Sunday, March 29, 2009

On climate change, and "The civil heretic" - Freeman Dyson

The NYT magazine has a long profile on Freeman Dyson, particularly his skepticism on the ill-effects and severity of climate change.  Dyson suggests engineering carbon-eating trees (consuming CO2 more than normal), apparently an idea he had a couple decades back.  Among other things, he suggests climate warming may be good (e.g. making Greenland more habitable), while solutions to reduce anthropogenic climate warming - moving away from carbon fuels, particularly coal - are disadvantageous to developing economies like China (and, presumably, India/Africa.)

Reading the article, a couple things struck me.  First, most climate scientists agree that anthropogenic climate change* is real and dangerous; hence the IPCC consensus report.  However, this perhaps makes certain scientists treat this consensus as orthodoxy to be rebeled against; certainly this appears to be one reason for Dyson's opposition. [There's perhaps also a romantic notion that science is really about one person with a good idea, as a colleague described Michael Crichton's opposition to anthropogenic climate change. What such folks don't realize is that this one person could also be dead wrong.]

Second, and again another reason for Dyson's opposition, is that the solution requires enormous changes in the current fossil fuel-based infrastructure (never mind Dyson's own idea for a massive energy-collecting shell orbiting a star - talk about enormous!)  Replacing the entire carbon infrastructure at one go is, indeed, a major task, which will frighten government bean counters and the public alike (though politicians do like huge solutions.)
What I would suggest, instead, is a combination of (a) carbon sequestration; (b) nuclear energy; and (c) decentralized/local energy solutions.  Carbon sequestration allows continued use of cheap coal and oil, while reducing or eliminating CO2 emissions (what I understand by "clean coal").  Second, nuclear energy is, in the long run, the only safe, large-scale energy source to provide for the aspirations of the billions living in China, India and Africa (clumping all African nations into one here, and why not?)  Third, distributed, decentralized energy sources like wind energy, geothermal, even solar, are probably more efficient than a central coal or nuclear energy plant that depends on a lossy transmission grid, while moving us toward a renewable energy structure that might perhaps be more comforting to opponents of nuclear energy.

Finally, there are good reasons to move to non-carbon energy outside of climate considerations. First, that fossil fuels are limited, and will run out - if not in the next 50 years, likely in a couple of centuries.  Second, and more immediate, national security - countries like the US and India cannot continue to depend on an unstable Middle East or Venezuela for their growing energy needs.  This last reason alone should be good enough to convince most right-wing skeptics (and folks like Dyson, who loves Obama and loathes Bush!) of the need for a non-carbon energy future.

*I am uncomfortable with the term "global warming" - because while the average temperature of the earth will increase, regional changes will be different due to the effects of aerosols and other factors.  Some places will get much hotter, others will get colder.  Hence, my insistence on climate change.


Freedem said...

Reading the whole article I am struck at how much Dyson embodies the "absent minded professor" image, particularly as described in Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle". Absolutely brilliant at solving a problem without going far beyond into the implications of the solution.

Note worthy was "termites bred to consume derelict cars" without considering what they might do to the ones not so derelict, quite aside from difficulties of creating them.

Like Ayn Rand, it is not that they are paid or even willing tools of evil forces, but that they provide a platform for those forces to destroy the world. It is not the platform but the enhanced ability for gobs of money to make excessive use of them that is the problem.

RS said...

Absent-minded or ivory-tower... Take your pick. Another example is Roger Pielke, Jr - he talks about capturing CO2 from the atmosphere using a yet-undiscovered technology, even though he agrees source capture is more efficient.
I concur - such well-intentioned folks provide a scientific leg that less well-intentioned folks can rest their hats on. Will have to read Cat's Cradle!

Freedem said...

Ivory Tower is ignorance in a "let them eat cake" kind that a lifetime of bubble living brings.

Absent-minded is a special kind of stupidity in an otherwise (presumably) very brilliant person. Vonnegut does a great in depth. Cats-cradle is kind of required reading, though it was underground subversive stuff you could get thrown out of class for reading when I read it.

His "Mother Night" is also particularly relevant today though it never got the kudos of "cradle".

I made an online list but if it included books the early works of Vonnegut and Barry Longyear would be on it.