It’s been about a week since some global warming skeptic pointed me toward a recent piece from Freemon Dyson, claiming that if Dyson didn’t believe in global warming, no one should. Tip of the old scrub brush to whoever that skeptic was.
Dyson’s piece is online at The Edge, dated August 8, 2007: “Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society.” (If you are unfamiliar with Dyson, you should at least check out his biography there. A more comprehensive biography at Wikipedia reveals why you should be familiar with him as a great father, good physicist and astronomer who tends to work well in groups, and winner of the Templeton Prize. Then, next time you see the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode that deals with Dyson Spheres, you can nod your head as if you understand what’s going on.)
I read Dyson’s piece, and while he’s cranky, he’s not denying global warming. A good chunk of his piece discusses how to capture carbon dioxide to prevent further warming, or perhaps even reverse current atmospheric trends. Skeptics of warming who seize on Dyson’s piece as a rebuttal make a common error among the scentifically unquestioning ranters: They assume any criticism of part of an argument is a refutation of the whole. Dyson suggests we should spend time and money on figuring out how to get the microbiota in the soil to capture more CO2.
Much of the rest of the piece is hopeful. Dyson disagrees with hysteric concerns about melting glaciers; he doesn’t think they’ll all melt or cause dramatic rises in sea level. At the same time, he urges caution and study, noting the holes in our knowledge that most arm-chair global warming skeptics want to ignore, including the possibilities that global warming itself would trigger a dramatic shift to a new ice age, which would be at least as catastrophic.
We can separate the climate cranks from the true skeptics if we look for similar flights of reality from people: The true skeptics will note how difficult it is to predict climate and weather, but do not deny the need to act against pollutants which are thought to cause climate change. This is a crucial difference. Bush administration officials originally denied the existence of global warming as an excuse to do nothing about air pollution; now they claim to recognized global warming, but still do little that might control human dumping into the air. In sharp contrast, Dyson proposes a partly-neglected sink of CO2 and urges that we work hard to increase its effectiveness.
In the past year I have posed that question in several climate discussions: Do you oppose controlling air pollution? The question quickly separates cranks from others; while the scientifically literate may argue about whether we can predict human effects on weather, few argue that we should continue our present trends of dumping.