[Marxism] Freeman Dyson and his critics

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jun 17 07:35:51 MDT 2008

> Lou:
> did you include the entire article? the link requires a subscription.
> Les

Sorry about that.

The Chronicle of Higher Education  The Chronicle Review


 From the issue dated June 20, 2008
A Noted Physicist's Contrarian View of Global Warming


The debate about global warming has become too narrow and opinions have 
become too entrenched, according to Freeman Dyson. "The worldwide 
community of environmentalists … holds the moral high ground and is 
guiding human societies toward a hopeful future," Dyson, an emeritus 
professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study, recently wrote 
in The New York Review of Books. But he took to task activists who have 
"adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the 
greatest threat to the ecology of our planet," and who criticize 
skeptics like himself who believe that global warming is distracting 
attention from more-urgent crises like nuclear proliferation and social 

Relying on a computer model designed by the Yale University economist 
William D. Nordhaus, Dyson compared the effectiveness and economic 
feasibility of various options for addressing climate change — from 
ambitious proposals like those championed by Al Gore and enshrined in 
the Kyoto Protocol, which call on developed countries to restrict 
emissions, to a "low-cost backstop" policy that assumes technology 
capable of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere will soon become 
available. Dyson's conclusion? He dismissed the more-ambitious 
approaches as "disastrously expensive" and advocated the "low-cost 
backstop" alternative.

The science of genetic engineering is advancing rapidly, he argued, and 
"genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" will probably be a reality 
within 20 years. "After we have mastered biotechnology," he concluded, 
"the rules of the climate game will be radically changed." Dyson's 
much-discussed quasi-contrarian approach to global warming has been 
mocked by some critics as overly optimistic, while others have found 
merit in his nuanced approach to environmental security.

David Archer, professor of geophysical sciences, University of Chicago: 
Ah, the famed Dyson vision thing, this is what we came for. … The 
problem here, unrecognized by Dyson, is that the business-as-usual he's 
defending would release almost as much carbon to the air by the end of 
the century as the entire reservoir of carbon stored on land, in living 
things, and in soils combined. The land carbon reservoir would have to 
double in size in order to keep up with us. This is too visionary for me 
to bet the farm on. (Real Climate)

Patrick, blogger: Dyson is certainly correct that biotechnology is going 
to change our lives … in the coming years, more than computers, 
certainly more than any industrial technology, and his thoughts on 
politics (the idea that China and India are going to cut emissions and 
go back to a 1970s economy is ludicrous) and technology make most of the 
people arguing about this problem look rather short-sighted. But then, 
scientists of the "great man" type like Dyson seem to be a rarer breed 
these days. (Popehat)

Nick Gillespie, editor, Reason.com: I'm more than a little unsettled by 
Dyson's casual equation of socialism and environmentalism, and the 
relatively uncomplicated assertion that greens hold the moral high 
ground (just as, one supposes, the socialists did?). However, I think 
Dyson is surely correct in a purely descriptive sense and there's this 
odd twist that might just make policy discussions more wide-ranging and 
meaningful. When an ideology becomes the background assumption, it's 
often easier to start discussing the limits of that system, or at least 
to start talking about meaningful differences again. (Hit & Run, Reason 

Eric Posner, professor of law, University of Chicago: Climate scientists 
and other spoilsports predictably charge Dyson with bad science — as 
though it were such a big deal to replace a forest half the size of the 
United States with carbon-eating, liquid-fuel-excreting trees that 
haven't yet been invented. (Perhaps the trees could also be designed so 
that they can give directions to lost hikers.) Rather than carping about 
the details, the critics should stop and ponder the implications of 
Dyson's optimism about technology for all the other problems that the 
world has not yet been able to solve.

If we think of all the complex, expensive, and not very effective treaty 
regimes that already exist for solving multiple problems — nuclear 
proliferation, the depletion of ocean fisheries, the destruction of the 
ozone layer, war, international terrorism, trade protectionism, etc. — 
we immediately see that all of these problems, like global warming, 
could be more easily addressed with a technological advance than with 
regulation. …

Meanwhile, we could solve virtually all of our environmental problems 
through the simple expedient of genetically engineering human beings to 
be four inches tall. … Four-inch-tall people would consume fewer of the 
world's resources, ensuring sustainable development for the benefit of 
our tiny descendants living thousands or even millions of years in the 
future. …

Here's a prediction. One hundred thousand years from now, a wise and 
prosperous race of four-inch-tall, carbon-neutral people, whose 
atmosphere has been scrubbed clean by forests of carbon-eating, 
liquid-fuel-excreting, fireproof trees that give directions to lost 
hikers, will look back at us with bemusement and pity, wondering why we 
troubled with climate treaties, lawsuits, cap-and-trade programs, and 
other expensive, unnecessary sacrifices, all for their benefit, when we 
could have lived it up and left technology to clean up our mess. 
(Convictions, Slate)

Stentor Benjamin Danielson, adjunct professor of cultural geography, 
Pima Community College: I'll say up front that of the geoengineering 
proposals out there, some form of carbon capture and storage is the most 
reasonable, and I think worth pursuing in some form. … Nevertheless, I 
think Dyson's plan for carbon-capturing trees (CCT) is a bad way to 
approach the problem.

Most of the ridicule has centered on Dyson's optimistic estimates of how 
quickly the technical barriers could be overcome. … I'm willing to grant 
him that, because what's more interesting to me is to try to imagine how 
the political ecology of implementing the technology would play out. We 
have enough experience — from reforestation schemes in India, ecological 
reserves in Brazil, palm oil plantations in Indonesia, old-growth 
logging in the USA, etc. — to make some reasonable predictions on this 
front. …

If we have CCT seeds, and money to make planting them profitable, the 
last thing we need is a place to plant them. The search for this land is 
likely to result in significant social injustice. It would be simple if 
we could just replant the extensive areas of the earth that have been 
deforested over the past couple of centuries. But forests are not simply 
cut down and abandoned — that land gets used for other things (farms, 
homes, etc.), and the people living there may, rightly or wrongly, not 
be keen on having their land reforested. (debitage)

Joseph Romm, senior fellow, Center for American Progress: I cannot 
imagine what possessed The New York Review of Books to have theoretical 
physicist Freeman Dyson review two books on human-caused global warming. 
It is a subject completely outside of his expertise and one that he has 
repeatedly said is bunk. …

As long as influential publications like The New York Review publish 
such unmitigated disinformation, it's going to be a long time before 
this country is ready to take the actions needed to avert catastrophic 
climate outcomes. (Climate Progress)

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