Still kickin': 85-year old contrarian Freeman Dyson
At some point I would like to delve into the potential role of cognitive bias in distorting the global warming debate. The main thing I want to do here is draw attention to a recent interview by Yale Environment 360 with Freeman Dyson, an 85-year old eminent physicist who has doubts about the global warming consensus.
Essentially, Dyson doesn't believe that current models can possibly forecast future climate change based on CO2, because it is currently impossible to take into account the biological feedback mechanisms involved in CO2 fluctuations.
You can find the article here.
I find the interview amusing first of all because this 85-year old guy is still so sharp -- he strikes me as quite a bit sharper than his interlocutor. The second funny thing is that the interviewer is so evidently disconcerted and distressed by an inability to find a flaw in Dyson's reasoning. The only weakness detected is one that Dyson freely avows, that he is not an expert. But then, by those standards, neither is the interviewer, nor am I, nor are you, dear reader (unless you work for the IPCC or research climate change).
So Dyson stands in the place of all educated and intelligent non-experts and asks the experts humbly: We understand that you are saying that we need to act urgently and massively to avoid global disaster, and we take what you are saying very seriously because you are such big experts, but since you are asking for such drastic revisions to our current mode of living, could you first please explain in a convincing fashion why exactly it is that global warming is going to do us so much harm?
Especially, please explain the following:
1) Current computer models cannot even predict climatic warming one year in advance, so how can we rely on predictions about what will happen in 20 or 50 years?
2) Demographic analysis predicts benefits from global warming for the next 50 years (because more people die in cold winters than in hot summers). Why are these people unimportant? Beyond that time period, how can we take into consideration the economic and technological capacities of societies 50 years from now?
3) Isn't reduction of CO2 emissions purely a matter of setting a precise carbon tax? Why do we need to spend so much time discussing wind power and Priuses?
4) Isn't it true that the CO2 reductions required under all current and foreseeable international protocols will be drastically insufficient to significantly reduce the global warming currently predicted to occur from CO2?
I think that global warming could benefit from analysis as a cultural meme. Global warming concerns have propagated at a tremendous rate. The global level of concern about warming is enormously high, given the youth of the science that supports it. Why has concern spread so quickly? Is it because of the prestige of the scientists involved or the logic of their arguments?
Certainly that must be part of it. But I think that self-serving bias also plays a role. People think that by merely adopting the belief that global warming is evil and imminent that they are achieving something that will help save the entire planet. There is a huge cognitive reward for minimal effort. We get to feel like saints merely for believing something. We don't have to change our overall behavior or carbon footprint so long as we make a few symbolic gestures, like using organic dishwashing soap or environmentally friendly toilet paper. We can save the whole world just by buying the right toilet paper. There is probably a pyschic need, at least in some people, which is fulfilled by the belief in global warming.
If you'd like to see an interesting discussion on global warming, check out Bjorn Lomborg's brief interview on Fareed Zakaria, which is found on youtube here. I think it gives a feel for how hard it is to discuss global warming because people always come to the table with pre-conceived assumptions (Zakaria).
I freely confess to finding Lomborg quite convincing on global warming, and I recommend his short book on the topic, Cool It.