Environment in crisis: 'We are past the point of no return'
Thirty years ago, the scientist James Lovelock worked out that the Earth
possessed a planetary-scale control system which kept the environment fit
for life. He called it Gaia, and the theory has become widely accepted. Now,
he believes mankind's abuse of the environment is making that mechanism work
against us. His astonishing conclusion - that climate change is already
insoluble, and life on Earth will never be the same again.
The Independent (U.K.) Jan. 16, 2006
The world has already passed the point of no return for climate change, and
civilisation as we know it is now unlikely to survive, according to James
Lovelock, the scientist and green guru who conceived the idea of Gaia - the
Earth which keeps itself fit for life.
In a profoundly pessimistic new assessment, published in today's
Independent, Professor Lovelock suggests that efforts to counter global
warming cannot succeed, and that, in effect, it is already too late.
The world and human society face disaster to a worse extent, and on a faster
timescale, than almost anybody realises, he believes. He writes: " 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
In making such a statement, far gloomier than any yet made by a scientist of
comparable international standing, Professor Lovelock accepts he is going
out on a limb. But as the man who conceived the first wholly new way of
looking at life on Earth since Charles Darwin, he feels his own analysis of
what is happening leaves him no choice. He believes that it is the
self-regulating mechanism of Gaia itself - increasingly accepted by other
scientists worldwide, although they prefer to term it the Earth System -
which, perversely, will ensure that the warming cannot be mastered.
This is because the system contains myriad feedback mechanisms which in the
past have acted in concert to keep the Earth much cooler than it otherwise
would be. Now, however, they will come together to amplify the warming being
caused by human activities such as transport and industry through huge
emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2 ).
It means that the harmful consequences of human beings damaging the living
planet's ancient regulatory system will be non-linear - in other words,
likely to accelerate uncontrollably.
He terms this phenomenon "The Revenge of Gaia" and examines it in detail in
a new book with that title, to be published next month.
The uniqueness of the Lovelock viewpoint is that it is holistic, rather than
reductionist. Although he is a committed supporter of current research into
climate change, especially at Britain's Hadley Centre, he is not looking at
individual facets of how the climate behaves, as other scientists inevitably
are. Rather, he is looking at how the whole control system of the Earth
behaves when put under stress.
Professor Lovelock, who conceived the idea of Gaia in the 1970s while
examining the possibility of life on Mars for Nasa in the US, has been
warning of the dangers of climate change since major concerns about it first
began nearly 20 years ago.
He was one of a select group of scientists who gave an initial briefing on
global warming to Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet at 10 Downing Street in April
His concerns have increased steadily since then, as evidence of a warming
climate has mounted. For example, he shared the alarm of many scientists at
the news last September that the ice covering the Arctic Ocean is now
melting so fast that in 2005 it reached a historic low point.
Two years ago he sparked a major controversy with an article in The
Independent calling on environmentalists to drop their long-standing
opposition to nuclear power, which does not produce the greenhouses gases of
conventional power stations.
Global warming was proceeding so fast that only a major expansion of nuclear
power could bring it under control, he said. Most of the Green movement
roundly rejected his call, and does so still.
Now his concerns have reached a peak - and have a new emphasis. Rather than
calling for further ways of countering climate change, he is calling on
governments in Britain and elsewhere to begin large-scale preparations for
surviving what he now sees as inevitable - in his own phrase today, "a hell
of a climate", likely to be in Europe up to 8C hotter than it is today.
In his book's concluding chapter, he writes: "What should a sensible
European government be doing now? I think we have little option but to
prepare for the worst, and assume that we have passed the threshold."
And in today's Independent he writes: "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 [CO2] emissions.
The worst will happen ..."
He goes on: "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." He believes that the world's governments should plan to secure
energy and food supplies in the global hothouse, and defences against the
expected rise in sea levels. The scientist's vision of what human society
may ultimately be reduced to through climate change is " a broken rabble led
by brutal warlords."
Professor Lovelock draws attention to one aspect of the warming threat in
particular, which is that the expected temperature rise is currently being
held back artificially by a global aerosol - a layer of dust in the
atmosphere right around the planet's northern hemisphere - which is the
product of the world's industry.
This shields us from some of the sun's radiation in a phenomenon which is
known as "global dimming" and is thought to be holding the global
temperature down by several degrees. But with a severe industrial downturn,
the aerosol could fall out of the atmosphere in a very short time, and the
global temperature could take a sudden enormous leap upwards.
One of the most striking ideas in his book is that of "a guidebook for
global warming survivors" aimed at the humans who would still be struggling
to exist after a total societal collapse.
Written, not in electronic form, but "on durable paper with long-lasting
print", it would contain the basic accumulated scientific knowledge of
humanity, much of it utterly taken for granted by us now, but originally won
only after a hard struggle - such as our place in the solar system, or the
fact that bacteria and viruses cause infectious diseases.
Rough guide to a planet in jeopardy
Global warming, caused principally by the large-scale emissions of
industrial gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), is almost certainly the
greatest threat that mankind has ever faced, because it puts a question mark
over the very habitability of the Earth.
Over the coming decades soaring temperatures will mean agriculture may
become unviable over huge areas of the world where people are already poor
and hungry; water supplies for millions or even billions may fail. Rising
sea levels will destroy substantial coastal areas in low-lying countries
such as Bangladesh, at the very moment when their populations are
mushrooming. Numberless environmental refugees will overwhelm the capacity
of any agency, or indeed any country, to cope, while modern urban
infrastructure will face devastation from powerful extreme weather events,
such as Hurricane Katrina which hit New Orleans last summer.
The international community accepts the reality of global warming, supported
by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In its last report,
in 2001, the IPCC said global average temperatures were likely to rise by up
to 5.8C by 2100. In high latitudes, such as Britain, the rise is likely to
be much higher, perhaps 8C. The warming seems to be proceeding faster than
anticipated and in the IPCC's next report, 2007, the timescale may be
shortened. Yet there still remains an assumption that climate change is
controllable, if CO2 emissions can be curbed. Lovelock is warning: think
Climate Change Will Kill Billions This Century, Scientist Says
Bloomberg.com, Jan. 16, 2006
Jan. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Climate change will kill billions of people this
century as the Earth warms, passing into a ``fever' phase from which it may
take 100,000 years to recover, James Lovelock, the scientist who propounded
the ``Gaia' theory, said.
Temperatures in temperate regions such as Europe and the U.S., will soar by
8 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) this century, and those in the
tropics will rise by 5 degrees as a result of man-made emissions, Lovelock
wrote in today's Independent newspaper.
``We have given Gaia a fever and soon her condition will worsen to a state
like a coma,' Lovelock wrote. ``She has been there before and recovered, but
it took more than 100,000 years. We are responsible and will suffer the
Lovelock's Gaia theory, advanced in the 1970s, sees the Earth behaving like
a self-sustaining organism, with a control system that keeps the environment
fit for life. By trying to take over regulation of the planet's climate,
humans have condemned themselves to ``the worst kind of slavery,' and will
soon find it impossible to keep the Earth fit for life, Lovelock said.
``Much of the tropical land mass will become scrub and desert, and will no
longer serve for regulation; this adds to the 40 percent of the Earth's
surface we have depleted to feed ourselves,' he said. ``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.'
Not all scientists and politicians support the theory that the planet's
climate patterns are changing as a result of human activity. The
administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has said there's no proof
that global warming is causing a change in the weather.
Lovelock said that with the U.S. and emerging economies such as China and
India unlikely to cut back emissions of so-called greenhouse gases that trap
the sun's heat, ``the worst will happen and survivors will have to adapt to
a hell of a climate.'