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.