, who I’ve known most of my life, has spent decades breeding varieties suitable for quick growth, coppice wood, hand-harvesting with long bearing season (plantings in China), machine-harvesting with a short simultaneous bearing time (US farms, where they can replace corn and soybeans economically)

    The notion that we have to wait for some magical future science-fiction change to improve the world has probably allowed more delay than any economic or political foot-dragging or opposition to progress. Pie in the sky by and by.

    Much of the needed work has already been done. It can be done everywhere. Why are we putting it off?
    Dyson was writing in the 1970s about doing this — but as a far-fluffy-future hypothetical.

    Phil Rutter began _doing_ it before Dyson wrote his silly puff piece about how it might someday be needed.

    Get a grip on reality, it’s going somewhere. Why just stand and watch?

  50. 200
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Whatever happened to the idea that it takes money to make money. Of course my Sunfrost refrigerator ( ) COST some $2600, but it’s already SAVED that much money and a lot more since I purchased it in energy (uses one-tenth what other frigs use) and less food spoilage (an added bonus), and it goes on an on every year to save more and more (a much better investment than putting money in the bank or stock market). And there are plenty of examples of how mitigating global warming is an economic bonanza.

    Economists need to read NATURAL CAPITALISM (see to get some idea of the great economic opportunities in “doing the right thing.” Emitting CO2 is what costs, not reducing C02 emissions. So someone ought to do some discount study on our terrific expenditure in emitting C02, NOT on reducing emissions!