NY Times Magazine’s Sympathetic Portrait of a Global Warming “Skeptic”

Despite an occasional line likely to raise a conservative’s eyebrow (“Dyson may be an Obama-loving, Bush-loathing liberal who has spent his life opposing American wars and fighting for the protection of natural resources, but he brooks no ideology,” for example) writer Nicholas Dawidoff‘s 8,200-word March 29 New York Times magazine feature, “The Civil Heretic,” on world-renowned physicist, Iraq-protesting liberal and “global warming skeptic” Freeman Dyson will be appreciated by many readers of this blog.

Using a comfortable, storytelling style, Dawidoff immediately sets the scene:

For more than half a century the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson has quietly resided in Princeton, N.J., on the wooded former farmland that is home to his employer, the Institute for Advanced Study, this country’s most rarefied community of scholars. Lately, however, since coming “out of the closet as far as global warming is concerned,” as Dyson sometimes puts it, there has been noise all around him. Chat rooms, Web threads, editors’ letter boxes and Dyson’s own e-mail queue resonate with a thermal current of invective in which Dyson has discovered himself variously described as “a pompous twit,” “a blowhard,” “a cesspool of misinformation,” “an old coot riding into the sunset” and, perhaps inevitably, “a mad scientist.” …Dyson’s son, George, a technology historian, says his father’s views have cooled friendships, while many others have concluded that time has cost Dyson something else. There is the suspicion that, at age 85, a great scientist of the 20th century is no longer just far out, he is far gone – out of his beautiful mind…

From there Dawidoff tells the story of Dyson’s life, intermittently returning to, and ultimately concluding on, the subject of global warming.

Some brief excerpts, not complete, of the global warming sections, as they are likely to be of interest to this blog’s readers:

…Dyson has been particularly dismissive of Al Gore, whom Dyson calls climate change’s “chief propagandist,” and James Hansen, the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and an adviser to Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Dyson accuses them of relying too heavily on computer-generated climate models……Climate models, he says, take into account atmospheric motion and water levels but have no feeling for the chemistry and biology of sky, soil and trees. “The biologists have essentially been pushed aside,” he continues. “Al Gore’s just an opportunist. The person who is really responsible for this overestimate of global warming is Jim Hansen. He consistently exaggerates all the dangers.”

Dyson agrees with the prevailing view that there are rapidly rising carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere caused by human activity. To the planet, he suggests, the rising carbon may well be a MacGuffin, a striking yet ultimately benign occurrence in what Dyson says is still “a relatively cool period in the earth’s history.” The warming, he says, is not global but local, “making cold places warmer rather than making hot places hotter.” Far from expecting any drastic harmful consequences from these increased temperatures, he says the carbon may well be salubrious – a sign that “the climate is actually improving rather than getting worse,” because carbon acts as an ideal fertilizer promoting forest growth and crop yields. “Most of the evolution of life occurred on a planet substantially warmer than it is now,” he contends, “and substantially richer in carbon dioxide.” Dyson calls ocean acidification, which many scientists say is destroying the saltwater food chain, a genuine but probably exaggerated problem. Sea levels, he says, are rising steadily, but why this is and what dangers it might portend “cannot be predicted until we know much more about its causes.”…

… Beyond the specific points of factual dispute, Dyson has said that it all boils down to “a deeper disagreement about values” between those who think “nature knows best” and that “any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil,” and “humanists,” like himself, who contend that protecting the existing biosphere is not as important as fighting more repugnant evils like war, poverty and unemployment…

… Climate-change specialists often speak of global warming as a matter of moral conscience. Dyson says he thinks they sound presumptuous. As he warned that day four years ago at Boston University, the history of science is filled with those “who make confident predictions about the future and end up believing their predictions,” and he cites examples of things people anticipated to the point of terrified certainty that never actually occurred, ranging from hellfire, to Hitler’s atomic bomb, to the Y2K millennium bug. “It’s always possible Hansen could turn out to be right,” he says of the climate scientist. “If what he says were obviously wrong, he wouldn’t have achieved what he has. But Hansen has turned his science into ideology. He’s a very persuasive fellow and has the air of knowing everything. He has all the credentials. I have none. I don’t have a Ph.D. He’s published hundreds of papers on climate. I haven’t. By the public standard he’s qualified to talk and I’m not. But I do because I think I’m right. I think I have a broad view of the subject, which Hansen does not. I think it’s true my career doesn’t depend on it, whereas his does. I never claim to be an expert on climate. I think it’s more a matter of judgement than knowledge.”

Reached by telephone, Hansen sounds annoyed as he says, “There are bigger fish to fry than Freeman Dyson,” who “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” In an e-mail message, he adds that his own concern about global warming is not based only on models, and that while he respects the “open-mindedness” of Dyson, “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.”…

… But one evening last month they sat down in a living room filled with [Dyson’s wife] Imme’s running trophies and photographs of their children to watch “An Inconvenient Truth” again. There was a print of Einstein above the television. And then there was Al Gore below him, telling of the late Roger Revelle, a Harvard scientist who first alerted the undergraduate Gore to how severe the climate’s problems would become. Gore warned of the melting snows of Kilimanjaro, the vanishing glaciers of Peru and “off the charts” carbon levels in the air. “The so-called skeptics” say this “seems perfectly O.K.,” Gore said, and Imme looked at her husband. She is even slighter than he is, a pretty wood sprite in running shoes. “How far do you allow the oceans to rise before you say, This is no good?” she asked Dyson.

“When I see clear evidence of harm,” he said.

“Then it’s too late,” she replied. “Shouldn’t we not add to what nature’s doing?”

“The costs of what Gore tells us to do would be extremely large,” Dyson said. “By restricting CO2 you make life more expensive and hurt the poor. I’m concerned about the Chinese.”

“They’re the biggest polluters,” Imme replied.

“They’re also changing their standard of living the most, going from poor to middle class. To me that’s very precious.”

The film continued with Gore predicting violent hurricanes, typhoons and tornados. “How in God’s name could that happen here?” Gore said, talking about Hurricane Katrina. “Nature’s been going crazy.”

“That is of course just nonsense,” Dyson said calmly. “With Katrina, all the damage was due to the fact that nobody had taken the trouble to build adequate dikes. To point to Katrina and make any clear connection to global warming is very misleading.”

Now came Arctic scenes, with Gore telling of disappearing ice, drunken trees and drowning polar bears. “Most of the time in history the Arctic has been free of ice,” Dyson said. “A year ago when we went to Greenland where warming is the strongest, the people loved it.”

“They were so proud,” Imme agreed. “They could grow their own cabbage.”

The film ended. “I think Gore does a brilliant job,” Dyson said. “For most people I’d think this would be quite effective. But I knew Roger Revelle. He was definitely a skeptic. He’s not alive to defend himself…”

These excerpts don’t do justice to Nicholas Dawidoff’s entire piece; I recommend that readers here take the time to read the whole thing.

Kudos to the New York Times Magazine for publishing it.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org

Addendum: The Center for American Progress Action Fund’s Climate progress blog has lost its mind over Nicholas Dawidoff’s Freeman Dyson profile, calling Dyson’s relatively tame comments about James Hansen (certainly, by the standards of Hansen, who has called for the jailing of certain global warming skeptics) “slander.”

Climate Progress also blasts the New York Times’ Andrew Revkin for mentioning the Dyson profile on Revkin’s Dot Earth Blog, demanding that Revkin “retract his absurdly indefensible assertion that ‘On climate, Mr. Dyson may be right…,'” which actually was written by Revkin as “On climate, Mr. Dyson may be right or wrong…,” which is rather different, though either version is perfectly defensible.

Everybody who hasn’t lost his mind knows perfectly well that climate science isn’t settled; even the global warming theory proponents don’t agree with one another, which is enough right there to prove that whatever the truth turns out to be (and I doubt very much anyone alive on this Earth today will live long enough to know it), the science isn’t settled. If the Center for American Progress thinks the New York Times is too skeptical on global warming and that it’s wrong for the Times to write of one of our nation’s most prominent physicists that he “may be either right or wrong,” then the Center for American Progress has pretty much gone out to lunch, having exited through the door at the far, far left.

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