The N.Y. Times has an interesting profile of Freeman Dyson, a man who claims that global warning may not pose a grave risk to civilization. Dyson agrees with the scientific consensus that:
- Rapidly rising carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere are caused by human activity,
- The world is getting warmer, also due to human activity
- Using coal to generate energy creates “real pollutants” like soot, sulphur and nitrogen oxides, “really nasty stuff that makes people sick and looks ugly.”
So why does Dyson believe that global warming is not a big deal? First, there has been no overwhelming evidence that warming trends will adversely affect humans or the environment. Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” claims that polar bears will drown if the ice caps melt, but it is more likely that polar bears will be able to adapt to changing conditions over time. A change in temperature will affect some species adversely, but it may be favorable to other species (such as humans). Dyson claims that many Greenlanders enjoy a warming of the globe since they can grow cabbage in their own yards.
Dyson also support energy produced by coal. Although coal energy is dirty, is it cheap. Cheap energy can help bring India, China and other countries in the developing world from poor nations to ones securely in the middle-class. Dyson says, “By restricting CO2 you make life more expensive and hurt the poor. I’m concerned about the Chinese. [The Chinese are] changing their standard of living the most, going from poor to middle class. To me that’s very precious.”
As an economist, I know that models that predict large scale effects using non-linear modeling can be highly unreliable. Dyson claims that standard climate models take into account atmospheric motion and water levels but have no feeling for the chemistry and biology of sky, soil and trees. This likely exaggerates the danger of global warming. Thus, large scale anti-global warming interventions involve very large, up front costs in exchange for extremely uncertain benefits far into the future.
This is not to say that we should ignore the environment. Clean air and water very important and clearly affect a population’s health. Further, as a resident of the smog-filled Southern California, I would certainly appreciate efforts to clean up the air. I believe a carbon tax would be the best way to reduce pollution, but setting a goal of zero carbon emissions is not only unfeasible, it is counterproductive.
Climate-change specialists often speak of global warming as a matter of moral conscience. Don’t hurt “the environment.” We need more science and less ideology when evaluating the effects (good and bad) of global warming.
- “The key to change…is to let go of fear” – Roseanne Cash