Science Friction

UCI physics professor takes on Michael Crichton, global warming

UCI physicist Gregory Benford was already famous when Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park and other scientific thrillers, made him a little more famous. In his latest novel, State of Fear, Crichton argues that global warming is a hoax, foisted on the public by scientists who have deliberately twisted data in the hunt for grants from liberal foundations. What's remarkable about the book isn't its clumsy plotting or incredible characters (the protagonist is a cross between Steven Hawking and Jackie Chan, a super-spook with MIT credentials and a kung-fu fighting grip). No, what's weird are the research-heavy footnotes, in which the novel steps outside itself to argue that it ain't just a novel: it's a scientific paper aimed at hippies, tree-huggers and Democrats.

Released last year, State of Fear earned Crichton another slot on best-seller lists, as well as an award ~earlier this month, when he was honored by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists for excellence in journalism. It also got Crichton a meeting with the president. On Feb. 18, The New York Times reported that Crichton met with President Bush last year to advise him on global warming—and that the two were in "near-total agreement."

Benford is no stranger to fiction. In addition to his academic work, he's the author of several science-fiction books, including Timescape, The Martian Race and Deep Time. But he says Crichton misused his work. In a footnote in State of Fear, Crichton claims Benford's research proves there's nothing we can do to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a phenomenon most scientists agree is the key ingredient in global warming.

In fact, Benford says, there's lots we can do. Like dump all the waste products from farms into the ocean. Or put a giant lens in outer space to bounce the sun's heat away from Earth. In a recent interview, Benford says State of Fear, not global warming, is fantasy and offers some practical and not-so-practical ideas on how to save the planet.

Is planet Earth going to heat up indefinitely, or are we heading toward another Ice Age?

I don't think anybody knows if or when there's a tipping point, but within a human lifetime things are going to change radically. The planet has glaciated twice. Each time was enough to wipe out humanity, but we humans have had a big effect on the world climate for many thousands of years. It's now increasingly thought that 10,000 years ago, humans averted the coming of an Ice Age. By burning forests and clearing them, we put so much carbon in the atmosphere that it stopped the Ice Age from returning.

What do you think of Michael Crichton's latest book and what it says about global warming?

That's not my field, but his argument is wrong and has been refuted by people who are in that field. There is a Caltech symposium on June 3 on this issue, and I agreed to give the final address. Michael Crichton appears in a midday debate, and I refused to debate him. It's not that I dislike Mike. I met him years ago when he was at UC Irvine giving a talk, when his career was in decline. My real problem with Crichton is he uses all the pizzazz of science but then says it is all hubristic, and at the end of all his novels, the world goes back to the way it was before. It is very reassuring fiction; the bad guy always loses at the end.

You've criticized Crichton for claiming you've written that there's no technology to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which are widely believed to be responsible for global warming. So what technology is available to accomplish that?

I grew up on farms and am very aware that the largest human enterprise is agriculture. Agriculture governs more landmass than anything else; there are more farms than forests. Crops are 25 percent of what you grow on a farm, and the rest is cornstalks and roots. After the crop is gone, you pick up the cornstalks—I did this as a kid—you clear the land and dump the waste in a ditch. That allows the waste to emit carbon dioxide into the Earth's atmosphere. But imagine if you take trucks and put the waste on barges, then float them downstream to the Gulf of Mexico and drop it in. If it goes beneath the thermocline—beneath the depth at which the material doesn't come back up to the air for 1,000 years—you keep all that carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere for very little cost. It's cheap because rivers flow downhill and the U.S. has the largest river water basin in the world: the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi rivers combined drain as much water as the Amazon.

Has this method ever been tested?

Yes. It's been tested by the University of Washington in Puget Sound, and it worked like a charm. They took forest waste, bundled it and tested what happened to the carbon when it was released at depth: it doesn't hurt the ecosystem and disperses at the sea floor a kilometer down and doesn't move. So they proposed a million-dollar trial and it was being considered by the DOE, but just yesterday I learned that all federal funding for ocean sequestration has been cut. They want to push land sequestration, which I think is ineffective. It calls for trying to capture carbon dioxide and pushing it into salt domes, because the people doing the research and development are oil companies and the Bush administration is spending $100 to $150 million to have the oil companies study this.

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