Transcription, title and bracketed clarifications ours.
Climate, Carbon & Commonsense
Introduction by the Conversations That Matter Team:
STUART McNISH: Mike, today we’re having another conversation with an eminent scientist from Princeton University. Let’s talk a little bit about who our guest is today.
MIKE MENEER: Today we’ll hear from Freeman Dyson. He’s a 91-year-old physicist, one of the most renowned scientists in the United States. Been around for six decades.
SMcN: An extraordinary mind. We were talking to one of our previous guests who went, [puffs out cheeks] “You’re talking to who?!” Like, to say that he has a big brain would be an understatement.
MM: That’s right. And this is someone who actually works in the same building in Princeton that Einstein worked in. And interestingly enough not only works in that building but he was actually there when Einstein was there.
SMcN: I know, it’s extraordinary. You go into the building and there’s this bust of Albert Einstein, and the address is 1 Einstein Drive. And it dawns on you that this is a place where some rather extraordinary thinking happens.
There’s many people who are on the climate change side of the equation and who are advocating that we’re in trouble, and they say that science supports that. They’re not going to be so happy with the conversation with Freeman Dyson.
MM: Well, Freeman Dyson, .... in terms of climate change, obviously acknowledges that there’s rising carbon in the environment.
SMcN: And that the temperature has gone up.
MM: The temperature has gone up. But I think his approach is to say we don’t know enough. We need to focus on things in the world that we know enough about to change.
SMcN: You’re right. Not knowing enough. He says, ‘I know the guy who designed the first computer model that all of the models are based on.’ He knows the guy, and he knows that the model can’t mirror what’s in climate. And this is his point. And so he says, yes we’ve had this effect, but it’s the predictive model that is difficult for him to embrace.
MM: Right. Which is what makes his voice on this issue, particularly [being] somewhat of a contrarian, even that much more important, and pivotal really in the entire debate.
SMcN: There are people who are not going to be happy with what Mr Dyson has to say. But it’s a conversation that we believe was worth having. Let’s go to that now.
STUART McNISH: This time from the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University joining me now is Freeman Dyson. Mr Dyson, thank you for joining me.
FREEMAN DYSON: Thank you.
SMcN: Man-made climate change. Where are we at, from your perspective? Is it incontrovertible science? Or, are we being led down a path that you are suspicious of?
FD: Well, first of all there is man-made climate change. I mean it’s a question [of] how much, is it good or bad? And there’s all sorts of questions. The fact that it exists is not a question. Certainly there is some effect of humans on climate. And we have to try to find out what it is. All I would say is, first of all we don’t understand the details. It’s probably much less than is generally claimed. And the most important thing is that there are huge non-climate effects of carbon dioxide which are overwhelmingly favourable, which are not taken into account. To me that’s the main issue: that the earth is actually growing greener. This has actually been measured from satellites. The whole earth is growing greener as a result of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s increasing agricultural yields, it’s increasing the forests, it’s increasing all kinds of growth in the biological world. And that’s more important and more certain than the effects on climate.
SMcN: Well this is where you started your research, isn’t it? The effects of CO2 on vegetation.
SMcN: And, over the years, what have you found?
FD: Well it’s increasing just more or less as we expected. I started working on this 37 years ago, at the time we thought the effects were maybe about 10%. And now, it’s probably more like 25%, after 35 years. It’s essentially what we expected. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has gone up by 40% or something like that.
SMcN: Yes, up to about 400 parts per million at the moment. Just shy of that, I think.
FD: Half of that has gone into raising vegetation. So, vegetation has increased on the average by around 20%. And that’s observed. And of course it’s extremely important. Actually, it’s enormously beneficial. Both to food production and also to the biodiversity — preservation of species and everything else that’s good. So, the remarkable thing is that these effects which have nothing to do with climate, effects of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are so much easier to measure than the effects on climate, and so much more certain.
SMcN: Well I know that in a greenhouse, where there is, you know, industrial growing of plants for food production, the carbon dioxide parts per million is up around 1200 parts per million. We know that it works in an actual greenhouse, but there was a considerable amount of concern as to whether or not that would actually translate into the atmosphere globally. And you’re saying that the evidence is in: that the benefit exists in the world at large as well.
FD: Yes, on the average. Of course it’s not true everywhere. And you can find cases where it doesn’t work and cases where it does work, if you look at the details. Depends on what other nutrients are available of course. If the growth of plants is limited by not having enough nitrogen, then giving it more carbon won’t help. So, most of the time there is enough nitrogen, and giving it more carbon does help. So it’s understandable that the effects vary from place to place.
SMcN: You’re also on record as saying that we will be able to genetically re-engineer trees, to help absorb any excess amount of carbon that’s in the environment. And I was reading recently about precision genetic engineering so that we can splice right into the gene and say, this is the particular component. Do you see this being an alternative, like if we get to the point where we go: the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is something we’re uncomfortable with?
FD: Yes, that’s in the very long run. So I think people have to understand there are some things which are true right now, other things that will be true in a hundred years, other things that will be true in five hundred years, and that makes a big difference. So what you are talking about, genetic engineering of the plants all over the earth, I would say, probably at least a hundred years from now. It certainly will be important in the long run, but it’s a very long run. So one shouldn’t think of that as something we’re going to be doing in the next ten years.
SMcN: So if I come back to the question of CO2 in the atmosphere, we’ve seen about a 40% increase, I believe over the last 130 some odd years of measurement. Is that correct?
FD: That’s accurate, yes.
SMcN: But we haven’t seen a 40% increase in temperature. So, the rise of CO2 doesn’t necessarily correlate to temperature change. Do you understand why all of a sudden then, there is such concern about CO2 increases and what it’s going to do to global temperatures?
FD: Well I don’t try to impute motives to people. I mean, I disagree with people very strongly. But I don’t say that they’re evil because they disagree with me. So I don’t want to analyse other peoples’ motives. There certainly is an enormous religion in which there are a lot of true believers, who think that climate change is evil and that we’re going to run into big catastrophes, if we don’t do something drastic. That’s a belief system which exists. I don’t understand it, and don’t pretend to understand their motives.
SMcN: But so much of that belief is predicated upon models that are presented, computer models that take data from weather stations around the world. And they say that this modelling demonstrates that this projection is going to work.
FD: This of course I’ve always been fighting against: the ideas that the models are actually good predictors. My friend Syukuro Manabe, he’s a Japanese climate expert who lives here in Princeton, and he was actually the first person who ever did climate models with increased carbon dioxide, just to see what it would do. And he found the warming, and, it was less than is now fashionable, but anyway there was some warming.
SMcN: Is this the modelling that goes back to the late 60s?
SMcN: Yes, OK, I was reading about that.
FD: So anyway, Manabi always said and still he says that these climate models are excellent tools for understanding climate, but they’re very bad tools for predicting climate. And the reason is simple. They are models which have only a few of the factors in them that may be important, so you can vary one thing at a time, so it helps to understand, if you vary one thing at a time and see what happens, and particularly the carbon dioxide. But there’s a whole lot of things they leave out. That’s why they’re no good for prediction. That the real world is far more complicated than the models.
SMcN: And that is the challenge, isn’t it?
FD: Well I don’t say it’s a challenge. I don’t think that any of these models can ever be really predictive.
SMcN: Because climate is too complex?
SMcN: And there’s too many factors at work.
FD: Yes, and you just cannot model everything. It’s just, way, way out of sight.
SMcN: I have interviewed other scientists about climate, and I’ve asked them what the effect of the sun is. And they said, well the sun has a convenient excuse, its temperature hasn’t changed. Is that true?
FD: It’s true the sun’s temperature doesn’t change. But its activity does change. Its "activity" meaning sun spots and magnetic storms. They change with the eleven-year cycle very strongly. And we see an effect on climate. There’s a young man here, in fact, called Nir Shaviv, an Israeli, who has actually studied this. He actually finds a very direct effect of this solar cycle, the sun spot cycle, on the climate. So it is important. It has nothing to do with the temperature of the sun.
SMcN: It has more to do with the radiation that makes its way into the earth’s atmosphere.
FD: Yes. It’s mostly the cosmic rays, the high energy irradiation. It doesn’t have anything to do with the actual temperature of the sun.
SMcN: And it’s the ability of that energy to be able to penetrate the earth’s atmosphere and warm the atmosphere that we live in.
FD: Well it’s a complicated situation. I mean, Shaviv has studied the evidence. And the evidence is clear — that this activity of the sun is having an effect. And of course there was a big additional piece of evidence, which was the Little Ice Age which happened in the seventeenth century, which also coincided with the time when the sun went to sleep for about 70 years . There was a thing called the Maunder Minimum, when the sunspots just didn’t happen. At the same time there was a very cold climate in Europe. So that’s fairly strong evidence of correlation. But there’s much more direct evidence now, from modern observations. So the correlation is certainly there. Exactly how the activity of the sun influences the climate is not completely clear. It has something to do with cosmic rays, but it’s not direct heating of the atmosphere. It’s probably an effect on clouds. But we don’t know for sure.
SMcN: What led me on my path to try and understand where the truth was, I watched Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth. And in that movie he says, when you take water vapour out of the equation, CO2 makes up about 30% of the earth’s greenhouse gases.
FD: That’s true.
SMcN: Yes it is true isn’t it, because I decided to look at that statement, and I went, OK. And that led me to ask how much does water vapour [contribute to greenhouse gases], what role does it [play]? And back came this astounding number of 90%.
SMcN: And I went: well how can you take water vapour out of the equation?
FD: [smiling then laughing] You can’t. I mean it’s alright if you want to talk about Mars.
SMcN: Because there is no water vapour.
SMcN: How did we get to focus on CO2 as being this tipping point. The culprit.
FD: Because it’s something we do ourselves. That’s what makes it special. It is human activity. The fact is that CO2 is so beneficial in other ways. It would be crazy to try to reduce it.
SMcN: I have tried to read the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report on climate change, and I can’t do it. It’s beyond my ability to comprehend what it’s about.
SMcN: There are so many other things you have to understand. But one thing that struck me, is [that] there is recognition in the report that there are adjustments made on temperature reportings from a variety of different stations around the world. Are you aware of this?
SMcN: Why do they do that?
FD: Well, because measuring temperature is a difficult thing. There’s all sorts of local effects. I mean the original measurements of carbon dioxide by Keeling [in 1958] were done at the top of the mountain in Hawaii, Mauna Loa, to get away from human influences. That’s where he measured it, and it was a very good move. That’s why the measurements are very reliable.
SMcN: Because they continue to monitor from there.
FD: Yes. And that’s the way to do it. But the trouble is, if you want to measure the average temperature of the earth — which is a very poorly defined thing anyway — you have to have lots of measuring stations, and the local influences are very strong. So they try to correct for local influences. If somebody builds a building nearby it changes the temperature. And all kinds of vegetation, of course, also can change [the temperature]. So, there’s every reason for not trusting those measurements.
SMcN: Is science in the business of predicting things, or is it in the business of observing, recording, measuring, telling us what we know at this point, and then, leading us to the next stage of discovery?
FD: Well it does all of those things. I mean we’ve done pretty well with predicting the weather up to a week. I mean that’s remarkable how good the weather forecasting is.
FD: It has really improved enormously, as a result of computer models. Up to about five days, those things really work. What they don’t do is predict what’s going to happen ten years from now, or…
SMcN: Two weeks from now.
FD: … even next year. Yes. [laughter] So it’s an art as much as a science. But it’s improving as time goes on.
SMcN: How did Benjamin Franklin, through [his] Farmer's Almanac, get so good at predicting weather, then?
FD: [laughs] Of course there’s always people who can do it better. If you’re out in the open air, it does help. [more laughter]
SMcN: So as you look forward, I think one of the challenges for all of us, no matter where we are in life right now, to look a hundred years out, we won’t be there to see what the result was.
SMcN: And so how do we know?
FD: Well some things you can be pretty sure of. And the fact is, carbon dioxide will increase. We will continue to burn oil and coal. And probably it does us good. The earth will get greener as a result.
SMcN: What do you say to people who want to have the same level of optimism you do about the future, but they’re afraid to go against the common, or the current embracing of global warming and potential catastrophe? How do you give to viewers and the future, this sense of optimism about our world, that you have?
FD: I think that if you talk to Chinese and Indians and people from Asia generally, they don’t feel pessimistic at all. I mean, generally speaking. Those countries in particular, things have improved so much in the last fifty years, that they see continued improvement. So that this sort of mood of doom and gloom is, I would say, only particularly in the academic communities, and particularly in the Western societies. So I don’t think it’s at all universal. It happens that the media have gone along with it. But I think that the general public has a lot more commonsense.
SMcN: I notice that you also have [Bjorn Lomborg’s book] Cool It on the table here, in anticipation of our conversation. Why did you bring out this book?
FD: Well I think it’s the best general summary I’ve seen, in a way. I mean he’s an economist not a scientist. But I think he’s very sound. And it certainly makes a pretty good case on economic grounds.
SMcN: He’s been attacked of course, as well.
FD: Oh, of course.
SMcN: And Dr Willie Soon [warming sceptic at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics] just recently has been vilified.
FD: Yes. No, I think the fact is, you ought to enjoy being in the minority. That’s the way I feel. Of course I’m lucky because I’m retired. I don’t have to fear losing my job.
SMcN: Is any science incontrovertible? Because you get people… there is a fellow in Vancouver, who is a well-respected lover of nature, and he has been explaining nature to Canadians for decades now, who is at the point where he says if you don’t believe in man-made climate change then you should go to jail.
FD: I mean, literally speaking it’s true. Man-made climate change certainly is real. There’s no doubt it’s real. It’s just a question of how much, and whether it’s good or bad. Those are quite separate questions.
SMcN: And from your perspective?
FD: I would say it’s on the whole good. And also it’s not as large an effect as most people imagine.
SMcN: And all in all, you remain optimistic about our future.
FD: Absolutely. Of course the reason for that is, I grew up in the 1930s, and everything was so much worse then. That’s, I think, the primary reason I’m an optimist. I mean we never expected to survive. ... I mean we saw World War II coming, and Hitler. ... Everything I look at is improved compared with the 1930s. So it depends from where you start. [chuckles]