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January 17, 2006

Lovelock: Global Warming Will Kill Billions Environment

James Lovelock, the environmental scientist who originated the Gaia Hypothesis that views terrestrial systems as a kind of self-regulating superorganism, has published a profoundly pessimistic assessment of humanity's prospects in the face of global warming. Excerpt:

This article is the most difficult I have written...My Gaia theory sees the Earth behaving as if it were alive, and clearly anything alive can enjoy good health, or suffer disease. Gaia has made me a planetary physician and I take my profession seriously, and now I...have to bring bad news.

...[C]limate specialists see [the Earth] as seriously ill, and soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years. I have to tell you, as members of the Earth's family and an intimate part of it, that you and especially civilisation are in grave danger.

Our planet has kept itself healthy and fit for life, just like an animal does, for most of the more than three billion years of its existence. It was ill luck that we started polluting at a time when the sun is too hot for comfort. We have given Gaia a fever and soon her condition will worsen to a state like a coma. She has been there before and recovered, but it took more than 100,000 years. We are responsible and will suffer the consequences: as the century progresses, the temperature will rise 8 degrees centigrade in temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics.

Much of the tropical land mass will become scrub and desert, and will no longer serve for regulation; this adds to the 40 per cent of the Earth's surface we have depleted to feed ourselves.

Curiously, aerosol pollution of the northern hemisphere reduces global warming by reflecting sunlight back to space. This "global dimming" is transient and could disappear in a few days like the smoke that it is, leaving us fully exposed to the heat of the global greenhouse. We are in a fool's climate, accidentally kept cool by smoke, and before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable. [...]

Had it been known [in Darwin's time] that life and the environment are closely coupled, Darwin would have seen that evolution involved not just the organisms, but the whole planetary surface. We might then have looked upon the Earth as if it were alive, and known that we cannot pollute the air or use the Earth's skin — its forest and ocean ecosystems — as a mere source of products to feed ourselves and furnish our homes. We would have felt instinctively that those ecosystems must be left untouched because they were part of the living Earth.

So what should we do? First, we have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act; and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can. Civilisation is energy-intensive and we cannot turn it off without crashing, so we need the security of a powered descent. [...]

We [in the UK] could grow enough to feed ourselves on the diet of the Second World War, but the notion that there is land to spare to grow biofuels, or be the site of wind farms, is ludicrous. We will do our best to survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of emissions. The worst will happen and survivors will have to adapt to a hell of a climate.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that Gaia will lose as much or more than we do. Not only will wildlife and whole ecosystems go extinct, but in human civilisation the planet has a precious resource. We are not merely a disease; we are, through our intelligence and communication, the nervous system of the planet. Through us, Gaia has seen herself from space, and begins to know her place in the universe.

We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone, and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia. We must do it while we are still strong enough to negotiate, and not a broken rabble led by brutal war lords. Most of all, we should remember that we are a part of it, and it is indeed our home. [Emphasis added]

What can one say?

Lovelock understands the big picture better than most, and he isn't a doctrinaire environmental fundamentalist — he's a vocal proponent of nuclear power, for example. So his warning is not to be dismissed lightly. Meanwhile, here on the Titanic, there are lunatics at the helm. Somehow, we have to take control out of their hands (or at least launch lifeboats), and do it quickly. This is way past being a question of playing politics. The stakes couldn't be higher.

It's impossible to imagine, but somehow we must try to imagine the literally unfathomable sorrow and shame that will be ours if we let it all go up in smoke. Imagine it. Maybe it's already too late — but maybe it's not. We have no choice but to act as if it's not. But time is of the essence. We must act.

Posted by Jonathan at January 17, 2006 05:44 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


Another long-time enviormentalist who has recently called for another look at nuclear power (and who hasn't thrown in the towel on civilization yet) is Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog. Mr. Brand has also recently endorsed a techno-thriller novel about the American nuclear power industry as an easy way to learn about the pros and cons of this energy source.

Written by a longtime nuclear engineer (me), and available at no cost to readers, "Rad Decision" provides an entertaining and accurate portrait of the nuclear industry today and how a nuclear accident would be handled. The novel is available online and via a downloadable PDF file at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com.

"I'd like to see Rad Decision widely read." - Stewart Brand

The Comments section on the front page of the website contains other reader reviews.

I hope you'll take the opportunity to look at Rad Decision. I'm honestly not sure what our energy future should be, but I know we'll do a better job of deciding if we better understand our energy present.

James Aach

Posted by: James Aach at January 17, 2006 10:53 PM

, but the notion that there is land to spare to grow biofuels, or be the site of wind farms, is ludicrous.

Errr, last time *I* checked, you can farm under wind machines. You can't farm under solar panels. So, to claim the idea is 'ludicrous' ignores reality.

Overall energy levels are gonna have to drop, or the population will have to drop.

Alas, both are likely to fall, and be violent when the fall comes :-(

Posted by: eric blair at January 18, 2006 12:53 PM