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Environmental Fundamental(ism)s

Freeman Dyson, while a venerated quantum physicist, is something of a gadfly when it comes to the environment. In the past, he’s pronounced how “proud” he is to join the ranks of “heretics" (your Galileos, et al) who sacrificially challenge consensus in the name of progress. This week, the New York Review of Books let him spill some 5,000 words on the subject of climate change science and its myriad inconsistencies and illogic. The piece begins in the weeds of a complex economic model developed by William Nordhaus that takes as its premise the need to discount the future cost of climate action against current expenditures. Nordhaus identifies five separate plans to deal with the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere, feeds them some catnip and throws them all into the ring.

I won’t get into the details of the scoring system (really, this dullish piece is far below NYRB’s excellent standards). But, Nordhaus finds, the “worst” plans over the next few centuries are those dearest to today’s environmentalists: Al Gore’s plan of gradually reducing emissions to 90 percent of current levels by 2050, and Sir Nicholas Stern’s plan to do the same—which Dyson characterizes as basically Kyoto on steroids. The winner? A "low-cost backstop," the Atlantis of environmental engineering. Specifically, it’s

a policy based on a hypothetical low-cost technology for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or for producing energy without carbon dioxide emission, assuming that such a technology will become available at some specified future date. [my emphasis]

AKA doing nothing, and hoping humans continue the tradition of being smarter than we used to be. Of course, this “plan”—as it requires the least amount of investment (compared to the cap and trading schemes that three other plans promote)—is “enormously advantageous,” while the Gore-Stern solutions are “disastrously expensive.”

In conclusion, Dyson verges into a strangely apolitical analysis of the climate change "question":

The main point is religious rather than scientific. There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible.

Hmm. This whole gambit seems to me a highly scientific but ultimately galling recapitulation of Pascal’s Wager, which posits this:

So, if God (climate change) does not exist, we ought not waste our resources bracing for its negative impact on civilization. If it does exist, well, we could act or we could not; and if we do, we should calculate just what type of devotion (tithing, abstinence) we’re prepared to undertake. Dyson, via Nordhaus, generously makes these calculations for us.

One hitch here: global warming is not—like faith in Christ, for example—a matter of personal salvation. Climate change is, definitionally, a catholic problem. Dyson’s opening anecdote describes a remote atmospheric monitoring station in Hawaii, where skies are clear blue, but worldwide shifts in carbon saturation are as perceptible as in, say, Beijing. So the terms of Pascal’s Wager are not exactly applicable.

I’ve never put much stock in this argumentation for leading a religious life, anyway (nonpunitive theologies would seem to throw a kink in this ordering). Conservative naysayers, however, have begun demonizing the ethics of saving the planet with the same moralizing fervor that often accompanies truly religious fundamentalism. George Will furthers this new line of atttack in an odious column on

[w]hat Friedrich Hayek called the "fatal conceit" -- the idea that government can know the future's possibilities and can and should control the future's unfolding … Environmentalism is, as Lawson writes, an unlimited "license to intrude." "Eco-fundamentalism," which is "the quasi-religion of green alarmism," promises "global salvationism."

Ugh. This is where Dyson’s "proud" skepticism becomes a damaging instrument. Whereas he (and I) are willing to accept the science of global warming as an analog to the notion that “God exists,” Will takes the denialist trend to a new low—using the template of religion to impugn climate change as Baal himself. Unfortunately, when Dyson's bedfellows deny environmentalism its civic and moral authority (rising, unlike Judeo-Christian deism, from the universal nature of the challenge), the chances of developing his mythological “backstop” fade to black.

Update: More faith-based dings ("scientific beliefs can now be said to be held religiously, rather than scientifically") from Robert Skidelsky in Lebanon's Daily Star.  

--Dayo Olopade