04 Jun 2009: Interview

Freeman Dyson Takes on
the Climate Establishment

Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson has been roundly criticized for insisting global warming is not an urgent problem, with many climate scientists dismissing him as woefully ill-informed. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Dyson explains his iconoclastic views and why he believes they have stirred such controversy.audio

by michael d. lemonick

On March 3, The New York Times Magazine created a major flap in the climate-change community by running a cover story on the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson that focused largely on his views of human-induced global warming.

Basically, he doesn’t buy it. The climate models used to forecast what will happen as we continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere are unreliable, Dyson claims, and so, therefore, are the projections. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, his first since the Times article appeared, Dyson contends that since carbon dioxide is good for plants, a warmer planet could be a very good thing. And if CO2 does get to be a problem, Dyson believes we can just do some genetic engineering to create a new species of super-tree that can suck up the excess.

These sorts of arguments are advanced routinely by climate-change
Freeman Dyson
skeptics, and dismissed just as routinely by those who work in the field as clueless at best and deliberately misleading at worst. Dyson is harder to dismiss, though, in part because of his brilliance. He’s on the faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study, where as a young physicist he hobnobbed with Albert Einstein. When Julian Schwinger, Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Richard Feynman shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in physics for quantum electrodynamics, Dyson was widely acknowledged to be almost equally deserving — but the Nobel Committee only gives out three prizes for a given discovery.

Nevertheless, large numbers of climate modelers and others who actually work on climate change — as Dyson does not — rolled their collective eyes at assertions they consider appallingly ill-informed. In his interview with Yale Environment 360, Dyson also makes numerous assertions of fact — from his claim that warming today is largely confined to the Arctic to his contention that human activities are not primarily responsible for rising global temperatures — that climate scientists say are flat-out wrong.

Many climate scientists were especially distressed that the Times gave his views such prominence. Even worse, when the profile’s author, Nicholas Dawidoff, was asked on NPR’s “On The Media” whether it mattered if Dyson was right or wrong in his views, Dawidoff answered, “Oh, absolutely not. I don’t care what he thinks. I have no investment in what he thinks. I’m just interested in how he thinks and the depth and the singularity of his point of view.”

This is, to put it bluntly, bizarre. It matters a great deal whether he’s right or wrong, given that his views have been trumpeted in such a prominent forum with essentially no challenge. So I visited Dyson in his Princeton office in May to probe a little deeper into his views on climate change.

Yale Environment 360: First of all, was that article substantially accurate about your views?

Freeman Dyson: It’s difficult to say, “Yes” or “No.” It was reasonably accurate on details, because they did send a fact-checker. So I was able to correct the worst mistakes. But what I could not correct was the general emphasis of the thing. He had his agenda. Obviously he wanted to write a piece about global warming and I was just the instrument for that, and I am not so much interested in global warming. He portrayed me as sort of
Listen to the full interview (43 min.)
obsessed with the subject, which I am definitely not. To me it is a very small part of my life. I don’t claim to be an expert. I never did. I simply find that a lot of these claims that experts are making are absurd. Not that I know better, but I know a few things. My objections to the global warming propaganda are not so much over the technical facts, about which I do not know much, but it’s rather against the way those people behave and the kind of intolerance to criticism that a lot of them have. I think that’s what upsets me.

e360: So it’s a sense you get from the way the argument is conducted that it’s not being done in an honest way.

Dyson: I think the difference between me and most of the experts is that I think I have a much wider view of the whole subject. I was involved in climate studies seriously about 30 years ago. That’s how I got interested. There was an outfit called the Institute for Energy Analysis at Oak Ridge. I visited Oak Ridge many times, and worked with those people, and I thought they were excellent. And the beauty of it was that it was multi-disciplinary. There were experts not just on hydrodynamics of the atmosphere, which of course is important, but also experts on vegetation, on soil, on trees, and so it was sort of half biological and half physics. And I felt that was a very good balance.

And there you got a very strong feeling for how uncertain the whole business is, that the five reservoirs of carbon all are in close contact — the
You can learn a lot from [models], but you cannot learn what’s going to happen 10 years from now.”
atmosphere, the upper level of the ocean, the land vegetation, the topsoil, and the fossil fuels. They are all about equal in size. They all interact with each other strongly. So you can’t understand any of them unless you understand all of them. Essentially that was the conclusion. It’s a problem of very complicated ecology, and to isolate the atmosphere and the ocean just as a hydrodynamics problem makes no sense.

Thirty years ago, there was a sort of a political split between the Oak Ridge community, which included biology, and people who were doing these fluid dynamics models, which don’t include biology. They got the lion’s share of money and attention. And since then, this group of pure modeling experts has become dominant.

I got out of the field then. I didn’t like the way it was going. It left me with a bad taste.

Syukuro Manabe, right here in Princeton, was the first person who did climate models with enhanced carbon dioxide and they were excellent models. And he used to say very firmly that these models are very good tools for understanding climate, but they are not good tools for predicting climate. I think that’s absolutely right. They are models, but they don’t pretend to be the real world. They are purely fluid dynamics. You can learn a lot from them, but you cannot learn what’s going to happen 10 years from now.

What’s wrong with the models. I mean, I haven’t examined them in detail, (but) I know roughly what’s in them. And the basic problem is that in the case of climate, very small structures, like clouds, dominate. And you cannot model them in any realistic way. They are far too small and too diverse.

So they say, ‘We represent cloudiness by a parameter,’ but I call it a fudge factor. So then you have a formula, which tells you if you have so much cloudiness and so much humidity, and so much temperature, and so much pressure, what will be the result... But if you are using it for a different climate, when you have twice as much carbon dioxide, there is no guarantee that that’s right. There is no way to test it.

We know that plants do react very strongly to enhanced carbon dioxide. At Oak Ridge, they did lots of experiments with enhanced carbon dioxide and it has a drastic effect on plants because it is the main food source for the plants... So if you change the carbon dioxide drastically by a factor of two, the whole behavior of the plant is different. Anyway, that’s so typical of the things they ignore. They are totally missing the biological side, which is probably more than half of the real system.

e360: Do you think it’s because they don’t consider it important, or they just don’t know how to model it?

Dyson: Well, both. I mean it’s a fact that they don’t know how to model it. And the question is, how does it happen that they end up believing their models? But I have seen that happen in many fields. You sit in front of a computer screen for 10 years and you start to think of your model as being
The whole livelihood of all these people depends on people being scared.”
real. It is also true that the whole livelihood of all these people depends on people being scared. Really, just psychologically, it would be very difficult for them to come out and say, “Don’t worry, there isn’t a problem.” It’s sort of natural, since their whole life depends on it being a problem. I don’t say that they’re dishonest. But I think it’s just a normal human reaction. It’s true of the military also. They always magnify the threat. Not because they are dishonest; they really believe that there is a threat and it is their job to take care of it. I think it’s the same as the climate community, that they do in a way have a tremendous vested interest in the problem being taken more seriously than it is.

e360: When I wrote my first story about this in 1987, I had to say this is all theoretical, we haven’t actually detected any signal of climate change. Now, people point to all sorts of signals, which are just the sort of things that were being predicted, based in part on the models. They made predictions and they’ve tested the predictions by seeing what happened in the real world, and they seem to be at least in the same direction, and in about the same magnitude, they were predicting. So isn’t that a hint that there is something right about the models?

Dyson: Of course. No doubt that warming is happening. I don’t think it is correct to say “global,” but certainly warming is happening. I have been to Greenland a year ago and saw it for myself. And that’s where the warming is most extreme. And it’s spectacular, no doubt about it. And glaciers are shrinking and so on.

But, there are all sorts of things that are not said, which decreases my feeling of alarm. First of all, the people in Greenland love it. They tell you it’s made their lives a lot easier. They hope it continues. I am not saying none of these consequences are happening. I am just questioning whether they are harmful.

There’s a lot made out of the people who died in heat waves. And there is no doubt that we have heat waves and people die. What they don’t say is actually five times as many people die of cold in winters as die of heat in summer. And it is also true that more of the warming happens in winter than in summer. So, if anything, it’s heavily favorable as far as that goes. It certainly saves more lives in winter than it costs in summer.

So that kind of argument is never made. And I see a systematic bias in the way things are reported. Anything that looks bad is reported, and anything that looks good is not reported.

A lot of these things are not anything to do with human activities. Take the shrinking of glaciers, which certainly has been going on for 300 years and has been well documented. So it certainly wasn’t due to human activities, most of the time. There’s been a very strong warming, in fact, ever since the Little Ice Age, which was most intense in the 17th century. That certainly was not due to human activity.

And the most serious of almost all the problems is the rising sea level. But there again, we have no evidence that this is due to climate change. A good deal of evidence says it’s not. I mean, we know that that’s been going on for
Anything that looks bad is reported, and anything that looks good is not reported.”
12,000 years, and there’s very doubtful arguments as to what’s been happening in the last 50 years and (whether) human activities have been important. It’s not clear whether it’s been accelerating or not. But certainly, most of it is not due to human activities. So it would be a shame if we’ve made huge efforts to stop global warming and the sea continued to rise. That would be a tragedy. Sea level is a real problem, but we should be attacking it directly and not attacking the wrong problem.

e360: Another criticism that’s been leveled is that your thoughts and predictions about the climate models are relatively unsophisticated, because you haven’t been in close contact with the people who are doing them. But if you sit down and actually talk to the people about what goes into the models today and what they are thinking about and how they think about clouds, you might discover that your assumptions about what they are doing are not correct. Is that plausible? Do you think it might inform you better to actually sit down with these people and find out what they are doing today?

Dyson: Well, it depends on what you mean by sitting down with people. I do sit down with people. I don’t go over their calculations in detail. But I think I understand pretty well the world they live in.

I guess one thing I don’t want to do is to spend all my time arguing this business. I mean, I am not the person to do that. I have two great disadvantages. First of all, I am 85 years old. Obviously, I’m an old fuddy-duddy. So, I have no credibility.

And, secondly, I am not an expert, and that’s not going to change. I am not going to make myself an expert. What I do think I have is a better judgment, maybe because I have lived a bit longer, and maybe because I’ve done other things. So I am fairly confident about my judgment, and I doubt whether that will change. But I am certainly willing to change my mind about details. And if they find any real evidence that global warming is doing harm, I would be impressed. That’s the crucial point: I don’t see the evidence...

And why should you imagine that the climate of the 18th century — what they call the pre-industrial climate — is somehow the best possible?

e360: I don’t think people actually believe that. I think they believe it’s the one during which our modern civilization arose. And that a rapid change to a different set of circumstances wouldn’t be worse in a grand sense, but it would be very badly suited to the infrastructure that we have got.

Dyson: That’s sort of what I would call part of the propaganda — to take for granted that any change is bad.

e360: It’s more that any change is disruptive. You don’t think that’s reasonable?

Dyson: Well, disruptive is not the same as bad. A lot of disruptive things actually are good. That’s the point. There’s this sort of mindset that assumes any change is bad. You can call it disruptive or you can call it change. But it doesn’t have to be bad.

e360: One thing is that if the temperature change projections are accurate for the next 100 years, it would be equivalent to the change that took us out of the last Ice Age into the present interglacial period, which is a very dramatic change.

Dyson: Yes, that’s highly unlikely. But it’s possible certainly.

e360: And the further argument is that this would happen much more quickly than that change happened. So it is hard to imagine that, at least in the short run, it could be anything but highly destructive.

Dyson: There’s hidden assumptions there, which I question, that you can describe the climate by a single number. In the case of the Ice Age, that
If they find any real evidence that global warming is doing harm, I would be impressed.”
might be true, that it was cold everywhere. The ice was only in the northern regions, but it was also much colder at the equator in the Ice Age.

That’s not true of this change in temperature today. The change that’s now going on is very strongly concentrated in the Arctic. In fact in three respects, it’s not global, which I think is very important. First of all, it is mainly in the Arctic. Secondly, it’s mainly in the winter rather than summer. And thirdly, it’s mainly in the night rather than at the daytime. In all three respects, the warming is happening where it is cold, not where it is hot.

e360: So, the idea is that the parts that are being disrupted are the parts that are inhospitable to begin with?

Dyson: Mostly. It is not 100 percent. But mostly they are, Greenland being a great example.

e360: Do you mind being thrust in the limelight of talking about this when it is not your main interest. You’ve suddenly become the poster child for global warming skepticism.

Dyson: Yes, it is definitely a tactical mistake to use somebody like me for that job, because I am so easily shot down. I’d much rather the job would be done by somebody who is young and a real expert. But unfortunately, those people don’t come forward.

e360: Are there people who are knowledgeable about this topic who could do the job of pointing out what you see as the flaws?

Dyson: I am sure there are. But I don’t know who they are.

I have a lot of friends who think the same way I do. But I am sorry to say that most of them are old, and most of them are not experts. My views are very widely shared.

Anyway, the ideal protagonist I am still looking for. So the answer

Yale e360 Interviews

Michael Pollan: What’s Wrong With Environmentalism
Elizabeth Kolbert: The Media and Climate Change
Thomas Friedman: Hope in a Hot, Flat Crowded World
Rajendra Pachauri: The World’s Global Warming Challenge
Julienne Stroeve: Tracking the Fallout Of the Arctic's Vanishing Sea Ice
to your question is, I will do the job if nobody else shows up, but I regard it as a duty rather than as a pleasure.

e360: Because it is important for you that people not take drastic actions about a problem that you are not convinced exists?

Dyson: Yes. And I feel very strongly that China and India getting rich is the most important thing that’s going on in the world at present. That’s a real revolution, that the center of gravity of the whole population of the world would be middle class, and that’s a wonderful thing to happen. It would be a shame if we persuade them to stop that just for the sake of a problem that’s not that serious.

And I’m happy every time I see that the Chinese and Indians make a strong statement about going ahead with burning coal. Because that’s what it really depends on, is coal. They can’t do without coal. We could, but they certainly can’t.

So I think it is very important that they should not be under pressure. Luckily they are, in fact, pretty self-confident; (neither) of those countries pays too much attention to us.

But that’s my motivation... Anyhow, I think we have probably said enough.

POSTED ON 04 Jun 2009 IN Climate Climate Energy Policy & Politics 


It's a shame you're giving this more attention and air-time without balancing his extreme views. The NYT did it, and now you're doing it, too. It's worse than a waste of time.
Posted by Phil Mitchell on 04 Jun 2009

A better job than the NYTimes, by far, but the interviewer was still deferential in the face of balderdash.

On his final point about the development in India, mercifully for the planet, the Indian government has not agreed that coal is their only option.

Just yesterday, I tweeted this sweet news from @NobleFreshEnerg:

India plans to add 200 Gigawatts of solar by 2050, 1/3 more than all power in India today. http://bit.ly/12m8lJ via @solveclimate

He seems like a brilliant and in many ways wonderful man, but his self-effacing term "fuddy duddy" is too generous. Obstinate and uninformed is a bad combination, no matter how eminent the gentleman.
Posted by Michael Noble, Fresh Energy on 04 Jun 2009

I quite agree with Freeman. The Global warming and its link to CO2 is a hoax created by two presidential candidates of the past and it is still being promoted to charge tax to the public. There is no evidence. The planet would go through these periods of heating and cooling due to natural processes.
Posted by Dr. Mahmood Anwar on 04 Jun 2009

I would like to echo Phil.

Why did you not go through Dyson's comments providing "side bars" on issues of fact. For example, Dyson states that the repositories of carbon are relatively equal in terms of how much carbon they hold.

"The five reservoirs of carbon all are in close contact — the atmosphere, the upper level of the ocean, the land vegetation, the topsoil, and the fossil fuels. They are all about equal in size."

Well, is that the case? For example a basic reference (http://bcs.whfreeman.com/thelifewire/content/chp58/5802002.html) on The Global Carbon Cycle with amounts expressed in 10 to the 15th grams of carbon:

Atmosphere: 740
terrestrial organisms: 550
intermediate/deep waters: 34,000
sand/detritus: 1,200
Sedimentation: 0.5
carbonate minerals in rocks: 18,000,000
fossil fuels: 25,000,000

"All about equal" when the five range from 550 to 25,000,000?

This is not the only error in his comments. Perhaps readers' understanding of Dyson's standing to discuss Global Warming and the scientists who study it would be colored by illuminating readers re items like this.
Posted by A Siegel on 04 Jun 2009

Really shouldn't use the first Google textbook item that jumps up.

The Pew Global CO2 Flows / Carbon Resorvoirs chart is a useful summary (http://www.pewclimate.org/global-warming-basics/facts_and_figures/globalco2flows.cfm). Since I can't post the graphic:

They have:

Fossil Fuels: About 5000-10,000 Gt reservoir
Terrestrial Biosphere: 2500 Gt reservoir
Oceans: 93,000 Gt reservoir
Atmosphere: 750 Gt reservoir

In any event, the basic point remains: Dyson's statement that these are "all about the same" is patently wrong.
Posted by A Siegel on 04 Jun 2009

There's plenty of leeway to criticize and disbelieve forward looking climate models. The real issue with climate change isn't that we know exactly what's going to happen, or how the climate works, it's that Earth's climate is inherently unstable (we know this from the paleoclimate record — it can change states very quickly, in less than a decade). We are perturbing it dramatically with our CO2 emissions, and *any* significant change will be a catastrophe, because our civilization is built around the climate state that we've been in for the last 8,000 years or so.

For more information, I highly recommend Richard B. Alley's short book, entitled "The Two Mile Time Machine."
Posted by Zane Selvans on 04 Jun 2009

The evidence for global warming is not primarily based on what models tell us. In fact, in the NYT dust-up over this, James Hansen made that clear. Here's what Hansen said:

"The (NYT) reporter left the impression that my conclusions are based mainly on climate models. I always try to make clear that our conclusions are based on #1 Earth’s history, how it responded to forcings in the past, #2 observations of what is happening now, #3 models. Here is the actual note that I sent to the reporter after hanging up on him:

"I looked up Freeman Dyson on Wikipedia, which describes his views on "global warming" as below. If that is an accurate description of what he is saying now, it is actually quite reasonable (I had heard that he is just another contrarian). However, this also indicates that he is under the mistaken impression that concern about global warming is based on climate models, which in reality play little role in our understanding — our understanding is based mainly on how the Earth responded to changes of boundary conditions in the past and on how it is responding to on-going changes.

"If this Wikipedia information is an accurate description of his position, then the only thing that I would like to say about him is that he should be careful not to offer public opinions about global warming unless he is willing to first take a serious look at the science. His philosophy of science is spot-on, the open-mindedness, consistent with that of Feynman and the other greats, but if he is going to wander into something with major consequences for humanity and other life on the planet, then he should first do his homework — which he obviously has not done on global warming. My concern is that the public may assume that he has — and, because of his other accomplishments, give his opinion more weight than it deserves."

I wrote about this in full here:
NY Times Invents a Climate Science War

Posted by David Sassoon on 04 Jun 2009

Re; David Sassoon:

David, where is Hansen getting his information from in regards to the earth's history? Everything I've seen regarding temperature and CO2 levels show that Co2 was much higher in the past than today and when it was high, temps were low and when it was low, temps were high. Even the ice
core data of temp and CO2 have one huge problem and that is that the temperature changes hundreds of years BEFORE the CO2 changes.
Posted by So_Cal_Mark on 04 Jun 2009

Thank you for being open to a discussion on differing points of view. Dyson raises some intriguing points. Science is discussion of differing points of view and using DATA. We now find too many political scientists pushing a point of view with man made global warming. That alone makes their point of view suspect. History shows that politicians will often jump on the wrong science band wagon, as they have no clue. Once you start to dig, you will find a growing number of scientifically based skeptics that should be examined.

One must also question if the governments have been doing their job in preparing for alternative scenarios. If we instead cycle to cooling, are we prepared with infrastructure, foods and energy policy to survive cooling?
Posted by Climate Chaos on 04 Jun 2009

If the climate alarmists were smart they would engage the arguments of people like Dyson with open minds, by which I mean a reasonable degree of skepticism about their own conclusions. If nothing else it would have a positive influence on the undecided bystanders who, not being experts themselves, are forced to judge as much by the body language of the participants as anything else.

Dyson's point that the climate science community has a vested interest in alarmism in particular needs to be addressed in a serious way. To try to say it is not so does not pass the laugh test.
Posted by Luke Lea on 04 Jun 2009

I thought the interview was excellent. Mr. Dyson clearly established he was not an "expert" so I am amazed at the heated reaction from some of the commenters.
Why should we listen to him? One reason is enough for me. He is expert enough for me to prove that the matter is not settled science. I am all for protecting our environment but it so obvious to me the rent seeking going on with this issue. PLEASE keep the debate going and let the truth emerge. ALL voices need to be heard.
Posted by Sly Fox on 05 Jun 2009

Shopenhauer said that new truths are first met with ridicule, then violent resistance and finally acceptance as self-evident.

I had a friend, now deceased, unfortunately, who was a professor of engineering at a local university. He was famous for his ability to assist other faculty with their research project problems. He had an outsider's gift to see patterns and solutions in fields in which he was not "expert."

Mr. Dyson may just be one of those gifted few who can see the big picture. He should be treated with respect.
Posted by Jim Creighton on 05 Jun 2009

Yet another prominent scientist standing up to the church of global warming.

It's not too late to not overreact to this blown out of proportion frenzy.
Posted by Ray on 05 Jun 2009

Instead of picking the fly excrement out of the pepper bottle over Dyson's carbon reservoire comments, why don't those of you who believe human burning of fossil fuels answer three of Dyson's assertions, all of which are easily verifiable:

1) more warming at poles than mid-latitudes
2) more warming in winter than in summer
3) more warming at night than during day

While you're at it, help me understand why the UAH satellite data do not correlate with land-based temperature recording stations since satellites began recording data in 1978. And why, if we know from physics that heat moves from hotter to colder and rises on our planet, that stratospheric cooling has occured in the face of the land-based recording stations documenting tropospheric warming, all over the biggest period in question (1940's to current).

Finally, when you dig into the use of parameterization for certain forcings (clouds, as Dyson mentions), understand how it works, where the underlying data and assumptions come from, you see Dyson's articulation of the predictive value of AOGCMs as something other than the words of a "fuddy-dudd" or a scientist with no experience in atmospheric physics/climate.

Setting aside Dyson, I would encourage all those who believe in the AGW theory to dig into the analyses of the predicted temperature differences resulting from global policy (Kyoto) and the Waxman Markey bill in the US. (Benefit). Then compare that to the available analyses on the predicted costs of such policies (Cost).

When you look at these policies through the lens of cost/benefit, it is clear they cannot be justified by any reasonable evaluation.

A difference of .05 - .10 degrees by 2050, and .15 - .25 degrees by 2100 (all Celsius) at a cost of 1-4% of global GDP is not sound policy, especially when considering the predicted ranges are well within established climate variability (from the same geologic evidence and historic proxy data used by the very models themselves).

I am just a citizen, not a scientist. I will thank in advance any serious, non-vitriolic scientific expert in this area for enlightening me as to why the above (some referred to by Dyson in this article) is sophomoric, fuddy-duddy, or uninformed.

Remember the story of Copernicus and Galileo. It is instructive in this debate.
Posted by Carbonicus on 05 Jun 2009

Mr. Dyson is correct when he point out that the climate science community has a vested interest in alarmism is completely true. What is little mentioned is that world governments have spent over $50 billion looking for the proof of anthropogenic warming, so far they have found nothing.

"Global warmers predict that global warming is coming, and our emissions are to blame. They do that to keep us worried about our role in the whole thing. If we aren't worried and guilty, we might not pay their salaries. It's that simple."
- Kary Mullis, Winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

"Most meteorological research is funded by the federal government. And boy, if you want to get federal funding, you better not come out and say human-induced global warming is a hoax because you stand the chance of not getting funded."
- William Gray, Sept. 12, 2005
Posted by Robert Exton on 05 Jun 2009

Models deal with correlations. They seldom involve cause and effect. The basis of Dyson's skepticism is that models are being use to make projections. Trends and deviations from trends are also being projected forward. Trends also do not define cause and effect.

If we define a system behavior by modeling, the trends predicted should be called an hypothesis. With testing, this can become a theory. Theories are further tested with data. All that is needed to reject a theory is one proven exception. At that point the theory must be discarded or modified.

Just as critics correctly point out that the theory is not "proven", there is also no data to date that can be agreed, with peer review, contradicts the theory. So skeptic is the right term because they can't prove anything either.

The problem is that, if the theory is correct, by the time it is proven the environment of the earth will be changed into something that more represents the age of dinosaurs than the age of man. Some predict this will be the sixth mass extinction in the history of the planet.

Although the dire outcome predicted may cause the extinction of many species, I expect that not all will succumb. Absent an additional shock, like a series of massive volcanic events or a massive meteor strike, mankind should adapt, although with some serious societal and population dislocations (think of the Dark Ages in Europe).

Dyson points out that the problem is compounded by the fact that multiple, complexly interrelated biospheres are involved. Many are studying portions of each of these biospheres in relative isolation. This type of research is unlikely to either prove or disprove climate change theories. The integrated study of all biospheres (Dyson's five reservoirs of carbon) is perhaps too vast a project to be effectively tackled.

The choice that has to be made is: (1) Take steps to reduce possible effects of human activity on rapid climate change while we continue to collect data on the extent of the problem; or (2) Don't spend (some sceptics would say waste) time, effort and money taking these steps with the hope that they will not be needed. Take appropriate action later if necessary.

The answer is not obvious, but I would draw a comparison with fire insurance. Why pay for fire insurance? Your house has a very small probability of burning down. I pay my fire insurance premium every year, so I guess I am pegged as taking choice no. 1.
Posted by John Lounsbury on 05 Jun 2009

In his own words:

"First of all, I am 85 years old. Obviously, I’m an old fuddy-duddy. So, I have no credibility.

And, secondly, I am not an expert, and that’s not going to change. I am not going to make myself an expert."

Then why are we reading his opinions on this subject?

Posted by Bonnie on 06 Jun 2009

What I gather from this interview is that Dyson:

a) doesn't believe there is cause for alarm, and

b) apparently won't study current climate science, in order to examine whether his own beliefs are in error.

It's interesting to have this interview in e360, but it seems like another wasted opportunity to hold an oracle to his own standards.

Another anomaly that escapes both Dyson and the interviewer: Steven Chu.

Even if we assume the collective scientific institutions of the world are zombies capable only of 'group-think' (substituting as untestable and as scary a proposition as climate change itself), someone like Chu does not appear to be a zombie, and he seems capable of independent thought. (A dialogue between Chu and Dyson would be enlightening.)
Posted by Richard Reiss on 06 Jun 2009

At least with respect to the role of clouds in present models Freeman is absolutely right. Even worse, even the estimates of their possible contribution are not very reliable.
Posted by Gregory Falkovich on 06 Jun 2009

Managing the ecosystem, is many times more difficult than managing an economy using interest rates, printing money and regulating commerce. The benefit flows to the politically connected. Look how that is working out... I fear any attempt to 'manage' the environment by the same misguided characters will have far more devastating effects. Economic mismanagement, while hurtful to many humans, does not actually threaten the sustainability of all life.

Let's examine one major inconsistency in governments 'concern' over climate change: the failure of the American automotive industry. Big cars create alot of pollution. The makers of these cars should go bankrupt because people are no longer buying their products. But, these pollution-spewing products are now being subsidized. Talk about a 'left-hand, right-hand', disingenuous, illogical inconsistency.

As a Canadian, man, I would love to see the climate get warmer. It's June and it snowed this morning. The whole issue is an excuse to put in a 'cap and trade' system, which will become the greatest corruption debacle ever.
Posted by Frank Gas on 06 Jun 2009

Perhaps it is time to apply some simple bottom line accounting to the principal factors in fossil fuel use and global temperature (if such a single number factor is meaningful). Bottom line accounting such as used by John Maynard Keynes in his book "The Economic Consequences of the Peace," and which got him ejected from the British Government until they needed him again, may be a useful model for discussing energy and climate.

As a resident of New England in the USA, I am glad that there is no longer a mile deep glacier over Boston. Think Data.
Posted by Think Data on 06 Jun 2009

Bonnie asks "Why are we reading his opinions on this subject?"

Answer: because he is intelligent, vastly experienced and an experienced and skillful problem solver. Successful problem solvers know how to ask the right questions.

Experts, as Feynman famously pointed out, just know how to use the right words to describe
conventional wisdom. That never suffices for solving difficult problems.

The expert disease is shown well above in the silly attempt to discredit him by nitpicking over a broad-brush comment.
Posted by Alan Wilkinson on 06 Jun 2009

With regard to climate modeling, Mr. Dyson is wholly correct in pointing out the fallacies of establishing parameters and extrapolating from these parameters. Consider another area models were once revered — finance. In hindsight, it is clear that the faith quants (and their employers) placed in models to predict future market movement was foolish. However, in the realm of climate change, their seems to be an unwillingness to admit that these models do have their limitations. In short, if we have not yet come to an elegant formula to confidently predict the flow of money; it seems foolhardy to believe a formula exists that can model the earth and its inhabitants.

The problem with this debate is in the realm of politics. It is relatively easy to create enough of a stir to create change. The true task is in the hands of the reactionary who must argue for the status quo.

In a case of global warming, the reactionary truly is a dare devil. He has bet that the world as we know it will not collapse into oblivion. Those who are advocates of global warming being caused by man are urging people to err on the side of safety. If the reactionary is wrong, the world as we know it is over, however, the advocate is safe either way. If one were to only take survival into account, the choice of side is obvious.
Posted by Michael W. on 07 Jun 2009

Like Dyson, I am a skeptic, a scientist and not a climatologist. Also like Dyson, my skepticism is based partly on the modus operandi of the alarmists:

1. Carbon dioxide is not a "pollutant", but the basis of life - the benefits of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide are far better established then the threats.
2. The basic uncontroversial physics (here spectroscopy, where I do have expertise) show that carbon dioxide is a minor contributor to the (misnamed) "greenhouse effect" and that any additional carbon dioxide will have a vanishing additional "greenhouse effect". This is due to the logarithmic relationship between absorption and concentration and to the fact that the absorption bands of carbon dioxide are close to saturation now.
3. Modeling is a procedure of desperation - that is what you do if you cannot do accurate calculations or experiments, as is indeed the case with climatology. On top of it, the climate doomsday models depend on secondary effects (feedbacks), which makes them deven less reliable.
4. Climatologists behave unethically: egregious examples being the appearance and subsequent disappearance of the "hockey stick", the substitution of "climate change" for "global warming", doctoring data, ad hominem attacks on skeptics and, above all, feeding selective data to the media and ignoring contrary evidence.

In sum, not a good basis for expensive, unnecessary and futile action.
Posted by ANTIPODES on 07 Jun 2009

Anybody who wants to criticize Dyson's grasp of science had better be able to show his Nobel nomination - & that doesn't include Al Gore's.

Having said that I think he is overly kind to the alarmists. It is true that there has been a slight retreat of ice around the 2 habitable areas of Greenland & some Viking era buildings have been freed, but there are still 2 million km up to 3km deep of ice not melting & the Antarctic ice is still increasing.
Posted by Neil Craig on 07 Jun 2009

I was taught that in science one should always use the precautionary principle. To err on the side of caution. Instead, we have consistently erred on the side of profit.

The signs of the anthropomorphic destruction of our ecosystems are ubiquitous from the toxins in the troposphere, to the destruction of the ocean reefs. Dyson commends China and India for their willingness to flout environmental standards. One should look a little closer at the effects this is having on the collective health of their populations on both the human and natural systems.

Natural systems are constantly evolving through the balancing and interactions of different inputs and outputs, creating positive and negative feedback loops.

The present warming of our planet, regardless of whether it is human caused or not, is at the point where positive feedback loops such as the loss of the albedo effect at the poles and the release of methane (20 times heat trapping capacity of CO2) in the arctic areas has put us at the point where we are at the cusp of a whole new steady state from which we are ill prepared

Dyson is so overly simplistic in his analysis that it is really laughable. The negative economic effects of a warming world will be abolutely catastrophic. This is known to be an absolute fact
Posted by Keir Brown on 07 Jun 2009

He is a brilliant man, but he admits he is not an expert in this field and says his main concern is the reaction to skeptics.

I do not see more reason to trust his skepticism of GW than to trust the testimony of the thousands of experts working in this field who say this is a problem. Given those odds and the consequences of being wrong I think you would have to be nuts to take those odds.

The other factor is that the steps needed to combat global warming are the same ones we need to stop poisoning the air and water by dumping toxins (which cause thousands of deaths a year) into the atmosphere and weaning ourselves off fossil fuels which are an unstable foundation for an economy. So if we are not going to do it for global warming, then lets do it for sustainability.
Posted by Michaelc on 07 Jun 2009

Below extracted from an e-mail I sent to a friend. Yes, I have some.

As a former military man I hate to say it but I think the comparison with the military, and in particular military intelligence, is apt. That's why the collapse of the Soviet Union came as such an apparent surprise. The CIA et al made a good living off the threat posed and needed to perpetuate it to the bitter end.

If you can convince people that the only thing that enables them to send their kids to very expensive universities; and themselves on Caribbean vacations, is the support of some half baked cause, then you've built an elite which will viciously put down any dissent and can be as rabid as any bomb throwing crazed anarchist. Dissenters are not so much a threat to the environment as they are a threat to a way of life the supporters have become accustomed to. I hear Al Gore is prospering these days.
Posted by Patrick MacKinnon on 07 Jun 2009

What Freeman Dyson says is 100 percent correct. This is only a crisis because too much emphasis has been put on climate models which can be useful in learning about our climate, but which are totally useless for predicting future trends.

Maybe 50-100 years from now we will have enough knowledge about how to deal with the problem of non-linear systems and enough factual and accurate bio-climate data to be able to make useful predictions.
Posted by Tenuc on 07 Jun 2009

Yeah, it's a tragedy that Dyson's reasoned and reasonable views are not balanced by extreme views of global warming and the imminent return of the Cretaceous Era etc. Not enough is being
aired about Global Warming. We need to hear more!

It's a shame you're giving this more attention and air-time without balancing his extreme views. The NYT did it, and now you're doing it, too. It's worse than a waste of time.

Posted by Phil Mitchell on 04 Jun 2009
Posted by Ed Ever on 07 Jun 2009

I am not a scientist, just an interested citizen. To me, the most important points made by Dr. Dyson come at the end of the interview, the remarks about India and China. Recently I heard a "climate change expert" state (this was on "60 Minutes") that mankind had to reduce the use of coal for power generation by some very significant factor and that this reduction had to occur right now if we are to have any chance to avoid a global climatic disaster. The absurdity of the assertion was staggering: this reduction is obviously not going to happen, not even in the U.S.

More importantly, it is not even certain that it should happen. What if, by some miracle, China and India did achieve such a reduction, with all of the destructive consequences this would have for their societies, and it made no difference? The effect for me was, I had no confidence whatsoever in the expert quoted on "60 Minutes."
Posted by George Rickerson on 07 Jun 2009

Both Dyson and his supporters here are missing the point, and Lemonick's critics are missing quite another point.

The first point being missed is that the issue is not only that climate is changing but also how fast it is changing and how likely it is that the change is being accelerated by anthropogenic means. It is the pace of the change that cannot be withstood by either the social or natural infrastructure. Even if it were to be deemed wholly "natural," it would be foolish not to do what can be done to slow it down or reverse it.

The second missed point is that those who criticize Lemonick for failing to punch Dyson's thrusts in the teeth every time he puts them forward are underestimating the audience here. The readers of e360 are quite capable of putting forward necessary refutations; Lemonick is wise to let Dyson speak for himself.
Posted by Merry Maisel on 08 Jun 2009

I think it's wrong to assume that climate scientists will always support the scenario that generates the most fear. There are plenty of companies with billions at stake who can, and do, subsidize climate skeptics. Enron managed to persuade George Bush that it was a myth until his administration acknowledged it in 2002.

And judging by this site Americans are still not prepared to follow someone as conservative as Bush seven years later.
Posted by Sandy Hendry on 08 Jun 2009

I'm not 85 but I did get a MS in Computer Science 35 years ago, so I have experience and perspective. I am always disturbed when people say that brains are like computers or that computer models model reality. It is simply not true. Computer models exist only within computers. The real world is neither impressed nor effected. Computer models cannot explain the future. As a perfect example of this, the finance world makes extensive use of computer models. The finance guys run far more models than weather scientists could ever hope for, but the recession was not avoided. A computer model can only predict what the programmer already knows.
Posted by Jerry G on 08 Jun 2009

There is an interesting omission here. Mr. Lemonick implies that there are virtually no climate scientists who disagree with the global warming hypothesis — and Dyson doesn't refute his position. Seemingly, it's an amateur's game.

But this is completely false, which a little research would have revealed: start with Richard Lidtzen, a senior professor at MIT. How about Roy Spencer and John Christy, who supervise the UAH satellite program? Or William Gray, for many years the foremost hurricane forecaster in North America? The list goes on — there are skeptical climate scientists with international credentials — we just don't hear about them.
Posted by Stephen James on 08 Jun 2009

With regard to A. Siegel, Dyson was not talking about the CO2 content of the ocean, he specified the top-most layers. What difference does it make how much is stored deep in the ocean where it is unaffected by any warming? Likewise lumping together all fossil fuels as if they can spontaneously release CO2. Don't we have to burn them to do that?

The key question is this: Does CO2 dominate all other sources of warming as the IPCC claims? If that's the case then please explain how the Earth had an ice age while CO2 levels were 12 times higher than they are now. See the graph at http://www.geocraft.com/WVFossils/Carboniferous_climate.html and also note the lack of correlation between CO2 and temp during the past few hundred million years.
Posted by Mike Davis on 08 Jun 2009

“Enron managed to persuade George Bush that it was a myth…”
Do you have any evidence regarding that claim? As far as I recall, Enron proudly flaunted the fact that, unlike many other energy companies, they took no position on global warming. In fact, they stood to rake in many millions from various green-energy credit and wind and solar power initiatives.
Admittedly, the money to be made from exploiting global warming doesn’t match Exxon’s revenues, but a large number of financial and energy companies are actively exploring ways to get a share of it.

Posted by HA on 08 Jun 2009

Keir Brown-"I was taught that in science one should always use the precautionary principle. To err on the side of caution. Instead, we have consistently erred on the side of profit."

To bad Mr. Brown will not apply the precautionary principal to humans. In other words don't stop people from doing thing unless you can prove that your intervention will do more good then harm.

Posted by Steph Houghton on 08 Jun 2009

It is refreshing to hear from a reasonable person who is not afraid to challenge a scientific consensus which has taken on all the attributes of a moral consensus, with all the attendant arm-twisting of skeptics and esprit d'corps of the rank-and-file.

Dyson sees through the conventionality of professions, and the tendency of professionals to rationalize the perspective of their profession. It is foolish to ignore the human element when judging the judgment of human beings. Anyone who has had to rely on the judgment of doctors, for example, soon learns that they are under pressures which they do not even acknowledge to themselves, which are never discussed (the way some things are never discussed at country clubs, for example), and which outsiders, too, are reluctant to question. Have you ever noticed that doctors will almost never give a straightforward evaluation of another doctor? Well, then, if you know that doctors, whose care of the patient is regarded on a nearly sacred level, have a perspective which might militate against revealing some information or investigating some presuppositions, then why would you assume that scientists, writ large, are frank with the public and frank with themselves?

One thing is needful: completely unobstructed debate over the evidence and truth of climate change. We do not have that. The question has been moralized into a dark corner. This helps no one except the reactionary skeptics for whom the convictions of the climate change alarmists are just more grist for the mill.
Posted by John Mountfort on 08 Jun 2009

The comparison with insuring a house against fire is specious. Houses do catch fire, and have been observed to do so with a statistically known frequency. Your insurance premiums are based on the observed facts and statistical reality.

Here's a better analogy:

You own a house. Someone writes a computer program simulating your house, and then tells you that he fed his program some parameters, and the software indicated that, based on these parameters he put into his software, your simulated house suffered some slight damage a hundred years from now, and also underwent some slight improvements in other areas. Therefore he concludes that your real house is in grave danger of suffering some damage in a century. But fortunately for you, he says you can do something about it. The action he advises might slightly decrease the amount of damage he predicts your home will possibly suffer, but it is guaranteed to wreck you financially and leave you poverty stricken.

Do you pay the price, accept financial ruin and impoverish yourself in order to possibly, maybe, perhaps have slightly less hypothetical damage to your house, based on this computer simulation?

I think the answer for any rational person would be quite obvious.
Posted by Dave Khan on 08 Jun 2009

I will repeat what I said in another venue:

[W]we have to point out every time that Dyson loves to speculate, and when you pin him down he hedges - necessarily - far more than maintream climate scientists do. If you took Freeman's statements as error bars, they'd be enormous, with respect to his proposed solutions.

The other issue, of course, is that any of us could write some people's response to anything whatsoever:

Dyson: There's a highly engaging technical fix for that just around the corner. Hence, it's no problem.

Lovelock: Won't do any good, sorry. But maybe the bacteria can rebuild.

I have to add that Dyson seems to be adding a slanderous straw-man mischaracterization of accepted climate science and those scientists who are in the mainstream on it.

It's not their side that replaces data and evidence and an interdisciplinary approach with very strong physics with ad hominem attacks and hand waving.
Posted by Marion Delgado on 08 Jun 2009

What if it turned out that the actual measured temperatures were inaccurate? Or, better yet, that the data was so flawed, that there is no way to know whether temperatures had increased, decreased or remained essentially unchanged.

Where do the official record of temperatures in the U.S. come from? It comes from a network
of 1,221 climate-monitoring stations overseen by the National Weather Service, a
department of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

It turns out that concerns about the quality of this data were expressed a decade ago. In 1999, a U.S. National Research Council panel was commissioned to study the state of the U.S. climate observing systems and issued a report entitled: “Adequacy of Climate Observing Systems. National Academy Press”.

The panel was chaired by Dr. Tom Karl, director of the National Climatic Center, and Dr. James Hansen, lead climate researcher at NASA GISS. That panel concluded:

"...that the ability to monitor the global climate was inadequate and deteriorating."

A volunteer organization just released a report entitled: "Is the U.S. Temperature Record Reliable?"

So far, 70 percent of the total number of stations had been surveyed in person and the results are astonishing. "...we found that 89 percent of the stations – nearly 9 of every 10 – fail to meet the National Weather Service’s own siting requirements that stations must be 30 meters (about 100 feet) or more away from an artificial heating or radiating/reflecting heat source.

In addition, the actual data collection is often inconsistent and when there hasn't been a measurement, the data is simply added from a nearby location.

"The errors in the record exceed by a wide margin the purported rise in temperature of 0.7º C (about 1.2º F) during the 20th century. Consequently, this record should not be cited as evidence of any trend in temperature that may have occurred across the U.S. during the past century. Since the U.S. record is thought to be “the best in the world,” it follows that the global database is likely similarly compromised and unreliable."

The report can be found at: http://wattsupwiththat.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/surfacestationsreport_spring09.pdf
Posted by Mark Herskovitz on 08 Jun 2009

Keir Brown: No, the so called "Precautionary Principle" is not some universal scientific guiding principle, but a meaningless slogan in absence of quantitative estimates of probabilities, when it collapses into the economists' mundane risk/benefit analysis. This is also what goes on inside your brain every time you decide to cross (or not cross) the road or to leave the cellar of your home with the knowledge that a peanut-sized meteorite might kill you. Quantitative analysis is what is at the centre of science — not media panics.
Posted by ANTIPODES on 08 Jun 2009

The train of comments is pretty dispiriting, and I think demonstrates how Dyson and Lemonick both missed the chance for a better conversation. Next time, why not include Steven Chu, either passively (through Chu's own comments on climate, such as his belief that California could run dry within fifty years, losing both cities and agriculture) or actively, by asking him to participate?

Unlike Dyson, Hansen, or Gore, all three of whom are pinatas for various sides, Chu is involved in policy. (Unlike Dyson, Hansen or Gore, he has a physics Nobel for his own work.)

As for Dyson's comments, on the superficial level they are contradictory. If he thinks China and India will benefit from burning coal, but we may need carbon-eating trees to restore balance on a warming globe, what level of crisis will be necessary to prompt the enormous crash program to bring these imaginary, speculative trees into being? How will Bangladesh, or Malawi, or Darfur, or New Mexico, have fared in the meantime? The blithe comments are perplexing and ridiculous, taken on their own. Biology itself is a system of webs; if Greenland gets warm enough to farm, almost every ecosystem at lower latitudes will be disrupted beyond recognition. Dyson should query E.O. Wilson about that.

Dyson's claims about the corrupting effects of careerism and grant money are also contradictory, in context. Are scientists who speak out only in it for the notoriety? Dyson himself was once an active campaigner for nuclear disarmament. Was he paid for this? Would a member of the military establishment of the time be justified in saying he did it only because he liked to see his name in the papers?

I'd prefer to believe Dyson regarded it as his duty to speak out, and I'm pretty sure he wasn't paid.

The deepest question Dyson raises is: what is science? It matters here because Dyson is a scientist, but what he is doing in this conversation is not science (and he says as much immediately, to his credit). No research, nothing published, just speculation. At the same time, climate science, as it is practiced, fails Dyson's standards for being "science." e360 should dig deeper into this. From my understanding, climate science is not models, but is a fusion of observation and theory, and it is the observation that has become steadily more alarming, not the theory.
Posted by Richard Reiss on 08 Jun 2009

Dave Khan: Excellent analogy there.

Not building on your analogy but assuming we don't waste money trying to fix a simulated possible future disaster other good things happen: we get a lot richer we care about the environment, we develop new technology that provides new solutions; we are not poor, desperate and lacking in options like the ex Soviet Union or a typical third world country.
Posted by David in Sydney on 09 Jun 2009

Leaving climate change to one side, can we agree that for the sake of future generations we need to figure out how to live sustainably on this planet?

Even the energy companies forecast that we have 40 years of oil left. Well in advance of that oil will become very expensive. Many other commodities (phosphate, gas etc) will run out this century.

When are we going to have the courage to face up to this and do something about it rather than wasting time arguing about climate change?
Posted by Dara on 09 Jun 2009

A couple things jumped out at me: one, our immediate human tendency is to be skeptical or fearful of change. Most intelligent people have difficulty seeing any positive benefit whatsoever from widespread warming. I appreciate Dyson's comments that just because something is different, it isn't always bad. If we could "know" that global warming would have a net benefit on food production and/or living conditions worldwide, would that be enough to end this debate? I doubt it.

Two, many of my friends who have long ago rejected religion have an extraordinary amount of faith in the environmentalism cause. It seems people will believe nearly anything that serves to support their deepest convictions/fears/hopes/dreams. Which is why I'm so damned skeptical of consensus on anything.
Posted by Rob the lowly undergrad on 09 Jun 2009

Keir Brown posted -- "I was taught that in science one should always use the precautionary principle. To err on the side of caution."

I'm guessing you weren't taught that in any science class. The "Precautionary Principle" is a tenet of environmentalism NOT science. It's dogma as surely as any found in any religion.

The Scientific Method consists of four steps:

1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.

2. Formulation of a hypothesis to explain the phenomena.

3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.

4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments.

If the experiments bear out the hypothesis it may come to be regarded as a theory or law of nature. If the experiments do not bear out the hypothesis, it must be rejected or modified.

It appears to me that climate scientists have, as a whole, rejected the scientific method. They now regard the computer simulations as the truth, and then they find (or manipulate) data to support the models. All the while they push us to act using not science but the religious dogma of the precautionary principle.
Posted by APaul on 09 Jun 2009

The one funny thing about this debate is that the two sides both avoid the real issue. It is not about what bad people did to ruin the climate, and it is not about economic or health outcomes from this or that type of climate change. No, the real debate, the one that Hansen et al refuse to have, is how do we get the idea that humans can, by coordinated action, affect climate, and cause global temperatures to decline. Especially knowing that the real danger to humanity is posed by ice rather than tropical heat, the silence on this crucial issue is astounding.

One side says that we have spoiled our nest and must be punished. The other side says that there is nothing to see here, so move on. But the center of this is humanity taking control of global climate. Never mind that we have enough trouble making tiny changes to weather on a local scale, now let us embark on a grand experiment to alter a planet's climate. Not based on data or experience, but on fervor bordering on religious belief.

Before we go off half-cocked, is it not reasonable to get our facts straight before we make any substantial investment? I know this is heresy to the Hansen/Gore axis, but we really do not have enough data to make any of the prescribed moves to change this thing that, for all we know, may not even be broken. Or it may be but what we do might be the exact wrong thing. Alternatively, if the worst scenarios are about to unfold, there is absolutely no chance that humanity will be willing to invest more than a token amount in the prescribed changes to worldwide human behavior.
Posted by Fred Brewster on 09 Jun 2009


You don't understand the way that resource companies work. It is not that there is only 40 years of oil left, it is that there is only 40 years of known oil left. 100 years ago there was only a few years of oil left, but we found more and continued to find more and to this day, we still find more. Of course it is possible that today is the day that we will stop finding more oil, but it seems unlikely. There has been around 40 years of oil left for the past 20 years (ie we continue to find about as much as we consume (even as we consume more)). What does that tell you?

Resource companies have a fixed level of funds at any one time, they can spend that on exploring for more oil or on extracting the oil they already know to exist. Obviously they spend some money finding more and some money extracting oil. It would be stupid for them to spend so much on finding it (and declaring 1,000 years of resources) but not spend any money developing the infrastructure to extract it (and therefore not make any profits from their oil).
Posted by punter on 10 Jun 2009

The problem with this discussion is that almost everyone has their biases, more often than not political. My measure of this bias is signified by their level of hate and distrust of Al Gore. It always raises a red flag. Never argue with a Gore-hater. You can't win.

So many of Dysons statements can be refuted it is hard to know where to start. Everyone has an opinion. We shouldn't make policy based on opinion, especially those of an admitted non-expert.
Posted by Phillip Greene on 10 Jun 2009

For the record, Enron promoted AGW alarmism out of self-interest. That does not prove that there is nothing to be concerned about, but it does show that special interests have been manipulating this debate from both sides. There are also honest, credible scientists on both sides, as Lawrence Solomon's other articles show, gathered together in a book here:


Dyson is in good company in many cases; the claim that "all credible scientists" support AGW may be the single greatest reason that I am open to AGW skepticism. It is simply not true.

While there is a strong case for taxing carbon more highly, the oft-repeated claim that "the debate is over," insofar as it is intended to imply that all qualified scientists agree that severe environmental and humanitarian consequences will take place if we do not take drastic action to reduce carbon emissions, is simply dishonest. I would like to see more people acknowledge both that there are good reasons right now for taxing carbon fuels more highly AND THAT the scientific debate regarding the exact role of carbon emissions in prospective climate change is far from over. Al Gore's proposal to swap payroll taxes for carbon taxes would be a good policy move regardless of the scientific debate on climate change.
Posted by Michael Strong on 11 Jun 2009

I think the real point of this article and one of the points that Dyson tries to make has nothing to do with climate change per se. It's about anti-intellectualism and herd mentality. It's about shouting down skeptics who have unpopular ideas. I think it's safe to say that one reason there are relatively few "young" climate change skeptics being heard is that, let's face it, it would be career suicide. And Dyson may not be a climatologist, but he's been a member of the scientific community long enough to know a thing or two about how science influences public opinion and vice versa.
Posted by Wryan on 12 Jun 2009


You're right. I was not correct when I stated that oil will last 40 years. Proven existing oil reserves are for 40 years at current rates of consumption as you point out.

But new discoveries, numbers of skilled personnel and investment in infrastructure are declining which points to an upcoming oil crunch in the near term. See recent interviews with Jeroen Van der Veer of Shell on the website etc.

In the longer run oil is a finite resource and we are going to have to restructure our civilisations to live without it. This will not be an easy task. Why should we leave this to our kids and grandkids to do this?
Posted by Dara on 15 Jun 2009

Dara, what you fail to realize is that oil production follows all the rules that apply to any economic activity. Humanity can never run out of oil. If you are right and the current decline in production continues, the price will rise with oil's increasing scarcity. As the price rises, alternatives will become economically viable. Or new sources will be found - sources that could not be exploited profitable at current prices.

You betray a clear statist streak in your post. "We are going to have to restructure our civilizations to live without it?" That task will, as it always has done, take care of itself. The hubris of the statist mindset, that believes in a controlling power that can mold civilization itself to its will is without historic precedent. It is a phantom. Enlightened self interest is what changes social interactions between people, not politics.
Posted by Fred Brewster on 15 Jun 2009

'Well, is that the case? For example a basic reference (http://bcs.whfreeman.com/thelifewire/content/chp58/5802002.html) on The Global Carbon Cycle with amounts expressed in 10 to the 15th grams of carbon:

Atmosphere: 740
terrestrial organisms: 550
intermediate/deep waters: 34,000
sand/detritus: 1,200
Sedimentation: 0.5
carbonate minerals in rocks: 18,000,000
fossil fuels: 25,000,000

"All about equal" when the five range from 550 to 25,000,000?'

I think that by "All about equal" he is talking about the physical extent (area, or volume, maybe) of the reservoirs, not about the carbon content in the reservoirs. It makes sense in the context.
Posted by Jellifone on 16 Jun 2009

I would like to suggest that Mr. Dyson's modesty in claiming to be a generalist rather than a climate specialist should not necessarily be seen as undercutting his point of view.

First, at least some prominent climate specialists agree with him (eg., Richard Lindzen, just about the best-credentialed climate scientist anywhere).

Second, a well-tested psychological problem with even bona fide experts is that they tend to
greatly overestimate the likelihood that their conclusions are correct. (This is why, for example, "all the experts" "knew" that Iraq had WMD.)

Third, Mr. Dyson's views correspond with what I was taught about complex systems such as the climate: that they are basically unpredictable; not because our mathematics is bad, but because of sensitive dependence on unmeasurably small initial conditions. When I hear climate experts claiming that they are 90 percent certain of their projections (as many of them do), I am immediately suspicious. The achievable level of certainty is particularly important when we are being urged to expend many billions of dollars to "fight global warming."

Fourth, experts may have a vested interest in the subject of their expertise being important. This is not wickedness, it's human nature.

Fifth, after the recent, dismal failure of the "experts'" risk models in the financial meltdown, it is surprising to me that people still put so much credence in the computer models on which the climate experts base many of their conclusions. The protection of billions of dollars in investments gave the financial experts an enormous incentive to get their models right, but they still were devastatingly wrong. The models used by the climate experts are not dissimilar from those used by the financial experts prior to 2008.

Finally, large moneyed interests stand to make huge sums from the programs being urged to curb global warming. These include the large banks, which are licking their lips over the proposed the cap and trade carbon market, in which they, of course, will be middlemen, as well as hedge funds invested in "alternative energy" in order to reap the anticipated tax breaks. Add to this the bandwagon-jumping politicians Mr. Dyson mentions, and you have a prescription for research money being funneled to AGW alarmists and away from more moderate researchers.
Posted by Jamil Nasir on 16 Jun 2009

I would have liked to see more exploration of Dyson's claim in the NYT article that "global warmers" have accused him of being "paid by the oil industry." Of course, there is no indication that this is the case, and I'm not aware of any prominent scientist or environmental activist who has made that accusation.

However, Dyson has lent his name to dubious petitions and open letters, including the Bali Open Letter to the U.N. in 2007, and the Manhattan Declaration released at the Heartland Institute's first climate conference in March, 2008. Both these efforts were organized by Canadian climate disinformation PR specialist Tom Harris (ex-APCO Worldwide, now head of the mysterious International Climate Science Coalition).

The mainstream media appear to be blissfully unaware of this facts, and so have thus far missed the opportunity to ask Dyson the obvious questions concerning his willing participation in these troubling initiatives.

The saga of the Bali Open Letter also featured a particularly egregious breach of journalistic ethics by National Post editor Terence Corcoran, who agreed in advance with Harris to publish the open letter, but hid key details of the provenance of the letter from Post readers.

For further details, see:

Posted by Deep Climate on 18 Jun 2009

Michael you write,

"[Dyson] is on the faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study" at Princeton.

But Dyson has officially retired and is now Professor Emeritus. Usually, such titles are largely honorary (although with some attendant perks like an office). So I would be surprised if he were officially on the faculty.
Posted by Deep Climate on 18 Jun 2009

The Japanese "Ibuki" satellite will start sending
information on the density of CO2 and methane
gas from the entire surface of the earth in 2010.
Near 56,000 data points, daily. If it turns out
that CO2 and/or methane concentrations are not
high above 75 deg north Latitude, then science
will have to prevail again and a cause for the
warming in the Arctic Ocean will have to be
further investigated.

A good place to start would
be changes in the current directions in the Arctic
Ocean or changes in the depth circulation of
fresh and denser salt water with the seasons.
Another influence to consider is the drift of
almost 1500 km in the North Magnetic Pole that
has occurred since 1969 when a "Jerk" was
recorder that increased the rate of migration in
the NMP. Today, the North Magnetic Pole is
almost located near 86 degree North Latitude,
125 degree West Longitude, within the Arctic
Sea. In 1970, the Latitude and Longitude were
approximately 75.5 deg North and 101 deg
West, respectively. Has this migration of the
North Magnetic Pole had an EMF effect on the
circulation currents in the Arctic Ocean which in
turn has increased the temperature of the Arctic
Ocean affecting the melting and generation of
thinner pack ice in the 1990's and early 2000's
time frame, thus contributing to a warming of the
Arctic Sea? It is noted here that pack ice froze
over earlier in 2008 than in 2007, almost being
completely frozen over by the end of October
2008 except near the entrance to the Bering
Straits. This year, it will be interesting to see
how much melting occurs by mid September in
the Arctic Sea and how fast is freezes over
Posted by Joseph G. Gallagher Jr. on 23 Jun 2009

Antipodes is correct in saying that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is at or near radiative saturation. Increasing the CO2 concentration has essentially no effect on radiative heat transfer, i.e., no effect on global warming -- except, as Freeman Dyson has noted, when and where the air is very dry. I too have done radiative absorption calculations for a variety of CO2 and H2O concentrations, and my results agree with the qualitative remarks of Dyson and the more quantitative notes by Antipodes.

I wonder if, in the geological past, rising CO2 was a CONSEQUENCE of warmer climates, rather
than the CAUSE.
Posted by podo on 13 Jul 2009

Dyson does seem to have a great degree of knowledge about climate control. However, the question before government and humankind is Are we ready to gamble our lives, our planet on Dyson and the small percentage of elite scientists who believe that genetic engineering can get us out of the mess we have created on this beautiful planet. I for one admit that I never though about climate change too much till I watched eye opening series of Planet Earth by BBC.

Global warming or global climate change the way I like to call it is about all species and humans across the earth and not just about how much Greenland residents enjoy their newly found warmth. If they love warm weather so much, they can always think about living in Souther California and surf along with us on the ocean. Its not just about human needs and human preferences, its about the delicate balance we have been gifted it. Its about maintaining that balance as we pass along the planet earth to the next generation.

Even in the current times, we are seeing effect of resource consumption on oil prices which affects every aspect of life including state budgets to soccer mom's weekly grocery bill. Climate models may be not complete as there are many variables and species which affect each other and possibly never, we will have a model which takes all gazillions parameters in account, but it doesn't take an Albert Einstein to see that natural resources are under heavy exploitation, clean drinking is scarce and we are heavily dependent on chemicals which are accumulating in our food chain.
Posted by Ocean surfer on 08 Aug 2009

The interviewer states that skeptics are being dismissed "by those who work in the field as clueless at best and deliberately misleading at worst."

Are you this ill-informed? How could you libel someone like Richard Lindzen [ Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] with this accusation?

He doesn't work in the field? And his comments, unlike those who get the government grants, have been very measured and thougthful.

How about meteorologist Dr. John Christy who was a lead author on the IPCC? Ever listen to what he has to say?
Posted by mike on 12 Sep 2009

Lots of thanks to the honourable gentleman! 85 years old person is taking part in the debate of global warming. Isn’t it inspiring? He is so much confident that alarming is not necessary. Isn’t it a natural logic from a person whose life started when this issue was not even conceived? How humbly he accepts, “I have a lot of friends who think the same way I do. But I am sorry to say that most of them are old, and most of them are not experts. My views are very widely shared.” “In the Arctic… in the winter … in the night” He visited Greenland, he found warming is happening, it’s spectacular and glaciers are shrinking and so on.”

He is simply questioning whether they are harmful. Not only that, he is flatly confessing, “If they find any real evidence that global warming is doing harm, I would be impressed.” Isn’t he wonderfully mild in his attacks compared to his counterparts? Is he lying at any point? Where does he deserve the blame?

I am fully defending him but not his views. What I wonder is his fans. It’s not sure whether they are defending Dyson or indirectly designing lame excuses for their own excess emitting of carbon.

Melting of glaciers and rising of sea level can be obviously understood as co-related. Some other factors, as eroded soil, can be additional or even primary factor for it which must have been continuing since ages, but how can we excuse the excess use of fossil fuel so flatly?

We cannot deny that change is a natural process as aging and death but shouldn’t we work to slow it down? Simply digging and refining the underground fossil fuel and using it indiscriminately, how can it be called a satisfactory progress? Even if we use it, do we have the right to deplete the limited quantity of fossil fuel? Let’s forget the future generation, aren’t we doing injustice to the poor who are deprived of its benefits but destined to suffer the consequences the earliest? The effect of climate change is directly hitting to the marginal peasants who are compelled to depend on rain for their meager crop production. Coal miners’ old stories are not so pleasant. Even factory workers health hazards are not unknown.

Nepal’s Prime Minister has presented a stone from Mt. Everest to Barac Obama in his recent visit to America. The world famous mountainous country, Nepal, is changing into a range of rocky hills. Rivers are drying. Pandas are now endangered species. Shouldn’t we think globally?

Let’s embrace this old person’s modern views, “super-tree”, “five reservoirs of carbon, all interact with each other strongly.” “You can’t understand any of them unless you understand all of them.” It’s an accurate insight against the partial way of our analyzing to any problem. The sun is mocking at us and challenging our modern technology with its unlimited source of energy. Let not the old man’s spirit mock at us.
Posted by Padam Pande on 24 Oct 2009

It's great to hear this gentleman's viewpoint.

However, compared to other environmental issues, Climate Change is getting an undue amount of attention in popular awareness. There are many reasons to reduce human impact on the environment other than to avert a hypothesized impending, human-induced global warming. In today's modern economy, "carbon footprint" is almost equivalent to "environmental impact." The two are so closely related, I don't know how one could maintain a high carbon footprint while sharply lowering environmental impact, or vice versa.

Really, the larger issue is _sustainability_ of human practices. Whereas Climate Change is kind of an abstraction, with the focus on changes likely to happen in the future, other human impacts are unequivocal facts happening in the present, with an easily traceable human source.

An inevitable side-effect of successfully addressing these other pressing problems will be reducing our carbon footprint, whether or not current climate change predictions prove accurate or not.

Posted by Rick DeLong on 13 Nov 2009

Thanks for the interview. Dyson does a pretty good job of exposing himself as an ignorant contrarian who really has no clue what he's talking about. The interviewer could have done a more thorough job of refuting his false factual claims (as in A Siegel's post - I immediately recognized that his claim about the carbon sinks all having about equal size was completely off the mark). But priceless are Dyson's own admissions of ignorance:

"Yes, it is definitely a tactical mistake to use somebody like me for that job, because I am so easily shot down. I’d much rather the job would be done by somebody who is young and a real expert. But unfortunately, those people don’t come forward. ... I have a lot of friends who think the same way I do. But I am sorry to say that most of them are old, and most of them are not experts."

He should be credited for his honesty in that respect. But as a scientist, he is acting irresponsibly to a breathtaking degree. There is no excuse for what this man does. His statements are neither factually correct nor even logically consistent. I'm sorry but Dyson seems to play this game for narcissistic motivations only. It is fair enough to point out that climate interactions, especially when vegetation is involved, are complex and uncertain - "They are totally missing the biological side". But then to go on to publish a purely speculative and extremely single-minded scheme, not supported by any scientific research, to prevent climate change by genetic engineering?

The problem with Mr Dyson seems to be that in his view, skepticism is only warranted with respect to ideas that he happens not to like. Would he turn a small fraction of that skepticism on his own views about climate change, exposing them to some hard and honest scientific scrutiny, it wouldn't take him long to identify their flaws.

Posted by Toni Menninger on 04 Dec 2009

Mr Chu is a Nobel prize winning physicist who believes and is in Government.
Mr Freeman is an almost Nobel prize winning 85 year old physicist and fuddy-duddy who is not a climate expert and is skeptical.

Of course you'd look at the latter's view for comfort!!

Posted by Jeremy Tridgell on 30 Dec 2009

Mr. Dyson expressed his dismay at the behaviour of some climate scientists and "the kind of intolerance to criticism that a lot of them have." In light of what increasingly appears to be quite unacceptable behaviour by the scientists at the Climate Research Unit at University of East Anglia and possibly others, I have a lot of sympathy for his point of view.

Posted by Bintoar Palar on 02 Feb 2010

In all particulars, Freeman Dyson's remarks are highly credible. That he says he's no climate expert, in no way suggests he is unqualified to speak to the climate issues. Intelligence is the capacity to recognize and solve problems. Dyson has that in great depth. The climate change issue is of great complexity, hence, great intelligence is needed to assess and correlate the available information that bears on the questions. As the late Nobel Laureate, Herbert Simon of Carnegie Mellon, credibly taught, the scale of human intelligence is limited by the number of objects of attention a mind can simultaneously hold in short-term memory (Simon supposed seven would be the limit for humans). The mind that can hold only six objects in short term memory cannot possibly comprehend the much more complex perspectives synthesized and offered by a mind that can hold seven objects in short term memory. Dyson has a seven-object mind. It seems his critics’ minds can hold only five or six. Hence Dyson's opinions, even at the age of 85 and rapidly approaching senescence, are of much greater credibility than his young weaker minded critics.

Dyson knowledgeably stipulates the world is experiencing significant Arctic warming coincidentally with increased atmospheric CO2 levels. He correctly notices that the physics of causality between the two events is not demonstrated. He also correctly asserts science has no way to predict how a warming Arctic might influence global climate ten years out, much less how much, if any, additional Arctic warming will happen over the next decade. From the perspective of basic principles of physics, it's likely additional atmospheric CO2 in regions with warm humid air will produce only minor effects in climate change. Dyson's views seem balanced and well thought out. The scientist’s ethical duty is to say what can be honestly said, and, unless extremely well qualified as such, to remain silent on problematic and highly subjective speculations. Dyson’s engines of speculation have always turned at high rpm, but he has always tried to honestly name his speculations as just that. Dyson is a scientist. Global climate change alarmists are not.

Posted by Allen Gage on 20 Feb 2010

I am a trained retired Engineer, with some long-term environmental activism. I am trained in the scientific method. I have been looking into the Global Warming theory intensively for three years and I have yet to find the 'aha' moment, when I finally 'see' the underlying evidence and understand the significance.

I am 'just' an interested citizen; I have looked in a lot of places, with many more leads to follow. I have looked at the AGW side as well as the anti-AGW side. I have also tried to find an open source for the technical articles (to no avail - they all cost too much money). I am looking for the science that 'proves' the causal link that my use of fossil fuels is the most important reason for global warming.

This is an area where there seems to be an extraordinary number of variables to understand before a higher level of certainty can be said to exist. To point out some of them (like the polar bear losing its habitat) is interesting, but not conclusive.

Also, my belief is that the earth climate is a complex system which is 'fixed' and therefore can be understood with enough investigation and thought. It is important to continue the scientific focus until the system is more fully understood. The AGW predictions are far enough out that I will be dead before they can be tested.

However, if we were to find a situation while only midway into the full investigation, which necessitates our stopping the work and adressing that situation, I think it would be prudent to do so.

That is where we are at right now. Although we do not fully understand the system ( smaller scale phenomona, like atmospheric moisture needs to be investigated), we have found the 'smoking gun' that is causing the global warming -- which is atmospheric CO2 which only comes from the burning of fossil fuels!

Just how we blame global warming on that subset of CO2 is somewhat of a mystery. But, after weaving a story from evidence that the scientists keep hidden (just because they can), those scientists exclude other eminant scientists from seeing the evidence and say that their evidence 'proves' that they are right. Case closed. Let's get on with the corrective action that is proscribed by those same scientists. Just trust them - they are right (and we don't know one way or the other without seeing the evidence, or produce a like amount of scientific evidence by ourselves, without a benefactor).

So, let's say we agree to spend our money on the solution. This is very costly, but they say not doing this will eventually be even costlier in the long run. The net effect of spending all this money is: "if we are right, we can prevent the calamity forseen". To put it another way; if we fork over all that money ($Trillions) and it is spent, if we are lucky, we won't see any change at all!

That's right......the increased temperatures we foresee in the future won't materialize, we will have been saved! The trouble is: I DON'T BELIEVE THEM.

There is no way to prove they are right, or wrong. And after we fork over all that money....there will be no great change from today.

Do you get it? We're being duped, and there is no way to say they are right, or wrong -- either now or in the future.

I say: keep spending the money for research. This time, let the data become available to anyone who wants it - scientist, engineer, balerina, whoever. Put it on the internet without filters. Just don't lose the data - then we'll never understand it. Have debate after debate in the public domain on all of it (if this is truly THE most damaging thing on the planet, let's get all of the ideas out onto the table). Set up a test - such as an ocean level rise of 'x' that has been agreed to that is the max save level above which we MUST take action; and when it rises to that level, we THEN TAKE ACTION! But, not before then.


I think the average human should be well versed in this topic if democracy has a chance of offering any input into this discussion. From what I see, there is NO WAY that will happen within today's political climate. Therefore, I pin my hopes on a small glimmer that the politicians will get it right and steer us to a proper and just outcome.

Posted by Jeffrey Eric grant on 24 Jan 2011

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Michael D. Lemonick, who conducted this interview for Yale Environment 360, is the senior writer at Climate Central, a nonpartisan organization whose mission is to communicate climate science to the public. Prior to joining Climate Central, he was a senior writer at Time magazine, where he covered science and the environment for more than 20 years. He has also written four books on astronomical topics and has taught science journalism at Princeton University for the past decade. In a recent article for Yale Environment 360, Lemonick wrote that, with the intensifying effects of climate change, a 2007 report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is already outdated.



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