The God Species

It’s an arresting title, The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans. For author Mark Lynas the Holocene, the 10,000 year post-ice age era during which human civilisation evolved and flourished, has given way in industrial times to the Anthropocene, an age in which the human population has undergone extraordinary growth, and become totally dominant on the planet. In the process we have interfered in the planet’s great bio-geochemical processes to the extent that we are threatening to endanger the Earth system itself and our own survival. Things are badly askew and we must help Earth to regain stability. It cannot do so alone. “Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do. It is our choice what happens from here.”

Not that Lynas proposes to shoulder nature aside. Far from it. It’s a question of restoring nature’s balance and working within its limits. His book is about the planetary boundaries which must be respected if we are to avoid very serious environmental damage. He aims to communicate to a wide audience the findings of a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists who a couple of years ago identified nine such boundaries and wrote about them in a notable feature in Nature. Along the way he has his own suggestions for tackling the challenges involved and takes issue with other environmentalists over what he considers wrong-headed stances on many issues, including nuclear power and genetic engineering. This aspect of the book is often argumentative, but the central exposition of the planetary boundaries is straight science, set out with the lucidity apparent in his earlier book Six Degrees.

He begins with the biodiversity boundary. We’re well beyond the expert group’s proposed boundary of a maximum of ten species lost to life per million species per year. An estimated 100 to 1000 species per million are currently wiped out annually. The Anthropocene Mass Extinction is well advanced, and the death toll will soon rival that at the end of the Cretaceous when the dinosaurs and half of the rest of life on Earth disappeared.  It is now understood how important a diversity of species is to the resilience and stability of an ecosystem. This applies to the biosphere as a whole: if the current mass extinction is allowed to continue or, worse, to accelerate, the chance of a global-scale ecosystem collapse can only become more ominous. Lynas sees biodiversity loss as fundamentally an enormous market failure. We need to design systems that value nature in a direct and marketable sense and get hard cash to those in a position to protect ecosystems. “What is needed is not more moralising, but more money.”

The climate change boundary is next on the list. Where once, along with others, Lynas would have endorsed a maximum 450 parts per million atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and not more than a 2 degree rise in temperature as a safe boundary to avoid dangerous tipping points, he now regards that as wrong and accepts that a fair reading of the science today points to 350 ppm maximum. It’s a boundary we’ve already transgressed, but one we can pull back to if we start on reductions very soon.  We need to be carbon-neutral by mid-century and carbon-negative thereafter. The technologies required are available and can be employed within the prevailing economic system. Notions that we can restrain economic growth won’t work. He is insistent that nuclear power must be a significant part of the solution, considering that there is not time to develop renewable energy to an adequate level. The book provides a spirited defence of nuclear energy as a centralised form of baseload generation, taking both Fukushima and Chernobyl into account. To oppose nuclear is to leave the door open for coal, a far more dangerous source.

The third boundary in which we’re well over the limit is nitrogen. The production of artificial fertiliser, while it has clearly been good for the feeding of the greatly increased human population, is causing serious environmental problems. The expert opinion is that we need to reduce the flow of human-fixed nitrogen to slightly more than a third of its current value.  Lynas looks at various ways in which our use of nitrogen can be reduced. Organic farming isn’t one of them since he considers widespread organic farming couldn’t produce enough food for the world’s present population.  One possibility he canvasses is genetic engineering to produce a more nitrogen-efficient and higher-yielding crop. Here and elsewhere he refers to Stewart Brand’s book Whole Earth Discipline, in which Brand advances the causes of nuclear power, genetic engineering, and urbanisation as ways of facing up to the challenge of climate change.

The land use boundary is the next Lynas considers, urging the need for cash to make the protection of forests and other important ecosystems more attractive than their destruction. The movement of populations to cities he sees as overall a positive for sustainability because it leads to a reduction in population growth and concentrates the human impact on the land in a smaller area.  As is becoming usual in the book Greens are chided for failing to see the positives in such developments.

Other boundaries discussed are freshwater, toxics, and aerosols before he arrives at ocean acidification, the evil twin of climate change. We’re in a danger zone already, with the world’s oceans more acidic than has probably been the case in at least 20 million years. Future predictions are uncertain, but educated guesses provided by models and evidence from the Earth’s deep geological past lead him to the conclusion that ocean acidification is so serious a threat that even if there were no climate change we would still have to urgently reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. The integrity of the marine biosphere is at stake.

The final boundary Lynas tackles, that of the ozone layer, is a success story in that humanity pulled back from a hellish future by reaching international agreement on regulations to cease the production of CFCs. It was not an easy achievement in the face of industry opposition, but politicians stepped up to leadership and private industry delivered alternative products in consequence. The strong political leadership delivered by the US was crucial, in sad contrast to the way it has politically thwarted progress on climate change negotiations.

As adviser to the president of the Maldives, Lynas witnessed at first hand the debacle of Copenhagen, being among the fifty or so present in the room where the final-hours heads of state negotiations were conducted. He tells the disappointing story of that meeting as an example of what failing to meet a planetary boundary looks and feels like. But he doesn’t regard the failure as necessarily terminal, pointing out that China, a real obstruction to progress at Copenhagen, is now leading the world in investment in low-carbon technologies and showing itself deadly serious about dealing with climate change, reaping great economic benefit along the way. The US is being left well behind.

Lynas is often impatient with Greens and environmentalists. But the arguments he engages in have to do with appropriate technological and economic remedies, not with the shared perception that we are exceeding the boundaries of nature and must pull back. On that common ground he interprets and explains the science with admirable clarity. And he remains confident we can solve the problems, given sufficient pragmatism on the means employed.

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39 thoughts on “The God Species”

  1. Seems we have some very unusual weather in New Zealand at the moment! Some will probably claim this is evidence against global warming. Others will say that ‘more extreme weather is expected from global warming’. In my opinion this is very unusual weather and not evidence for or against anthropogenic global climate warming.

    Obviously, global temperatures have increased in recent times.

  2. R2D2, it’ll likely be some years before you have to give ground on unusual weather events, and I certainly wouldn’t want to draw any conclusions from recent NZ weather. But there is surely a point at which it is simply contrary to exclude climate change as an influence in the increase or severity of extreme events. I tried to list this post from Climate Progress on the Hot Tweets this morning, but the system isn’t working as it should, so I’ll draw attention to it here.
    The post looks at why U.S. media were hesitant to investigate the links between climate change and their spring’s extreme weather.

    1. But Bryan, surely not all extreme weather is equal? If we saw increasing incidence of heavy precipitation then I could accept a link to AGW.

      But a cold snap bringing snow to unusual places? Seems if the theory was global cooling then snow in new places would be evidence for this. Seems unusual that it can also be given as evidence for the opposite.

      Like I have said, it is obvious that global temperatures have risen. So the fact NZ is getting snow does not need to be linked to global climate and can probably be explained by weather rather than climate.

      Seems to me weather has never been ‘normal’. Weather by its nature is throwing new things at us every day.

  3. R2D2, as I indicated above I don’t seek to link recent NZ weather to global warming other than in the sense that all weather is now occurring in the context of a warmer climate. But if I lived in the US I would certainly be inclined to at least wonder whether some of the extremes that have come their way lately are harbingers of a more turbulent weather future as climate change begins to bite. Snow, as precipitation. can be part of that under some circumstances.

  4. NZ’s weather sure does seem to be undergoing far larger fluctuations than is normal. Hence my remark in the comments of the last episode of the Climate Show.

    In the natural world, such fluctuations are a sign that a system is about to switch to a new regime. Worldwide in the last 18 months we’ve witnessed some remarkable extreme weather events, especially the floods. Not saying that the climate system is about to flip to a new regime, but it does make you wonder.

    As for the current outbreak of cold from Antarctic regions, be interesting to find out what has prompted this. Is this an emerging new trend, or not?

  5. R2D2 – I think you are starting from the wrong end of things.

    Begin with the fact that, undoubtedly human activities are influencing the weather. Add to that the fact that we are now experiencing very unusual cold fronts that are affecting the environment, business, and may lead to deaths.

    There is a possibility the two things are linked. Rationally, we should be:
    1) urgently asking whether that is the case;
    2) as a precautionary measure, reducing human influence on the weather as fast as we can.

    An irrational response would be to take no action while we argue the toss about whether this or that event might or might not be linked to human activities.

      1. The short answer obviously has to be a qualified “yes”.
        The long answer is “As we continue to add more CO2 to the atmosphere (around 15 gigatonnes per annum NETT) we thereby increase the greenhouse effect. So humans are in essence like the trainer of David Tua – training the climate to deliver a greater punch”

      2. How many times do we have to explain this distinction to you?

        Caused by – no. Influenced by – yes.

        Caused by implies a single causative event, and it will never be the case that you can say “weather event x was caused by global warming”, because the proximate cause of any one weather event is always the local atmospheric conditions. That’s pretty much the definition of weather, really.

        But there are longer range and temporal effects that influence atmospheric conditions when a weather system is forming, that might change its parameters.

        So when a cyclone formed off Queensland last year, a combination of La Niña and global warming meant that SSTs were at the highest ever recorded off Australia, and so the cyclone produced record rainfall, and therefore floods.

        Were the floods caused by global warming? No. Were the floods caused by La Niña? No. The cyclone caused the floods. But both La Niña and global warming influenced the intensity of the floods by affecting SST and the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere available to fall as rain.

        Really, it’s not that hard a concept to understand. I don’t know why you find it so difficult to grasp.

          1. Oh, I see – so when you wrote “caused by” above, it was just a slip of the cogs, and you really meant to write “influenced by”. So we can re-write your question as:

            every weather event is influenced by human activities?

            Yes, I’d agree with that.

            1. No, when I wrote “caused by” it was in a question I was asking someone else. It was not a statement of my opinion. Not sure why I need to explain this to you unless you have an IQ of less than 80.

            2. But it was you who introduced the word “caused”. Tom quite clearly used the words “influencing” and “linked to”. You then changed that to “caused by”, which has a totally different meaning.

              So, was that just a mistake on your part, or were you deliberately twisting Tom’s words to try and get him to agree to something you could then attack?

              Based on your past behaviour, I know which is the more likely option.

  6. 14:15 15 Aug. It’s snowing now in Palmerston North. On a day like this, touting global warming really is pushing butter with a hot needle up a porcupine’s backside. Time to knock off for the day and hit the mulled wine.

  7. Brian,

    Excuse me but does Lynas explain his title.. ie why God Species ?

    kindly explain to me how it is that when I read you on a NZ event that this is somehow global—clearly a nonsense. I don’t wish to be unkind or rude it is just that that is the way you come across.

    1. Tom, he says that the central question of the book is whether we are rebel organisms destined to destroy the biosphere, or divine apes sent to manage it intelligently and so save it from ourselves. It’s a pretty constrained divinity. He quotes Stewart Brand approvingly: “We are as gods and have to get good at it.”

    1. Tony, it does. See the Antarctic Oscillation (AAO) or alternatively the Southern Annular Mode (SAM).

      I’ve long wondered whether we’d see a similar pattern to the northern hemisphere; ie more frequent excursions of cold air masses (friagems) from Antarctica due to weakening of the winds that circle the continent. A southern hemisphere version of the WAACy weather, if you will.

      The situation is complicated in the Antarctic because of the ozone hole, which serves to limit warming down there. The modelling studies I’ve run across, don’t discuss the possibility of this phenomenon.

      1. Thanks DW. The issue is discussed somewhat here:

        The only reason I took an interest was because similar evidence of the Arctic polar vortex weakening in just the last year. What are the odds that both should show signs of weakening in precisely the same year? It makes sense that as the ice caps warm, the high velocity vortex that keeps the cold air localised slows down, and cold air spills out. It maybe suggests that we are already trending towards a new thermal equilibrium, with goodness knows what consequences coming next. The good news is that with a strong will we can turn it around but the window of opportunity will be lost in the next few years if we do nothing.

        1. Cheers Tony, read that earlier today. Some journalism for a change! I checked the NOAA AAO index page when I found out the polar blast way on the way, but have still found very little in the way of climate model projections.

  8. R2D2 – I was talking extreme weather events, and the answer is a qualified yes. Marco has it right, though I say so without sarcasm.

    Given ample warnings from scientists about changes in the numbers and nature of extreme weather events, I look askance at situations like the current one, a record breaking mild early winter, and a record breaking late winter, in a year of extreme weather records being broken elsewhere around the globe.

    1. Tom. So you are saying every event is effected by this CO2.

      How do we know if a weather event is lessened or made worse by climate change?

      I am completely confused.

      1. r2d2 “How do we know if a weather event is lessened or made worse by climate change?”

        We can rarely know this at the time of the event itself. And we _may_ never know it when we assemble the evidence of many events in an apparent sequence.

        Think of a tennis match. Many points are won and lost along the way. Even though the accumulated points/games are what leads to the final definitive point , it’s sometimes hard to discern any definitive ‘turning point’ in the course of the match. Even the final, decisive match winning/ losing point can be a bit pedestrian, or even disappointing if it’s something like a double fault – the only exciting thing is the winner’s (or the loser’s) reaction to the decider. Reviewing the match you can sometimes see, with the advantage of hindsight, the loser tiring or one crucial game in the third set where the winner set the stage for the result.

        We can’t expect an ‘Ahah! so that’s it!’ reaction to every step along the way during a tennis match, much less to a large scale process like climate change . In 5, 10, 20 years time, this event will either be part of a pattern of disrupted weather or an isolated record-breaking outlier in accumulated data or a precursor to some other phenomenon.

        We can’t yet know.

      2. R2D2: This storm highlights something: What comes around goes around! If you look at the isobars of the high pressure system which sits now atypically in the southern end of the Tasman see you will realize that this does two things: (A) It whirls very cold air from the Antarctic northward on its Eastern side (NZ is in this airflow now) AND (B) it whirls warm air from Australia southward on its Western side.
        While we on the Eastern side of the high are getting a record cold blast I bet you the Antarctic on the other side of the high gets a record warm air blow!!! (there are just no deniers sitting there to witness that side of the coin!)
        In the end, this one week of strong air mixing will not change the total energy balance of the Atmosphere or prove or disprove AGW for anybody.
        Naive observers in NZ might spout that it is proof for AGW being a hoax while naive observes on the Antarctic coast will spout: See a hot spell in the middle of Winter! I told you that AGW is getting worse.
        Likewise naive (or in case of many deniers: Machiavellian deviants) spouted about the cold snowy UK winters that this “disproves AGW” while in the meantime temperatures further north were much higher than usual. Again, nobody sits on the Arctic ice to spout about it in the Daily Telegraph…..
        AGW has produced a trend of about 1 Deg C / Century warming at the moment. So the year to year changes are to small to perceive on an average basis.
        But what seems to be happening more and more is that the change in Energy content of the atmosphere is causing regional shifts in the location and intensity of weather patterns which in turn causes regional weather extremes to become more frequent.

        1. Yes I completely agree up until you speculate with the para that starts ‘but’. If you read my first post this is what I am saying: earth is warming, cold weather is weather. Where you write ‘but’ I don’t disagree, just not sure I completely 100% agree.

          1. Perhaps look at it like this: The one big thing climatically that is changing and has been changing over the last 100 years is the rise in CO2 from 280ppm to just about 400ppm today. This is energetically (forcing) a major change and it is an extremely rapid change too, compared to normal natural cycles or events of the geological past where changes of this magnitude would take millennia to happen.
            We seem to observe changes in our climate system: 1 Deg average temp rise, frequency and severity of events rising etc.
            Putting the two together it is hard to see why one would want to deny the connection.

            1. So let me paraphrase:

              “Temperatures have gone up.

              CO2 has gone up.

              We had a snow storm.

              It is hard to see why someone would ‘want’ to ‘deny’ a connection.”

              I dont ‘want’ to ‘deny’ one. I am just not willing to assume one.

              If it was a warm event or heavy precipitation event I would see the link.

              I will also point out that pushing this “its global warming” line every time a weather event occurs is a sure fire way to get the public turned off climate change. Alarmists who push this line achieve the opposite of what they intend to.

    1. You reference Macro’s comment in the comment I am replying to.

      R2D2: “Sorry, you are saying that the null hypothesis is now that every weather event is caused by human activities?”

      Macro: “The short answer obviously has to be a qualified “yes”.
      The long answer is “As we continue to add more CO2 to the atmosphere (around 15 gigatonnes per annum NETT) we thereby increase the greenhouse effect. So humans are in essence like the trainer of David Tua – training the climate to deliver a greater punch””

      “This CO2” refers to what Macro mentions – “15 gigatonnes per annum NETT”

      “Every event” refers to my own comment – literally every single weather event

      “Lessoned or made worse” – The current weather is extreme because it is bringing cold precipitation. I agree with Macro that the CO2 added will have an effect, to a degree, on this weather event. This is basic. Kind of like the butterfly effect. However what I don’t understand is how we know the direction and magnitude of this effect. Would the precipitation be warmer or colder without this CO2?

  9. R2D2

    Well we are almost on the same page. The issue is one of degree. My point is that it what previously was a butterfly or two, may now be something somewhat larger.

    I understood the science to say that we should expect changes in weather extremes. Global weirding some have called it:

    “coined by Hunter Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, because the rise in average global temperature is going to lead to all sorts of crazy things — from hotter heat spells and droughts in some places, to colder cold spells and more violent storms, more intense flooding, forest fires and species loss in other places.”

    My simple question,is our experience this week – a colder cold spell – part of that pattern?

    The answer is, we cant know right now, we might be able to say so later, in the meantime, lets try to reduce the odds on further weirding, okay?

  10. To add my twopence worth again.
    dappledwater and thomas have alluded to the large anticyclone south of NZ that is driving the flow of very cold air from Antarctica up over the country. Over the past few years, if one had been observant, they would have noticed a series of High pressure zones forming over Australia, and then tracking west and south bringing a strong cold southerly to NZ. Not last year, but the year before, we had a good succession of them. This one is the strongest yet. To my mind, this phenomenon is indicative of the expansion of the hadley cells further from the equator, thereby forcing the mid-latitude cells deeper into the polar region. As thomas points out, a whole bunch of warm air is now finding its way directly to Antarctica as we experience someone leaving the fridge door open at McMurdo (acknowledgements to Jim Hickey).
    The expansion of the Hadley cells is a clear indication of Climate Change caused by AGW. What we are experiencing today is symptomatic of a changing climate.
    R2 if you raise the temperature of the atmosphere by 1 degree C you increase its capacity to hold water vapour by 4%. That is why with the increasing temperatures over continental Australia, (up 1 degree this past Century) has exacerbated drought conditions because more moisture has evaporated from an already dry land. The warm dry air then picks up more moisture as it passes over the sea to deposit it as snow in Antarctica. The cold temperatures in Antarctica make it the “driest” continent because the air is so cold it doesn’t hold water vapour. Note however the effect of latent heat – changing water vapour to snow – releases heat to the surrounding atmosphere. ie Antarctica is warming.

  11. R2D2 – Congrats on successfully derailing another potentially useful thread with an entirely off-topic comment in at #1.

    Comments must be relevant to the topic of the post to which they are made. Open threads are provided from time to time to allow for open debate. Off-topic comments may be deleted or moved to an open thread.

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