Science & Tech

Freeman Dyson, RIP

Freeman Dyson in 2007 (Monroem/via Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)
He endorsed the ‘humanist ethic.’

The death of physicist Freeman Dyson on February 28 has been noted by many publications, all of which highlighted his many contributions to science. Dyson, 96, was, without doubt, a genius. He was a polymath whose interests included mathematics, number theory, biology, physics, nuclear energy, space travel, weaponry, and arms control.

While all of those accomplishments are important, Dyson’s view of climate change — or rather, his view on carbon dioxide, economic development, and what he called “the humanist ethic” — also helped spark a new type of environmentalism, one that rejects the idea that carbon dioxide is the supreme villain.

Dyson was a skeptic on the issue of catastrophic climate change, a fact that was prominently noted in the obituaries published in the Washington Post and the New York Times. The Post called it his “apostasy on global warming.” It went on, saying that while Dyson did not “deny the Earth was warming,” he broke ranks because he didn’t believe “global warming is particularly dangerous.” That view, the Post said, “is not shared by the overwhelming majority of scientists.” The Times said Dyson “confounded the scientific establishment by dismissing the consensus about the perils of man-made climate change.”

Dyson could afford to be a skeptic. Few academics dare to break from the orthodoxy on climate change because the pressure to hew to the majority view is so intense. For proof of that, look no further than the experiences of Judith Curry at Georgia Tech or of Roger Pielke Jr. at the University of Colorado, both of whom were effectively blacklisted for questioning that orthodoxy. Dyson had no such qualms. His position at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he spent more than 60 years, was secure. That job security, and his own long history in science and physics, allowed him to carve his own path on climate issues. In 2007, he published an essay at Edge.org that is perhaps even more relevant today than when it was published.

In the very first line, Dyson made his skepticism clear: “My first heresy says that all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the computer models.” He went on, saying that the climate models “do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand.”

But the essence of Dyson’s argument wasn’t about climate change or computer models. Instead, it was about values. “Naturalists believe that nature knows best. For them the highest value is to respect the natural order of things. Any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil. Excessive burning of fossil fuels is evil.”

Those lines encapsulate the views of many of the world’s highest-profile climate activists and environmental groups, who routinely demonize energy companies. Leading liberal politicians in the U.S., including senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have said they want to ban hydraulic fracturing, the process that has allowed the U.S. to double its production of both oil and gas over the past decade or so. Sanders also wants to prosecute oil and gas companies for producing the fuels that power the global economy. In January 2020, BlackRock, the world’s largest investment manager, with $7 trillion under management, announced it would quit financing fossil-fuel projects. The Sierra Club and other groups are pressuring commercial banks and the World Bank to quit financing all fossil-fuel projects.

Rather than demonize energy and energy producers, Dyson focused on equity, human development, and the need for more energy so that more poverty-stricken people can live better lives. “The humanist ethic begins with the belief that humans are an essential part of nature,” he wrote. “Humans have the right and the duty to reconstruct nature so that humans and biosphere can both survive and prosper. For humanists, the highest value is harmonious coexistence between humans and nature.”

With those lines about the “right and the duty” to reconstruct nature, Dyson presaged the rise of the ecomodernist movement. In 2015, a group of scientists, writers, and activists issued the “ecomodernist manifesto,” in which they declared that we are reshaping the planet and there is no going back. “Humans are made from the Earth, and the Earth is remade by human hands,” they wrote.  The 18 original signers of the manifesto included Breakthrough Institute founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, as well as the University of Kolkata’s Joyashree Roy, Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, and philanthropist Rachel Pritzker. “Climate change and other global ecological challenges are not the most important immediate concerns for the majority of the world’s people,” they declared. “Nor should they be.”

In that regard, the ecomodernists were echoing Dyson’s essay, which says that “the greatest evils are poverty, underdevelopment, unemployment, disease and hunger, all the conditions that deprive people of opportunities and limit their freedoms.”

That sentence is particularly relevant now. The defining inequality in the world today is the vast disparity between the electricity-rich and the electricity-poor. As I explain in my new book, there are some 3 billion people on the planet who are living in places where per capita electricity use is less than what’s used by an average American refrigerator. Rather than condemn the energy-poor to more poverty and deny financing to the developing countries that need to use fossil fuels to stimulate their economies, we need a humane response, one that recognizes the need for more development, and the use of more energy, and in particular more natural gas.

The essential line in Dyson’s 2007 essay is this: “The humanist ethic accepts an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a small price to pay, if world-wide industrial development can alleviate the miseries of the poorer half of humanity.”

To that I say, amen.

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