As a physicist, I have never been a big fan of Freeman Dyson. He was, after all, one of the “geniuses” pushing Project Orion — the absurdly impractical idea of creating a rocket ship powered by detonating nuclear bombs — I kid you not!
Dyson has written a new book, A Many Colored Glass, that you shouldn’t waste your time and money on — as this extract on global warming makes clear. Dyson has basically joined the famous-crackpot camp with Michael Crichton and Bill Gray. You can read a good debunking of Dyson here. I’ll add my two cents.
Dyson says many things that are just plain wrong: “There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global.” Uhh, no. The warming is global, as every set of data makes clear. That’s why it’s called global warming.
He says the “fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated” because he is certain the climate models do not reflect reality. I agree they don’t reflect reality, but that leads me to the opposite conclusion. Dyson fails to ask whether the simplifications and omissions in climate models lead them to overestimate or underestimate climate impacts. So far, they have underestimated things like Arctic ice loss, mass loss of the great ice sheets, and sea-level rise. They don’t model many feedbacks very well, and we know today that most feedbacks are amplifying.
No crackpot essay would be complete without a crackpot solution. He believes “the problem of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a problem of land management” and that the entire climate problem can be solved by increasing topsoil:
We do not know whether intelligent land-management could increase the growth of the topsoil reservoir by four billion tons of carbon per year, the amount needed to stop the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Actually we kinda do know. The best data suggest we are losing billions of tons of topsoil each year. A major effort will be required just to stop that loss rate from increasing sharply. Indeed, global warming itself is projected to cause both increased flooding, which washes away topsoil, and increased drought, which destroys topsoil.
The entire essay is riddled with the kind of mistakes and dubious assertions we saw in Crichton’s novel. One final point. Dyson asserts:
[Climate models] do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.
Uhh, no. Climate modelers are skeptical like all scientists, but contrary to what Dyson says, they do base their models on real-world data, and their models are passable at modeling what has actually happened to the climate so far. As noted, where they have been inadequate is in underestimating the impacts we have felt so far.
But what really irritates me about this statement — which implies climate modelers are ivory-tower theoreticians with no connection to the real world — is that it comes from someone who is an ivory-tower theoretician with no connection to the real world, lacking the most basic understanding of climate science or climate scientists (has he gone to the trouble of talking to any?) — a man who actually believed it was a good idea to pursue powering a spacecraft with nuclear detonations. People who live in glass greenhouses shouldn’t throw stones.