Freeman Dyson Commentary

September 27, 2011

When the Socolow-Pacala paper on “Wedges” was published in 2004, I welcomed the paper and agreed with most of it. It seemed to me a useful and realistic summary of possible future developments that might be required if the world economy were running out of fuel. I did not take seriously the notion that these developments might be undertaken in order to prevent climate change. At that time, the possibility of a world-wide fuel shortage appeared to be imminent, and the possibility of a global-warming catastrophe appeared to be remote. It was already clear that the greatest and most hopeful historic event of the new century would be the rise of China and India from poverty to prosperity. For the first time in the history of humankind, more than half of the population of the world would be rich. Compared with this historic achievement, the dubious dangers of climate change were clearly insignificant.

Now, seven years later, the situation has changed in two essential ways. First, the abundance of shale-gas, and its production in big quantities at low cost, have transformed the world fuel economy. It is now clear that we have enough accessible fossil fuels to maintain the rapid economic growth of China and India, not to mention Africa and Latin America, for at least half a century without additional “wedges.” Second, the claims of scientific experts to understand climate change have become less and less credible. It has become clear that they neither understand the causes of climate change nor understand how to prevent it. The political machinations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been publicly revealed as unscientific, and its statements have been revealed as untrustworthy. As a consequence of these two changes, both of the motivations for pursuing the “wedges” program have weakened.

In the United States, the Democratic Party made a tragic mistake when it adopted the alarmist view of climate change as a part of its ideology. This mistake led the party to favor policies that increase the price of energy. Any increase of the price of energy hurts the poor far more than it hurts the rich. The ordinary citizen sees the subsidizing of expensive green energy projects as a welfare program for the rich. The result of this mistake is to drive millions of Democratic voters, who believe in social justice, into the arms of the Republicans. It is high time now for the scientific advisers of the Democratic Party to repair the damage that they have done. They should admit publicly that they were wrong about climate change, so that the Party can fight both for social justice and for cheap energy.