"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.