Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Freeman Dyson and global warming

This week's New York Times magazine has a long and interesting article about Freeman Dyson, best known as a brilliant physicist, but lately more controversial as a skeptic on global warming. Some of Dyson's ideas about global warming were published last year in the New York Review of Books, which also published some the responses that followed.

Dyson's skepticism appears to be two-pronged. First, he thinks that the science of global warming remains incomplete; too much of it, he thinks, relies on models that we know to be imperfect. The complaint that excess reliance on models is problematic is not unreasonable; but Dyson ignores the many separate pieces of evidence that all point to a similar conclusion without requiring complex models — see, for instance, Elizabeth Kolbert's excellent Field Notes from a Catastrophe.

This brings us to the second prong of Dyson's concern: he thinks that the human impact of global warming will be comparatively minor, and that any major problems can be addressed by human ingenuity. In the New York Times article, he notes that China may be a terrible polluter, but lots of Chinese are joining the middle class, which ought to be worth something.

Fair enough, but we are talking about global warming, not Chinese warming. And those in the Maldives whose lives and homes are threatened by rising water levels will surely not be enthusiastic about those new middle class Chinese. Similarly, human ingenuity combined with human wealth will probably cushion most Americans from possible bad effects of global warming. But that cannot be of much comfort to regions in Africa where global warming may be contributing to accelerating desertification.

Dyson's skepticism has libertarian overtones: don't get the government involved on a large scale, wait and see how serious a problem is before doing anything about it, and chances are people will come up with their own solution anyway. What I find puzzling about this is that he has spent much of his career arguing about the dangers of nuclear weapons — an area where similar libertarian-type arguments could be made. Why should those arguments apply to global warming but not to nuclear weapons?

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