Renowned physicist Freeman Dyson says getting rid of fossil fuels and decarbonizing the world’s economy in the next 50 years isn’t very important. In fact, it’s probably a bad idea.
“I don’t think decarbonizing is that important,” Dyson told IEEE Spectrum in an interview. “I like carbon dioxide, it’s very good for plants. We know sort of the non-climate effects of carbon dioxide are good — they’re very strong. It’s good for the vegetation, it’s good for the natural vegetation as well as for the farms.”
“Essentially carbon dioxide is vital for food production, it’s vital for wildlife,” Dyson argued, adding that the effects carbon dioxide have on climate aren’t very well understood.
“Carbon dioxide also has effects on climate which may not be so good, but that’s much less sure,” he said. “The effect carbon dioxide on climate are really poorly understood. Of course there, I’m in a minority. The experts all seem to think they understand it, I don’t think they do.”
Dyson’s comments are definitely outside the mainstream. Most climate scientists say that carbon dioxide is trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and causing the planet to irreversibly warm. Scientists say burning fossil fuels causes atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to rise, exacerbating global warming.
In January, government climate agencies declared 2014 the warmest year on record by a few hundredths of a degree Celsius. Scientists and climate activists said it’s evidence the world is on a long-term path to warming.
“This is the latest in a series of warm years, in a series of warm decades,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases.”
But Dyson says climate scientists don’t understand how the Earth’s climate works as well as they think. He argues it’s a complicated issue that we may not understand any time soon.
“Climate is a very complicated story,” Dyson said. “We may or may not understand it better.”
“The main thing that’s lacking at the moment is humility,” Dyson added. “The climate experts have set themselves up as being guardians of the truth. They think they have the truth, and that’s a dangerous situation.”
Wouldn’t it be smart to cut carbon dioxide emissions to hedge against scientists being right about global warming? Dyson says that’s not a very good bet.
“I don’t think that’s sensible because it means you’re doing huge damage to the environment… at the cost of large amounts of money and very likely getting no benefit at all,” Dyson told IEEE Spectrum. “I don’t think it’s a good bargain no matter which way you look at it.”
Cutting carbon dioxide would mean “producing less vegetation,” says Dyson because “plants have to struggle for water more.”
“Carbon dioxide is a substitute for water, so if you have less carbon dioxide plants need more water to survive, so it produces deserts,” he said. “That has nothing to do with climate, it’s just a biological effect.”
IEEE Spectrum also asked Dyson what he thought the future of energy would be. His answer: shale gas and solar energy.
“Certainly shale gas will be very large, it’s much better distributed over the world than oil,” Dyson said, predicting shale gas would be the world’s main source of energy in the next 50 years.
“With solar and shale gas you’re doing pretty well,” Dyson said, adding there “might be a big comeback for nuclear, but I doubt it.”
Dyson, now 91 years old, started his physics careers in the late 1940s and contributed early on to the field of quantum electrodynamics. He has since worked on solid-state physics and a wide variety of other subjects, winning numerous awards and honors for his work.
One of his famed insights was the Dyson sphere — “a hypothetical structure, built by an alien civilization, that could capture most or all the energy emitted by a star (and leave a telltale excess of infrared light that could be picked up by our telescopes),” according IEEE Spectrum.
Dyson also played a key role on Project Orion during the 1950s and 1960s. The project was an advanced rocket design that was powered by controlled nuclear explosions that may have been able to transport humans to Saturn by 1970.