The boatman’s call

Lovelock.jpg The Sunday Times has begun publishing a series of excerpts from James Lovelock’s new book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, due out at the end of this month. It makes bleak reading for climate optimists:

So are all our efforts to become carbon neutral, to put on sandals and a hair shirt and follow the green puritans, pointless? Can we go back to business as usual for a while and be happy while it lasts? We could – but not for long. Apart from a lucky break of a natural or a geo-engineered kind, in a few decades the Earth could cease to be the habitat of seven billion humans; it will save itself as it dispatches all but a few of those who now live in what will become the barren regions. Our greatest efforts should go to learning how to live as well as is feasible on the soon-to-be-diminished hot Earth.

Lovelock is riffing on the theme he developed in The Revenge of Gaia: it’s too late to stop rapid and highly damaging climate change, so we should concentrate on saving ourselves. Climate change will cull humanity: from seven billion down to one billion will deliver effective emissions reductions. Meanwhile, we should start looking for lifeboats.

We in Britain live on one of the safe havens where life can continue in the heat age. The northern regions of Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia, where not inundated by the rising ocean, will remain habitable, and so will oases on the continents, mostly in mountain regions where rain or snow still fall. But the more important exceptions to this planet-wide distress will be Japan, Tasmania, New Zealand, the British Isles and numerous smaller islands.

The human world of these “lifeboat islands” and continental oases will be constrained by limited food, energy and living space, however. The ethics of a lifeboat world where the imperative is survival are wholly different from those of the cosy self-indulgence of the latter part of the 20th century. I cannot help wondering how we will manage – how we will decide who among the thirsty will be allowed aboard.

From a New Zealand perspective, it’s nice to know that we’re in something of a climate haven, but the reality may be more like Fortress New Zealand than a quiet escape from harsh reality. It’s difficult to imagine what death and destruction on the scale Lovelock envisages would be like — certainly far beyond Gwynne Dyer’s worst nightmares, but if even a fraction of his analysis correct, the world is going to change beyond all recognition in coming decades, and a lot of our comforting certainties will disappear.

For island havens, an effective defence force will be as important as our own immune systems. Like it or not, we may have to increase the size of and spending on our armed forces. Perhaps the next generation of scientists and engineers will be competent and serve the Earth as general practitioners serve us in medicine. In wartime old dogs are quite quickly taught new tricks.

In a recent New Scientist interview Lovelock, who will be 90 in July and has a Virgin Galactic trip into space scheduled for later this year, considered the big picture as Gaia might see it:

I don’t think 9 billion is better than 1 billion. I see humans as rather like the first photosynthesisers, which when they first appeared on the planet caused enormous damage by releasing oxygen – a nasty, poisonous gas. It took a long time, but it turned out in the end to be of enormous benefit. I look on humans in much the same light. For the first time in its 3.5 billion years of existence, the planet has an intelligent, communicating species that can consider the whole system and even do things about it. They are not yet bright enough, they have still to evolve quite a way, but they could become a very positive contributor to planetary welfare.

And can anything be done? Extensive use of biochar is about the only thing he can find a good word for in the NS interview, but he does promise that in next week’s Sunday Times he will suggest “how science might save us”.

It would be easy to write Lovelock off as a catastrophist — his view is certainly gloomy — but I think he provides us with a very interesting perspective on the problems we confront. By going a long way beyond the current consensus — the IPCC view of our climate future — he demonstrates that there is a range of possibility beyond gradual change that we should be factoring into our thinking. By challenging the received wisdom on the pace of warming, the utility of renewable energy, nuclear power or the economics of climate change he forces us to re-examine our assumptions and — with luck — reinforce the conclusions we reach.

I hope, for the sake of my children and the life they will lead, that Lovelock’s vision of our future is wrong. My reading of the balance of the scientific evidence suggests he is predicting too much change, too soon. But there is no doubt that a world with nine billion people stressed by advancing climate change will be a different reality to the one I grew up in.

We’ll be reviewing The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning as soon as the book is available in NZ.

[Nick Cave]

3 thoughts on “The boatman’s call”

  1. Okay, I’ve now registered for your blog, complete with it’s fancy edit features.

    Anyway, just to continue to be unpopular, I reckon the only answer is electric cars and nuclear power to charge ’em up. I’m skeptical about eco-engineering to remove carbon from the atmosphere, as I think it is likely to have a major and unpredictable effect on local climate.

  2. Electric cars? I want one.

    Nuclear power. A part of the solution in some countries, not (yet) in NZ. Some interesting possibilities, though – check Barry Brooks on IFRs.

    Actively sequestering carbon from the atmosphere is doable, at a price. That price could be less than we think, especially using biochar or olivine. As CO2 is “well-mixed”, local removal would not pose local problems — the atmosphere has plenty of wind to stir things up. Try Googling a definition for “wind run”.

    And the edit facility should let you get rid of intrusive apostrophes… 😉

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