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A Partial Response to Freeman Dyson & Climate Skeptics

July 20, 2012

Misinformation makes me upset. A couple hours ago, I posted an article written by Bill McKibben on my Facebook. The article, in general, discusses the dangers of climate change and advocates that people take a more adversarial stance towards fossil fuels and the companies that sell them. In response, a friend of mine posted this article, which is written by physicist Freeman Dyson. Dyson’s article, unfortunately, lacks sources and uses many techniques typical to climate change-deniers. Worse, I, having never taken a course in climate science, was able to identify blatant scientific errors that Dyson could easily have avoided if he had conducted a basic Google search. In this post, I will go through and respond to some of the errors that I found particularly disturbing. I’d love to do a more thorough break-down, but I unfortunately don’t have the time tonight, and I want to get this post up ASAP. . . I think it’s important.

Dyson organizes his paper around what he calls his “three heresies.” His first heresy is that “global warming is grossly exaggerated.” He writes,

I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests.

First, I’d like to make a criticism that, largely, applies to his entire paper: He speaks in vast generalizations. In this short excerpt, he speaks generally of all climate models, of which there are many. Then, he explains how they do a poor job of describing “the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests.” Here are my questions after reading this sentence: in what ways do these models not take into these factors? Are these factors significant, and, if so, how much? What studies have been done to validate these claims? Dyson makes no attempt to answer any of these questions, which renders this passage inconsequential. To me, it reads “there may or may not be factors that climate models do not account for, these factors may or may not be significant, and there may or may not be studies to validate these claims.”

What Dyson does here is typical of climate change skeptics. He highlights uncertainties in climate change, uncertainties that climate modelers are well aware of and transparent about, and argues that these uncertainties are reason for inaction. This exact argument, that climate models are not reliable because of uncertainties, is still regularly made today. However, as Ronald Prinn, director of the Center for Global Change Science at MIT, notes, “The models are certainly good enough to clearly show the benefits of mitigation policies compared to no policy, in lowering risks.  We cannot wait for perfection in climate forecasts before taking action.”

Dyson continues to employ this technique throughout his paper and, like in this first paragraph, regularly provides no scientific evidence (and sometimes wrong scientific evidence) to support the uncertainties that he says may exist. I will highlight some of these examples of misinformation, but you only need to read the paper yourself to see them all.

In the next paragraph, Dyson writes

I am not saying that the warming does not cause problems . . . . I am saying that the problems are grossly exaggerated. They take away money and attention from other problems that are more urgent and more important, such as poverty and infectious disease and public education and public health, and the preservation of living creatures on land and in the oceans.

Here, I’d like to point out that every issue Dyson mentions – “poverty and infectious disease and public education and public health, and the preservation of living creatures on land and in the oceans” – are all directly related to climate change. Search “public health and climate change” or “biodiversity and climate change” if you want to see for yourself.

Also, again, the argument Dyson makes here is common – he advocates spending money on adaptation rather than prevention. However, in regards to this issue, I’d like to direct you to this great article, and I recommend reading the section titled “Adaptation is Costlier than Mitigation.” To summarize, the author examines the costs of carbon emissions. Already, they are causing hundreds of billions of dollars of damage annually. Also, “research by the German Institute for Economic Research and Watkiss et al. 2005” both conclude that climate change mitigation would save tens of trillions of dollars.

Figure 1: Approximate global costs of climate action (green) and inaction (red) in 2100 and 2200. Sources: German Institute for Economic Research and Watkiss et al. 2005

Like Dyson, many climate-skeptics argue that it will be cheaper to adapt than to prevent. Well, I’ve never seen evidence to support this claim. Conversely, there is peer-reviewed scientific work that says the opposite.

Next, Dyson goes on to explain that we can remove carbon from the atmosphere by changing land-use practices.

To stop the carbon in the atmosphere from increasing, we only need to grow the biomass in the soil by a hundredth of an inch per year. Good topsoil contains about ten percent biomass, [Schlesinger, 1977], so a hundredth of an inch of biomass growth means about a tenth of an inch of topsoil. Changes in farming practices such as no-till farming, avoiding the use of the plow, cause biomass to grow at least as fast as this.

First off, this idea is not new, and I’m sure climate scientists are well aware of its existence. Many environmentalists advocate for the exact land-use practices Dyson suggests. His ignorance to this suggests to me a lack of research and knowledge about climate change. Second, his statement “Changes in farming practices . . . cause biomass to grow at least as fast as this” is qualitative and lacks any source. Therefore, I’m not sure if it is accurate.

Once Dyson finishes discussing biomass, he goes on to mention uncertainty again.

When I listen to the public debates about climate change, I am impressed by the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations and the superficiality of our theories. Many of the basic processes of planetary ecology are poorly understood.

He is correct – many ecological processes are poorly understood. However, his second statement is what I take issue with. He writes, “When we are trying to take care of a planet, just as when we are taking care of a human patient, diseases must be diagnosed before they can be cured. We need to observe and measure what is going on in the biosphere, rather than relying on computer models.” The problem with his analogy is that we do have an excellent idea of what the disease responsible for climate change is – carbon emissions. 98% of climate scientists agree on this issue. If 98% of doctors told me that the water I was drinking was poison, I would stop drinking it.

In the next paragraph, Dyson makes the first statement that I recognized as being factually wrong. He writes, “In humid air, the effect of carbon dioxide on radiation transport is unimportant because the transport of thermal radiation is already blocked by the much larger greenhouse effect of water vapor.” This is a common misconception that has been debunked since the 1950’s, and I was frankly quite surprised to read it from a physicist with a doctoral degree. As Gilbert Plass explained in his 1956 paper, “Carbon Dioxide and the Climate,” water vapor and CO2 do not absorb over the same infrared spectra. Also, carbon absorption is greater over a larger height of the atmosphere. Therefore, water vapor does not mitigate CO2 warming. Again, Dyson easily could have learned this if he done proper research.

Unfortunately, I’d like to get to bed, so I’m going to stop here – I think people reading this post should understand my point. If you are still unconvinced, do some more fact checking for yourself. In particular, I encourage you to research his second “heresy,” that, because of climate change, the Sahara may become a lush, hospitable land.

To conclude, I’d just like to summarize some of my points. In this article, Dyson tries to argue that climate change is being exaggerated because there is a lot that we don’t know. He tries to give examples of these uncertainties but fails to convey whether or not they exist and whether or not they are significant. Very rarely does he source, and he expresses scientifically false views that are commonly by laypeople with no knowledge of climate science. I, with no background in climate science, was able to identify some of these errors. One of Dyson’s main points was that people should be skeptical about all science. I would agree, but I think that uninformed skepticism makes you look ignorant and, in the case of climate change, can even be damaging to others if it leads to inaction.

Change Can Happen

April 30, 2011

Over 500 have now “liked” the WPI student run facebook page ExxonMobil Doesn’t Speak for Me. Strong messages of support are being posted by the people who have never met these students but heard their story. Paul Garner wrote “Congratulations on displaying the moral courage of your convictions, the courage to see things through!” Jen Hartley said “YEAH! You are an inspiration! This is an incredible statement to make, that you have brains in your head and a VOICE…You are true scholars and activists and you should be damn proud.”Perhaps the most stirring form of support came from Kathryn Blume who posted this video on the group’s page:

All this support was inspiring, truly incredible. Even more incredible, however, was this post on their facebook page:

“Good News! We are thrilled to announce that our negotiations with the administration have come to a satisfying resolution.

Student who wish to avoid ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s speech will be allowed to do so. A row will be reserved them the back so that we may join the rest of the class afterwards for the degree-granting ceremony.

In addition, our alternate speaker Richard Heinberg has been offered the same stage as Tillerson. I can confirm Richard will be speaking after commencement, at 3 PM on May 14th, on the Quad.

We are delighted at this outcome, which satisfies both our, and the needs of the administration.”

In other words, they did it. These students made their voices heard and accomplished their goal. It seems that through hard work and support, change really can happen.  Personally, I have never been more optimistic about our future than I am right now.

I am so proud of WPI for listening to these students and for allowing them to uphold their integrity and walk at graduation. For a while there, I thought my beloved school was going to let me down.

And to all you brave seniors; I could not be happier for you. All your work paid off – what an inspiring way to end your time here at WPI. Congratulations.

Plea to WPI to Support Seniors Standing up for their Beliefs

April 30, 2011

What is accepting your college diploma at your college commencement worth? Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), where I am a student, is forcing the class of 2011 to contemplate this question very seriously. WPI’s seniors are being indirectly denied their earned privilege to walk at their graduation. The reason: they are planning to walk out during the address of their commencement speaker, Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil.

Those opposed believe that Rex Tillerson, who Rolling Stone calls “No. 6 Exec or Politician Blocking Action on Global Warming,” does not represent WPI’s values of environmental preservation and social equity – an opinion which I hold as well. Exxon is one of the biggest polluters in the world. If they were a country, only five others would produce more carbon emissions. Of more concern is the $16 million that Exxon funneled to “a network of ideological and advocacy organizations that manufacture uncertainty on global warming” between 1998 and 2005. I do not believe that WPI, as an academic institution, should be honoring the CEO of a company that actively aided the spread of misinformation on the most pressing scientific issue of our time.

Nevertheless, my intention here is not to vilify Rex Tillerson but to support these students who are standing with conviction. I admire all the work they have done – In addition to educating the WPI community about climate change through films, media and tabling, they were able to bring in Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow-inResidence at the Post Carbon Institute as an alternate speaker. Initially, their plan was to leave the commencement ceremony during Tillerson’s address to attend a counterpoint address given by Mr. Heinberg. Following this alternative address, the students planned to return to their commencement ceremony to walk with their class and accept their diplomas. In a recent email to the graduating class, however, WPI stated that students who left the ceremony would not be allowed to reenter. I ask WPI to reconsider this decision.

The students are willing to work with WPI’s administration to find a solution that is mutually agreeable for both parties – they have emphasized that, by walking off, they do not want to disrupt the ceremony but instead wish to simply uphold their integrity. One idea presented suggested that a row of seats could be reserved in the very back of the ceremony for students who planned to walk out. Thus, the students sitting in this row could leave and return with minimal disturbance. Their names would be given to the registrar and they could be called last to receive their diplomas. Various administrators said they saw no logistical reason this would not work.

As a WPI student, I am disappointed by WPI’s failure heretofore to formulate a workable plan that would allow all to participate in the commencement ceremony. WPI is the place where I was first exposed to the world’s environmental challenges – it was the institution that inspired me to take an active role to help find solutions to the world’s environmental problems. As a student, I regularly hear about WPI’s sustainability initiatives such as our LEED certified buildings and state of the art recycling programs. Therefore, in many ways I feel betrayed by the way WPI has handled this situation. Not only was Rex Tillerson chosen as our commencement speaker, but the students who are speaking out against this decision are being punished. Shouldn’t WPI, as an institution that values the environment, be supportive of these students who are acting in accordance with their values of environmental sustainability? Shouldn’t students like these be the types of leaders that WPI is proud to present diplomas?

I understand that many faculty, students and staff have put a lot of work into planning this ceremony. I also am aware that they want it to be a memorable and celebratory event for all the deserving seniors that are graduating. However, there are solutions that can accomplish these goals and that still allow all students to walk on stage and receive their diplomas. Therefore, as an academic institution that prides itself on “environmental preservation, economic prosperity, and social equity for all members of society” and on developing some of tomorrow’s leaders in science and technology, I ask that the WPI administration accommodate these students so that they are able to walk with their class and uphold their integrity. This, I believe, is a privilege that these students most certainly have earned.