Since I was talking the other day about the analytical habit of mind, this is a good time to link to an article by someone who has it like few other people alive: Freeman Dyson, who is thankfully still with us and still thinking hard. At the moment, he seems to be thinking about something that involves chemistry, physics, economics, and plenty of politics.
He has an article in the latest New York Review of Books that is one of the most sensible things I have ever seen on the issue of global warming. I strongly urge people to read it, because it’s a perspective that you don’t often see. (It ends, in fact, with a small note of despair at how seldom that particular viewpoint comes up). I found it particularly interesting, as you might guess, because I agreed with it a great deal.
Dyson stipulates at the beginning that carbon dioxide levels are, in fact, rising, and that they have been for some time. And he also is willing to stipulate that this will lead, other factors being equal, to a rise in global temperatures. He doesn’t get into the details, although there are endless details to get into, but goes on to make some larger points.
One of them is economic. One of the books he’s reviewing, by economist William Nordhaus, is an attempt to work out the best course of action. Nordhaus is not denying a problem, to put it mildly: his estimate comes out to about 23 trillion dollars of harm in the next hundred years (in constant dollars, yet) if nothing is done at all. The question is, how much will the various proposed solutions cost in comparison?
His numbers come out this way: the best current policy he can come up with, a carefully tuned carbon tax that increases year by year, comes out to only 20 trillion of damage, as opposed to 23 – that is, plus three trillion constant dollars. The Kyoto Protocol, turned down by the US Senate during the Clinton years, comes out to 22 trillion dollars of harm (one trillion to the good) if the US were to participate, and completely even (no good whatsoever) without the US. The Stern Review plan, endorsed by the British government, comes out to 37 trillion dollars of total harm, and Al Gore’s proposed policies come out down 44 trillion dollars: that is, twenty-one trillion dollars worse than doing nothing at all.
As Dyson correctly points out, these latter two proposals appear to be “disastrously expensive”. And the problem with such courses of action are that this money could be used for something better: Nordhaus also calculates the effect of finding some reasonably low-cost method to cut back on carbon dioxide emissions, such as a more efficient means of generating solar or geothermal power, the advent of genetically engineered plants with a high carbon-sequestering ability, etc. That general route comes out to roughly 6 trillion dollars of total harm, which is seventeen trillion better than doing nothing (and thirty-eight trillion better than the Full Albert). That’s by far the most attractive solution, if it can be realized. But doing an extra ten or twenty trillion dollars of damage to the global economy will make that rather unlikely, if we choose to do that.
And there are other effects. To quote Dyson:
” The practical consequence of the Stern policy would be to slow down the economic growth of China now in order to reduce damage from climate change a hundred years later. Several generations of Chinese citizens would be impoverished to make their descendants only slightly richer. According to Nordhaus, the slowing-down of growth would in the end be far more costly to China than the climatic damage.”
But there’s a factor that neither of the books he reviews mentions: that atmospheric carbon dioxide exchanges, on a relatively fast time scale, with the Earth’s vegetation. About eight per cent of it a year cycles back and forth, and that hold out hope for a biotech solution. Engineered organisms could fix this carbon into useful forms, or (failing that) just take out out of circulation completely. But we need to go full speed ahead on research to realize that.
The last part of his review addresses a larger question. Environmentalism, he states, is now more of a religious question than anything else. (Other people have realized that, and many who do bemoan the fact, but Dyson has no problem with it, saying that the ethics of environmentalism are “fundamentally sound”.) But here’s his problem:
”Unfortunately, some members of the environmental movement have also adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet. That is one reason why the arguments about global warming have become bitter and passionate. Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment. The skeptics now have the difficult task of convincing the public that the opposite is true. Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public attention from what they see as more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet. . .”
The distressing thing, as he mentions, is that many organizations (including, I'm sorry to say, the Royal Society among other groups of scientists), have decided that the issue is settled and that anyone dissenting from this view is to be slapped down. As for me, I’m not completely convinced by the current climate data, so I probably am to the right even of Dyson on this issue. Here he is, though, willing to stipulate that most of the basic assumptions are true, but finding no place for someone who can do that and still not see global warming as the Single Biggest Issue Of Our Time.
I know how he feels: I consider myself an advocate of the environment, but I think the best way to preserve it is to do more genetic engineering rather than less. Better crops will mean that we don’t have to plow up more land to feed everyone, and we won’t have to dump as many insecticides and herbicides on that land we’re using. That means that I also think the best way to preserve unspoiled spaces is to do less organic farming, and not more: organic farming, particularly the hard-core varieties, uses too much land to generate too little food, and it does so mainly to give people in wealthy countries a chance to feel good about themselves.
And I think the best way to preserve wild areas and biodiversity is to have more free trade and economic development, not to slow it down. Richer countries have lower birth rates, for one thing. (I actually think that the planet would be better off with fewer people on it, but I’m not willing to achieve that goal by killing off a few billion of us).
And finally, economic growth is what’s giving us the chance to find technologies to get us out of our problems. I know that there’s another way to look at it – that the technology we have got us into this problem, and that we should reverse course. But I don’t think that’s even possible, or desirable. I’d rather have engineered plants cleaning out the atmosphere, and I’d rather have electricity from fusion or orbiting solar arrays. I’d rather find cheaper ways to get some of our fouler industries off the planet entirely, and mine the asteroids and comets. I’d rather people get richer and smarter, with more time and resources to do what they enjoy. How we’re going to do any good by putting on hair shirts and confessing our sins escapes me.