Freeman Thinking

By John Conway | March 29, 2009 8:48 pm

Today’s New York Times magazine had a long feature on Freeman Dyson, loosely based on his skepticism about global warming. Dyson, one of the founders of modern relativistic quantum field theory, is skeptical about a lot of things, as a matter of fact.

Freeman spent two weeks at our department at UC Davis last year, gave a public lecture, a colloquium, and was available for a number of very stimulating conversations. We had lunch with him one day, and pressed him on his taste for smaller, lighter, faster experiments in particle physics, as opposed to the dominant large collider experiments such as those at the LHC, the Tevatron, and LEP. In his kind way, Freeman said it was all fine with him that such things took place, but that he simply preferred the more table-top variety, where the individual experimenter could control the variables and the measurement at hand. I do too, but as the NYT article quoted Weinberg as saying, “get over it!”

Anyway, about global warming. I have to say that my own skeptical streak doesn’t simply cave to the present dominant stream of thought on this issue either. As scientists we need to continue to question all of it. It seems to me that the dominant paradigm can be summarized in a number of straightforward notions:

  • The earth’s climate is in an overall warming trend. The average global surface temperature, and the average surface temperature of the oceans, is increasing.
  • The root cause of the increase in global surface temperature is in large part, or even dominantly, due to the increase of the level of greenhouse gases such as CO2 and methane in the atmosphere.
  • The dominant source of the excess greenhouse gases is human activity: industry, transportation, agriculture and the like.
  • If the global surface temperature continues to increase, then drastic and devastating consequences will ensue due to the melting of polar ice and the rising of sea levels, desertification of huge swaths of land, increased frequency and intensity of devastating storms, and other effects.
  • By changing our means of energy production and ceasing the use of fossil carbon fuels as soon as possible, there is still a chance that we can evade the above ill effects.

My own skepticism increases linearly as we go down this list. The first two items, that the global surface temperature is increasing, and that it is due to greenhouse gases, seems to be incontrovertible. The extensive measurements and correlations reported by the IPCC are rather hard to refute at this stage. (It is a very great setback for this science that NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory crashed on launch last month, or we would have gotten the mother lode of data on these questions.)

That the dominant source of excess greenhouse gases seems incontrovertible as well, though here the climate models start to differ about the sources and sinks of global CO2, methane, and other gases. And, as the climate changes, not all the models can possibly predict all the outcomes. An example: in 2005, the Amazon experienced a drought which turned the region, with over half the world’s rainforest, from a net carbon sink to a net carbon source.
Was the drought predicted by any (or all) of the models? Was the net effect on carbon predicted?

The best models must combine physics, oceanography, chemistry, and biology all at once. Has it really been done yet? (Enlighten us all, gentle readers, if you know!)

Then the last two: the negative effects. We dwell on these. Clearly ocean levels will rise rapidly in our lifetime if Greenland melts, and it appears to be melting faster than expected by the models.
That would be a bad thing, especially here in the Central Valley of California. My house is 15 meters above sea level, and a lot of the roads around here are lower than that. If Greenland melts, sea level will rise over 7 meters. Well, the Central Valley used to be a sea, and it will be again some day, no doubt. And with so much of the world’s population living so close to the sea, this is a serious, serious concern.

I am less convinced about the severity and frequency of storms with global warming, but my mind is open to being convinced by good science.

Lastly, can we do anything about it? The whole question of whether we’ve reached a “tipping point” seems to be hot right now. The answer lies in the climate models, so let’s keep our skepticism alive here. We don’t understand what causes ice age cold and warm spells. When those are in the models, and we can post-dict the previous glaciations, I’ll start to believe the models. The oceanic thermohaline circulation seems to be key here, but how? What about the Milankovich cycle? Chaotic perturbations in the solar system? Dust lanes in the Milky Way? No one said this would be easy…

And how soon could we wean ourselves from carbon, even if we wanted to? Oil may run out, but there is a crapload of natural gas and coal left to burn. Remember, “drill, baby, drill!” is the same as “burn, baby, burn!” And we have a lot left to burn.

I am not convinced at all that in 10 years we can “Repower America” and eliminate fossil fuels. And the rest of the world certainly won’t. That doesn’t mean we should not try, should not do research into new, non-carbon-based energy sources, expand our use of renewable, clean energy. We should! I am just very skeptical that it could be done even if it became the #1 national priority. It seems to me to violate physics itself, not to mention basic economic facts. Twenty years? Thirty? Eventually it will be clear to every one that we don’t really have a choice.

Sigh…Freeman, what’s the answer?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, News, Science and Society
  • Postdoc without a job

    I have to say that my own skeptical streak doesn’t simply cave to the present dominant stream of thought on this issue either.

    You didn’t really just write that, did you?

  • Cathy

    Regarding your point that we don’t understand what causes ice ages: we have temperature data from ice cores going back about 400,000 years and if you take the Fourier transform of that data, the dominant peaks correspond to the frequencies of the Milankovitch cycles. So the Milankovitch cycles bascially do explain the periodicity of the Ice Ages, though not the magnitude of the temperature variation. For that, you need to include various positive feedback mechanisms, some of which are not well understood and are not included in the global climate models. As a result, the models are probably conservative in estimating how much warming we’ll see from increasing CO2 in the atmosphere. See for more quantitative details.

  • Sean

    I don’ t think this is an area where “skepticism” is a very sensible response. Details of climate models are a bit of a red herring; sure, there’s a lot we don’t know about the climate, and the system is complicated, and new physics and better data are continually being introduced, etc. etc.

    So what? What we do know is that we’ve been smacking the environment with a sledgehammer for a century now, with obviously significant results. And it’s the only environment we have. I don’t see how there can be any prudent response other than “we have to stop doing this as quickly as possible.”

    Just because I don’t understand the precise function of every one of these wires on my life-support system, doesn’t mean it’s okay to keep pulling them out. The presumption should be the other way.

  • Egaeus

    First off, let me say I’m not a climate scientist, or a scientist at all. However, I’m going to opine anyway. This is by no means an in-depth analysis, just fairly basic math.

    So you do agree with the first two points. I’m not going to say much. in that regard.

    First off, you can get temperature data at:

    and CO2 data from:

    Using this data, and calculating the 5-year average temperature, and comparing it to the CO2 data (overlapping years were averaged in my code), you get a correlation coefficient of 0.931. That, combined with the established fact of CO2 being a greenhouse gas, makes a very strong prima facie case for global warming being due to an increase in CO2.

    So what about the sources of CO2? I think you are seriously overcomplicating the issue for the purposes of establishing the basic determination of whether or not human activity, specifically the burning of fossil fuels, is responsible for the increase on CO2. To determine the amount that fossil fuels are contributing to the increase of CO2, it’s simple enough to again look at the historical data. In this case, I used:

    which is gone (I still have the data), but there is still fossil fuel data which may or may not be the same:

    Correlation between the carbon dioxide levels and fossil fuel consumption? 0.997. That, for all intents and purposes, is perfect. Combined with the incontrovertable fact that burning fossil fuels releases CO2, it seems to be a no-brainer. My only problem is that the correlation is too perfect. It doesn’t seem possible.

    Severity of storms? Again, not a climatologist, but it would seem to me that it would logically follow, since the amount of energy required to heat the earth’s atmosphere by 1 degree is enormous, and the more energy available to a storm, the stronger it tends to be. Witness the 2004 hurricane season, when the Gulf was unusually warm, supplying hurricanes with enormous amounts of energy.

    Can we do anything about it? Well, we can certainly do something about our use of fossil fuels, and work on carbon sequestration technologies. Your argument seems to be that if you can’t have a pony, and every day can’t be Tuesday so you can eat cake, then what’s the point of doing anything? You honestly sound like a creationist babbling about how if you don’t have a perfect geological record of every single organism going from primordial soup to your grandmother, then you can’t possibly show that evolution is correct.

    Yes, you do need to keep your skepticism alive, but be careful not to start engaging in denialism and calling it skepticism.

  • gyokusai

    I don’t want to come across too harsh but I also think such “skeptical” responses are not very sensible. For all the reasons Sean already enlarged upon, and because there are enough global warming denialists out there who have a way of scrambling for every sound byte from respectable scientists where the word “skeptical” is somehow involved, to quote it to death in their lobbying efforts. Think the New Scientist’s “Darwin Was Wrong” headline here. It’s like loading the guns of cranks with bullets.


  • gyokusai

    Wel,l talking of moral rights, the very next blogpost I came across was PZ’s on John Shimkus…

    Yeah, right.

  • jester

    John, you trod into a very dangerous battleground. I have read the comments of NYT readers on this issue of Dyson’s heretical thinking. Those were not nice, or rather ugly, I’d say. Most of them surmised Dyson is a poor, eccentric, old buffoon who contradicts main stream opinions for his own contrarian image-building, or quoting Jim Hansen, is one “who doesn’t know what he is talking about.” I was surprised to see people respond very emotionaly, considering what Dyson is saying is just an attempt to better understand the problem of climate on this planet. Can’t we just tolerate some heretics going all alone against the wind? They may die in solitude, but they would be the ones who would see new way out when we are lost and stuck.

  • Ellipsis

    Sean, I trust you’ve converted that CO2-spewing girly-man Jag of yours into the overgrown flowerpot it was meant to be, then, and you’re walking to work. 😉

  • milkshake

    Dyson says that he started to have first doubts about impartiality of the climatology models when he as Jason studied aftermath of a nuclear all-out war. It turned out that the “nuclear winter” climate scenario was exaggerated and the reasoning behind it did not withstand a closer look. A popular sentiment among his colleagues was “well it is not really good science but we don’t want to sound like we approve of a nuclear war”

    The climate change is reason to worry but it is not completely clear to me if what is proposed by the climate alarmist is the best course of action. One has to ask – will it work and how much much it will cost. what concerns me is that for years hydrogen economy was proposed as a great alternative, even though anyone who actually works with hydrogen knows that manufacturing hydrogen is a very lousy way of storing electric energy or processing fossil fuels. Now many of the same people push for carbon dioxide sequestation and for carbon taxation. Burning three tons of carbon produce eleven tons of carbon dioxide – a gas that takes a huge energy to compress and pump into underground reservoirs that have to hold tight well above critical point of CO2 which is 74 atm at 31C. The whole scheme is unfeasible like the hydrogen fad (for which, by the way, the funding still continues). Its not like banning commercial whaling. In case of CO2 sequestation the thermodynamics is not on our side.

  • Zac

    What about ocean acidification? The connection to co2 increases is obvious, no?

  • Spear Mark

    Seems to me that Dyson is being appropriately physicist-like in using his own (very good) noggin and questioning points he finds poorly supported.

    It is a knee-jerk reaction (Sean) to let our worry about man’s behavior drive our conclusions… although I definitely agree that our increase in CO_2 is man-made. I did find Dyson’s concern for the poor in the third world to be laudable, and I can definitely see the viewpoint of the third world that they’re development is going to be impeded by global warming concerns.

    As for LHC vs. table-top: there have been a whole lot more Nobels for Atomic/Molecular/Optical work in the last 10 or 15 years then for experimental particle physics… tabletop breakthroughs are vigorous and vital, but not quite as fundamental as what we hope for from the LHC. I doubt Dyson opposes the LHC, he just prefers the tabletop.

  • Hiranya

    John, I fully applaud not taking anything as “received wisdom” – obviously this is a key ingredient of doing science. I also carried out the kind of exercises Egaeus talks about above – the data is publicly available and you can do time series and correlation analyses on them. If you buy your first two points (which you say you do), it is not hard to conclude after playing with the data that we humans are creating at least a large part of the CO2 increase. You don’t need sophisticated modelling to conclude that the consequences of a rapid CO2 increase is BAD – you can just look at the historical record. Even if there is a tiny chance that this scenario is true, and that non-linear feedbacks mean that the longer you wait before acting, the worse the consequences would be, I am curious just how much of a bet you want to take with the only biosphere we have, while waiting for better data and simulations.

  • capitalistimperialistpig

    The question is where if anywhere lies the path to a low carbon emission world. Stunts like Hansen’s protests against coal “death trains” won’t cut it. People are starting to grasp what they will be expected to give up, and they don’t like it already. For the US, a high carbon tax makes sense, because we are rich (still), technologically advanced, and need to decrease our dependence on foreign sources of energy anyway. For China and India, it is almost certainly not going to happen unless somebody could prove that they wouldn’t be sacrificing their economies.

  • Peter Coles

    There’s nothing new about climate change. About a thousand years ago, Nordic folk settled on Greenland because it had a temperate climate and verdant pastures that made it ideal for farming. A few hundred years later it was too cold to survive there: all the livestock died and the people either died too or left. There then followed a cold period across the Northern hemisphere from which we are now emerging.

    The only concrete evidence that this is due to human activity is the extreme speed of temperature change, which appears to be much higher than in previous cycles of climate change. If it is correct that carbon emissions are responsible for this change, then it may already too late to stop it.

    I think it’s the responsibility of scientists to be skeptical and frank about the uncertainties. But it seems to me that the really important question here is not whether climate change is man-made, but what can we do about it?

  • MutantJedi

    I applaud John for not allowing his “skeptical streak [to] simply cave to the present dominant stream of thought on this issue.” In response to a few of the commenters, one always have to be concerned anytime skepticism becomes a bad thing. AGW, with its pantheon of gods and priests, has, for some time now, been an ideology if not a religion. (Of course, Denialists can be just as shrill as Alarmists.)

    Post-normal science isn’t science. It’s religion. The same argument that an evangelist gives, can you risk not believing, is the same argument that I hear from both the lay and clergy of this new ideology. Think I’m flying off the handle here? hmm… why no challenge to the “heretic” label stuck on Dyson?

    As with any religion, this new one is just as dangerous. Any action done before adequately knowing the system is prone to unpredictable and hazardous results. In an effort to save the planet, we could do serious damage. Even Dyson’s idea of genetically modified trees gives me pause.

    It is very regretful that NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory crashed. If there is any hope in quelling the shrill from both sides of this abyss, it will be in form of good science and good data. Lobbing curses such as “creationist” into the faces of honest skeptics is not in the good form of science.

    Oh, for a refresher on correlation and causation… :)

  • Andy McLennan

    An economist’s perspective:
    1) What’s wrong about Dyson is not his skepticism (which pervades science) but rather
    his implicit inference that uncertainty argues for inaction. Uncertainty argues for
    2) Relative to what is at stake, the economic damage of a “draconian” carbon tax
    (or cap-and-trade, if you prefer) is trivial, about 1-2% of GDP, or a couple years of
    economic growth.
    3) From a technical point of view this is an easy problem to analyze and respond to.
    The obstacles to effective action are almost entirely political, a combination of fear
    and special interest manipulation.

  • AR

    Just a quick point about the correlations between CO2 and temperature: while CO2 and temperature do certainly correlate quite strongly, it is important to remember (as always) that correlation does not equal causation. In fact, the climate record shows that increases in CO2 seem to lag BEHIND temperature increases by a few hundred years. The current thinking is that increases in temperature cause some increase in CO2, which then amplifies the warming effect through a feedback mechanism:

    Not quite sure what to make of this, personally…

  • Tevong

    One thing people forget too easily is that Freeman Dyson is an extremely intelligent person with a history of being very well read in both width and depth.

    He has done his research and looked into the mathematics of the models. Sean while it’s true that “What we do know is that we’ve been smacking the environment with a sledgehammer for a century now, with obviously significant results” what he’s saying is maybe the environment can take this smacking around but the models are too limited to tell us what will really happen. To take an analogy it’s like basing economic policy entirely on the predictions of notoriously unreliable economic models just because they vaguely match up with empirical data. If said economic model predicted a huge bust that required massive investments in structural changes to the way our economy functions no one would take it seriously because everyone knows those models are severely limited. Dyson is saying climate models are on a similar level and any future scenarios are as reliable as predicting the stock market. Sean is saying we need those structural changes anyway based on the data, and the models support this unreliable as they are.

    Personally I take a mixture of Sean’s view that it’s never a bad idea to clean up our energy dependencies, but I also understand Dyson’s point of over-extrapolating and politicising mathematical models at the opportunity cost of putting resources into raising people out of poverty.

    But I’m not an extremely intelligent person with a history of being well read either widely or deeply :)

  • milkshake

    I would like to see the calculation that shows the impact of alarmist-proposed “draconian” measures on the economic growth is only minimal. You know the results of government-subsidized biofuel programs – a recent drastic spike in food staple prices that resulted in food riots in poor countries.

    What will probably happen is a token measures that rich countries will take while importing CO2-heavy materials like steel and cement from China and India. It will be an equivalent of voluntary sorting plastic/glass/aluminum/paper from household trash – a feel-good measure that has zero impact.

    And you will pay at least double the price for electricity from CO2-sequestation coal plants. Wind and solar power sources are rather expensive to install and maintain, and would need dedicated power grid and massive chemical battery stations or water pumping stations if implemented on a large scale.

  • Brody Facoum

    My comment is about sea levels alone, and does not depend on the reasons for increasing mean sea levels or local high tide levels; it just takes an ongoing increase in both for granted, and is about the cost associated with adapting to this rise, particularly with respect to one major western city. It also does not rely upon changes in weather patterns (more storms, etc).

    Last week I visited the Thames Barrier in the far east of London, which is a great place for a walk along the tidal Thames, and which is also the home to a huge piece of engineering and a cool little museum on the south bank, just downstream from the Barrier itself.

    The museum has some excellent history available for those inclined to read things in a museum, and the best working engineering models I’ve ever seen is the centrepiece. is a view of one side of the model; the information sheet is full of nerd-porn technical details of the Barrier, and the model itself is on a precise scale in both size and time (note the person in the service tunnel at the bottom, left of the centre, which is the upstream side). It’s well worth the two pounds price of admission on its own. is part of a popular treatment of the Barrier, and is partly interesting for the narrator (Robert Llewellyn, known to some for playing Kryten on Red Dwarf).

    If you go to the museum and it’s quiet, ask one of the curators to give you an engineering talk on the 1/6 scale model outside, that was used for stress testing to destruction, and ask about how the parking lot it’s in is protected, given that it’s downstream from the Barrier by a few hundred metres. (I won’t spoil it! You are probably able to work out the upstream pressure the barrier has to sustain, and may have a “wow” moment.) It’s often quiet during the week (except for occasional school visits) as it’s not a landmark many people visit as tourists.

    The Thames Barrier was deployed in lieu of adding 3 metres more anti-flooding wall along about 15km of the Thames; a walk downstream from the Barrier will introduce you to 3m walls protecting people’s houses and gardens, buildings erected on stilts, and signs of actual regular flooding on the walkways outside the wall, including rather spooky algae stains and wetness several centimetres up some of these walls.

    The Barrier is designed to prevent a major flood like the one in 1953, which would be expected to cause two trillion U.S. dollars in actual direct damage if it happened today, not to mention lots of ongoing costs of salvage and recovery, and exclusive of derivative disasters involving the clean water supply or making tunnels unusable for long periods of time.

    The original design agreed on in the 1970s was for a biannual deployment of the barrier at the highest spring tide during a particular type of major storm (hurricane like low pressure cell moving south down the North Sea between Scotland and Denmark-Netherlands-Belgium), with a fairly wide safety margin between the water level and the top of the Barrier, and with release an hour after high tide.

    Real sea level rises now means that the Barrier is already deployed monthly in rough weather, and is partially deployed at spring tides (roughly semiannually) in fair weather. The operational expectation is that the Barrier will need weekly deployment by 2012, and by 2015 nine or ten of the gates will be deployed in underspill mode at every high tide when the weather is unsettled, with full deployment at every high tide within a few years of that. By 2020-2050, depending on actual sea level rises, a strong storm surge will overtop the Barrier. Moreover, the sea level rises may lengthen the required duration of deployment at spring tide, leading to an upstream flooding risk. There is already a small risk of expensive upstream flooding in a double storm involving a very low pressure North Sea storm and heavy rainfall over the south of England.

    There are a variety of costly solutions to this, including a new Barrier (costing low hundreds of billions of pounds and disrupting activity on a commercially important river), an extension of the current barrier plus extending the onshore walls north and south a few hundred metres (costing tens of billions of pounds, but with greater risk of unpredictable catastrophic failure modes), building a 5-7 metre vertical extension to the flood wall upstream (costing unitary billions of pounds, and effectively cutting off views of and some access to the Thames, which is an important part of tourism and commerce, as well as looking nice for the people living in London). Relocating the capital, an idea taken seriously at the end of the 18th century, no longer seems feasible (cost in the high tens of trillions of pounds, at least).

    London is not the only major city in the world with a serious tidal + surge flood risk, so the costs of erecting flood defences or relocating large metropolitan infrastructure around the world is very high.

    Whatever the origin of sea level rise, a human-caused reduction in sea level may be a cheaper approach than adapting to the sea level rise.

    In short, you can take an optimistic view of human impact on sea levels by thinking that humans can drive sea level changes in both directions. If there is a way to gradually lower sea levels to what they were twenty or thirty years ago for less than hundreds of trillions of dollars, it may be worth doing for purely human-centric economic reasons.

    A view that human impact on sea levels is negligible is pretty pessimistic; this forces an adaptive response to rising sea levels that may be more expensive still, even if there is no actual flood damage. Actual flood damage in even one or two major cities may exceed the hundreds of trillions of dollars figure by a significant amount.

  • MadScientist

    Well put. I think some groups do everyone a great disservice by putting out prophecies of armageddon; I cannot understand what people hope to accomplish from that other than being laughed at years from now.

    One of the most important questions for me is the one on “can we do anything”? We need to move towards a lesser dependence on fossil fuels at any rate (you don’t actually want to wait for ‘peak oil’ or similar scenarios before acting) so I think it’s a good idea to invest in new technology. The chariot lasted for millenia and was finally replaced by automobiles; what an exciting world it is to see such changes. As we attempt to move to different sources of energy scientists will continue to make measurements and to improve our understanding of the earth’s climate; with any luck we’ll be able to get a handle on what may have been avoided. In the meantime various industries are looking at short-term solutions to CO2 emissions; the oil and gas industry for example are looking into geosequestration of emissions from gas processing plants while electricity generators are looking to use the same storage technology for the CO2 which they hope to capture from operations.

    Claiming to save the world is a bit premature; there is much to be learned before such a claim can be made, but in the meantime there is plenty to do in preparation for that grand experiment.

  • Dylan

    “Sigh…Freeman, what’s the answer?”

    Umm isn’t obvious… Dyson Sphere.


  • capitalistimperialistpig

    Andy McClennan,

    Economists lack credibility at the moment.

    thoughout history, economic productivity has always been tied to fairly cheap energy. Contrary to what you say, there are no current technical solutions to the problem of supplying adequate cheap energy without fossil fuels. The most promising possibilities (solar, nuclear, thermonuclear) are at least several decades away.

  • apthorp

    Not the blog where one would expect a troll like recitation of “they say” strawmen knocked down by a clever turn of phase and the appeal to the “virtue of skepticism” fallacy.

    There are no order of magnitude arguments to be made? No contradictory bits of data to put together? Is there an objective case to be made that it is all purely stochastic, or better yet, just too complex to bother with (so move along, nothing to see here)?

    The comments play along too. Sneering at “prophecies of Armageddon”, to borrow one phrase, is as much a content free political act as the prophecy for all of its skeptical halo.

    And, perhaps, issues like a flooded Central Vally (well, if it finds a path in) or flooded London (which has a pretty direct connection) are at root social and political issues rather than disputes about model internals. Businesses and societies mitigate against unknown or even imagined risks every day because the argument the risk doesn’t exist is even less convincing.

    And, yea, one would expect Dyson to have something cogent and interesting to say. It would be no surprise that the NYT completely missed and muddled it. A exposition of his actual argument and it’s implications would be great. I’d like to read it.

  • Thomas D

    Dyson says he is concerned about people in developing countries, but a few percentage points of ‘development’ or economic growth isn’t everything. If you asked a hundred million people in Bangladesh to choose, would they prefer a slight reduction in their expected income – or a slight rise in sea level such that half of them are flooded out of existence? And how expensive would it be to rescue and feed and rehouse them in the second case, compared to the costs of ‘climate control’ now?

    It is rather odd to see a comparison with economics being made. Various economic doomsayers were actually right, so far as they were not just gratuitously pessimistic but had good reasons to forecast problems – although very few of them could tell the exact time and manner of the system’s collapse. Many of them were also right in saying ‘the way business is done should be radically changed’ a long time ago.

    The Amazon drought in 2005 is a complete red herring – no climate model claims to predict individual seasons. Weather is not climate.

    If Dyson is concerned about ‘extrapolating’ models too far, there is a very simple answer: by the time any change has gone beyond the range of the models, we are already screwed. The models only have to be reliable enough to go up to the point where significant amounts of economic and human damage occur…

    It is also clear that that point is steadily approaching for ocean acidity, regardless of other climatic issues.

  • King Cynic

    People who aren’t expert in climatology speculating that global warming isn’t such a big deal are about as helpful as people without medical degrees speculating that maybe vaccinations are harmful to children.

  • Tevong

    @Thomas D

    I agree the comparison I made with economic models is full of holes.. I think the gist of what I was getting at is the collapse of the economy despite the quant’s optimistic risk models is an illustrative example of the occasional discrepancy between complex mathematical models, whose reliability are constrained by their assumptions, and reality. Everyone can accept that those models were over-extrapolated into a false sense of security by people who relied on them, and the analogy is the converse, that climate models can lure is into a false sense of impending doom.

    I don’t want to make it sound like I’m dismissing climate models, I personally believe they are accurate enough to justify action. But unless I study those climate models myself it’s just as unfounded a belief as if I were to take the opposite view. What I’m trying to get across is that Dyson is someone mathematically capable who has studied the models, it’s worth considering his opinion with more respect. This isn’t creationism or intelligent design.

  • John

    Woah! Twenty-six comments while I was sleeping – I guess I struck a nerve. I am definitely not an expert on climatology. But does that mean I must simply accept the dominant line without thinking?

    Let me clarify a few things, before this thread gets too detached from reality:

    1. I am not a global warming denier.

    2. I *do* think global warming is a big deal, and we need to do something about it. (I am doing what I can myself. I do not own a car, and live near where I work, for example.)

    3. As a scientist, I must remain skeptical about scientific claims.

    Just because our models are not perfect does not mean they aren’t telling us important things. They are.

    If we *have* reached a tipping point (a scientific question) then we really are screwed, and need to work on plans to adapt to the melting of the poles as the first priority.

    My skepticism about the last point, that we can rapidly convert from carbon-based energy sources to non-carbon-based ones, is less about science and more about a basic realistic view of how people are. If a major breakthrough in energy were to occur, perhaps we can accelerate it. We do need to do the research. But it would have to be a major breakthrough…

  • Lindsay

    Regarding the sensibility of the skeptical response: I’ve discussed the validity of computer models at length with a climate scientist who was on IPCC commission that won the Nobel (Humphrey Melling)- he thinks that their predictive value approaches zero ten years down the road partly because of feedback effects that are too complex to predict with current data.
    For instance, say rising temperatures increase cloud cover: that might slightly cool temperatures in the north, increasing sea ice, which would then reflect sunlight and cool temperatures even more.
    A few months ago he described a meeting of prominent climatologists to me (can’t remember the name, but it was in Halifax): he said many of them feel a moral imperative to overblow the value of these computer models to the media, because they think global warming will probably happen whatever the computer models might say. In a word, these scientists are superstitious, and using their expertise to push their unfounded belief. Or so he says.
    Apparently the meeting degenerated into a shouting match when the skeptics spoke up.

  • Postdoc without a job

    As scientists, we have the responsibility to defer to expertise when we don’t know what we’re talking about. That’s how you support the scientific endeavor: by supporting scientists. Fatuous skepticism from people without any background in a field doesn’t help anybody.

    Of course, this runs counter to the propensity of physicists to believe that everyone else is incompetent in their chosen area, only waiting for a physicist to solve all their problems, but perhaps this is an attitude we should work on.

  • Sam Gralla

    Oh, this is rich: you’re in for it now, John!

    I love how point number one of defense has to be “I’m not a global warming denier” (whatever that is). Of course the simulations aren’t predictive. Whether that is a “red herring” or not depends on the question at hand. If you’re trying to decide a political / regulatory course of action, it is definitely counter-productive to get bogged down into how quantitatively unreliable the simulations are (although of course this must be taken into account). However, as a question in pure science, I don’t see what is wrong with pointing out that somebody’s (or some whole field’s) simulations are–shall we say–less than tremendously useful with the current state of the art.

    I’ve certainly seen and heard these sorts of comments (all the time) in astrophysics… even on this blog before!

  • milkshake

    As you said, it is matter of urgent public policy -and you don’t have this problem with models that predict galaxy formation. If for example a building contractor assures you that you must replace the roof, air-conditioning, the circuit breaker box, water boiler and garage door opener because your house will otherwise catch on fire and collapse and wipe out your entire family in the sleep, you ought to be able to question the contractor dude – how sure is he about his scenarios. I mean he is an expert and he does this for living but still..

  • daniel

    I’m with Sean, Hiranya, and Postdoc without a job. The IPCC reports are incredibly detailed and thorough. These have been compiled by many experts, across many different nations, with many different agendas. Nonetheless, they come to a clear consensus. I highly recommend reading the documents off of the IPCC website (including the detailed report from The Physical Science Basis working group). I think it’s quite dangerous to stand on the sidelines, and proclaim from a non-expert physical science perspective that one is “skeptical”. The basic fact that anthropogenic global warming is occurring is no longer controversial. The only question is what to do about it. And certainly this motivates major investment in research and development.

    As for Freeman, I’ve discussed a wide range of topics with him over the years. It is apparent that he relishes the role of being the gadfly. (For example, we’ve gotten into heated arguments about whether it’s worth looking for gravitational waves (he’s not so sure).) The problem with global warming is that there are potentially dire consequences. Suppose the minority skeptics are right? We’ve “wasted” resources reducing our human footprint. Suppose the vast majority consensus is correct, and we do nothing? We’ve perhaps irretrievably compromised our one and only home.

  • Egaeus

    John, the part that really got to me is the (apparent) “skepticism” of whether global warming is caused by human activity. I mean, it’s a valid question, but one that’s fairly easily answered in a broad sense if you look at the historical data. The issues you brought up sound like denialist talking points, and do not cast doubt on the general accuracy of the theory of anthropogenic global warming. It’s like a creationist’s “criticisms of evolution.” Yes, there are unanswered questions, and variables that may have not been considered in the models, but that doesn’t mean that the theory is fundamentally flawed.

    And these post-dictive models that you desire, may not be the panacea that you seem to believe that they are. I mean, every election you have people come out with models that can post-dict every election based on economic and social factors. I remember the prediction one of these models made in 2004, but for the life of me, I don’t seem to remember a President Kerry. Post-diction does not prove prediction.

    And I didn’t believe that you were a global warming denialist, but you had started using some denialist arguments.

  • John

    Yes, daniel, I have read the IPCC reports. I actually go digging for new stuff fairly regularly. They are doing a magnificent job in a very scary time.

    Perhaps all this comes down to semantics. I used the word “skepticism” in its purest sense – from the ancient Greek skeptesthai, “to reflect, look, view” as opposed to “doubt”.

    Here we are, in a new era of public policy based on science. What science does best is ask questions, and the best science is unafraid to question everything, and continually refine the answers. We need to be honest about how well we know what we think we know. When I say I am increasingly skeptical going down the bullet list in my post, it is in the sense of the need for increased scientific investigation into the future effects (both negative and positive) of climate change, and into possible avenues out of our carbon-based economy. Is there really a controversy here?

    Science has given us a pretty reliable and refined answer to the global warming question: we are warming up the earth with our activities, and there will be negative consequences. But we need to keep questioning and refining our knowledge if we have any hope of reversing and/or adapting to the changes. We need to remain skeptical in the purest sense.

  • Tim Bartik

    As an economist, I want to return to the issue of the cost of controlling climate change. You should know that it is a mainstream view of environmental economists that an optimal Co2 control regime would probably at most cost a few percent of global GDP. The cost is thus very large indeed, but on the other hand it is a modest percentage of our overall income.

    See, for example, this paper by Robert Stavins, a Harvard Professor who is director of Harvard’s environmental economics program.

    Citations to other environmental economists could also be found.

    Therefore, it seems to me that the premises underlying the above discussion need to be modified.

  • coolstar

    Kudos to Postdoc (loved your 2nd paragraph) and Daniel (and others) and less than that to John, who STILL misses the point: that he (and Dyson) have given wonderful talking points to true denialists. they’re not going to look for the details of these arguments, they’re just going to beat the rest of us over the head with the headlines. Not to mention the fact that he’s MUCH too pessimistic about the switch to other-than-fossil fuels: hey, we ALL do that in the next few decades or things get very, very bad.

  • mandeep gill

    John- Guess i’d say i’m glad to see all the responses to you here, esp. by your CV co-authors, and also that you don’t go overboard in your skepticism on this — i really think the prudent approach on this is what Sean indicates above: can’t we take this now as a sign that we have hammered our environment *too much*, and that we should really begin to fear that Klaatu is coming, and he is gonna be pissed? (cf. shlocky remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still).

    What i mean is that i have been a ‘greenie’ all my life, and in some way, as depressing as it is, i’m finally *glad* to see that all our species’ abuse and exploitation of the planet’s finite resources has caught up with us and gone global — climate change is now the overarching issue, and the steps we take towards correcting our course on this do at least three things: (1) make *everyone* aware of env’l issues, on a personal level, (2) improve the situation in all cases i can think of in other, often more local, env’l issues (3) have the *potential* to avert catastrophic change in the farther future. I think all of these matter, but i am just absolutely sure of the first two, and no one knows for certain of the third.

    So i’m willing to go with the first two, particularly because the entire idea of greenness vs. the economy is such a load of hooey perpetuated only by entrenched interests and the status quo — our economy has *always* changed and evolved in the past when we as a society realize we must change things it depends on (e.g. slavery, child labor), though those profiting from some exploitative industry resist, and this isn’t different. (Though what may be different a bit in this case is that we in addition have to now start thinking of a *sustainability* paradigm, vs. an unfettered capitalist growth one; though i have no actual economics training, so don’t claim any real expertise in all this).

    I’ll conclude by saying that none of this is really fundamentally new, and what we’ve been doing to the environment isn’t just 100 yrs old as Sean says — Thoreau had deep wisdom on all this, and knew it far before, in the 1840’s, well the CO2 levels started on their steep, grim, climb…

  • John

    coolstar, it’s more like a) we definitely need to wean ourselves from carbon as soon as we can AND b) things are probably going to get very, very bad anyway. If I am pessimistic, it is about the ability of my fellow creatures to get the job done.

  • Sarah

    Global warming is clearly one of the most important issues (if not the most important one) the world faces right now and action is long overdue. But I do agree with what John is saying, that it’s not a time to lose sight of the proper scientific way to go about the research. We should be able to question research without being accused of giving ammo to the deniers. That does **not** equal denying that global warming is taking place, or that it’s bad, or that we need to do something about it urgently.

  • Randy

    I don’t have a PhD in physics, but I must say I am really skeptical about this modern relativistic quantum field theory stuff that Dyson and all these physicists are excited about. After all, it’s just a theory, and a modern one at that. Back a hundred year or so ago physicists and the media didn’t say anything about quantum theory, now everybody has hopped on the bandwagon, getting grant money, you name it. Why should we believe these physicists now? Believe me, I’m not a quantum denier, but I just think we need to have a more skeptical streak about all these crazy ideas.

  • Sam Gralla

    I don’t have a PhD in idiocy, but I must say I am really skeptical of analogies that make no reference to the arguments they attempt to refute.

  • Sean

    Even though I disagree with John about the value of skepticism over global warming (I think the time for that is long past, and we should be doing enormously more than we are to stop it), I also disagree with the “saying things like that is dangerous and gives ammunition to the real denialists” stance. We can’t let what we say be driven by worries that it will be misused by crazy people. In particular, we have to be able to brutally question any scientific claims about the natural world.

    At the same time, we have to appreciate that examples like this are not merely academic exercises — they affect the world. There is no option to simply not do anything; either we continue to spew enormous amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, or we take steps to slow down.

  • Steven Carter

    If we could just wean ourselves from the continuos bombardment of the oil and gas lobbies about the necessity of the continued use of their forms of energy we could see that there is light at the end of the tunnel. The transitional forms of alternative energy using solar and wind are necessary to begin lowering the amounts of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. Looking back over the past million years or so there is irrefutable proof in the ice cores relating global warming to increased amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere. Core samples taken from Greenland and Antarctica show as greenhouse gases increase the earth researches tipping points that escalate the further release of these gases, probably from permafrost melt and anhydrous sources on the sea floor, which further exacerbate the increase. These spikes in greenhouse gases lead to ice cap and glacial melting raising sea levels from 10’s to 100’s of meters not to speak of global climate change and shifts which affect crops and desertification.

    The fact that since the advent of the Industrial Revolution we’ve pumped ever increasing amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere raising it to levels not seen in hundreds of thousands of years correlates to those very tipping points having been reached and surpassed. The fatalistic view is to do nothing, suffer the consequences and go on from there. The alternative is to look beyond the politics and use science as our guide. Perhaps then we’ll finely admit to our folly and do something constructive.

    There are viable alternatives that already exist to solve our problems related to the use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. These technologies from tapping the power of the ocean to energy from the vacuum are real. They just need some support from a science community that is currently mostly immersed in dogma and ego and a commitment from our government to finally break the ties that bind it and us to the fossil fuel and nuclear industries. How much longer can we continue down this path of destruction until we finally say enough is enough? We owe it our children and future generations to do the right thing now. If we don’t act quickly the legacy we’ll leave will be one of corruption and shame.

  • daniel

    John, I think the reaction has to do with the distance between your use of “skeptic” (which of course is hard to argue with; in that sense, all scientists are natural-born skeptics), and the way the term will be generally interpreted by most others. It’s hard for me to feel good about the Freeman article. It’s the cover article. It’s obviously high visibility. It has been the “Most Popular” emailed article on the NYTimes website all day. And the basic message will be boiled down to: “Prominent physicist says global warming isn’t happening”. This seems unfortunate. And if this contributes to us waiting a few more years before aggressively trying to reduce greenhouse gas emission, I think real damage will have been done.

  • John

    Sean, as I said in the post: “Eventually it will be clear to every one that we don’t really have a choice.” We will have to act, and in this country we’ve squandered eight long years waiting to act. I stood out in the cold rain on Pennsylvania Avenue for many hours on Jan. 20, 2001, protesting the inauguration for that very reason – I saw it coming. (Along with a lot else that I didn’t see…)

    Daniel, I thought that the NYT article did a disservice to Dyson, and you are probably right that the deniers will have a field day. But abandoning a scientific attitude because of politics is simply playing right into their hands. It makes us unscientific like them.

    Steven Carter: I would love to learn how to extract energy from the vacuum…just so long as it does not involve tunneling into a lower-energy one. 😉

    Randy, RQFT is definitely just a theory. But it works pretty well (except for gravity, so far anyway). We’ll happily toss it aside when something better comes along…

  • Randy

    I was joking!!

    My point was that theoretical physicists are brilliant in their field, but they aren’t climatologists. How would physicists feel if experts in climatology questioned basic theories in physics without any scientific basis? And if the press gave them equal weight in their arguments? (Imagine the hype: “Is the Standard Model a conspiracy?”)

  • Realist

    I’m sorry, the dialogue on this thread demonstrates how global warming alarmists are codifying a dogma.

    I certainly agree that man today has the technology to drastically alter his environment and we all need to learn how to be good stewards of the only place we currently have to live on, however, the intensity of the rhetoric serves only to undermine that worthy goal.

    There is no, absolutely no evidence in the historical record that indicates that high levels of CO2 will bring about any geologically significant life ending catastrophe, in fact all the evidence indicates just the opposite truth.

    Now does that mean that we should give a pass to unbridled production of CO2? Absolutely not! I think Freeman’s point is that there are many other nasty pollutants that are related to industrial activity, and controlling those first is much more beneficial to human health and the health of the planet then a strict, short sighted clamp down on CO2.

    One last comment…we live in a democracy, and most of the governments on the planet are democracies. Democracies only thrive when the populace is well informed, and being well informed requires one to look at all sides of the issue, and to listen to what other people have to say.

    Peace out.

  • Zephyrus

    Realist, no one is arguing that high levels of CO2 will bring about a “geologically significant life ending catastrophe.” A global thermonuclear war wouldn’t either; that’s a far cry, however, from saying that neither that nor climate change will adversely affect our lifestyles and quality of life.

  • John Gordon

    If I’m reading you correctly your primary skepticism is whether we can actually do anything about our CO2 emissions.

    That’s certainly mainstream thinking — to wonder if it’s possible to reduce emissions enough.

    So where is it that you divert from the consensus opinion?

  • John Gordon

    PS. I thought Randy’s comment was quite reasonable and even funny. John, it wasn’t exactly a subtle parody!

  • John

    Sorry, Randy, I thought you were being sarcastic…really! So did Sam Gralla, apparently.

    John Gordon: yes, my primary skepticism is whether we have the ability, as humans, to actually reverse this thing. It’s a challenge politically, economically, and technologically, and not just for us but for the whole world. And I am skeptical that we can, at this point, reliably predict what will happen in various future scenarios. I work enough with computer modeling to know how difficult these calculations are, and how dependent they are on the assumptions made. That does not mean we should not press on, quite the contrary, it’s our only hope. We must keep questioning, and thinking, and researching new sources of energy.

    A BP commercial just appeared on TV. They suggest we drill off shore, using pastel green graphics…

  • Haelfix

    About the precautionary principle used so frequently in this thread. Along the lines of ‘well if we are wrong and still reduce CO2 footprint we lose nothing but money’, but if ‘we are right, we can avert a disaster’

    I can’t for the life of me understand why intelligent people still cling to this idea. Its absurd!

    I could take the same precautionary principle and take it to an extreme like for blackholes at the LHC and conclude ‘well it can’t hurt us if we don’t look, even if theres only 1 chance in 10^99 that 10 billion people die’.

    Worse, as Chricton correctly points out, the precautionary principle when formulated properly precludes itself.

    The point is, unless you have an exact quantitative value for the risk to human life (say, we know AGW is correct with 50% likelihood, and that an extra 3 degrees of warming implies 20% human fatalities with 50% confidence) you essentially have nothing. Without those exact numbers, the principle by itself is *meaningless*.

    Thats why its so very important that the statistics in climate science is as rigorous as possible and why the debate over those numbers matters.

  • Ignatus

    Randy, you are perfectly right.

    I think the first thing a scientist learn is how it is difficult to become competent in a field and simply stay up-to-date, how much work is needed to simply understand a scientific problem properly.
    But some scientists seem to forget that and believe they have a valuable opinion on every subjects, a more valuable opinion actually than other scientists that have spent their life on these subjects. I don’t understand this attitude that is totally uncientific and even anti-scientific.

    A lot of these scientists seem to be theoritical physicists: is it a demonstration of arrogance from people that believe that as they work on the most fundamental scientific issues they are also the smartest scientists on the planet, and have contempt for other scientists?

  • Paul

    John, your post provides an interesting example of how context and connotation can hijack a person’s intended meaning… or perhaps not. Perhaps you are not trying to give denialists ammunition, but how can you possibly be tone-deaf to the meaning of the term “skeptic” in relation to the current discourse on climate? I consider myself a skeptic (in the general sense, not particularly tied to climate). I also don’t see the evidence yet for the storm-intensification idea (though it sounds plausible), and I am not so sure we can do what is necessary without wrenching economic changes. However, I don’t describe myself as a “skeptic” regarding climate — those people are looking for excuses to do nothing!

    On the other hand, maybe you are trying to take back ownership of the term “skeptic”… why does deconstruction have to be so hard?

  • blake

    While I agree that it would hardly be possible to make a convincing argument that mean temps aren’t increasing, and that its not anthropogenic, I have some serious problems with the conclusions so many leap to.
    Rising sea levels will have a huge effect on human life, as coastal density is high. But why does that mean its best to try to undo what we have done? Almost no one has even dared to wonder if it might be best to adjust to the changes. I am extremely skeptical that we can reduce GDP only 1-2% while optimizing our reduction of CO2 emission. I will have to look at those projections more closely, but any proposed program that big needs to be skeptically viewed.
    The view that the default position should be to throw ourselves at the most currently fashionable option is not reasonable. That assumes that what we will do otherwise is nothing; that is simply not true. We may not progress enough in eliminating CO2, but we will adjust to the changes as needed. Some may reply “But what of all the damage that could have been prevented to humans and nature!!!?” I would like to see those estimates compared to the increased number of people that will suffer death or poverty from the current leading climate control options. People will suffer and die because of the priorities of any scheme. Those living on the margins will be hit the hardest. You can’t say our default position should be panic and full commitment until opportunity costs are considered.

    In this regard, I am very much with John. I don’t see a global climate scheme working because forcing the cheaters to pay the costs equivalent to those externalities would probably require military force, and probably even some preemptive military action. Considering the UN is incapable of; stopping genocide in Darfur, preventing Iran from renewing the nuclear arms race in the Mid East, and of having a Human Rights Council that cares one whit about human rights, I am, again, extremely skeptical that the international community can do anything but provide a fairytale feel-good climate scheme.

  • Sam Gralla

    There’s no point in pretending that anything like this comment thread could happen for QFT. Look, people can quibble about renormalization, or the path integral not being real math, but the bottom line is QFT follows the pattern of normal science: data and predictions are compared. If an outsider told me QFT was a hoax, I’d explain the whole data and predictions thing, and that would be that.

    Climate science is just tricker. External considerations make the most relevant scientific question that of quantitive prediction of temperature on a 50+ year timescale, which is unfortunately currently impossible to answer. The hope is therefore to formulate less interesting but answerable scientific questions, that can still inform the debate on policy. And that’s just not easy to do.

    For the record, I have no opinion on those less interesting but answerable questions, or on their relevance for policy decisions. I don’t know nearly enough about climate or policy to make an informed decision there. But I *do* know enough about simulations (and so do most physicists) to make an informed decision there. I would consider it plainly obvious that the numbers coming out of those simulations are highly untrustworthy. The codes all disagree substantially, and the results of individual codes often change wildly when new physics (or especially biology!) is added. So, my own view is that while global climate simulations may someday be useful, the numbers from the current state of the art should basically be ignored.

  • Hiranya

    This unintentional alliance between “skeptics” who say there is no evidence for AGW and well-meaning people like John who are “skeptical” that anything can be done to prevent drastic climate change could very well provide enough weight of opinion to ensure nothing gets done (just like the alignment between fiscal and social conversatives gave us the disaster of the last 8 years). I think it is (sadly) remarkably naive to use words like “skeptical” in the technical sense and then be surprised when your opinions are used as ammunition by those with political or economic agendas.

    I just love how the “do nothing” scenario is being promoted out of regard for poor third worlders, precisely those who are going to bear the brunt of climate change.

    Hiranya (citizen of two island countries, one third world)

  • blake

    I just love how some think we will actually do nothing. That is simply wrong. We can either try to reverse something we don’t well understand, or we can try to deal with the consequences as they come. We should try to think clearly; the real argument here is proactive vs reactive responses. I’m not saying I know which one is better (or even the best way to implement a proactive program), but its just as bad as denying global warming to say that we have to just “do something”. That was a great way to fix our current financial problems. Trillions of dollars, no end in sight, and whether it will work or not is very questionable. And since a large beginning factor in the financial mess were the quants in finance believing their risk model was so infallible that they could trust it when reality was showing otherwise, I find it the height of irony that we are again demanded to “just do something” also based on very young mathematical models of complex systems.

  • Paul

    blake – reacting to the consequences as they come _is_ doing nothing.

  • Hiranya

    Blake, noone is advocating doing something in an undefined vague way. There are very detailed studies of what can be done and what it takes to do it, even with current technology. See for example and links therein. What is needed is political will. Information is the antidote for woolley thinking.

  • Karaktur

    Thanks for showing the courage to promote skepticism, one of the cornerstones of good science. Part of the problem with this issue is that it has become so political, on both sides, that it can be difficult to have meaningful discussion without angry words being said. That is a shame.

  • ian

    The long term solution, with or without climate change, is to develop solar and nuclear. Look outside – lots of trees with low energy requirements using solar. The future obviously involves creating proper solar, efficient batteries, and more, better, solid state devices. There’s not significant funding. Tops $100 million for solar – nothing. We could actually make these technologies if we wanted. Instead there’s subsistence funding for small projects. As Edison said, “I hope we don’t have to wait till oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

  • blake

    There are very specific proposals, but I don’t see any practical global schemes because enforcement is non-existant. You cannot use programs like cap-and trade because there is no way to discourage free riding. Is it realistic to think sanctions or trade wars will be employed to ensure everyone plays by the rules? I might be a little more likely to trust in that if all the major CO2 emitters would be informed responsive democracies, but that is simply not the case. And furthermore, these are programs to lower the emissions of CO2, not to reduce the ppm in the atmosphere. That is a problem since no credible definition of where the tipping point resides has ever been shown to me. Woolley thinking indeed.

    Perhaps you misunderstand what I mean about “doing nothing” . I mean it is an impossiblity to do nothing about the effects of climate change. You seem to be referring to doing nothing about climate change itself. My only concern about rising temps and sea levels is how they impact humanity. I have no inherent concern for climate change at all. Reacting to the consequences as they come is not nothing unless you think the goal of all of this is to bring us into some sort of “moral balance” with nature, and not, as I think it is, about the preservation and improvement of the standards of living for humankind.

  • blake

    Solar and nuclear are undoubtedly the long term solutions. The problem is the fight over short term and medium term approaches.

    Subsidies for oil, inconsistent and unserious support for solar, and fear mongering about nuclear all ensure that the long term stays long term.

  • ian

    Why shouldn’t the long term solution BE the medium term solution? Putting 10x the funding into solar, correctly, will probably produce more than 10x the results of slowly giving out small amounts of funding to disjoint labs doing different things across the country.

    If solar’s possible, it could be developed in a few years of intensive work, or a few decades of lower-level work.

    Maybe the dod has a better development scheme for real projects than the doe?

  • Paul

    Blake, if climate change were not anthropogenic, I would agree, let’s just deal with the effects. The Earth’s climate has changed in the past, and species have simply adapted or died out. However, this time we are making it happen, and we are making it worse. Therefore, focusing only on adapting as things happen to us amounts to doing nothing, because it involves doing nothing about the cause of the problem. No “moral balance” is required. If we really do care about the “preservation and improvement of the standards of living for humankind,” we will get serious about this, and pronto.

  • blake

    paul, im not saying you are wrong, im saying that i dont see the existance of global warming being proof that our attempts to mitigate global warming without regard to alternatives is the only option.

    Anyway, the point may be moot, as I am pretty certain we won’t prevent further global warming, and we will end up simply adjusting to the changes. I don’t know how destructive that may end up being, but I see it as orders of magnitude more likely. So my 2 cents would be to at least prepare for that possibility. I don’t think we are doing so, and its because too many don’t want to give an inch to global warming deniers. They think acknowledging a back-up plan spells defeat for the current, large, climate change plan. I think that is irresponsible in light of the likelihood that we won’t pre-empt global warmings effects, whatever the reason.

  • Matt S.

    What “alternatives” would that be, Blake?

    Anyway, we can’t “stop” global climate change from happening and everyone agrees to that. So taking actions to guard coasts and trying to encourage settling farther in the land is what will be done anyway. What we all should be doing however, is LIMIT the extent of GW to around 2°C, which still is devastating, but it would be much worse if we just continued to do the things as we did them for the last century.

  • Hiranya

    Blake, there is a lot of sense in what you are saying. However, I don’t see why it’s mutually exclusive to both try to mitigate the effects of climate change as well as adapt to the changes resulting from the damage already done. Both are necessary – it is unrealistic to think that we will be able to get away with just mitigation measures. However, the adaptation we would have to deal with in the “business as usual” scenario is likely to be much, much worse. In questioning the accuracy of model projections, one is really asking “how likely is likely”. For me, the answer just has to be non-negligible. We only have one planet to live on, after all. Claiming that nothing can be done smacks to me of throwing up one’s hands and giving up before even trying (and no, we haven’t even come close to exploring what’s possible). I wish those people who are convinced that nothing can be done would at least not try to hinder those who think they can do something.

  • Neal J. King

    What is so unfortunate about having Dyson take such a skeptical attitude about global warming is that he puts his very eminent name to this posture, without adding any new insight or analysis. The “counter-arguments” he states are the same garbage that you can find on any contrarian website:

    – “The polar bears will be fine without all that ice”: This ignores the fact that polar bears did not exist the last time there was no ice in the Arctic.

    – “Plant life will be more productive in warmer climate”: This off-handed judgment ignores the detailed evaluation of the impact of warming on agricultural output done by specialists in the field.

    – “Over-reliance on models”: This ignores the fact that the basic trend can be inferred from the physics (specifically, radiative transfer in the atmosphere), and does not need to be calculated to great accuracy to be understood. We can get a clue from the qualitative analysis; the computations just put a better time frame on it.

    – “The impact will be good”: Dyson completely ignores the issues regarding devastation of biodiversity due to climate change happening much faster than many lifeforms can adapt. He complains about ignoring input from biologists, but he himself is ignoring the output from biologists!

    It would be great to have an “elder statesman” of science give his perspective on the scientific and societal fronts. However, it seems more that, as Weinberg suggests, Dyson values his role as “contrarian” more highly than his role as a follower of the evidence; and, as Hansen says, Dyson simply hasn’t done his homework.

    He’s allowed his facility with pulling off parlor tricks (like guessing the 18-digit number that increases in value by a factor of 2 when being cycled) to imagine that he can come to a conclusion better than someone who actually studies the data and does the hard work of analysis.

    It’s sad, but on this issue, Dyson has not shown himself to be a leader. (As I believe Ehrenfest once said about Lorenz, regarding his support for the Rayleigh-Jeans blackbody formula.)

  • Aleksandar Mikovic

    My problem with the idea of global worming is the following: According to the theory of Eearth glaciacion, i.e. the apearence and dissapearence of Ice Ages, the dominant factor is the Earth insolation and its variations due to Earth and solar plane precession. In this way one obtains the Milankovic cycles, which very accurately describe the Earth glaciacion in the past one milion years (see Wikipedia article). The dominat ice age patern has a periodicity of 100.000 years, which consists of a quick warming and a slow cooling to a new ice age. On top of this there are smaller fluctuations of warming and cooling. According to the experts, we are in the cooling phase (the last ice age was over 12.000 years ago). Human activity definitely contributes toward warming, but it is difficult to beleive that the human contribution is greater then the solar one, and that human activity can completely reverse the natural cooling trend. One shold then find a way to distinguish natural (solar) fluctuations from the human-induced contributions, and to compare them. This would be the only way to resolve the global worming dillema.

  • Neal J. King

    Aleksandar Mikovic,

    The starting point for the claim that extra CO2 causes global warming is the calculation that every doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentration should result in a 3.7 W/m^2 average radiative imbalance, as calculated by normal techniques in radiative transfer theory. This is the motivation for the concern for warming; it is not based on correlation with temperature as such.

    Furthermore, explanations alternative to CO2 and other human causes run afoul of the time-frame issue: the proposed non-human causes do not synchronize with the putative effect. In particular, over the last 20 years solar luminosity has not varied by more than one part in 1000. Likewise, variation in cosmic-ray intensity has been cyclical, not secular.

    So in the case of CO2, you have an explanation that matches the results (in combination with other known factors, like sulfate emissions and volcanic eruptions) in timing and magnitude; or alternatively, you have proposals that don’t have the right time behavior to explain the results, with uncalculated magnitude.

    So, on the one hand, a plausible explanation based on CO2 from fossil fuels; on the other hand, a handful of proposals, none of which really satisfy the basic requirements of an explanation. How to decide?

  • coolstar

    Gee “I also disagree with the “saying things like that is dangerous and gives ammunition to the real denialists” stance. We can’t let what we say be driven by worries that it will be misused by crazy people.” I KNOW you haven’t forgotten that crazy people essentially ruled this country for the past 8 years, with the consent of non-crazy people who were often convinced by arguments MUCH WEAKER than those given by Freeman and John. I am in fact, scared *shitless* that the real crazy people will pick up those arguments and convince gullible, but non-crazy people that we need do nothing about global warming (the evidence that this is already happening is pretty damn convincing).

  • Count Iblis

    Compare the economy of the West to the biology of a person. The West is rich, this translates to the person eating a lot. The waste products of all this overeating are starting to affect the health of the person.

    The person visits his doctor complaining about tiredness. Tests point out that the person is generally healthy, but he is overweight. The doctor recommends a diet and exercise. The doctor warns about potential catastrophic consequences if the person doesn’t lose weight.

    The person is skeptical. He thinks that cutting back on food is the wrong thing to do if you feel like having a lack of energy. Spending money to exercise in a gym and feeling tired afterwards is a stupid thing to do if you could have spend the money to buy a few Big Macs. After eating the Big Macs you have the energy to continue to play video games until bedtime.

  • Aleksandar Mikovic

    To Neal J. King:
    My problem is not the fact that increased CO2 concentration causes the extra retention of heat in the atmosphere, but whether this effect is big enough to significantly alter the glaciacion cycles.

  • Neal J. King

    Aleksandar Mikovic:

    The effect, 3.7 W/m^2 per CO2 doubling, is significant enough to shift temperatures according to the best modeling.

    The comparison with causes for glaciation cycles (Milankovitch cycles) is actually irrelevant, since those operate on timescales of rough multiples of 22,000 years. That comparison would be like worrying about whether a variation in the weather could be having an effect on the slow-down of a spinning top: the timescales are so different that there isn’t a useful physical connection between the phenomena.

  • Aleksandar Mikovic

    To Neal J. King:
    I do not understand what the time-scale has to do with the effect. What I would like to know is what is the power per square meter of energy received from Sun and how much is emmitted back, i.e. how much is retained, and how this value compares to 3.7 W/m^2 associated to CO2.

  • serial catowner

    The funny thing about this discussion is that there are literally billions of dollars waiting for the scientist or team that can build a reasonable case for “skepticism”. But it seems over the course of time the number of skeptics has become smaller, not larger.

    Like many scientists, for a long time I found that skepticism was its own reward. You often get lucky and are regarded as a very smart person who figures out a new way to look at things. Usually the worst thing that can happen is that you’re as wrong as most people.

    Eventually, though, I realized that skepticism isn’t a universal salve for the human condition. In fact, I consider this whole “I’m a scientist, so I must be skeptical” to be total baloney. Nobody walks around being skeptical of gravity, even though we know so little about it, just because they are a scientist.

    A scientist needs to be skeptical when they’re doing science. They are, however, perfectly free to believe in God, get lost in Mozart, and love women or men that some of us might regard as ‘plain’.

    And where better to apply the freedom of not being paralyzed by skepticism than in saving the planet? In the real world, the paralysis of doubt has to be accompanied by an estimate of the costs of inaction. Dally where those costs are zero, make a choice and try something where they are high.

    And apply some of that skepticism to the idea that cranking out fewer Hummers will be an economic loss. Something seriously wrong with that line of thinking.

  • Neal J. King

    78. Aleksandar Mikovic Says:
    April 6th, 2009 at 4:07 am

    To Neal J. King:
    I do not understand what the time-scale has to do with the effect. What I would like to know is what is the power per square meter of energy received from Sun and how much is emmitted back, i.e. how much is retained, and how this value compares to 3.7 W/m^2 associated to CO2

    Aleksandar Mikovic (78):

    – The average incoming flux at the top of the atmosphere is about 343 W/m^2. In steady-state, the outgoing flux is 343 W/m^2: In steady-state, they have to balance. The 3.7 W/m^2 imbalance associated with a 2X in CO2 is therefore a bit over 1% of the incoming flux; to find the actual increase, note that the imbalance scales logarithmically with the CO2 concentration
    – The point about time scale: If you invoke causes for the ice-ages to explain climate change in the last 150 years, you have to explain why those causes are suddenly creating changes on such a tiny time scale only now. To be more specific: The glacial changes are generally attributed to the Milankovitch variations in orbital parameters, rotational precession parameters, and motion of continents over the globe. Which of these do you think has shifted significantly in the last 150 years?
    – By contrast, the amount by which atmospheric CO2 has increased in the last 150 years is now more than 35%.

  • John

    Not sure if anyone is following this thread any more. But I thought that a quote from yesterday’s (April 15) NYT on black carbon from third-world cooking fires was interesting:

    But the awareness of black carbon’s role in climate change has come so recently that it was not even mentioned as a warming agent in the 2007 summary report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that pronounced the evidence for global warming to be “unequivocal.” Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of environmental engineering at Stanford, said that the fact that black carbon was not included in international climate efforts was “bizarre,” but “partly reflects how new the idea is.” The United Nations is trying to figure out how to include black carbon in climate change programs, as is the federal government.

    When I said I retained some skepticism about global warming, what I meant was that I was not sure we really knew everything there was to know about the problem. If this isn’t a perfect example I don’t know what is. Obviously, the impact here is to make the problem much worse! But are there things we don’t know about, that are not in our models, that might, just might, mean that it’s not as bad as we think? It’s the ultimate hubris to assert that we know everything…we simply don’t. We do know enough that we need to be very, very concerned and begin to take real action. The potential down side is quite bad.

    serial catowner, I think you are wrong that scientific skepticism is paralyzing. Quite the opposite, it is (or should be) liberating, intellectually! I think you mean that it is politically paralyzing, because it gives deniers an excuse for inaction. But is that a poor argument against scientific skepticism.

  • Neal J. King


    Unfortunately, we are living in a world in which positions taken for purely intellectual reasons can have political and thus real-world consequences, due to their interpretation and propagation in the blogosphere. Ignoring that fact is irresponsible.


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