Freeman Dyson is emeritus professor of physics at the Center for Advanced Studies at Princeton — the chair once held by Einstein and Oppenheimer and currently by nobellist Frank Wilczek. In the current issue of The New York Review of Books Dyson tackles The Question of Global Warming.
Specifically, Dyson excoriates Yale professor of economics William Nordhaus for the kind of financial forecasting that ignores the state and progress of technology. In his new book A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies, Nordhaus identifies putting a price on carbon as a necessary first step for climate action, and Dyson likes this. But then Nordhaus dismisses as horribly expensive and counterproductive most aggressive investment in new technology. Nordaus identifies “low-cost solar power, geothermal energy, some nonintrusive climatic engineering, or genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” as “low-cost backstop” technologies that might save the world.
Concerning the possible candidates for a low-cost backstop technology . . . Nordhaus has little to say. He writes that “no such technology presently exists, and we can only speculate on it.” The “low-cost backstop” policy is displayed in his tables as an abstract possibility without any details. It is nowhere emphasized as a practical solution to the problem of climate change.
Dyson points out very sensibly that low-cost backstop technologies do exist now, and others will exist within five to ten years. A number of these technologies (solar power, tidal power, wind power and even carbon-eating trees) are economically scalable to eliminate the need for coal and other fossil fuels within a very few decades. Economists don’t like to place bets on new industries, but the very existence of these technologies moots the whole book.
For a more optimistic take on what the future holds in efficient technology — in direct opposition of the dire economists’ view — see Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. –Seth Masia
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