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Two weeks ago, I was hanging out at a bookstore (because I like to live on the wild side) when I noticed that this year’s Best Science and Nature Writing collection was edited by Freeman Dyson. I really like this particular collection: the essays are often accessible and scientifically accurate even though they’re not very technical. (My favorite is the one that was edited by Natalie Angier in 2002.) I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that they had picked Freeman Dyson as the editor this year though so I’m going to have to vent.
I first learned about Freeman Dyson when the New York Times magazine devoted an 8-page article on him last year and that article bothered me in many ways, but I’ll just highlight two.
1) Freeman Dyson might want to retake Intro to Biology or review basic biological concepts. I’m sure he’s an absolutely brilliant physicist, but his biology is a bit rusty. He’s one of those skeptics who think that planting a bunch of “carbon-eating trees” is going to mitigate climate change. First, it doesn’t matter if you plant a gadzillion hectares of forests that suck up a gadzillion tons of carbon from the atmosphere. Forests eventually die and all the carbon that they store ends up back in the atmosphere when they decompose. And it’s back to square one. It is called the carbon cycle for a reason.
So, what if we harvested the wood from these forests and found some way to store the carbon so that it doesn’t decompose and end up back in the atmosphere (like turning the forests into biochar)? Well, plants need more than carbon dioxide to grow.
First, where is the land for planting all these trees? World forest cover has been declining for decades, and deforestation is still a major environmental problem. As human population and consumption habits continue to grow, we’re demanding more food (more meat, specifically) and more roads, which requires land that doesn’t include trees. So how are we going to convince people that trees are just as or more important than food and roads? This is actually a question that I think is really important to answer.
Second, plants, and trees especially, need a lot of water to grow, which limits them their range to very specific areas of the world. Sure, we could irrigate and fertilize in unsuitable habitats, but I think Freeman Dyson is seriously underestimating how energy and labor intensive and expensive his idea can be.
(For a more thorough critique of Freeman Dyson’s views on climate change, check out David Archer’s post on RealClimate.)
2) Freeman Dyson got 8 pages. Jim Hansen got a paragraph. Aside from hearing biologically-uninformed statements from Freeman Dyson, it really bothered me that the New York Times spent so much time covering Freeman Dyson’s views on climate change and only a paragraph on an actual climate scientist’s views on climate change.
I can’t imagine that the New York Times would ever come out with an 8-page article about an eminent physicist who thinks that chocolate will cure cancer and then spend only a paragraph on a world-renowned oncologist who thinks the physicist doesn’t know what s/he’s talking about. Hundreds of people would be writing in to say that it’s completely irresponsible to report that sort of information in such a skewed manner. But somehow they can get away with this sort of stuff when it comes to climate change. Boo to that.
Oh, and even Andrew Revkin said: “On climate, Mr. Dyson may be right or wrong”, as if Dyson has a 50-50 chance of being right or wrong. That’s like saying if you jump off a tall building, you may or may not live, which may be the case if, say, you’re a character from an action movie, but I definitely wouldn’t chance it in real life.
Anyway, back to the Best American Science and Nature Writing edited by Freeman Dyson. Thanks to Amazon.com, I can read Freeman Dyson’s introduction for free, and it’s more of the same stuff he always says. It’s more about the carbon fertilization effect and how “climate alarmists” are ignoring it. If he actually talked to some climate scientists, he would realize that carbon fertilization is something that has been extensively studied for decades — just do a quick Google scholar search on “free-air CO2 enrichment (FACE)” and you can see papers dating back to the 1990s. Or if he bothered to read this PNAS paper, he would learn why scientists are not jumping up and down about carbon fertilization. This paper even came from a FACE site at Oak Ridge, TN, which is a place that Freeman Dyson visited in his intro.
He also says: “Nothing is said about the large fertilizing effects of carbon in the atmosphere and in topsoil upon food crops.” If he actually talked to some soil scientists, he would realize that soil carbon sequestration has been studied for decades — there’s even a book by Rattan Lal (a renowned soil biologist) 12 years ago on that exact topic: The potential of US cropland to sequester carbon and mitigate the greenhouse effect.
One of the major reasons why scientists are not jumping up and down about topsoil is because there’s a debate on whether maintaining topsoil is actually going to lead to more or less carbon sequestration (see this and this) so again, it is a vast oversimplification to say that topsoil is going to offset all our carbon emissions. Not to mention that if maintaining topsoil does end up sequestering a lot of carbon, topsoil erosion is one of the biggest global environmental problems facing us today, right up there with deforestation.
I wish I could be as optimistic as Freeman Dyson, but his solutions seem to exist in this alternate reality where deforestation and soil erosion are not major environmental problems and unfortunately, we need solutions for this reality.