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The Starship vs. Spaceship Earth

Eric Steig & Ray Pierrehumbert

One of my (Eric’s) favorite old books is The Starship and the Canoe by Kenneth Brower It’s a 1970s book about a father (Freeman Dyson, theoretical physicist living in Princeton) and son (George Dyson, hippy kayaker living 90 ft up in a fir tree in British Columbia) that couldn’t be more different, yet are strikingly similar in their originality and brilliance. I started out my career heading into astrophysics, and I’m also an avid sea kayaker and I grew up with the B.C. rainforest out my back door. So I think I have a sense of what drives these guys. Yet I’ve never understood how Freeman Dyson became such a climate contrarian and advocate for off-the-wall biogeoengineering solutions like carbon-eating trees, something we’ve written about before.

It turns out that Brower has wondered the same thing, and in a recent article in The Atlantic, he speculates on the answer. “How could someone as smart as Freeman Dyson,” writes Brower, “be so wrong about climate change and other environmental concerns..?”

Brower goes through a number of possible explanations for the Dyson paradox, some easily dismissed (senility; he’s a theoretician with no sense of practicality) some not so easily dismissed (he’s only joking, don’t take it seriously, he doesn’t take it all that seriously himself). But in the end, for Brower, it seems to come down to two conspiring things about Dyson. The first is that Dyson has an abiding faith in the ability of technology to do anything we want it to. It’s not surprising, then, that Dyson thinks we can ‘fix climate’ as well. That, in itself, makes Dyson not so much a “global warming skeptic” as an extreme techno-optimist. In fact, even leaving technology aside, he has a touching faith that whatever humans may do to the environment, it usually turns out for the best. In this essay, he writes:

“The natural ecology of England was uninterrupted and rather boring forest. Humans replaced the forest with an artificial landscape of grassland and moorland, fields and farms, with a much richer variety of plant and animal species. Quite recently, only about a thousand years ago, we introduced rabbits, a non-native species which had a profound effect on the ecology. Rabbits opened glades in the forest where flowering plants now flourish.”

We daresay that the Australians have a somewhat less benign view of rabbits (as the New Zealanders do of possums). And that maybe Dyson has a thing or two to learn about the biodiversity of unmanaged ecosystems.

Second, Dyson’s obsession has always been the stars, not the earth: he spent many years working on the design of a spaceship (hence the title of Brower’s 30-year old book) that would take him there. It’s not so much that he doesn’t care about our home planet — he must have learned something about ‘spaceship earth’ from son George over the years. Rather, he is simply very confident that we can always get off if we have to. “What the secular faith of Dysonism offers,” Brower writes” is, first, a hypertrophied version of the technological fix, and second, the fantasy that, should the fix fail, we have someplace else to go.” Dyson has stated in many places, and in various ways, that he thinks global warming is not a big problem, and that its importance has been exaggerated. To put things in perspective, though, Dyson doesn’t particularly think that the extirpation of all life other than human would be a particularly big deal “We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes,” he is quoted as saying in Brower’s article. Dyson’s idea of what constitutes a “big problem” may be, well, just a bit different from what most of the rest of us might have in mind.

Brower’s conclusions sound right on the mark to us, but don’t fully explain Dyson. Perhaps Brower is being gentle, since he is an old friend, or perhaps he simply isn’t aware of it, but one issue he does not touch on in his article is is how deceptive (apparently deliberately) Dyson can be.

The problem is that Dyson says demonstrably wrong things about global warming, and doesn’t seem to care so long as they support his notion of human destiny. Brower reports that Dyson doesn’t consider himself an expert on climate change, has no interest in arguing the details with experts, and yet somehow knows that the experts don’t have any answers worth listening to. That doesn’t stop Dyson from making sweeping pronouncements, many of them so egregiously wrong that it would hardly have taken an expert to set him straight.

The examples of this are legion. In the essay “Heretical thoughts about science and society” (excerpted here) Dyson says that CO2 only acts to make cold places (like the arctic) warmer and doesn’t make hot places hotter, because only cold places are dry enough for CO2 to compete with water vapor opacity. But in jumping to this conclusion, he has neglected to take into account that even in the hot tropics, the air aloft is cold and dry, so CO2 nonetheless exerts a potent warming effect there. Dyson has fallen into the same saturation fallacy that bedeviled Ångström a century earlier.

And then there are those carbon-eating trees. He likes this one so much he put it in both the Heresy essay and in his piece in NY Review of Books. He points out that the annual fossil fuel emissions of carbon correspond to a hundredth of an inch of extra biomass per year over half the Earth’s surface, and suggests that it shouldn’t be hard to tweak the biosphere in such a way as to sequester all the fossil fuel carbon we want to in this way. Dyson could well ask himself why we don’t have kilometers-thick layers of organic carbon right now at the surface, resulting from a few billion years of outgassing of volcanic CO2. The answer is that bacteria have had about two billion years to evolve so as to get very, very good at combining any available organic carbon with oxygen. It is in fact extremely hard to put organic carbon in a form or place where it doesn’t get oxidized back into CO2 (Mother Nature thought she had done that trick with fossil fuels but we sure fooled her!) And if you did somehow coopt ten to twenty percent of the worldwide biosphere’s photosynthetic capacity to take up carbon and turn it into a form that couldn’t rot ever, you’d have to sort of worry about how nutrients would ever get back into the ecosystem. And also maybe whether the carbon-eating trees might get out of control and suck out so much CO2 you wound up in a Snowball Earth.

Dyson espouses a generic disdain for climate models and climate modellers: ” Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the computer models.” Like most of us, he has little confidence in the modelling of clouds. But with great ignorance of the nature of the modelling enterprise, he declares: “It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds” Actually, those of us who go to Antarctica to drill ice cores certainly put on winter clothes, and paleoclimatologists are out in the swamps and ocean muck all the time. And there are plenty of scientists flying around in the clouds, trying to gauge their effects. The mainstream estimate that the climate sensitivity is around 3°C for a doubling of CO2 does not simply comes from computer models. Study of the Last Glacial Maximum, the Pliocene and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum all rule out the idea that there is a strongly stabilizing cloud feedback. Ahe fact that we cannot precisely quantify cloud feedbacks also means that there is a lot of risk, that cloud feedbacks could make a doubled-CO2 world much hotter, not much cooler. Dyson’s writings conveniently ignore this two-directional implication of uncertainty, and they they also ignore the implications of the long atmospheric lifetime of CO2, which means if we wait and see how hot it gets and find we don’t like it, there’s nothing much to be done (unless, of course, we can simply go somewhere else).

Finally, there is the familiar examples of Dyson attacking the style of the debate, rather than its substance. Reporting on written debate between Richard Lindzen and Stefan Rahmstorf, in the New York Review of Books New York Times book review, Dyson juxtaposes Lindzen’s claim that “observations suggest that the sensitivity of the real climate is much less than that found in computer models” with Stefan calling this “simply ludicrous”. Dyson gives the impression that rational arguments from skeptics are met with “open contempt” by the majority. But he fails to mention that Stefan showed in detail why Lindzen’s claim is wrong: Lindzen ignored ocean thermal inertia when comparing observed warming with the equilibrium climate sensitivity. Any physicist should be able to judge that Stefan is right and Lindzen is wrong on this point. He also failed to mention that Stefan used the word “ludicrous” only in a “personal postscript” to a completely sober scientific article, referring to Lindzen’s claims that a vast conspiracy of thousands of climatologists worldwide is misleading the public for personal gain. Dyson’s account of the Lindzen-Rahmstorf exchange neither fairly covers the substance of the argument, nor is it a fair portrayal of its style – Dyson seems to have twisted it as much as he could to score a political point.

In the Heresy essay, Dyson repeatedly gives himself a way out by claiming he is only tossing out ideas that should be thought about; he at times emphasizes that he does not know the answers, only the questions that should be raised. However, that does not stop him from making confident claims that he has a broader view than others, as in this interview with Mike Lemonick, and somehow Dyson never gets around to thinking about what the consequences are if we continue inaction on CO2 emissions and he turns out to be wrong. More importantly, all of the things Dyson argues “heretically” should be looked at — e.g. land carbon sequestration or the lessons from the Altithermal period around 8000 years ago — are in fact already being intensively investigated and are not turning up any silver bullets to allay concern about climate change. When push comes to shove, Dyson is really only offering warmed-over standard contrarian talking points. Heresy, or more broadly an outsider’s viewpoint, can be a good thing when it shakes loose new ideas. But surely, we have a right to expect a more original form of heresy from the architect of Dyson spheres and nuclear starships.

In short, it’s not so simple as the ‘self delusion’ Brower talks about. Dyson is not doing science, but he is deluding others under the guise of science. Given’s Dyson’s evident love of science (and expertise in it), that’s the part that we still don’t get.


201 Responses to “The Starship vs. Spaceship Earth”

  1. 51
    Radge Havers says:

    Bob (Sphaerica) @ 47
    “two intermingled but separate species of sapient beings”

    It does give pause.

    In any case, whether social or psychological, grandiosity is a behavioral symptom not a charming eccentricity. That these people can function at a high level doesn’t mean there isn’t something in the process of going tragically wrong. For some reason history ends up being a victim: Dyson’s post-Darwinian era, Fukauyama’s “end of history”, Rove sneering at the reality-based community left to write tales about the epochal power of the true reality makers, Curry’s post-normal science. The list goes on.

    “what makes science smart is not smart scientists, but rather smart use of the scientific method.”
    Well said by Ray Ladbury. It’s ok to have heroes, but hero worship is a very long-standing and very bad habit, IMO.

    Keeping your head, now that’s something worthy of respect.

  2. 52
    J Bowers says:

    If we really wanted to, we could feasibly use our sister ship to provide our energy needs, all for the price of* two years worth of fossil fuel extraction costs, or by redirecting one year’s worth of current worldwide annual taxpayer donations away from the fossil fuel industry.

    Getting Power From The Moon
    Let’s Cover The Moon in Solar Panels
    In-situ resource utilization

    How much more dangerous and “out there” can it be, compared to the extremes we’re going to on Earth with fossil fuel extraction methods?

    * According to a documentary I saw last week.

  3. 53
    Greg N. says:

    “The chances of a post-Apollo extension of our space travel to Mars this century are extremely slim, because our overall economy (you may have noticed some bumps lately) will not support it. The chances of colonists surviving long term off earth are nil. (Feel free to disagree, but I must gently point out that the burden of proof is on you, and you have nothing but science fiction to go on.)” – Ric Merrit

    I agree with you that manned spaceflight to Mars and colonists surviving long-term are pipedreams with no reality to them, but even so, you’re making a claim (that it’s implausible). This isn’t a neutral statement, and the burden of proof is on you just as much as its on anyone who disagrees with you.

    You could talk about the impacts of long-term exposure of radiation in space on prospective colonists, the difficulty of creating a sustainable colony with very, very constrained resources, issues with bone-loss, etc., and you could cite evidence that demonstrates the reality of the problems. At this point, potential solutions would just be speculative, but the burden of proof is still on the person making a claim.

    Sorry of this is nitpicky. I agree with the substance of your post.

  4. 54
    J Bowers says:

    Dyson espouses a generic disdain for climate models and climate modellers

    Like he did for the nuclear winter models. He was wrong then, as well. I guess he just didn’t learn anything from that experience.

    [Response: The nuclear winter issue is more subtle than that, and I wouldn’t precisely say Dyson was “wrong” then. The first nuclear winter models were an appropriate tool for opening up the inquiry, but a lot of inappropriate claims were made for the predictions, in view of the primitive state of the modelling. But the important thing is that modellers themselves (including Steve Schneider) rather quickly found the shortcomings. And continued working on the problem, and came up with models that are much more credible, leading up to the present work by Alan Robock and collaborators. Time will tell whether the new modeling work will hold up, and heaven forbid that we’ll ever get an experimental test of THAT, but the point is that the normal scientific enterprise is perfectly capable of finding and correcting errors. Generalized skepticism by Dyson’s has not proved all that helpful in moving the ball forward. –raypierre]

  5. 55
    Nick O. says:

    Re. the sentence in eric’s piece:

    “Brower reports that Dyson doesn’t consider himself an expert on climate change, has no interest in arguing the details with experts, and yet somehow knows that the experts don’t have any answers worth listening to. … “,
    I don’t know how true that is of Dyson, but if we take it at face value i.e. that Brower’s assessment is broadly correct, then it means Dyson has just closed his mind to any serious, informed discussion of the subject. Just goes to show how a great scientist can be as easily mistaken about a topic as anyone else when they are not prepared to read up about it and want to ignore inconvenient facts. I find the dismissal of models and modelling particularly irksome: where the hell would we be in most of our engineering and science if we didn’t have people prepared to try to build good models and use them? Reminds me of a discussion I heard about, where a social scientist was contesting whether it is possible to make any knowledge claims in science, and then going on about how all knowledge was relative and models were not to be relied on. A physical scientist at the meeting then asked her how she had travelled to the meeting. “By plane …” was the reply, at which he responded “Well I’m so glad the builders got their modelling right … “

  6. 56
    Mark A. York says:

    I had this book in the ’70s, too. Climate contrarianism is almost exclusively political in nature. It afflicts those not inclined toward change, self-reflection and who are skeptical of any bad news shy of the myriad of invading foreign human forces, real or imaginary. One only has to look at the new congress to see it in play. To upload this view one must only look away. They all do.

    [Response: In Dyson’s case, it’s hard to see a clear political connection. –raypierre]

  7. 57
    flxible says:

    Dyson isn’t really different than most, although maybe ‘writ large’. He happens to have the financial security to allow his intelligent mind to pursue the paths that he finds fascinating and challenging, regardless of the current state of life on the planet. And the socio-cultural security of the position he’s achieved make him highly visible and quote-worthy. The “consensus” opinion of what the future holds just doesn’t interest him, his own exploration of possibilities is his focus, fantasy or not. Sad that he can’t put his capabilities and position to better use for the Commons, and too bad he’s so visible to those with more mundane concerns, but not suprising.

  8. 58
    Jay Cadbury says:

    @Eric

    I had to change from Dr. Shooshmon because the comments I was posting were not appearing. Thank you for my answering my question. The reason I asked you that question is because other sites will not address my follow up question, which is this:

    If I asked Lindzen, Spencer and Happer about the MWP I think they would say it is warmer than 1979-present. However, if asked Santer, Schmidt and Alley I think they would say 1979-present is warmer. Therefore, I think it is a controversial issue regarding climate science. Again, I don’t know why there is such hatred surrounding my posts. I’m not trying to argue that there is no global warming because the MWP was warmer.

    Here is my point: Dr. Easterbrook’s research indicates that of the past 10,500 years, 86.6% of those years have been warmer than 2010. So my point is, shouldn’t today’s temperatures be higher with the additional influence of global warming? Or would you say that the Easterbrook study is flawed?

    [Response: Yes Easterbrook’s study was flawed and that’s putting it kindly. And if you want to know about the MWP vs. today, you should take a look at the various peer-reviewed paleoclimate reconstructions, and not ask Lindzen or Spencer or any of those others who aren’t even paleoclimatologists. But this is way off topic for this post, so save it for the next open thread. I’ll borehole any further things from you that are so far off topic. –raypierre]

  9. 59
    J Bowers says:

    @ Raypierre. Thanks for the response. I did read that Dyson was left “disturbed” by his failure to disprove the TTAPS model (Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes & Conway, p.61). The reference given is:
    Freeman J. Dyson. Infinite in All Directions: Gifford Lectures Given at Aberdeen, Scotland. April-November 1985. (New York: Harper and Row, 1988).

    I don’t suppose anyone has access to the source? It might be interesting to see precisely what he had to say.

  10. 60
    James Staples says:

    While your disection of Dr. Dysons arguements was brilliant expounded and quite thoroughly correct, we should perhaps, with Great Men like Freeman Dyson, allow them to get away with a bit of Imperious Gobbledegook every now and again!
    I’d think, what with Ad Astra building and about to deploy a Real Space Drive (Xenon Ions accelerated by a Superconducting Mag-Dyn Segment) on the ISS (they even seem to have acknowledged MY IDEA to use it for moving the Station to a Higher Orbit – and maybe the one about ‘mining it’ for materials later, instead of letting it burn up; though I haven’t seen the Check….), that Dr. Dyson would like to re-consider the sensibilty of one of his own earlier Ideas – one that led him to wonder if Red Supergiants aren’t really Dyson Spheres.
    I’ve heard it called the Dyson-Harrup Satellite.
    I’ve modified that to include a chain of them that focus a beam of solar wind onto a target shielded to allow the extraction of the anti-matter component of the collisional flux.
    Now THAT – Industrial Scale Anti-Matter Production – Ladies and Germs, would make everything else a Moot Point, wouldn’t it?
    It would set us Free of the Earth – of the Realest Threat of All; The Yellowstone Super-Volcano!
    That might well make Toba look like a fire-cracker – and whittle the Race down to a size somewhat less than the “7500 left” that Toba left it at!!!
    Oh, but I forgot – the Tea Party is praying for Armegeddon…..guess I’ll; have to wait, then We, The Meek can take over……

  11. 61
    hunter says:

    One of the signs of bad science is that everyone is wrong except you.
    claiming that Dyson is some sort of wicked denialist is a pretty good example of that in action.
    You RC guys are in a small and shrinking echo chamber.
    By the way, “the Starship and the Canoe” was one of my favorites growing up.

    [Response: Not claiming he’s wicked, just that he’s wrong. And saying why he’s wrong and what he’s wrong about. You have a problem with that? –raypierre]

  12. 62
  13. 63
    David Beach says:

    Dyson (along with many others) is no longer dealing with the real world, only a technologically rose-tinted future. The real world of our future is totally dependent on the level of greed of a continually expanding human population exploiting continually declining material resources.
    No solution yet proposed for global warming takes into account the struggling economies of the nations that have the technical means to actually do something useful, and the expanding consumption of resources by nations that do not.
    To stabilise the current supply/demand scenario will be immensely difficult. To reverse it, I do not believe that any of our global political systems have the capability. External events will be the drivers.

  14. 64
    J Bowers says:

    @ flxble. Many thanks for the link.

  15. 65
    SecularAnimist says:

    hunter wrote: “You RC guys are in a small and shrinking echo chamber.”

    You are simply repeating what someone told you to say. It’s a silly and false statement, and you personally have no basis for knowing whether it is true or not, or even exactly what it means, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the satisfaction you get from doing what you’ve been told to do.

  16. 66

    Dyson misses two main points in his 2008 NYRB article. The first is that Nordhaus’ estimates of possible damage from AGW — only $23 trillion over a hundred years — ignores many likely problems, a point which Nordhaus has made elsewhere.

    The second point is that Dyson makes no mention of the possibility of abrupt change. A sudden swing in temperatures that could virtually end world agriculture for a few years, with disastrous consequences, is not incorporated in Nordhaus’ long-term discount rate nor in Lindzen’s insistence that sensitivity is small.

    It is not even clear that the possibility of abrupt change has a useful statistical probability, since we may not know how often it has happened. The destruction of, say, 90% of all individual plants and animals for a couple of years might not be detectable in the fossil record, if their species survived as seeds or in small refugia, then quickly sprang back after the worst was over. Yet such an occurrence would be devastating to present human civilization.

    I should state that I have a great deal of hope for a biotech solution to mop-up carbon dioxide.

    But it is inconceivable to me that a great scientist like Dyson, who must be aware that n-compartment models are not deterministically predictable, and occasionally exhibit abrupt discontinuities, does not acknowledge that our epistemology of complex systems gives us plenty of cause to fear the worst, and to plan accordingly. Yet he ends his article by insisting that the argument that global warming is a grave threat must be attributed to religious environmentalism, and this accusation has become an unfortunate spur to the denialists everywhere.

  17. 67

    For me, Dyson missed two main points in his 2008 NYRB article. The first is that Nordhaus’ estimates of possible damage from AGW — only $23 trillion over a hundred years — ignores many likely problems, a point which Nordhaus has made elsewhere.

    The second point is that Dyson makes no mention of the possibility of abrupt change. A sudden swing in temperatures that could virtually end world agriculture for a few years, with disastrous consequences, is not incorporated in Nordhaus’ long-term discount rate nor in Lindzen’s insistence that sensitivity is small.

    It is not even clear that the possibility of abrupt change has a useful statistical probability, since we may not know how often it has happened. The destruction of, say, 90% of all individual plants and animals for a couple of years might not be detectable in the fossil record, if their species survived as seeds or in small refugia, then quickly sprang back after the worst was over. Yet such an occurrence would be devastating to present human civilization.

    I should state that I have a great deal of hope for a biotech solution to mop-up carbon dioxide. But it is inconceivable to me that a scientist like Dyson, who must be aware that n-compartment models are not deterministically predictable, and occasionally exhibit abrupt discontinuities, does not acknowledge that our epistemology of complex systems gives us plenty of cause to fear the worst, and to plan accordingly. Complex systems have regular gyrations until they are forced, then they flip. Yet he ends his article by insisting that the argument that global warming is a grave threat must be attributed to religious environmentalism, and this accusation has become an unfortunate spur to the denialists everywhere.

  18. 68

    #30, Ed, I won’t argue, but I get really, really tired of comments which assume that there is no real expertise needed for endeavors outside science–‘mere’ authors, ‘mere’ lawyers, ‘mere’ musicians and so on.

    I don’t know what Brower’s academic background is, but he wrote a very useful book–and one that did a good job of summarizing Dyson’s views at the time of writing. As such, I’d submit that he has a good deal of practical knowledge on how to communicate science effectively to the general public. (‘Exhibit B’ would be the essay in Atlantic.) Yet you’re dissing him because he doesn’t have a degree in psychology? Seriously, how many hats do you expect–require?–the poor guy to wear?

    C’mon, value his contribution for what it is, and if you feel other contributions are needed, well, that’s another question.

    My two cents.

  19. 69
    CTG says:

    Just to draw a line under the rabbit discussions – there is no solid evidence to show free-living populations of O. cuniculus in the UK prior to the Norman period. Genetic evidence also supports a Norman date for rabbits in the UK.

    The main point, though, is that Dyson’s conclusion that rabbits were responsible for turning forest into grassland is completely bogus. The bulk of deforestation happened long before the Romans ever got to Britain, and certainly by the time the Normans brought rabbits over, the majority of the remaining forest was actually coppiced woodland (in England at least). Rabbits do not generally live in forests; their preferred habitat is scrubland (gorse, heather etc).

    (My Ph.D. was on the population ecology of O. cuniculus, so this is something I think I know a little more about than Dyson)

  20. 70
    Phil Scadden says:

    Jay Cadbury. Anyone can make claims. Claims worth examining are backed by hard data. The data, methods and conclusions can stand scrutiny, then there is no problem publishing them in peer-reviewed journals (and that doesnt include E&E). Got backing for any claims that interest you in peer-reviewed literature. As to Easterbrook – funnily enough not published, and for why, start with Easterbrook wrong again. But hey, thats a blog too. Dont take their word for it. Get the data, check the papers and verify that Easterbrook is suckering you.

  21. 71
    Didactylos says:

    hunter: your “everyone” is vanishingly small if you limit it to people competent to judge.

    Or would you let the people who vote on American Idol decide if climate change is “real”? Shall we hold a vote on gravity, too? Zero-G is cool.

    As for scientists going off the reservation in their sunset years – it’s surprisingly common. Old scientists get stuck in their way of thinking. While scientists do sometimes make famous mistakes late in life, the quality of the scientist does reflect on the quality of mistake and the way they handle it. Nobody thinks any less of Einstein for his big mistake, for example.

  22. 72

    #52, J. Bowers–

    I’ve thought of space-based solar power, too. But those microwave beams make me a bit nervous.

    130TW coming back at us? Has anybody done a BOE estimate on the power density?

    Rather puts worries about cell-phone radiation in perspective, I suspect. . .

  23. 73
    Didactylos says:

    If you average together Dyson and Lovelock, their foibles and craziness will cancel out, and you will get one amazing scientist.

    One scientist looking out, and one scientist looking in on planet Earth. Both great. And I find myself in strong disagreement with both. And I could deal with that, if it wasn’t for the fact that both have chosen to spread falsehoods in order to push their agenda.

    Turns out they’re only human.

  24. 74
    Eli Rabett says:

    When you look at Dyson’s grand ideas they show that he knows as much abut materials science as he does about climate science

  25. 75
    jg says:

    Has Dyson speculated on what the climate inside a Dyson sphere would be like? what adjustments to the atmosphere would make it work? or did he leave those details to the “armchair scientists”?

    Dr. Pierrehumbert: considering Dyson’s discounting of your discipline, it was gracious of you to pose a Dyson sphere question in your new book, Principles of Planetary Climate. And if I guess correctly after reading only the first chapter, you avoided using it as an opportunity to evaluate Dyson’s competence in climate science.

    As an amateur who engages people on climate misunderstandings, the hardest question for me to answer is “what about Freeman Dyson…” as that rebuttal turns the conversation to competing appeals to authority. Considering the climate issues ignored (if ignored) in a Dyson sphere is intriguing.

    jg

    [Response: I’m glad you noticed the Dyson sphere problem. It’s one of my favorites. Dyson spheres are a great source of climate problems. Here’s one that didn’t make it into the book, but probably belongs in Chapter 2: If you tried to put an atmosphere on the inside (livable) surface of a Dyson sphere, where would it go?

    Actually, I didn’t have to be especially gracious to include the problem. I’m happy to latch onto interesting ideas whatever their provenance, but in any event I don’t bear Dyson any enmity. I generally like his writing, and find it stimulating. I like his brand of religiosity. I like most things about Dyson. I hope nobody thinks Eric and I wrote this piece to demonize Dyson. If there is any reason Dyson is on our mind, it’s that his writing about climate shows an uncharacteristic lack of curiosity and creativity. And it’s disappointing to see how unaware he seems to be about how damaging his disdain for the facts is in this instance. –raypierre]

  26. 76
    Russell Seitz says:

    Ever since the Pilgrims mistook a hunting park managed by annual burns, and stocked with subtropical exotics like corn, and turkeys for some sort of forest primeval, Americans have been loath to admit that human transformation of the Earth’s surface is an integral part of the landscape of history. Yet the fact remains that half the land surface of the Earth shows signs of such modification, much of it prehistoric.

    Freeman clearly delights in disturbing the universe of those who refuse to see human environments as human constructs, and insofar as Eric is disturbed by his refusal to join in believing in the future historicity of what some _ believe_ they see in GCM’s, he reveals himself to be a kindred spirit to Freeman’s aunts- Dissenters are always with us,

    And just as some want to restore and maintain an antediluvian state of the atmosphere in the hope of sustaining a pre-human range of spontaneous geophysical change , others are at liberty to observe that what folks like Eric manifest is nostalgia for a future that never can be, because human evolution stands between it and a past that never was.

    Which is a rather hard thing to conserve, given that most of the people in that landscape are still striving to catch up with the Industrial revolution.

    Since not all of our contemporaries are living in the same time , and many decline to remain where they are in energetic terms, Freeman seems quite understandably preoccupied with what to do next in a future where the world’s most rapidly growing populations look avidly forward to achieving late 19th century norms of fossil fuel consumption. I don’t like it either, but as the tree falls so must it lie.

    [Response: Some interesting points Russell. There is no escaping that we are in charge now, for better or worse of what the Earth will be like, so we can’t escape the responsibility of thinking about what the Earth’s environment is to be managed FOR. Right now, so far as I can tell, we’re just consuming, not thinking about responsibilities. There’s a sustainability type comment on your remark further down, but I’m not persuaded that primitive peoples were wise stewards any more than we were. The main thing is they got away with a lot because there weren’t so many of them, and because they didn’t have the large scale energy resources that we do, in turn limiting the scope of their action. Yet, they still managed to drive the moa to extinction, and perhaps the North American megafauna also. So, I shudder to think what we will do given our numbers and technological power, if we don’t start thinking and stop acting like mindless cyanobacteria. –raypierre]

    [Response: There’s a whole bunch of people besides Freeman Dyson who are “preoccupied” with how to build a sustainable future on the planet Russell. And unlike Dyson, they actually know a lot about what needs to be achieved, and what can be achieved, and what behavioral actions we need to implement in order to do that. That’s sort of the point here. Nobody’s talking about returning to Eden–that’s a big straw man–Jim]

  27. 77
    J Bowers says:

    @ 72 Kevin Mckinney

    But think of the really cool bonus… the Moon’d look like the Death Star!

    I read that the microwave beams would be focused and received by 10,000 receivers dotted around the Earth, so it’s probably safer than mobile phones, and tar sands, and BP, and fracking, and BP, and Exxon….

  28. 78
    calyptorhynchus says:

    #76 I don’t think many environmentalists fail to recognise the evidence for human management of most of the world’s ecosystems from a very early date.
    It’s just that they distinguish between sustainable management (eg pre 1600 North America, pre 1788 Australia) from unsustainable management (modernity).

  29. 79
    SecularAnimist says:

    Russell Seitz wrote: “… some want to restore and maintain an antediluvian state of the atmosphere in the hope of sustaining a pre-human range of spontaneous geophysical change …”

    I have no idea who you are referring to as “some” in that statement, other than a one-dimensional cartoon comic book stereotype of neo-romantic hippies.

    But FYI, “some” of us are more concerned about stuff like extreme warming destroying the ecosystems upon which human civilization depends, destroying agriculture and oceanic fisheries leading to global famine, destroying fresh water supplies for billions of people, and destroying much of our modern infrastructure through ultra-violent extreme weather events and rapid sea level rise.

    And since we are now well on our way towards creating atmospheric concentrations of CO2 that have not existed for millions of years, it’s really the proponents of business-as-usual consumption of fossil fuels who are taking us to an “antediluvian state of the atmosphere” — which will be quite inhospitable to human civilization.

    As for “the world’s most rapidly growing populations looking avidly forward to achieving late 19th century norms of fossil fuel consumption”, that is simply not going to happen, because there simply are not enough fossil fuels left to make it happen, even if global warming were not an issue.

    But the claim is disingenuous anyway. The growing populations of the developing world don’t want “fossil fuels”. They want — and desperately need — energy and the services that energy can provide. Fortunately, there are other sources of energy, principally solar and wind, that can provide plenty of energy to those people faster and cheaper than fossil fuels and without the deadly pollution.

    The really sad irony of Dyson’s views is that he seems to know even less about renewable energy technology than he knows about climate science. Which leads to the absurdity of calling for 23rd century magical technology like deployment of “genetically engineered carbon-eating diamond trees” — so that we can continue using 19th century fuels that today’s wind and solar technologies can easily make obsolete within years to decades.

  30. 80
    DougO says:

    The paragraph about the “carbon-eating trees” is an excellent cautionary note to those who would genetically engineer trees to be harder-stronger-faster…

  31. 81
    SecularAnimist says:

    Kevin McKinney wrote: \I’ve thought of space-based solar power, too. But those microwave beams make me a bit nervous.\

    Calm your nerves. Who is going to spend zillions of dollars to build space-based solar power — not only the satellites, but the microwave receiving stations and the grid infrastructure they will require — when enough solar energy hits the Earth’s surface every hour to power human civilization for a year, and photovoltaics will soon cost $1 per watt installed, and utility-scale solar thermal will be even cheaper than that?

  32. 82
    J Bowers says:

    @ 81 SecularAnimist — “Who is going to spend zillions of dollars to build space-based solar power”

    Half a trillion bucks (the cost of two years fossil fuel extraction, or one year of tax dollar subsidies to the fossil fuel industry). The reason for it being so attractive is its efficiency: no tectonic activity so the panels need only be wafer thin, no weather, no clouds, no atmosphere, completely predictable and running 24/7. It probably doesn’t even need lots of personnel to run. From the Science Daily link:

    Criswell estimates that the 10 billion people living on Earth in 2050 will require 20 Terrawatts (TW) of power. The Moon receives 13,000 TW of power from the sun. Criswell suggests that harnessing just 1% of the solar power and directing it toward Earth could replace fossil fuel power plants on Earth.

  33. 83
    David B. Benson says:

    The cartoon linked upthread states the matter clearly for all too many physicists, I fear.

  34. 84
    One Anonymous Bloke says:

    #82 “completely predictable and running 24/7″ I doubt that, given the vagaries of solar weather and its ability to disrupt satellite systems. Current lifespan for a space-based solar panel indicates 14% degradation in efficiency in 7 years (according to the Intertubes http://www.solarstorms.org/Svulnerability.html). Sounds pretty expensive to maintain when compared with territorial systems. Secular Animist #81 is right. This point further undermines some of Dyson’s flights of fancy.

  35. 85
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Again, I think that Dyson, Allegre and countless others illustrate that what keeps scientists from being stupid is not superior intelligence–Dyson is as smart as any–but rather reliance on the scientific method. One tenet of that method–scientific consensus–contends that the most active and influential scientists in a field will best understand that field. They will be the most aware of new techniques and ideas, of outstanding problems and of the latest research. Most important, though, they will likely be the most driven by curiosity to understand their field of study. Dyson doesn’t understand climate science because climate doesn’t interest him. He’ll never devote more effort to it than is necessary to further delude himself into thinking it isn’t really a threat so that he can get back to studying what actually does interest him.

  36. 86
    Joel Shore says:

    Dyson says that CO2 only acts to make cold places (like the arctic) warmer and doesn’t make hot places hotter, because only cold places are dry enough for CO2 to compete with water vapor opacity. But in jumping to this conclusion, he has neglected to take into account that even in the hot tropics, the air aloft is cold and dry, so CO2 nonetheless exerts a potent warming effect there.

    Ray, I had thought that another (perhaps even the largest?) problem with such an argument is that it considers CO2 as a local climate factor whereas its primary effect is to alter the global balance…and then how that alteration manifests itself in terms of the location of the warming is more a product of the dynamics in the troposphere than where the actual small changes in the energy balance occurred. Is this a correct way to look at things?

  37. 87
    Chris G says:

    >“How could someone as smart as Freeman Dyson,” writes Brower, “be so wrong about climate change and other environmental concerns..?”

    Because being smart isn’t sufficient when it comes to getting the right answer. You’ve also got to have patience to work the details. Dyson and climate change is one example of pure smarts not being sufficient, Edward Teller and BMD is another. Just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you don’t have your head up your @##.

  38. 88
    Danny Bloom says:

    In regards to Spaceship Earth, I have recently starte a public campaign to explore rebranding the name of our beleaguered home planet, EARTH, to a better word that has more meaning that just dirt, soil, the ground. It’s an old pre-16th century word that has little meaning today. Any ideas for a better word? See news link here. I am serious.

    http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/7731264/climate_doomsayer_seeks_to_rebrand.html?cat=60

  39. 89
    Danny Bloom says:

    Rebrand Earth with More Fitting Name — Before All Hell Breaks Loose

    A climate activist is seeking to rebrand the name of our planet Earth with a more fitting name — one that would better reflect a better understanding of where we live and our place in the cosmos. He says that his
    crusade is a public awareness campaign and has no financial backers or corporate sponsorship.

    “It’s my way to seeking to give this planet a more apt name, and I have no agenda, other than to help people think of the planet in a new and improved way, since ‘earth’ really just means the ground, the dirt, soil,” he says.

    He says he is campaigning now for a new name for the planet we live on, given that, in his opinion, the word Earth is not a very good one.

    “Let’s rename the Earth,” he adds, ” especially in regard to the fact that we need to work hard to stop global warming and climate change from doing a huge number on this third rock from the sun.”

    Okay, so what name would you suggest, dear Reader?

    One word is best, but this rebranding could aso use as many as 2 -5 words in a term as well, such as “Third Rock from the Sun” or “Terra Firma”.

    He says he is looking for a word that will help teach younger generations in the future to treat the planet with more respect and gratitude for giving us life.

    By the way, the current name “Earth” derives from the lame Anglo-Saxon word ”erda”, which means ground or soil, and is related to the lame German word ”erde”. Duh. It became ”eorthe” later, and then ”erthe” in Middle English. But people in the 16th Century had no idea what the plaent was really all about. Now we do. What new name would you suggest?

  40. 90
    DaveE says:

    Ric Merritt #50–“The chances of colonists surviving long term…are nil”. I think you are absolutely right–Biosphere II showed the difficulty of doing this, even in the context of an environment that is far more ideal than any off earth environment will be. Given the importance of this, I am puzzled as to why we haven’t begun a Biosphere III–we have no hope of living permanently off earth given the current state of our technologies.

  41. 91

    The space solar power arguments for and against are kinda funny. Projections a few decades out using linear thinking are likely to be wrong on both sides.

    If they are funded before the end of this century it will probably by the US military. They will need it because oil gets too expensive and solar panels on the ground are too vulnerable.

    If they get built at all it will be using recipes we haven’t dreamed up yet because this technology is advancing. Degradation rates using current recipes probably won’t apply. Efficiency numbers using current recipes probably won’t apply.

    Regarding Freeman Dyson’s views on the subject, I think comment #85 says it well enough. I remember when one of my professors said he wasn’t interested enough in my field to pursue it, but recognized that I was and that was enough for him. The people who really delve into a subject ARE more likely to know it better.

    The problem with this truth, though, is that the climate change problem spans many fields of study and no one can delve deep enough in all of them to know it well. The climate folks are dependent on economists, right? What is the list of subject areas that require expertise? 8)

    I’m not arguing we can’t know enough so we shouldn’t do anything, though. I suspect we know it well enough to know we should take action.

  42. 92
    Roger Colley says:

    Many conflicting opinions here. While educated climate scientists continue to advance this complex field full of uncertainties as the common man worries more about his daily bread, I subscibe to the realistic, wise, attainable objective of BETTER PREPARING for the KNOWN climate disasters we know have always happened, are happening now [frozen UK and U.S., fires in Russia, floods and cyclones in Australia, etc.] and will continue to happen. That will lead to better preparation in case of any abrupt change in the future while we continue to get the costs down of alternate energy technologies. Have fun with abrupt changes — possible but not probable — in the the new book A Truthful Myth

  43. 93
    Brian Dodge says:

    “If I asked Lindzen, Spencer and Happer about the MWP I think they would say it is warmer than 1979-present.” Jay Cadbury — 8 Feb 2011 @ 2:14 PM

    Nope. Dr Spencer’s models show that warmer temperatures cause oceans to outgas CO2, so much so that 80-90% of the rise since ~ 1930 has been caused by warming, not anthropogenic emissions.
    http://www.drroyspencer.com/2009/01/increasing-atmospheric-co2-manmade%E2%80%A6or-natural/
    http://www.drroyspencer.com/2009/05/global-warming-causing-carbon-dioxide-increases-a-simple-model/
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2008/01/25/double-whammy-friday-roy-spencer-on-how-oceans-are-driving-co2/
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2008/01/28/spencer-pt2-more-co2-peculiarities-the-c13c12-isotope-ratio/

    The lack of a bump in CO2 during the purported MWP precludes it being warmer than today.
    http://www.imagenerd.com/uploads/co2_last_millenium-mNUUl.jpg

    [Response: As I said before, discussion of the MWP is way, way off topic for this thread. Please save it for the next open thread, or if you absolutetly can’t wait, take it to the existing Unforced Variations thread. I will divert further generic MWP discussions to there or to the Borehole, depending on whether the comments have anything substantive to contribute. –raypierre]

  44. 94
    don gisselbeck says:

    Does freemarket capitalism have any mechanism for dealing with long-term existential threats to itself? It hasn’t even been able to deal with existential threats to fisheries.

  45. 95
    Edward Greisch says:

    68 Kevin McKinney: All those other people do have expertise. But not the right expertise. Writers are good at hijacking people’s emotions using the written word. That is good for advertising. It is not good for analysis of Freeman Dyson.

    Lawyers are good at taking the clients money and they have extensive knowledge of current law. That doesn’t make them good legislators.

    Musicians are good at making music. I wouldn’t ask a musician’s opinion of climate science.

    Brower’s book may be a start if you know nothing else about Dyson. It isn’t a psychological or a psychiatric evaluation of Dyson. Brower’s book is not adequate for us to decide what action to take on Dyson’s statements on climate. Value Brower’s book for what it is and nothing more.

  46. 96
    David Duffy says:

    R.A. Fisher was a high achieving contrarian in a different field. As he got older, he delighted in suggesting alternative mechanisms for the association between tobacco smoking and lung cancer. Stolley [http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/133/5/416.full.pdf] thinks a variety of factors underlay this, which might seem familiar: 1) “Fisher’s zest for confrontation and polemic was legend”;
    2) Dislike of the nanny state: “Your annotation on ‘Dangers of Cigarette-smoking’ leads up to the demand that these hazards ‘must be brought home to the public by all the modern devices of publicity.’ That is just what some
    of us with research interests are afraid of. In recent wars, for example, we have seen how unscrupulously the ‘modern devices of publicity’ are liable to be used under the impulsion of fear” 3) “was good with data while working on one small
    set but was not easily able to integrate multiple or large data sets.” 4) Enjoyed
    the positive attention on his public lectures and articles. 5) “Wandered too far out of his field.”

  47. 97
    Russell Seitz says:

    Re Jim’s comment at 76

    “There’s a whole bunch of people besides Freeman Dyson who … actually know a lot about what needs to be achieved, and what can be achieved, and what behavioral actions we need to implement in order to do that. That’s sort of the point here.”

    Though your enthusiasm for social engineering is not universally shared, it seems oddly mirrored in Dyson’s technophilia.

    [Response: “Social engineering” eh? You prefer what, a drive off the cliff?–Jim]

  48. 98
    deconvoluter says:

    Re: #71

    Isn’t that comparison between late Einstein and Dyson unfair to the former? Being wrong on occasions is not the same as being serially superficial about a big topic.

  49. 99
    J Bowers says:

    @ 84

    I wonder where that maintenance of lunar based solar collection would make it sit in the ERoEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) index. Many of the materials would already be found in raw form on the Moon: In-Situ-Resource-Utilisation.

    According to your link that 14% figure goes down to 10%, by the way, when you take the panels away from the L1 zone. Given there’s 13,000 TW of energy hitting the Moon, and we’ll only need 20 TW, overkill may well get around that problem and still be cost beneficial (current solar panels in space are deliberately made larger than assumed necessary to compensate for degradation I believe).

    Nobody’s saying it’d be easy, but the main obstacle seems to me to be a mental barrier, which I find puzzling when you consider what it will take to put numerous deep well rigs in the Arctic and maintain them.

  50. 100

    #95–Ed, I said I wouldn’t argue.

    However, I will permit myself one general statement:

    Your assessments are highly dismissive, and your instruction to “Value Brower’s book for what it is and nothing more” is in fact precisely what I advocated in my comment! By contrast, it is you who is complaining that The Starship and the Canoe is not:

    . . . a psychological or a psychiatric evaluation of Dyson. . . [or] adequate for us to decide what action to take on Dyson’s statements on climate.

    Of course not. It was never meant to be, and it’s ridiculous to put that burden on it. (Particularly since it was written decades before Dyson had even made any statements about climate change!)

    But it does paint a vivid picture of who Freeman Dyson was in–what was the year of the Dyson reunion? Publication of S & C was 1978–and one that, IMO, offers us a unique insight into the elder Dyson as a thinker and an individual.

    Rather more than “hijacking people’s emotions using the written word,” if you ask me. Perhaps this might offer some food for thought in that regard:

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


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