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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. 201
    Keith says:

    Having read the Dyson article and all the comments here I’m somewhat surprised by the nature of the discussion. For me, what was most interesting was Dyson’s very concise summary of what the biosphere actually does to CO2 levels. The implications of that are, what I think Dyson was really getting at.

    The fact that you can see 4ppm (ish) annual flux in CO2 levels as a function of biological activity is amazing really. Given our desire to chop down as many tress as possible the fact that we don’t seem to be affecting it is also pretty impressive (with the caveat that the measurements are not sensitive to see the loss of trees year on year). So what Dyson is really saying is that we already know that biology can affect the atmosphere pretty quickly and remove atmospheric CO2. I truly wonder at this point whether he made the tree comment to tease (or provoke)people because what he seems to be suggesting is not as impossible as it sounds. Let me explain.

    Firstly, remember that there isn’t as much chlorophyll(by mass) or the other enzymes (dark reaction enzymes etc) as one might think. It’s no more than tonnes. Now that’s extraordinary in terms of chemical efficiency. Spectacular.

    So the “fix” that Dyson is talking about isn’t making trees, it’s somehow harnessing photosynthesis. Once you make that intellectual leap then things start getting interesting because this is actually do-able. It’s pretty easy to conceive of either genetically altering photosynthesis cells to be even more productive as we already do in cell cultures or we can look at adding in genes to play with the pathway. And the important thing is that we don’t actually need that much material to have an effect if we can really understand the chemitry and biology behind the process (some of the reaction are pretty straightforward, some aren’t).

    Another option might be to try to learn from the chemsitry and make a totally artifical photsynthesis catalyst, or a combination of the genetically enhanced and artifical. There’s been some work done at Brookhaven done on this already.So it’s not pie in the sky although it’s definitely non-trivial.

    My own feeling is that it’s got to be worth continuing to work on this and it might, just might, actually work. No square mutant trees in sight!

    So I rather think it’s disappointing that the comments made on this site have been so negative when it comes to a technological solution or mitigation. I’m amazed that Dyson’s “insight” on that front was interpretted in such a one-dimensional fashion. The data shows that biology plays a big role in annual CO2 levels on a global scale. I, for one, think we should try to harness that, irrespective of the economic arguments.

  2. 202
    JCH says:

    Ray, obviously the Industrial Revolution occurred in the United States/Colonies. The earliest reference I have found to commercial coal mining in the Colonies is 1748.

    Still, the vast majority of Americans worked in agriculture, and that remained the case well into the 20th Century.

  3. 203
    A.C. says:

    re: #23 — as eskimo-ese is a polysynthetic language, the number of inuit words for snow is actually unbounded. but if we ignored that fact and plotted out the NYT estimates for the numbers of eskimo words for each of the last 100 years anyway, we would see an exponential rise in inuit words for snow–not the decline we would expect if the world were actually warming. (unrelated query: ever wonder how many inuit words there are for “oh, ####, did you just see that polar bear fall through the melting north pole?!?”)

    while we’re dodging the problems associated with finding a workable, democratic solution to AGW, we might as well use as many distorted facts as possible in constructing flawed analogies rooted in media myths and urban legends to argue for developing whole new languages to describe the economic implications of the risks identified by climate science. because that would be a productive thing to do while we wait for the genetic engineers to make super-trees that will solve all our problems.

    i’ll go out on a limb and predict that someone, somewhere is genetically engineering a super-tree that grows its own hammock, so that the lazy people of the future won’t have to worry about finding places to sit. i’m also predicting that a deluxe model super-tree will sprout air conditioners that run on the knee-jerk reaction produced when CO2 is mentioned in the presence of denialism.

  4. 204
    Martin Vermeer says:

    #189 JCH:

    I suspect you used the calculator at .
    While you show that real GDP annual growth has gone down from 4.44% to 3.3%, I see the per capita GDP annual growth has gone up from 1.37% to 1.93%.

  5. 205

    Raypierre –
    Agree that we may need more *refinements* to money values though I see no reason to dispute those of Nordhaus. Every human monetizes death, climate, and destruction indirectly all the time – people just deny this. Everybody knows that driving a car on a leisure trip (or far riskier, riding a bike!) presents increased death risk to their children compared to sitting at home, but at a benefit of the trip experience. Rather than the concept of values of life years it is the discount rate that is the key point of contention between various mitigation spending scenarios. I don’t follow Stern’s logic but if he’s right, Nordhaus is very wrong.

    I’m fine with non-money categories for measuring climate problems and solutions but the point is to create some standard for apples to apples comparisons so you don’t have the absurd contention
    that a thing has “infinite” value and therefore must be preserved at all costs regardless of how it impacts other things, many of which also have “infintite” value. The issue is not assigning value to things – it is *how much value* to each thing. Without this we allocate haphazardly rather than rationally, but we still allocate and value things. That is unavoidable.


    Thank you for several thoughtful responses to the issue of allocating money to mitigation. I certainly agree that military spending probably has a much lower ROI (by any reasonable measures of R and I) than C02 mitigation. However I also agree with the-person-who- cannot-be-named at RC without pandemonium breaking out that we should seek the most effective (highest ROI) allocations of massive public resources and that that would push us to spend mostly on global infrastructure improvements rather than C02 mitigation or military.

  6. 206
    David B. Benson says:

    Russell Seitz (178) — I agree and Chris (187, 194) has provided some information and references. Based on what Chris has written (but also the biochar review), I’m rather dubious about the prospects of long-term carbon storage in soils.

    However, the problem may be viewed as so serious that even the prospects of carbon re-entering the active carbon cycle over thousands of years is viewed as less of a hazard than other schemes.

    I should note that there appears to be little, if any, active research on hydrthermal carbonization, which will produce bio-anthracite after 24 hours of the exothermic reaction.

  7. 207
    henning says:

    @Tim #193
    An interesting comparison that demonstrates just how difficult it will be to get a global understanding for the problem. As a simple example, Switzerland may look like it made some right decisions in the past and therefore claim your list’s top spot. But it does so mainly because Switzerland has almost no CO2 producing industries. It is easy to show a good GDP/CO2 relation when all you do is banking. If you’d calculate the amounts of CO2 emitted in – say – Germany for the cars produced there and exported to Switzerland not for Germany but for Switzerland, you’d certainly get very different results and eventually different conclusions.

  8. 208
    Ike Solem says:

    Russell Seitz:

    “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 .”

    This is very very far off base – almost completely so, in many ways. See comment #89 above, as well as comments by Chris, esp. #194.

    It is nice to see that Dyson is not pushing the notion of iron fertilization as a means of carbon sequestration (even though it would be of similar effectiveness to the tree plan). While Dyson is a brilliant physicist, his projections about genetic engineering do bring to mind his earlier work on nuclear bomb-powered spacecraft…

    The notion that the biosphere can be somehow manipulated into sequestering all the excess carbon that humans have dumped into the atmosphere is highly implausible. First, is the biosphere in carbon balance, or is it already dumping mass into the atmospheric and oceanic pools? Do we even have a good handle on that? No – it is very difficult to figure it out.

    How about the fossilized biosphere – the stored carbon in the northern permafrost regions? How about warming soils releasing more carbon to the atmosphere? How about new limits on photosynthesis brought about by environmental degradation, i.e. heat waves, floods, droughts?

    There’s only one solution: stop burning fossil fuels, period. Even if we do that (and global fossil fuel use and carbon emissions continue to rise, as it has ever since the beginning of the 20th century), we are still in for projected warming over the next 50 years at least, and by that time most of the world’s mountain glaciers will be gone. Simply gone. Imagine that. That is almost inevitable now. Indeed, that is probably a very safe bet to make. Thus, it seems that we are not only going to have to stop burning fossil fuels, but we are also going to have to make some efforts at real long-term carbon burial – not at all an easy thing to do.

    All across the western United States, for example, drought is really kicking in. This might be the worst fire season in history for this region – at least, it is up there – and this is not likely to change, as late season runoff dwindles and the soil and vegetation dry up.

    The fact of the matter is that climate scientists have been predicting this situation ever since the late 1970s. There really wasn’t that much more scientific doubt then than there is now, and solar and wind technology was already poised to take off – and then came 30 years of fossil fuel interests intervening in government to maintain the status quo.

    Apparently, the thought of trying to start the world’s biggest infrastructure manufacturing project in history is just too much for our government to contemplate. The situation is still farcical – look at the miniscule research budgets for solar and other renewables in this country. The country’s leading biofuel researchers are at small schools in agricultural states like Mississippi – because the state funds them – the federal government gives nothing more than lip service to renewable energy projects, and actually actively undermines them with a contradictory and fluctuating government policy toward fossil fuels and renewables – will this really change under any administration in the U.S.? We sure hope so, but there is vast ignorance on the issues among the press and the public. No matter how bad the press coverage of climate science has been, the coverage of renewable energy advances has been far worse – almost nonexistent, in fact.

    Basic physical arguments and engineering demonstrations prove that we can meet all of our energy needs without resorting to fossil fuels or to any expansion of existing nuclear power capacity – simply by using sunlight and wind. The physical arguments are robust and undeniable – and the “economic arguments” that claim that “renewables cost to much” should be seen for what they are – marketing gimmicks for fossil fuel salespeople.

  9. 209
    dhogaza says:

    ’ll go out on a limb and predict that someone, somewhere is genetically engineering a super-tree that grows its own hammock, so that the lazy people of the future won’t have to worry about finding places to sit.

    You don’t even need genetic engineering…

  10. 210
    David Garen says:

    This discussion about global warming and economics exemplifies the massive paradigm shift that humanity needs in order to survive. We are having an existential crisis because our worldview and our ways of being have taken us this far but cannot take us any farther. We can argue about discount rates and about how much CO2 we can “afford” to reduce and about technology etc., but I think these concepts are still within the framing story that is now experiencing the limits of its usefulness.

    This reminds me of the famous Einstein quote that the solution of a problem requires a different level of thinking than that which created the problem. The different level of thinking now required can be summed up nicely, I think, in one word: sustainability. It seems to me that most of what humanity has done so far in its history has been able to ignore sustainability because limits were far off. Now we are there, and we need a new philosophy of life that will carry us into humanity’s next era, that is, a full world and one with very visible limits.

    One poster mentioned Herman Daly. I have read two of his books, “For the Common Good” and “Beyond Growth”, and I highly recommend them to you. Daly is a truly innovative thinker, and I believe his vision for economics is what humanity needs to make this transition into its new era of existence.

    Global warming is but one manifestation of humanity’s current worldview; dealing with global warming will require a new worldview, a more holistic one in which we evaluate all we do through the lens of sustainability.

  11. 211
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ike Solem wrote: “The fact of the matter is that climate scientists have been predicting this situation ever since the late 1970s. There really wasn’t that much more scientific doubt then than there is now, and solar and wind technology was already poised to take off – and then came 30 years of fossil fuel interests intervening in government to maintain the status quo.”

    Actually it is worse than that. The Paley Commission recommended to President Truman in 1952 that the USA aggressively fund the development of solar energy and projected that there could be millions of solar-powered homes within a generation. The Eisenhower administration rejected that recommendation, cut funding for solar research, and chose instead to invest billions in “the peaceful atom”.

  12. 212
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Joseph Hunkins, I really don’t mean to be confrontational, but how would you, personally, value–monetarily or otherwise–the destruction of human civilization? Based on the possible warming scenarios, this threat cannot be ruled out. I understand the need for a common basis when comparing risks or planning risk mitigation, but some risks defy such approaches. If you can’t bound the risk, you have to act energetically to better define the probability of the threat being realized AND start acting immediately to mitigate the consequences of the threat. I would contend that is the situation where we currently find ourselves wrt climate change.

  13. 213
    Ray Ladbury says:

    #201–Keith, I agree that Dyson certainly isn’t to be demonized. He acknowledges the reality of anthropogenic climate change after all. Still, his airy, dismissive technological optimism in the face of such an unprecedented threat borders on the irresponsible. As yet, all we’ve managed to do is demonstrate that the threat is serious and potentially quite severe. We haven’t bounded the risk. We don’t have workable solutions–and worst of all, demographic, economic and political trends are working against our developing effective mitigation and/or adaptation strategies. And along comes Dyson, saying that technology will solve all without so much as a hiccup to future economic growth. The thing we have to remember is that Dyson, while a technophile, is a theoretical physicist, and speaking as a physicist (though an applied one), we aren’t always the most practical folks. The whole thing sort of reminds me of the joke about the engineer, physicist and mathematician sharing a room in a hotel at a conference. They are all asleep when a fire starts in a waste basket. The engineer smells the smoke, wakes up and grabs the fire extinguisher and sprays wildly toward the flames, spraying until he’s sure it’s out. He’s made a big mess, but falls back asleep in his wet bedclothes knowing he’s safe–or so he thinks. But the fire breaks out again. This time the physicist wakes up, runs over to the desk, writes down some equations, then runs over to the fire extinguisher, gives 3 short squirts at the base of the fire and extinguishes it. Back to bed he goes, but the fire breaks out again. This time it’s the mathematician who wakes up. Alarmed, he see the fire. Then he sees the fire extinguisher. “Oh, a solution exists,” and goes back to sleep. You can guess who Dyson reminds me of–except we don’t yet have a fire extinguisher.

  14. 214
    John Mashey says:

    re: #201 Keith
    I personally think that bio-engineering will be important. I know Stanford’s President thinks so too, which is why things like Bio-X exist.

    BUT: talking about magic things that will save us 30 years from now doesn’t impress me very much as an action plan, and reminds me of the old saw:

    “In theory, theory and practice and the same, but in practice, they aren’t.”

    Serious R&D portfolio managers run *progressive commitment*:

    Basic Research [fund lots of little projects, some with 20-30-year horizons]
    [these days, mostly in universities]
    Applied Research [pick some of the more promising and take further]
    Exploratory Development [build more things]
    Advanced Development [some combine this with the previous] [push tech]
    Development [uses technology that works]
    Deployment & Scaleup [$$$$$]

    Of the 35 years or so I’ve spent doing, managing, funding such things, 10 were spent at Bell Labs, arguably the premier industrial research lab *ever*, part of a company that actually though about 40-year timeframes, not just next quarter, and which generated many real breakthroughs. BUT, our mantra was:


    When you have to deploy on a vast scale (and the Bell System of old was pretty vast as companies went), you deploy technology you already have. In 1930, nobody said “Don’t worry, in 1947 someone will invent transistors”, but of course physics research was already going on. At Bell Labs, Basic R (and some Applied R) was ~7% … and it was worth every penny, but it didn’t produce specified results to schedule.

    It took years before transistors were really exploited. Solar cells were a tiny niche for a long time. No one had the slightest idea that lasers would be a giant business. UNIX was a “toy” used by a handful of us for years before it caught on, and later surprised Bell executives when they discovered that almost every software project had some dependency on it. One of my jobs was to keep an eye on Research to grab anything we could make use of, but it was never predictable. A friend of mine got a Nobel prize, and he says:
    “Most people get Nobels for things they were looking for, we got ours for finding something we were trying to get rid of!”

    People get crazy about lab-scale results, but useful things have to surive massive scaleup. Another old saw is the “MIT grad student syndrome::

    Q: What can you build with 5 MIT PhD students?
    A: Anything!… but you can only build one of it.

    Anyway, we likely will get bio-engineered help, but the terrible danger in this kind of thing is that people wait around for wonderful solutions sometime later, rather than investing in and managing a disciplined, multi-decadal R&D program.

    If someone is talking about breakthroughs, ask them:

    a) What’s your past involvement with long-term R&D & deployment?
    b) What’s your proposed R&D program that might lead there?

  15. 215
    Ron Taylor says:

    Ray, I quite agree with your analysis, which always seems to be the case. Your comment that “we don’t yet have a fire extinguisher” called to mind the frustration I sense in Jim Hansen’s missive of today.

  16. 216
    John Mashey says:

    re: #193 Tim
    In support of what you say (policy), see the (awesome) Art Rosenfeld’s Articles page for great presentations. But especially, see page 7 of Rosenfeld talk in 2007, although the numbers are for a different year, and I think the slide slightly misnomered (should be:
    “intensity (tons of CO2 per 2000 $1000). I.e., divide $1000 by the energy intensity to get somewhat similar numbers to those in your list.

    Every state is different, but if the US as a whole could even move half the way towards what California already does, a lot of things would be better, and msot of this is by *policy* applied over decades. As faras I can tell, this hasn’t made Californians horribly poor…

    With most of its power from a hydro, a long-established train system, and small size, Switzerland will be hard to catch.

  17. 217
    Rod B says:

    John Mashey (214) off topic but, since corporations are often lambasted, I’ll second your kudos of Bell Labs (I had ~15 years with (the original) AT&T) and AT&T’s stewardship. All that basic R&D money was spent knowing that they could not have exclusive patent rights to anything they discovered.

  18. 218

    re 187 et seq.
    Chris, Thanks for the heads upon Cheng and Hockaday- I will read them with interest.
    But Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta is not where one expects to see an examination of the limits of polymer formation in plants or the state of synthetic biology. We might ask Dyson, but I doubt if such products of natural selection as biodegradable polysaccarides are what has in mind. With rubber and polyethylene around, he has no need of diamonds as a paradigm- the plenum of durable polymers whose long degradation times ecologists complain of shows where his taste in plant biotech is pointing-

    I don’t pretend to know how the hierarchy of compatibility with photosynthetic pathways in simple and complex plants will evolve as syn bio grows in sophistication( and photosynthetic bandwidth)

  19. 219
    Keith says:

    Ray and John,

    Thanks for the response. I agree with you both. I too work in an applied science field so I have a very strong bent towards practical science as opposed to paper science. I work in a field where for every 250K compounds or so that we make only one ends up being a drug. Even those odds don’t stop us continuing to keep trying which why I’m still in the lab. So I absolutely agree with your comments. I was not suggesting for a moment that we focus soley on technological solution at the expense of everything else. My point was that Dyson’s theoretical solution isn’t quite as wacky as some have suggested and the data demonstrates the potential for a biological solution/mitigation; it’s a real life proof of concept if you like. I think that annual 4ppm shift is facinating given that our inductrial output of CO2 isn’t reducing.

    [There is one interesting point here; more of a comment or question perhaps. It’s the issue of timescales. On a annual basis there is a regular flux of CO2 levels affected by biology. That contrasts quite sharply with geological time or even the timescale of the last 100 years. It’s very reminicent of kinetics and thermodynamics (if I were to look at my own field). Sometimes, we don’t end up at the theromdynamic sink. Very often the rate of reaction, rather than the most favourable thermodynamic outcome, dominates. In fact, a vast number of biological reactions are tuned to drive reactions down this apparently unfavourable pathway simply because the kinetic are much much faster. And so I’ve always wondered about that analogy from a climate change point of view. Is the rate of change of temperature more important than the absolute amount and so can a process which acts quickly have a much bigger impact than one that gets you a bigger effect. Just a thought.]

    Anyway, back to Dyson. It’s perfectly feasible even given our rudimentary knowledge that a technological solution can be derived and put into action. So I merely believe that it should be done in addition to whatever other solutions people can derive. You never know, one of them might work!

  20. 220

    John, Rod, how could I disagree, being a Unix lover… writing this on my Linux workstation :-)

  21. 221

    Ray L asked: how would you, personally, value–monetarily or otherwise–the destruction of human civilization?

    Ray I’m going to give this some thought because it’s provocative but it’s not relevant to this discussion. Surely you don’t believe that the entire civilization is going to crumble from climate change? Even the most catastrophic scenarios would not kill everybody, and there is *very little reason* to believe things will pan out very much differently than the range of IPCC projections for sea level rise and temperature increases – ie we’ll be negatively affected by climate change but not catastrophically.

    You can assign value to a life or a life year – this is done all the time with respect to transportation planning and funding and environmental pollution analyses. Unfortunately these numbers are not very consistent or standardized but the EPA’s mean life value number (based on an analysis of 26 studies) was 4.8 million. I’d guess this is actually much higher than the life values you would infer from most people’s risky behaviors. For example bicycling on busy streets, driving in storms or drunk, smoking and all other risks.

    Therefore the relevant economic questions are *exactly* the types of questions Nordhaus is asking, and I believe answering very adequately and in tune with what several climate focused economists have been suggesting for the past few years – modest to low spending on mitigation until the technologies improve and the specific threats to humanity are much clearer.

    Why are you dodging the questions we *must* answer – how much, on what, and when? I know you are NOT saying that civilization has infinite value and civilization might be destroyed by climate change therefore we must spend 100% of GDP on climate, so what are you suggesting we do spend? Shrewdly or with ignorance of the factors, it is a decision that *must* be made.

  22. 222
    pete best says:

    Re #162, if it could cost up to $20 trillion to mitigate climate change then I can now see why the G8 have being very cautious regarding low carbon technologies in their statement this week and are still in my opinion going to side with the CSLF:IEA idea of carbon capture ready coal fired power plants to allow the plants to be built now and retrofitted later to allow for coal to liquids and electricity projects to go ahead. I guess there thinking is that if we can keep on track energy wise then we can await that scientific breakthrough to provide cheap low carbon energy some time in the future.

    Only one big issues remains, the longer we leave it the longer the current infrastructure has to run due to the sheer length of time it takes to design, develop, scale and rollout any new technology on a large enough scale to replace fossil fuel infrastructures.

    Kind of scary really but I reckon the G8 will commit to coal come this July’s meeting.

  23. 223
    pete best says:

    I believe that it has been said in this thread already about Gt carbon equivilent left in oil, gas and coal. oil totals 200 Gt conventional and another 500+ is oil/tar/shale sands, 200 in gas and 5000 Gt in Coal. If coal to liquid become serious popular as oil becomes scarcer then expect those coal reserves to start to fall quicker. I just wonder if even king coal can step up to the mark and subsidise oil CCS ready or not.

  24. 224
    Timothy Havard says:

    As a soil scientist and environmental consultant the thought of “genetically engineered” enhanced carbon eating trees, especially if the cell walls are weakened as well (gives a new meaning to Rubber Trees!) is a matter of some concern.

    Instead of shipping food as aid we should consider shipping organic matter in the form of compost out of the densely populated so called advance societies and into the poorer areas of the world who seem to have the worst soils -high sand fraction – low unreliable rainfall and, in relation to the capacity of the resource to provide food, too high a population. Regular applications of humus will improve moisture holding capacity and provide nutrients (minimizing also the use of industrial granular fertilizers) particularly for the key small vegetable and perennial tree plots that are critical for minimal human nutrition levels. The carbon equation needs calculating on this but I think it comes out just positive if the shipping is carbon neutral. Perennial food crops are also encouraged – carbon eating trees again – which should, albeit it slowly, improve the rainfall factor. Real improvement doesn’t come from magic bullets it comes from sound science.

  25. 225
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Joseph Hunkins asserts: “Surely you don’t believe that the entire civilization is going to crumble from climate change?” My “belief” is motivated by what the science says, and right now, the science cannot preclude the possibility of more than 6 degree per doubling of CO2. In fact, the probability of more tha 6 degrees is much more than that of 1.5 degrees or less. See:

    Since the costs of climate change increse nonlinearly (probably exponentially) with increasing CO2 sensitivity, we have a condition where the estimated risks of climate change are driven by the high-end tail of the probability distribution for sensitivity. Indeed, given that current models do not take into account feedback from CO2 and methane outgassing from permafrost, clathrates, etc., the situation could actually be worse. If we reach a tipping point and such outgassing starts to swamp anthropogenic emissions, we’re in the soup–literally. Some of the most severe mass extinctions have occurred due to greenhouse gas emissions

    Finally, keep in mind that human civilization depends on a very complicated infrastructure, and that this infrastructure becomes more and more complicated now that we have to support 6.6 billion people. How fragile will it be when we must support 9 billion or 12 billion?

    These are risks that are still unbounded, so I would argue that the situation demands immediate action to buy time–both to better understand the risks we face and to develop strategies for mitigating them.

  26. 226
    Alan K says:

    Timothy I know you mean well but do you really think the answer is to ship our rotten waste to the poor?

    heaven help us

  27. 227
    Alan K says:


    “given that current models do not take into account feedback from CO2 and methane outgassing from permafrost, clathrates, etc”

    hi Ray why do current climate models not take into account all of this stuff? Is this a big failing in climate models? Are there any other failings or is it just this?

  28. 228
    Arch Stanton says:

    Alen K (226),
    What you call “rotten waste” some others call “black gold”. Let’s cut the hyperbole, shall we? Humus is an important constituent of fertile soil and serves many functions as mentioned by Timothy. Not the least of which is to sequester carbon as soil organic matter. Some forms of humeric acids take thousands of years to break down.

  29. 229
    Ron Taylor says:

    Joseph Hunkins, in addition to the articles provided by Ray in 225, you might also have a look at

    The article suggests that the mass extinction at the end Permian, 251 million years ago, was caused by massive release of hydrogen sulfide from the oceans. The hydrogen sulfide was produced by anaerobic bacteria as the oceans became anoxic due to global warming. CO2 levels at the time were around 1000ppm. The H2S not only poisoned most life on land and in the sea, but also destroyed the ozone layer, leaving ultraviolet radiation to handle the mop up. The writer also suggests that this process may have figured in other great extinctions.

    The potential risks we are dealing with are indeed very serious. Maybe Ward is wrong. But if there is even a ten percent chance he is right, how high should we be willing to see CO2 levels go? But, in any case, sea level rise, crop failures, etc., will produce their own catastrophic effects and are not just probable, but inevitable, if we stay on the current course.

  30. 230
    dhogaza says:

    If it’s “rotten waste” then why do people buy it from those who sell it?

    He’s talking about shipping it as a form of aid, because it helps improve soil (he’s a soil scientist).

  31. 231
    Alan K says:

    #228 has anyone asked the poor people whether they think it’s such a great idea to receive our rotten waste?

    Rich people pronouncing what’s good for the poor – nothing’s going to get solved that way.

  32. 232
    Nick Gotts says:

    “Every human monetizes death, climate, and destruction indirectly all the time – people just deny this. Everybody knows that driving a car on a leisure trip (or far riskier, riding a bike!) presents increased death risk to their children compared to sitting at home, but at a benefit of the trip experience. Rather than the concept of values of life years it is the discount rate that is the key point of contention between various mitigation spending scenarios.” – Joseph Hunkins@205.

    Typical neoclassical economists’ tosh. There is absolutely zero evidence that we have any internal calculator that “monetises” all the potential benefits and risks of particular courses of action; or even that we consider or try to consider all such risks and benefits. Rather, when we are not acting from habit or imitation, we act to achieve or preserve particular goals, and which goals we choose to pursue is determined by the interaction of external circumstances, innate drives, and long-term plans.

  33. 233
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Alan K,
    The climate models don’t consider such outgassing feedbacks because they are poorly constrained. They also aren’t terribly important for the climate of the last century, so there would be no way to know if one had the proper level. We know they are there–after all, the skeptics are telling us (incorrectly) that temperature always leads CO2.
    This is a risk we’re still trying to understand, but it is daunting.

  34. 234
    Chris says:

    Re: #218: Russell, if you were discussing an examination of the limits of polymer formation in plants or the state of synthetic biology in your post (#171) on David Archers article, then we might not have gone to Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta. However you were making an assertion about the thermodynamic stability of charcoal; and that leads us to Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta amongst other fine sources

    But, O.K., let’s discuss “the limits of polymer formation in plants or the state of synthetic biology”. You’re saying now that it’s not charcoal, but rubber and polyethylene that are the “paradigm”s of choice. Good. However rubber is perfectly biodegradable….polyethylene is made by industrial reactions using oil. So you need to tell us how you’re going to get trees to make non-biodegradable rubber (after all, we could just tap their rubber, vulcanize it, turn it into tyres and pile these up in farmyards like they do in the UK), or get trees to make polyethylene, and to sequester these in soil or bury them underground.

    These are not trivial questions. After all Dyson has asserted:

    Carbon-eating trees could convert most of the carbon that they absorb from the atmosphere into some chemically stable form and bury it underground. Or they could convert the carbon into liquid fuels and other useful chemicals. Biotechnology is enormously powerful, capable of burying or transforming any molecule of carbon dioxide that comes into its grasp.

    Now either we know how to do that, or are sure that we will know how to do that (20-50 years according to Dyson)….or we don’t. Which is it? You say I don’t pretend to know how the hierarchy of compatibility with photosynthetic pathways in simple and complex plants will evolve as syn bio grows in sophistication ( and photosynthetic bandwidth). However Dr. Dyson asserts that he knows. Can you give us some clues as to what Dr. Dyson specifically has in mind?

    Let’s look at photosynthesis, metabolic pathways and production of stuff by plants. Dyson proposes trees that bury carbon underground in a chemically stable form, or that convert carbon into useful fuels. However we, and trees, already know how to do much of this already. A tree grow beautifully without any requirement for us messing around with it, and we can cut it down and bury it under anaerobic conditions (dump it in an anoxic swamp). Or we can burn it as a “useful fuel”. Unfortunately we consider these are not actually very helpful in the real world, much in the same way as we know that biochar is going to make only a very small, at best, contribution to these problems. And of course we can’t burn the tree (“useful fuel”) and bury it too (carbon sequestration). However these are the most efficient ways of pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere, or making “useful fuel”, using trees.

    Since these aren’t likely to be very useful in the grand scheme, how about making the tree do these things in its living form? Let’s say we’d like the tree to supplement its normal growth/metabolic expenditure (its “cost of living”) by 50% which additional photosynthetic/metabolic activity would be “spent” either on carbon burial or “useful fuel” production. Remember that these are some of the most energy expensive processes in the biosphere, since it takes a whole lot of energy to pull electrons off water and put them onto carbon (so we can make polymers to bury or fuels to burn). Where does the excess energy to power these processes come from? Photosynthesis, a process (light reaction) designed to pull electrons off water. Fine, but how do you boost photosynthetic activity/efficiency in our modified trees? Perhaps Dyson would care to tell us.

    And so on. I don’t think we are anywhere remotely in the ball park of boosting photosynthetic activity so that trees can divert some of their metabolic energy to making stuff on a scale that is realistic (as opposed to rubber, cotton, maple syrup production that trees can do quite well already as part of their natural functions in wound protection, seed dispersal and attracting pollinators) or burying stuff, nor are we anywhere near finding/inventing metabolic pathways for non-degradable carbon sequestering, let alone producing the requisite transgenic plants/trees.

    If we’re going to take Dr. Dyson seriously we need some more specific practical details of what specifically he has in mind….

  35. 235
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #234. Trivial point of information: Dyson has no doctorate.

  36. 236
    Florifulgurator says:

    Re: #234, Re: diamonds, polymers, squared trees, but why not simple charcoal?

    It looks very much that you can use lots of trees as useful fuel and have useful carbon sequestering too: Use wood gas, tars and oils, but bury the charcoal.

    E.g. use standardized wood pellets to power your wood gas hybrid car, dump the char at the wood gas station and receive some carbon credits.

    But that’s perhaps not fancy sexy tech enough? After all, wood gas cars had been used already around WWII.

    For carbon balance sake it need to be dying trees. Ask the bark beetle or the forest fire devil where you can find masses of eligible trees.

    Perhaps that char thing is just too simple to come to the mind of eminent theoretical phsycists or eminent economists?

  37. 237
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ray Ladbury wrote: “We don’t have workable solutions …”

    I would argue that we do have workable solutions — that organic agriculture and maximally efficient use of clean electricity from wind and solar, supplemented with geothermal, hydropower and agricultural biofuels, can provide a sustainable, comfortable material standard of living for the world’s human population while reducing GHG emissions to near zero, and that we already know how to achieve this within decades using existing technology.

    I am, however, extremely pessimistic that this will actually be achieved — there are too many wealthy and powerful people lusting after the trillions of dollars in profit to be had from burning every last crumb of coal and every last drop of oil, who will do everything in their considerable power to postpone the inevitable phaseout of fossil fuels as long as possible.

    Achieving a “new industrial revolution” to replace the world’s fossil fuel energy economy with one based on clean, renewable, sustainable, zero-carbon energy technologies within a couple of decades will certainly require resources and effort. But the tough obstacles are not technical or economic; they are political.

  38. 238
    Chris says:

    Re # 235 O.K. thanks, I’ll remember that (no doctorate).

    Re # 236, charcoal does actually slowly oxidise in soil back to CO2 (see # 187). However I agree with you that we can do a little bit with charcoal. There are lots of little (and not so little) solutions.

    I’m not suggesting btw that we don’t continue to pursue research into science-fictiony things like artificial photosynthesis and “carbon-eating” trees (a better term is needed since trees already “eat” carbon). However we already have quite a good “photosynthesis” analogue (i.e. photovoltaic solar energy and its variants), and these still maturing technologies are bound to continue to provide incremental improvements in efficiencies, costs and so on. These can be used efficiently in areas where trees won’t grow at all (e.g. deserts), they don’t need watering and they can be connected directly to the grid. They may also not be as exciting as “carbon-eating” trees. But if we consider we have a problem to address, then we shouldn’t be pretending that we can sit back and wait to be saved by our science fictiony solutions.

  39. 239
    George Peabody says:

    Those referencing the “square trees” concept might note that the original story was datelined April 1. Perhaps just a coincidence…

  40. 240

    re 233
    Chris avers:’if we’re going to take Dr. Dyson seriously we need some more specific practical details of what specifically he has in mind….

    That’s why I began by suggesting we might ask him, and I hope RC will invite him to comment. To which end I’ll call Raypierre to suggest a possible intoduction.

    The point is that what we want – materials fit for carbon sequestration on century-to-millennium timescales – _may_ be metabolically accessible , but as they convey scant evolutionary benefit, are unlikely to be found in existing plant genomes. That’s why un-natural selection by molecular design and enzyme directed synthetic biology is being developed. Biopolymers are already part of that program, and it remains to be discovered whether , at the economic margin, they can play a role in carbon sequestration.

    Since soon we find out how plausible the development of ( Insert Name of Desired Polymer Here )-ase may be is a function of how may biochemists think about it, I’m rather glad Dyson has raised the question in the ubiquitously read NYRB –

  41. 241
    Chuck Booth says:

    Re # 234 I have my doubts that genetically modified trees will every sequester sufficent carbon underground in their roots to be of any value, and I am skeptical about the prospect of trees producing oil. But, researchers are using algae to produce an oil that can be converted into fuel:

    Of course, the economic feasibility and environmental impact of this process are not yet clear, but it likely holds far more promise than Nordhaus’ and Dyson’s carboniverous, carbon-sequestering trees.

  42. 242
    Bob Clipperton (UK) says:

    Re:#,152, Geoff Wexler’s reply to my post: #62

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

    Geoff replied in part :-
    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.

    I am confused. Firstly to clarify, my use of the word assumption was ‘tongue-in -cheek’ – the assumption that technology would save the day and not any sort of financial assumption.
    One way to read your reply would suggest nuclear fusion is up and running. Is it?

  43. 243
    Ike Solem says:

    Let’s try this from the basic arithmetic perspective. Just looking at petroleum estimates are that each year, we burn a volume of petroleum that is 1 km x 1km x 4.5 km – 4.5 billion cubic meters, or 4.5 trillion liters.

    When we burn petroleum, we are going in the thermodynamically favorable direction: crude oil + oxygen goes to carbon dioxide + water + free energy. If we wish to reverse the process, we need to use energy – which is what plants do when they fix CO2. Plants require an aqueous environment to do this – this is why alpine plants and desert plants are small yet old – liquid water is not readily available for most of the year, and the “growing season” (i.e. the net carbon fixation season) may only be a few weeks out of the year. Even if water is available, growth can be nutrient-limited or toxin-limited. Air pollution, for example, seriously stunts tree growth, as does a lake of nitrogen and phosphate in the soil.

    Now, plant breeding has resulted in some very high-yielding varieties – but the less-discussed fact is that you only get those yields by applying high levels of fertilizer and ample water – and also only if you have good growing conditions – no sudden freezes, heat waves or floods. What are the extreme weather forecasts for the future? What kind of impacts on crop production have we seen already?

    ScienceDaily (Mar. 16, 2007) — Over a span of two decades, warming temperatures have caused annual losses of roughly $5 billion for major food crops, according to a new study by researchers at the Carnegie Institution and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

    Considering all that, let’s return to our arithmetic. We inject 4.5 trillion liters of crude oil into the atmosphere each year (yes, we are ignoring coal and natural gas, for now). Since there are ~7 billion people on the planet, that’s around 640 liters of oil per person per year. So, to offset petroleum emissions alone, each person would have to bury 640 liters of carbon deep in the ground each year.

    But, there is a problem – since what we need to bury is not a jug of oil, but a gas that is only present at 380 parts per million in the atmosphere. On a mass basis, only 0.04% is CO2. The mass of air at sea level is about 1.3 kg per cubic meter. So, one cubic meter of air has about half a gram of CO2, roughly speaking. To make one liter of crude oil, you need about a kilogram of carbon… which will have to be extracted from thousands of cubic meters of air, and that will cost a lot of energy.

    The higher end of tree sequestration rates are around 50 kg of carbon per tree per year. ( )

    Thus, we get to the details: every man, woman and child on Earth will have to plant a minimum of about 15 fast-growing, healthy trees per year – every year, year in, year out – just to account for the petroluem use. To take into account natural gas and coal, double or triple that number, and since actual carbon fixation perfomance will be lower, double it again – soon, you are at a realistic estimate of 100 trees per person per year.

    Let’s see: does it add up? (100 trees) (10-50 kgC/tree-year) (7 billion people) = 7-35 trillion kg of carbon/year = 7-35 billion tons of carbon. Current global emissions of CO2 are around 7 billion tons of carbon, projected to increase to 10 billion metric tons by 2025 by the US EIA.

    So, yes – if every single man woman and child on the planet becomes a full-time (and very successful) forester, everything will be okay. Of course, as soon as the trees are full grown, they must be cut down and buried deep in the soil, or they will decompose back to CO2.

    Let’s assume a feat of genetic engineering that creates trees that reliably fix 100 kg carbon/year. However, such rates would require optimal water, temperature and nutrient conditions. This is the fundamental issue that biotechnophiles seem to completely misunderstand. As it is, no one is anywhere near creating some “superorganism” – we can’t even create single-celled algae that have improved carbon fixation abilities, let alone trees!

    This isn’t calculus, or tensor analysis, or anything like that – this is just basic arithmetic, after Broecker 2007:

    If we are ever to succeed in capping the buildup of the atmosphere’s CO2 content, we must make a first-order change in the way we view the problem. Most policies that have been discussed, including cap-and-trade systems and the Kyoto treaty, have treated the problem exclusively in terms of incremental reductions in CO2 emissions. These, however, will not stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels; they only slow the rate of increase. Instead, to actually stop the increase, we must develop the concept of what might be called a “carbon pie.”

    On the other hand, maybe some scientist will come up with the secret genetic formula for Jack’s Giant Beanstalk, and we can all stop worrying…

  44. 244
    Matt says:

    Dyson quotes this conclusion:

    “the market price or penalty that would be paid by those who use fossil fuels and thereby generate CO2 emissions.”

    I know right away the economist in question has a fundamental error because he does not seek restitution for those who keep their carbon footprint low.

    This is an called exogenous model. Rewarding those who use less carbon makes the system endogenous.

    You cannot solve the problem if you assume exogenous national policies because government is one of the oil consumers.

    Economic equilibrium occurs when we have counterparty agreements, users and non-users. One can also derive this from property rights (I own the weather above my property). If my group commutes on bicycle, then my group suffers variant weather because another group drives cars. The cost of damages go from the car driver to the bicycle rider.

  45. 245
    Petro says:

    Just to continue arithmetics started by Ike at 243
    “you are at a realistic estimate of 100 trees per person per year.”

    Assuming a tree need an area of 10m2 for growing, 100*6,5 billion trees a year would need an area of 6500 billion m2 or 6,5 million km2. The land surface area of Earth is 148940000 km². Earth would be full forest in 23 years. In 79 years also the oceans would be filled with trees.

    Well, at least it would be hard to drive a car in that forest.

  46. 246
    Hank Roberts says:

    Ike, you were talking about grains when you wrote
    > you only get those yields by applying high levels of fertilizer and ample water – and also only
    > if you have good growing conditions – no sudden freezes, heat waves or floods.

    Look again (or look, if you haven’t) at the article linked above about chestnuts and hazelnuts. Heck, look at the website:
    Don’t bother Phil and family; the MPR radio program linked above and the website have all the public info.

    Don’t miss his point, which corrects yours — he picked a spot with poor water, sudden freezes, heat waves and floods and started working three decades ago to plant all sorts of native chestnut and hazenut collections, doing what’s called “mass selection” — letting nature kill 98 percent of your crop every year, planting seed from the survivors, continuing to add more wild type, and then work using crossbreeding and tissue culture to multiply the hardiest, best yielding plants.

    Claimer — I’ve known him since before he got his farm. He’s always been smart about what he’s doing.
    I wish he had Dyson’s PR, though.

  47. 247
    Ray Ladbury says:

    What you are talking about is a huge shift in infrastructure–not just building new infrastructure, but scrapping old infrastructure and swapping it for new. That has never really been done before. And it is not just social resistance. There are technical details that are still a long way from resolution. Yes, there are things we can do now, but we’re a long way from having a fire extinguisher. To gloss over this fact is risky.

  48. 248
    David B. Benson says:

    Ike Solem (243) — Planting 100 trees per year isn’t much of a feat. Some men make their living by replanting after clear-cut ‘harvests’. A quick calculation suggests that about 300 seedings are planted per hour.

  49. 249
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Re: 248. We have planted over 200 trees just on our property in the past 4 years. That’s in addition to hundreds on public lands. It’s not going to save the planet, but it’s a step in the right direction. I’m thinking about how we can turn the weeds from our garden into biochar. I think the thistles alone would account for a ton of carbon.

  50. 250
    Jim Eaton says:

    In #248, David B. Benson says: “Planting 100 trees per year isn’t much of a feat. Some men make their living by replanting after clear-cut ‘harvests’. A quick calculation suggests that about 300 seedings are planted per hour.”

    I think that is a little high for planting trees. An old roommate of mine who grows seedlings for reforestation suggests that in the best of conditions, 200 trees per hour is a fast rate for women and men planters, resulting in 16,000 trees or more per day. But much of the land that is logged is quite steep, so the numbers are far smaller.

    In addition, trees are planted quite close to one another, so ultimately, the number of surviving trees is much smaller. And unless herbicides are used to control brush and measures are taken to control deer and rodents, the numbers again are drastically reduced.

    On top of that, young tree plantations are quite susceptible to fire, so often all this work goes up in smoke (and CO2). Growing trees (especially in the arid western United States) can be quite a challenge.

    Also, some of our forests were established in periods of greater rainfall, so re-growing that forest after logging is not a simple task of putting seedlings into the ground. With ongoing climate change, some of the forests that are being logged today are not being “harvested;” they are being mined. Without extraordinary effort, these lands will not naturally become reforested.