Field of Science

Environmentalism is not climate change; climate change is not environmentalism

Freeman Dyson has an Op-Ed in the Boston Globe about the ongoing climate change talks in Paris in which he makes a cogent point - that environmentalism does not equal climate change and focus on climate change should not distract us from other environmental problems which may be largely unrelated to global warming.
"The environmental movement is a great force for good in the world, an alliance of billions of people determined to protect birds and butterflies and preserve the natural habitats that allow endangered species to survive. The environmental movement is a cause fit to fight for. There are many human activities that threaten the ecology of the planet. The environmental movement has done a great job of educating the public and working to heal the damage we have done to nature. I am a tree-hugger, in love with frogs and forests.  
But I am horrified to see the environmental movement hijacked by a bunch of climate fanatics, who have captured the attention of the public with scare stories. As a result, the public and the politicians believe that climate change is our most important environmental problem. More urgent and more real problems, such as the over-fishing of the oceans and the destruction of wild-life habitat on land, are neglected, while the environmental activists waste their time and energy ranting about climate change. The Paris meeting is a sad story of good intentions gone awry."
I rather agree with him that for many people the term environmentalism has become largely synonymous with climate change. However the two are not the same, as becomes clear to me when I hear him mention overfishing which is a real problem largely unconnected with climate change. I have recently been reading about the state of the world's fish in Paul Greenberg's excellent book "Four Fish". Greenberg focuses on the history and future of the four fish that have largely dominated the Western world's diet - salmon, sea bass, cod and  tuna. 

The book talks about how most of these fish were overharvested and almost driven to extinction by humans building dams and poisoning rivers with industrial effluent. Neither of these two issues is directly connected with climate change, but how often do we see high-profile global meetings which press everyone to deal with dam-building and water pollution on a war footing, let alone meetings led by presidents and prime ministers? 

Overfishing also brings another aspect of the climate change problem into sharp perspective: The only reason certain places in the US, such as the Salmon River in New York, are now full of fish is because those fish have been carefully cultivated in captivity and then released in the wild. Without this human intervention the Salmon River would have stayed barren. Then there is the revolution in fish farming, also described in "Four Fish", which has brought expensive fish to the plates of literally millions of people who were previously deprived of it. The equivalent of fish farming in case of climate change is geoengineering. Geoengineering carries more risks but also more potential benefits than fish farming, and it too deserves serious consideration in a meeting on climate change. As far as I know, most of these high-profile meetings on the topic focus on prevention rather than mitigation in the form of geoengineering. As exemplified by solutions to overfishing, any serious discussion of climate change should at least involve discussions of geoengineering.

Politically the sad history of the climate change wars seems to have a simple explanation in my mind. Before 2004 or so when the effects of climate change were not known as well and anti-science Republicans dominated the government, conservative deniers largely ruled over the debate and the media. After 2004 or so, in part because of better data and in part because of relentless and wide publicity by people like Al Gore, the media started paying much more attention to the issue. I do not blame the left for going a little overboard with emphasizing the case for climate change at the beginning, when it was important to counter the right-wing extremism against the topic. But since then the world has been sold on the issue, and there is no longer a need to be overzealous about it. Unfortunately segments of the left have continued the crusade which they started in good faith at the beginning and now many of them have turned into hard liners on the issue, extending the theory beyond where the evidence might lead and denouncing almost any opponent as motivated by politically enabled bigotry. This has led to the silencing of reasonable critics along with irrational deniers (see my previous post for a discussion of the distinction between deniers and skeptics).

But whatever our feelings about the political rancor surrounding climate change, I do share Dyson's concerns that it might distract us from problems that are at least equally important. I think environmentalism has been one of the most important movements for the common good in history, too important to be pigeonholed into one category. Climate change is not environmentalism; environmentalism is not climate change.

The second aspect of the op-ed is Dyson's contention that the science of climate change is not settled. Many people have attacked him for this contention in the past and they will no doubt attack him now, but both in conversations with him as well as based on what he has written, I have found that most of his issues about the science are very general and not extreme at all. He says we don't understand a system as complex as the climate enough to make detailed accurate predictions, and he also says that much of the debate has unfortunately turned so political and rancorous that it has become hard for reasonable people to disagree even on the scientific details. These statements are both quite true and should ideally be uncontroversial. In addition I have discussed parallels between molecular modeling and climate modeling with him; in both cases we seem to see a healthy amount of uncertainty as well as an incomplete understanding of key components involved in the process: for instance water seems to be a common culprit; we have as fuzzy an understanding of water in cloud formation as around the surface of proteins and small organic molecules. 

I think climate change is a serious problem that deserves our attention. There is little doubt that we have injected unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution, and we would be naive to think that these have not impacted the climate at all. But the devil is in the details. It seems not just bad science but bad policy to me to hold high-profile meetings on the topic every year while neglecting other equally valid topics, all the time making detailed plans for mitigation (and not active intervention) in a system which is not understood well enough right now for detailed preemptive actions which will impact the lives of billions of people, especially in the developing world. 

To me it seems reasonable to think that climate change should be part of a larger portfolio we should invest in if we want to try to protect our future. As they say, it's always best to diversify your portfolio to hedge your bets against future risks.


  1. Here, here! I completely agree, and would take this one step further. The public focus on the 'global warming' debate is a distraction from the fact that we need to change our energy infrastructure away from fossil fuels for any number of equally valid reasons. I'll name three: fossil fuels are a finite resource, their use causes health issues in humans, and oil is too valuable to burn.

    1. Yes. I would also add reducing conflict in incendiary political locations like the Middle East.

  2. I agree. Climate change has also become a taboo even for some scientists nowadays thanks to extremists on both sides of the argument.

    I read Edward Teller's Energy from Heaven and Earth a few months ago and it is unbelievable how little has changed since 1970's. He too suffered from environmentalists and "climate fanatics" as Dyson describes. Here are a few quotes from him and the link to my thoughts about the book:

    "Environmentalists may take notice that small is not necessarily beautiful or clean."
    "In today's climate opinion, to be big is to be unpopular."
    "We have not yet gotten to the point where we are willing to sacrifice a tourist attraction to our economic needs."

  3. Dyson's op-ed doesn't strike me as terribly scientific to be honest - but then it is an op-ed. He doesn't quantify whether other causes are actually being neglected in favour of climate science - and neither do you Ash. Is there any evidence this is actually happening, or is it just a feeling? Dyson's mention of not understanding the sun's role is also problematic - I'm pretty certain that's taken into account in the uncertainties of the IPCC report. We may not understand everything, but we have to act on what we do know.
    So what we're really left with from this article is opinion. Which is, I suppose, how politics works, but I would hope for more from such an eminent physicist.

    1. I think it's a reasonable question. I agree that other causes are not being completely neglected, but do we know of any other environmental issue that attracts so much attention from the world's most influential leaders and makes them organize expensive conferences in the world's major cities? Or one that seems to command so much emotional and political capital from the world's populations?

      As for the sun, I don't know enough about it and so I don't know if Dyson is right, but if it influences climate as much as he thinks then it does seem futile to me to try to counter the effect purely by reducing CO2 emissions, without some kind of massive geoengineering.

  4. I think the argument that there are more important environmental issues to address is more of an argument not to do anything than to do something else, Most of the big unaddressed issues are unaddressed because they cost more to address than people (who are the problems' sources or who have the money to address them) are willing to pay, and there is not enough motivation for them to change that valuation. Hunger in America is probably a relatively tractable example - we easily have the money and infrastructure to deal with it (even with childhood hunger, which negates the "The hungry are just lazy and unwilling to work" argument, and yet we don't. We have the resources to deal with lots of things and have chosen for various reasons not to, but that seems a poor argument for not doing something else.

    In addition, I think climate change is a more significant issue than almost any other environmental issue, because it has the potential to alter nearly all of them. Species are likely to disappear because the areas that plants grow probably won't shifts as far north as temperatures allow (temps shifts north, but the earth's inclination isn't going anywhere), and water shifts and ocean changes will shift population a lot. Thus, it's likely to change lots of things at once, each of which would be a significant issue in itself. Even if we don't care about environmental issues, there is more than enough human issues involved to make it important. Shifting water supplies and food growing areas are likely to lead to wars and conflicts; since the people who are poor now are likely to bear a significant portion of the costs without the resources to ameliorate the situation, wars are pretty likely. (The conflicts at global warming (GW) meetings over who pays and how are not a good sign - while you can't be certain that money dispensed then will go to the right places, the issues aren't going to be easier to resolve later. The US has an awful lot of old coastal cities that would not do well with sea level rise - while we can move them, it would be expensive, and there's probably other stuff that we'd rather do with that money. Having our growing areas move to Canada might be a problem as well. We have a lot at stake, more so than in any other environmental problem I know of (which may be because I don't know enough, or may be reasonable).

  5. The other part of the problem is the relationship between our understanding of climate and the importance or not of changing our behavior to alter it. If you think people are missing basic parts of climate structure, then it seems impossible to conclude that you can know what the limits of our effects on climate are. If we don't understand climate - if, for example, there are more significant contributors to GW than the human effects on climate - then it will be very hard to do anything about it with our current knowledge. If you can't reasonably predict the effects of actions on climate (because you don't even know all the contributors, let alone how they interact - like drug discovery), then you can't easily implement responses.

    If the lack of knowledge perceived is correct, then geoengineering (GE) probably won't going to work (because engineering systems seems to require an awareness of the pieces, their interactions, and the expected outputs) and has a good chance of being an exceedingly bad idea. My problem with GE is that it may be irreversible - while us putting CO2 into the air is unnatural, it has happened before and life has survived it (in some form). GE is likely to change our cycle into something that hasn't existed before, and there will be no assurance that it will be a cycle that can stably retain life. (I am modeling sets of conditions as solutions of differential equations in 2D.) It might also be irreversible - we might not be able to get back to the original cycle, and might not be stable in the old one, and might damage the possibility of life existing here, which seems of ultimate seriousness. While cutting CO2 seems like playing with a light switch which may or may not work, GE seems to be playing with the circuit breaker, something that ought to require utmost care and knowledge. If we don't believe the models that say our CO2 output is a problem, then we certainly don't have the understanding to think about implementing bigger (and alien, if not irreversible) changes in the biosphere.

    The solution to bad ideas is better ones, and better knowledge, whereas much of the implication seems to be that GW is not being important enough to gather such knowledge. That does not seem honest - as above, if you don't understand something then it seems impossible to conclude that you know what its limits of its effects are. I don't think that making the existence or non-existence of GW into dogma has helped anyone, but the solution to dogma is the willingness to confront it and to deal with it on the level of ideas and facts. That still, though, requires admission of its importance, and some sort of common ground of argument and a commitment to information gathering (and listening to the answers). I don't think assuming it's overrated in importance (without understanding exactly how important it is) is helpful to confronting GW as dogma.

    1. Thanks for your long and thoughtful reply. I agree that quantifying both risks and benefits of climate change is important. The way I think about it though, we might actually be able to mitigate or counter some of the effects of climate change by focusing on more direct measures. Fish farming is a great example in my opinion: many edible fish would become extinct - because of ocean acidification caused by climate change for instance - and the right response would be massive farming that would repopulate the oceans and streams. So it seems to me that, even if for no other reason than for mitigating adverse climate change, we should be paying much more attention on a global level to smaller but still effective measures.

    2. Every little bit would help. I don't imagine doing little things should preclude either defining better theories and seeing if they fit and thinking about bigger things (for which we probably need better models and data anyway).

      Sorry for the tldr. I needed to get it out (preferably without fragging anyone).

    3. Anytime! Debate always sharpens understanding.

  6. Another interesting comment on this editorial elsewhere in the science blogosphere here:

  7. Environment is concern with a variety of things. To settle the problem of environment requires multiple efforts . More important, do not mix the meaning of environmentalism


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