Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Freeman Dyson's Bottom Line Escapes Me

Some time ago, a fellow I respect recommended I read the NY Times Magazine's article about Freeman Dyson, the "civil heretic." Dyson thinks that politicians have overblown the threat of global warming. He is a decorated scientist and a liberal, who thinks that Al Gore as protagonist of the story of global warming relies on science that is not terribly thorough.

In particular, Dyson thinks that the models of rising water make predictions of the worst case scenario appear more likely than we have evidence to believe. Because of criticisms like this one and the fact that Dyson calls for more study of the matter, he draws criticism from a wide variety of people.

While I think that the shock value of the worst-case scenario is certainly used rhetorically, I think that Dyson's dissent is better targeted when he criticizes the scientists on whom Gore has drawn (and yes, he does this). A few things trouble me about his general aversion to theories of global warming. First, today people generally prefer the language of climate change. The reason for this is that Dyson and others are right - the Earth is not universally getting warmer. The colder regions are staying warmer longer in the hotter periods, which is melting ice at the globe's extremities. Warm regions are not all getting hotter. In fact, in some years, global temperatures may decrease (see BBC article online here).

The next thing that troubles me is the fact that Dyson criticizes the same trouble that he himself commits. He criticizes others for supporting a view that is not terribly specific and well understood, while at the same time arguing with a bit of a straw man version of environmentalists' arguments. What is it he is really challenging? I don't think that the article makes it terribly clear and he himself does not address climate change with extensive study or writing.

So what is the pay out? Some like to say these days that they support green initiatives while not being all that convinced that human beings are raising the temperature of the Earth. Again, the latter is a misunderstanding of climate change. Average temperatures are not necessarily going up. Also, the presumption is that human beings do not have a substantial effect on the environment, really, so why bother too much with restrictive policies?

I think people must travel more to learn the answer. While still in high school, I had the chance to visit Macau. To breathe clean air, my family and I had to run from building to building because of the visible pollutants in the air (is was brown air). It was gross and unhealthy. Friends have told me of the pollution of Mexico City. In other circumstances, regions' resources are frequently depleted, streams are poisoned with the byproduct of some industries and private practices. Clearly human beings have an effect on the environment. Whether Florida will go under water the way Al Gore predicted may not be likely to happen as quickly as he suspects. Nevertheless, Venice has been sinking for a long time and now some island inhabitants in the Indian Ocean are planning their escape from the sea's swallowing rise (Maldive Islands).

As I read about Dyson's claims I wondered why he seemed to lump green initiatives together with somewhat exaggerated political rhetoric. For instance, there is good reason to recycle in big cities. Landfills are expensive, as land is expensive when it is close to big cities. Recycling slows the filling of landfills dramatically. When they are full, you have to travel farther to dump, which costs more fuel and time/labor. Plus, resources are not limitless, so why not reuse some of the land's resources a few times. Cities get recycled materials for free, reprocess them, and then sell them to industry, thus providing public income that is not taxation. When done right, recycling can make money for municipalities. Even if it does not, however, when resources are not limitless, the reuse of them needs to be considered in costs greater than immediate availabilities.

What else is so tough about the green movement? Automobiles could me made more efficient as a requirement. Building codes could be set to follow more efficient standards. When I visited South Korea in 2008, I was astonished at the ubiquity of intelligent coding of buildings for efficiency. Efficiency is an industry. If there is a great cost and danger in whatever Dyson wants to criticize, he has not show it in the social sphere. He is right, however, that if environmental sciences are not rigorous, they should be. I think environmentalists would agree with that view.

In the end, I am left wondering what really drives Dyson so mad policies about climate change. He thinks more should be said and researched about it. I agree. Recycling is not a religion, however, though it is a practice that considers the aggregate impact of individuals' decisions. That sounds like an excellent idea to consider. His idea of trees that could eat up excess carbon dioxide is fun, but why not further his notions (as described in the NY Times article) about solar energy.

Another matter he seems not to have considered are the looming effects of climate changes in agriculture. People will have to move to continue to plant their crops. Those movements may be cause of much conflicts in the years to come. It would not be silly to start some planning about the shifts in agriculture that poor peoples will have difficulty anticipating.

In the end, it sounds to me as though Dyson is angry that politicians have oversimplified the facts about scientific matters. I'm left stunned that someone as smart as him is surprised. Overstatement or no, it is not so damned hard to recycle some cans and to produce cars that double our mileage. Let's put off running out of oil a bit longer. Where is the harm in that?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Obama, Ahmadinejad, and the Moral High Ground

On Saturday, I posted a link on Facebook to this article, about Ahmadinejad's invitation to speak with Obama. I've been thinking about the ways it makes sense to respond to him.

Here's what I said on Facebook:
"This after accusations of meddling? Sounds odd, but is a win-win for him. If Obama does not participate, it'll look like an insult, judgment, and meddling. If he does, Ahmadinejad will take the participation as a sign of the legitimacy of the election, of respect. If Obama participates, he'll be criticized for supporting what many see as an illegitimate victor. If he doesn't, he'll be criticized for not following through on his commitment to open up to the muslim world. Ahmadinejad is not a stupid man."

The decision about how to respond is a tough one. I think the first quality of a smart response would be to wait, be patient, and do nothing initially. The U.S. has a great deal to focus on right now, domestically, and with regard to nations other than Iran. The second thing I think makes sense would be to make the meeting quite public. In this sense, the proposal to meet at the U.N. is a good one.

A colleague of mine and I discussed the weight of each side of the dilemma I have described. The options before Obama are basically two. He can choose not to meet with Ahmadinejad or he can meet with him. What does Obama, America, or the world gain from not meeting with Ahmadinejad? If one wants to protest the elections in Iran, you might think, not meeting with Ahmadinejad could be seen as a statement that challenges his government's legitimacy. To meet with Ahmadinejad, some might say, would be to endorse the tactics he used to suppress his people.

Essentially, I think that this point of view depends on the tenor of the meeting. If Obama were to engage in this meeting casually, making sure not to be interpreted as meddling, the critics would be right. At the same time, Obama could turn the challenge of meddling on its ear. To meddle is a colonialist throwback of illegitimate intrusion. It would be best not to do that. Meddling, however, is quite different from pursuing the moral high ground. My colleague pointed me to this article from the New York Times, which discusses Obama's anti-proliferation agenda.

If Obama were to explain, prior to the meeting, his motivation for meeting with Ahmadinejad, he could diffuse concerns about legitimating the election. The motivation is the higher moral obligation to fight nuclear proliferation, a worry for all people. Also, Obama can go to the meeting critical of Ahmadinejad's administration's violence against his own people. He can compare Iran's election to the disputed, but peaceful transition that the United States underwent in 2000. He can reiterate the value of transparency, the rule of law, and of the moral worry that the whole world must deal with concerning nuclear weapons.

If he meets with Ahmadinejad, then, he must ignore the accusations of meddling. After all, Ahmadinejad asked for the meeting. How can he complain? He will, but it will come accross far less weighty a criticism when Obama calls for the high ground internationally in terms of nuclear concerns and democratically with regard to the legitimate basis of government. In sum, he will need to bite the bullet of meddling, but from the high ground that will leave him consistent in being open to talks without pre-conditions and morally virtuous in advancing a peaceful and democratic message.