November 12, 2010


The Danger of Cosmic Genius: In the range of his genius, Freeman Dyson is heir to Einstein—a visionary who has reshaped thinking in fields from math to astrophysics to medicine, and who has conceived nuclear-propelled spaceships designed to transport human colonists to distant planets. And yet on the matter of global warming he is, as an outspoken skeptic, dead wrong: wrong on the facts, wrong on the science. How could someone as smart as Dyson be so dumb about the environment? The answer lies in his almost religious faith in the power of man and science to bring nature to heel. (Kenneth Brower, December 2010, The Atlantic)

In August 2009, Dyson appeared on the Charlie Rose show. His inimitable voice—somehow both diffident and firm, its original British accent overlaid by an American one—caught me in transit of my living room, and I pulled up a chair. Dyson has aged well. He has kept himself trim, not to say scrawny, and what he radiates in his 80s is a kind of wizened boyishness. I smiled at the familiar mannerisms. Freeman and his son, George, share an odd, cryptic style of chuckling in which the chin drops, the eyes get merry, and the shoulders shake with laughter, but no sound comes out.

Among intelligent nonexperts who have weighed in on climate change, Freeman Dyson has become, now that Michael Crichton is dead, perhaps our most prominent global-warming skeptic. Charlie Rose began his interview with questions about the climate. Dyson answered that he remained very skeptical about the dangers of global warming. He did not believe the pronouncements of the experts. He did not claim to be an expert himself, so he would not argue the details with anybody; he had not given much time to the issue and did not pretend to know the real answers, but what he knew for sure was that the global-warming experts did not know the answers, either.

Dyson did not deny that the world was getting warmer. What he doubted was the models of the climatologists, and the grave consequences they predicted, and the supposition that global warming is bad. “I went to Greenland myself, where the warming is most extreme,” he said. “And it’s quite spectacular, of course, what you see in Greenland. But what is also true is, the people there love it. The people there hope it continues. It makes their lives a lot more pleasant.”

Dyson argued that melting ice and the resulting sea-level rise is no cause for alarm. He said that the release of increasing volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is a very good thing, as it makes plants grow better. The important thing to remember, he said, is that the planet is warming mainly in places that are cold, and at night rather than during the day, so that the phenomenon is essentially making the climate more even, rather than just making everything hotter.

“Have we been kind to the planet?” Rose asked at one point.

“Yes. I would say, on the whole, yes.”

When Rose expressed surprise at this answer, the physicist backtracked slightly.

“No, the fact is, of course, we’ve done a lot of damage to the planet, but we also repair the damage. I grew up in England, and England was far more filthy then than it is now. We had the industrial revolution first, so England was much more polluted than the United States ever has been, and England now is quite comparatively clean. You can go to London and your collar doesn’t get black in one day.”

The question that phrases itself now, in the minds of many, is: how could someone as smart as Freeman Dyson be so dumb?

That humanity has been kind to the planet is not a possible interpretation, not even for a moment—certainly not for anyone who has been paying the slightest attention at any point in the 4,700 years of human history since Gilgamesh logged the cedar forest of the Fertile Crescent. That we repair our damage to the planet is a laughable assertion. It is true that the air is better now in London, and in Los Angeles too. Collars do blacken more slowly in both those places. Some rivers in the developed world are somewhat cleaner, as well: the Cuyahoga has not burned in many years. But it is also true that the Atlantic is afloat with tar balls, and that detached sections of fishnet and broken filaments of longline drift, ghost-fishing, in all our seas. Many of the large cities of Africa, South America, and Asia are megalopolises of desperate poverty ringed by garbage. Vast tracts of tropical rain forest, the planet’s most important carbon sink, disappear annually, burned or logged or mined. Illegal logging is also ravaging the slow-growing boreal forests of Siberia. The ozone hole over Antarctica continues to open every southern spring, exposing all life beneath to unfiltered ultraviolet rays. African wildlife is in precipitous decline. Desertification continues in the Sahel, turning that semi-arid zone into just more Sahara. Frogs are vanishing everywhere. We are in the middle of a mass die-off, the “sixth extinction,” this one caused not by volcanoes or collisions with asteroids and comets, as before, but by mankind—with species disappearing, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, at 1,000 to 10,000 times the rate prevalent over the 65 million years since the previous great extinction. That one was caused by an asteroid strike—the cataclysm that ended the Cretaceous Period, killing off the dinosaurs and nearly everything else alive. It is wonderful that Dyson, in his trips home to London, finds less soot on his collar, but this is perhaps not the best measure of planetary health.

Many of Dyson’s facts on global warming are wrong, as the scientists who have done actual research on the subject point out, but more disconcerting is the selective way he gathers his information and the peculiar conceptual framework into which he inserts it.

It is true that plants grow better with increases in carbon dioxide. (Photosynthesis is the conversion of carbon dioxide and sunlight into organic compounds, so the more CO2 and sunlight, the better, up to a point.) If a plant’s survival depended only on its metabolism—if all it had to do was photosynthesize—then increased CO2 in the atmosphere might indeed be a good thing. But plants happen to grow in these little universes we call ecosystems, where they are sustained by complex webs of interdependency with fungi, microbes, animals, and other plants. Much of this mutually dependent life is adapted to narrow temperature and rainfall regimes, and these biomes are collapsing everywhere.

Plants do grow better with increased CO2, but not when deprived of water. Water is a vanishing commodity in the American West, where I live, and where, like the Australians and Sudanese and many others, we are enduring a succession of increasingly prolonged and severe droughts. Drought is a paleontological fact in the American West, but the latest desiccations have a new signature, and my region’s climatologists, hydrologists, foresters, and water managers are nearly unanimous in their conviction that what we are seeing now is climate change, the anthropogenic kind, a consequence of too much CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Drought-induced stress increases plants’ susceptibility to disease, and tree diseases are epidemic now in my home landscape and elsewhere. Plants grow better with increased CO2, but not when they are dead snags.

The planet, Dyson assured Rose, is warming mainly in places that are cold; it is not getting hotter so much as the climate is evening out. This is a peculiar analysis. The fact is that the planet is getting hotter, by small but enormously consequential increments. That the warming is most pronounced in cold places is true, but this is no consolation to the creatures that live there. I recently returned from reporting on diminishing sea ice and the decline of penguin populations and krill stocks on the Antarctic Peninsula, the western side of which, over the past half century, has been warming at five times the world’s average rate. I feel obligated to put in a word for the elephant seals, fur seals, crabeater seals, leopard seals, whales, penguins, albatrosses, petrels, and other members of that cold-adapted, krill-dependent fauna. Dyson’s implication that an evening out of global temperatures might somehow be a neutral or beneficial phenomenon is astounding. Temperature differentials at different latitudes and altitudes are a prime driver of planetary weather. Weather patterns, needless to say, are full of consequence not just for penguins and seals, but for all life everywhere.

How could someone as brilliant as Freeman Dyson take the positions he does on global warming and other environmental issues? [...]

In the June 12, 2008, New York Review of Books, in an essay called “The Question of Global Warming,” Dyson reviews books on that subject by William Nordhaus and Ernesto Zedillo. He writes,

All the books that I have seen about the science and economics of global warming, including the two books under review, miss the main point. The main point is religious rather than scientific. There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth.

After halfheartedly endorsing this idea of stewardship, Dyson goes on to lament that “the worldwide community of environmentalists—most of whom are not scientists”—have “adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet.” This is a tragic mistake, he says, for it distracts from the much more serious problems that confront us.

Environmentalism does indeed make a very satisfactory kind of religion. It is the faith in which I myself was brought up. In my family, we had no other. My father, David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club and the founder of Friends of the Earth, could confer no higher praise than “He has the religion.” By this, my father meant that the person in question understood, felt the cause and the imperative of environmentalism in his or her bones. The tenets go something like this: this living planet is the greatest of miracles. We Homo sapiens, for all the exceptionalism of our species, are part of a terrestrial web of life and are utterly dependent upon it. Nature runs the biosphere much better than we do, as we demonstrate with our ham-handedness each time we try. The arc of human history is unsustainable. We cannot go on destroying natural systems and expect to survive.

Freeman Dyson does not have the religion. He has another religion.

“The main point is religious rather than scientific,” he writes, yet never acknowledges that this proposition cuts both ways, never seems to recognize the extent to which his own arguments proceed from faith. Environmentalism worships the wisdom of Nature. Dysonism worships the indomitable ingenuity of Man. Dyson often suggests that science is on his side, but lately little of his popular exposition on planetary matters has anything to do with science. His futurism is solidly in the tradition of Jules Verne, as it has been since he was 8 and wrote “Sir Phillip Roberts’s Erolunar Collision.” On the question of global warming, the world’s climatologists and scientific institutions are almost unanimously arrayed against him. On his predictions for the future of ecosystems, ecologists beg to differ. Dysonian proclamations like “Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over” are not science. (His argument here, which is that cultural evolution has replaced the Darwinian kind, is at best premature and at worst the craziest kind of hubris.) [...]

Freeman, for his part, seems to have settled more deeply into his own secular religion, becoming a prominent evangelist of the faith. He is in such a scientific minority on climate change that his views are easy to dismiss. In the worldview underlying those opinions, however—in the articles of his secular faith—he makes a kind of good vicar for a much more widely accepted set of beliefs, the set that presently drives our civilization. The tenets go something like this: things are not really so bad on this planet. Man is capable of remaking the biosphere in a coherent and satisfactory way. Technology will save us.

In “Our Biotech Future,” a 2007 essay in The New York Review of Books, Dyson writes,

Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures … New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora.

He goes on to predict that computer-style biotech games will be played by children down to kindergarten age, games in which real seeds and eggs are manipulated, the winner being the kid who grows the prickliest cactus or the cutest dinosaur. “These games will be messy and possibly dangerous. Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others.”

One always searches Dyson’s prognostications for hints of irony. Surely this vision of powerful biotechnology in the hands of housewives and kindergartners—godlike power exercised by human amateurs as amusement—is a Swiftian suggestion, Dyson’s try at “A Modest Proposal.” But nowhere in this essay will you find a single sly wink. Dyson is serious.

How is it possible to misapprehend so profoundly so much about how the real world works?

Mr. Dyson would seem to believe that Man can change the environment significantly, both for good and ill. Mr. Brower would seem to believe that Man can change the environment significantly, but only for ill. It's an argument within a religion, not between them.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 12, 2010 6:37 PM
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