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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.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jack T permalink
    July 20, 2012 8:08 pm

    So I read your analysis of the article and I hate to say it, but I think you missed the point. His critiques of climate change are part of the article but its much more about how bold, perhaps short-sighted, scientists who go to the public media and say things have effectively sensationalized the topic. This has begun to detach the science from climate science.
    To get the public media to listen to you, you end up sensationalizing your own story, or through editing it ends up being sensationalized. Any scientist who has talked to a newspaper or a TV program can attest to this.
    Dyson’s critiques of climate models are questions he has not heard other people ask. His heresies are to be debunked, and that’s great you did it for a few of them. If you read the whole article he states that it is very possible that he is wrong about everything. Science needs heretics to poke the status quo and be proved wrong. If no one is willing to do this, science is not being conducted. I’m sorry if the heresies are not super up to date, I’m pretty sure the book was written in the early 2000’s.
    If you keep reading Dyson states he had a colleague who thought that the earth naturally created reserves of oil and natural gas. Crazy right? He goes on to say that there is a study (He lists the school specifically) that proves that under significant pressure methane can be created from seawater. The point is that science isn’t about having all the answers at once, its slow and methodical. 99% of the time you should not expect to see any change in your lifetime. I think the proverb is “The best old men plant trees they will never see grow.”
    The green community thinks that they currently have the best answer to solve the problem and that drastic action must be taken now, usually through legislation. At this point this is no longer science because nobody within the group is questioning anything.
    I don’t want to be called a climate sceptic, it’s a bad label to have assigned to oneself as it’s occupied by another sensationalized group of people. I do think climate change is having an effect on our environment but whether it is positive or negative, and how to solve or mitigate it effectively is still up for scientific debate. To come to the right answer, we need disagreements and people need to not be attached to the idea that they could very well be wrong about everything. We don’t need the media pandering to people’s fears to sell articles and scientist who would be reputable otherwise backing them up for a fat boost to their bank account.

    TL;DR The article is about science/media sensationalism and how it creates a single-minded short-sighted research environment rather than a scientific one, not about serious climate scepticism.

    • July 20, 2012 10:37 pm

      John, I did understand the point of the article, as noted in my comment to you “I think Dyson may have meant well (he is just trying to make the point that you should be skeptical)” and in my response “One of Dyson’s main points was that people should be skeptical about all science” (though I don’t think it was a critique of sensationalism, but I do think it is a relevant topic that I’d be interested in discussing). The reason I wrote this response was because you posted this article as an alternative viewpoint to the Bill McKibben article that I posted, which suggested to me that you took what Dyson was saying about climate science seriously. Therefore, my issues with the article are not Dyson’s points about skepticism – they are the misinformation that Dyson is spreading, inadvertently or not. The point I am trying to make is that being skeptical about science and misinformation are not the same, and Dyson errs towards the latter.

      As I said in my post, Dyson uses many techniques that are commonly employed by climate skeptics. Most obviously, he highlights uncertainties in scientific models and suggests that these uncertainties are reason for inaction. Historically, techniques such as these have steered the debate away from the science that does exist and led to inaction. 98% of climate scientists believe climate change is happening and that it’s anthropogenic, yet a 2008 poll (near the time Dyson wrote the article) showed that only 40% of Americans agree (Dunlap and McRight, 2008). The reason for this is because of articles similar to Dyson’s. Also, Dyson’s heresies were debunked long before the early 2000’s, so my arguments have nothing to do with Dyson’s article being dated (see next post for continuation).

      You write, “The green community thinks that they currently have the best answer to solve the problem and that drastic action must be taken now, usually through legislation. At this point this is no longer science because nobody within the group is questioning anything.” First off, this is a generalization. There is certainly no consensus within the green community about what “the best answer” is. Also, you offer no base for your statement “at this point this is no longer science because nobody within the group is questioning anything.” There may be some environmentalists who fit under that category (I’ve met a few myself) but certainly not all. We’ve had enough conversations for you to know that I am skeptical about all that I read and hear. I never accept science simply because it spins itself as being pro-environment. I understand that many environmental issues are incredibly complex and that conclusions made regarding them need to questioned and analyzed.

      Also, I’d like to comment on your statement, “I do think climate change is having an effect on our environment but whether it is positive or negative, and how to solve or mitigate it effectively is still up for scientific debate.” I agree with the second half – no one knows how best to mitigate climate change. However, I would disagree with the first half. The vast majority of climate scientists argue that anthropogenic climate change is occurring and that its effects will be detrimental to human populations. Analyze the peer-reviewed literature to see for yourself. Therefore, though we may not know the “best” solutions, there is consensus that we do need solutions. Again, to re-quote Ronald Prinn, director of the Center for Global Change Science at MIT, “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.”

      To summarize, we don’t have time to “come to the right answer,” as you recommend. We need to try different solutions, question them, and analyze their effectiveness scientifically. Dyson may have meant well in making the point that skepticism is important, but un-researched arguments – especially ones that people take seriously – are not the proper way to convey this. That is why I take issue with this article.

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