26/05/2006 8 min #1061

James Lovelock : "We Are Past the Point of No Return"

Le 23 mai 06 à 11:15, Laurence a écrit :

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.

by Michael McCarthy


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 1989.

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


© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited