James Lovelock is renowned for his Gaia theory: using metaphor to illuminate science, he has argued that the earth is a living planet, a self-regulating system made up of organisms, surface rocks, the ocean and the atmosphere interacting to provide conditions favourable for life. Three years ago, in The Revenge of Gaia, he declared that our burning of fossil fuels, our replacement of too many eco-systems with farmland and our overload of human population had put Gaia under threat and badly impaired her ability to produce conditions comfortable for life and we will suffer dire consequences.
The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning is a follow-up and the little shreds of hope that one could sometimes discern in its predecessor are even less apparent, at least from the perspective with which I view life. Lovelock himself is almost lyrical in his final vision of a future Gaia adjusted to a hotter state, populated by the remnant of human survivors from the disasters ahead, survivors strong in mind and body and ready to start a new evolution in which our intelligence will be beneficial to Gaia and may make of her an intelligent planet. (I don’t pretend to understand what he means by that.) I’m afraid my attention is on the billions who fail to make it to the lifeboat and I derive no consolation at all from Lovelock’s vision.
However that’s at the end of the book. An early remark perhaps suggests how he gets there. He describes himself as a scientist who works independently of any human agency: ”Independence allows me to consider the health of the Earth without the constraint that the welfare of mankind comes first.”
He is critical of the IPCC and its reliance on models, not because he is a contrarian or lacks respect for the scientists involved but because its models are not correctly forecasting the course of climate change revealed by observation. They have underestimated the rate of sea level rise and the rate of melting sea ice in the Arctic. They have not taken into account the progressive decline in the population of ocean algae, which act to cool the Earth in a number of ways. They do not in his opinion make use of the Gaia theory predictions of climate change but still act from within the various scientific specialisations as if Earth were a dead planet. He produces a simple model of his own based on Gaia theory which shows an abrupt 5 degree rise in global mean temperature at an atmospheric CO2 level of between 400 and 500 parts per million. The smooth path of slowly and sedately rising temperatures predicted by the IPCC will not be borne out in reality. There will be spells of constancy followed by jumps to greater heat.
Lovelock records with approval James Hansen’s call for a far greater reduction in CO2 than that suggested as adequate by the IPCC reports. He notes that Hansen’s concern is based on recent observations and on the Earth’s climate history and thinks this means that Hansen himself must have doubts about the adequacy of models based on atmospheric physics alone.
In fact Lovelock’s view of the possible changes ahead does not seem radically different from those of many other scientists who freely acknowledge that the IPCC predictions are proving too conservative. The scientific consensus notion against which Lovelock rails does not seem to prevent them from pointing out inadequacies in the models. My understanding is that those working with the models are constantly seeking to improve them and are well aware of their limitations. The positive feedback potential from the loss of land-based ecosystems, the desertification of the land and ocean surfaces, and the loss of polar ice is frequently discussed by scientists I have read.
Where Lovelock differs most markedly from scientists equally aware of the dangers he points to is in the fact that he seems to think those outcomes already inescapable. So strongly is he convinced of this that he is roundly dismissive of many attempts at mitigation, especially if they carry a green tinge. Reducing carbon footprints and planning to drastically lower emissions are at best romantic nonsense and at worst a dangerous distraction from the real task. We can’t save our familiar world. What we need to do is to prepare for the coming changes in what will be a human world of lifeboat islands (the UK and NZ prominent among them) and a few continental oases in favourable latitudes. Greens who put their faith in renewable energy, and especially those who view negatively the development of nuclear energy, are sabotaging the future of the lifeboat societies. He is particularly scornful of wind turbines, allowing they may perhaps be of some use in some places, but certainly not in his part of the world. Unexpectedly he presents solar energy in a favourable light on the grounds that it is not visionary – he even attaches the word hope to it, though any hope the book offers is always severely qualified.
He does allow for some geo-engineering possibilities, though without much conviction. Various schemes to manipulate the planetary albedo – sunlight reflected back to space – are acknowledged. Karl Lackner’s proposals to strip CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it as described in Broecker and Kunzig’s Fixing Climate is treated with respect. Fertilisation with iron to encourage algal blooms that would cool the Earth by removing CO2 may be effective. He explains his own suggestion, in collaboration with Chris Rapley, of large pipes set vertically in the ocean to draw up cooler, nutrient-rich water to encourage algal blooms. Most promising of all would be the widespread use of biochar. However he checks any undue optimism by recalling that whatever we do as geoengineers is unlikely to stop dangerous climate change or prevent death on a scale that makes all previous wars, famines and disasters small. Geoengineering would be better than business as usual, but that’s about the most that can be said for it.
The crux for Lovelock is that there are far too many people living as we do. Gaia has too many humans. He briefly acknowledges that vegetarian diets and food synthesis by chemical and biochemical industries might help, but is pretty sure it will never happen this way. The effects of prolonged and unremitting drought, the greatest threat to humanity from global heating, will mean food and water shortages which will kill off most of us. Gaia will save herself by severely culling us.
Lovelock is a compelling writer. His prose is elegant and clear and his books packed with intelligent insights. One can’t help but pay him attention. He is an able exponent of the worst case, but that doesn’t make his depressing prognostications right. He himself praises the work of James Hansen, Tim Flannery and Al Gore among others, people who are not at all ready to give up on mitigation. I’m with them, and hope we can yet avoid the catastrophic and deeply depressing human future Lovelock foresees, through a combination of the means by which he sets little store.