Eco-visionary James Lovelock believes catastrophic climate change is on the way—and we should start preparing for it now.
Marco Visscher | November 2009 issue
He seems to lead the life of a typ_ical scientist-cum-inventor. For over thirty years, James Lovelock has quietly worked in his laboratory (a converted shed) next to his house (a former windmill) near the coast in rural southwest England. It is in this idyllic setting that he also wrote a series of popular books about Gaia, the name he gave to the Earth back in the 1960s, when he described the planet as a dynamic, self-regulating system. His groundbreaking work propelled him to prominence in environmental circles and—albeit with some delay—in academia as well.
But Lovelock has come under heavy criticism in recent years. Since he declared himself a fervent supporter of nuclear energy, environmentalists have called his claims “false,” “irresponsible” and “dangerous.” He dismisses the differences of opinion with a laconic, “Oh well, we’re not sending each other bombs yet.” And this year, with the publication of a new book predicting that most life on Earth—including 80 percent of the human population—will cease to exist in this century, he is drawing scepticism from other circles.
In The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, Lovelock sketches the dismal future that awaits if we don’t prepare for the consequences of climate change or, as he calls it, “global heating.” Many places will become uninhabitable and unsuitable for farming. Hundreds of millions of climate refugees will huddle in new urban areas in the north of Canada, Scandinavia, Siberia and even the North Pole, areas where less food and less energy will be available. This mass migration will be accompanied by political tension and armed conflict.
At the end of the century, Lovelock says, there will only be one billion people in the world; the rest will have been wiped out “in the same merciless way that we have eliminated so many species by changing their environment into one where survival is difficult,” he writes. And he believes there’s not a lot we can do to stop it. Some wonder whether his apocalyptic tone could mean that Lovelock, who celebrated his 90th birthday this summer, has lost it. He shrugs at the notion: “I think I’m ahead of the game, not behind it.”
His contrarian vision comes at a time when politicians and business leaders are making an unprecedented effort to combat climate change, efforts Lovelock says are being made far too late and will no longer make a difference. From this perspective, Lovelock’s critics say his book is not particularly well-timed. But the timing is typical. It is thanks to his obstinacy that the world listens to him. Now that he is so publicly expressing his concern about our future, we cannot afford not to listen.
Lovelock could have spent his twi_light years in retirement with his wife, enjoying the recognition he earned. After all, he’s been inundated with scientific awards, was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire and Companion of Honor by Queen Elizabeth and lauded by the British press.
He became interested in science thanks to boyhood visits to the museums of science and natural history, and science fiction books authored by the likes of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. His other passion, nature, was inspired by the walks he took with his father, who loved to escape the crush of London, where he had a marginally successful art store. Both interests inspired Lovelock to study chemistry. And he quickly proved to be a whiz kid. When World War II intensified, he was a university student and volunteered to join the British army. But he was told his work at the National Institute for Medical Research in London was too important to give up.
Until his departure from the Institute in 1961, Lovelock consistently made discoveries there. It was he who proved, for instance, that the viruses that cause the flu and colds are not spread through the air but through physical contact. He also demonstrated that small mammals like hamsters can be kept in subzero temperatures for hours or even days, then resuscitated after thawing. He is also the inventor of the electron capture detector, a hand-held device to measure extremely low concentrations of gases in the atmosphere.
So why wouldn’t James Ephraim Lovelock want to simply enjoy his fairytale home and its beautiful natural surroundings? (The nearest neighbors are a mile-and-a-half away.) “I regard retirement as lethal,” he says. “That comfortable chair, the television and a few cans of beers is a comfortable way to die young—but not for me.” Lovelock couldn’t help himself. Once he began exploring climate change and was convinced of its effects, he became involved in the public debate. In an op-ed piece in The Independent in 2006, he assumed the role of “planetary physician” and issued this diagnosis: “We have given Gaia a fever and soon her condition will worsen to a state like a coma.” This wasn’t just any old fever, however. This was a “morbid fever” that could last 100,000 years. We are, he wrote, in “grave danger.”
The article was a prelude to The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back and How We Can Still Save Humanity, a gloomy book—despite the upbeat subtitle—in which Lovelock stated that in this century average temperatures and sea levels will rise faster than we think. This scenario is not very far away, according to Lovelock. In 2020, extreme heat and drought will be widespread; in 2040, parts of the European continent and the Amazon rainforest will be desert. By then, flooding and desertification will have made a large number of cities uninhabitable. At the end of the century the average temperature in Europe and North America will have risen by 10 degrees Celsius; the Earth will be warmer than at any time in the past 55 million years.
According to Lovelock, the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in December of 2004 gave us a glimpse of what Gaia is capable of. It’s only the beginning, he promised. He believes climate change is Gaia’s way of saving herself from humanity.
This is the message Lovelock brings to a small conference room in downtown San Francisco, where he is speaking during a promotional tour for his latest book. With his white hair and big, round glasses, he looks like a caricature of a scientist. If he had chosen a university career, he would undoubtedly have been a very popular professor. He knows how to captivate an audience with his elegantly formulated phrases and dry British humor. But the audience is increasingly uncomfortable with what he’s saying. “Climate scientists,” Lovelock warns, “only look at the human pollution, both industrial and domestic, and neglect the Earth’s response to what we do, which is far more deadly.”
Lovelock is not known for al_low_ing himself to be easily swept up by alarming news. He discovered the presence of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the 1960s using his own electron capture detector. He didn’t think these industrial chemicals posed a threat, but other scientists later discovered they were creating a hole in the ozone layer. According to some, Lovelock’s misguided belief caused him to miss out on the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1995, which went instead to three scientists who had established a link between CFCs and the ozone layer.
And Lovelock—who is considered by environmental activists as an intellectual leader—has never joined the crowd in denouncing nuclear energy. After all, the sun is driven by a nuclear reaction, and in one of his first books he wrote: “Our prokaryotic forebears evolved on a planet-sized lump of fallout from a star-sized nuclear explosion, a supernova that synthesized the elements that go to make our planet and ourselves.” Such an enormous force in the universe doesn’t deserve to be derided by a bunch of ignorant activists who have turned their fear into a dogma, he argued.
Lovelock’s original take on things led him to develop what he called the Gaia hypothesis. In 1961, when he went to work at NASA, he developed instruments to research the possibility of life on Mars. His colleagues believed they could find the answer by using a probe to test the soil, but Lovelock considered that nonsense. If you take a soil sample on the North Pole you won’t detect a lot of life, either, he reasoned. So he set out to discover the composition of the planet’s atmosphere. If there was life, he thought, the bacteria would use oxygen and expel waste as methane. But it appeared the atmosphere on Mars was primarily composed of carbon dioxide, in an unvarying balance, proof that there was no life on the planet.
And then, one fine day in 1965, Lovelock suddenly had the insight that marked the beginning of a revolution in science. He understood that the biosphere may have a regulating effect on the planet. After all, when the sun warms the Earth, less carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases are recorded; when it cools, emissions of these gases increase and the Earth heats up. This and other continuing exchanges point to an intelligent self-maintaining system, he thought. At the suggestion of his neighbor, William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, Lovelock named the hypothesis after the Greek goddess of nature, Gaia. He further developed the concept together with biologist Lynn Margulis and published a number of articles in trade journals.
Originally, the scientific community considered the hypothesis too ridiculous to even consider. But in 1979, when Lovelock published Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, academics got involved. They didn’t like the poetic tone of the book—and that was only the tone. If the Earth is a living organism, it had to have been in competition for survival with other planets, they argued. How can natural selection take place on a planetary scale? And how is Gaia actually directed? Was Lovelock suggesting there was a pre-determined plan?
Over the years, Lovelock has rectified errors in his book and admitted he was sometimes “foolish.” But he felt the discussion was often tiresome. According to Lovelock, his critics had a reductionist vision; they wanted to attribute every event to a specific cause. Moreover, it seemed to him that neo-Darwinists failed to understand that the theory of evolution has no explanation for the survival of the ecosystem. The Gaia hypothesis makes an attempt. Meanwhile, 44 years after the original inspiration, his hypothesis has expanded into a theory that is increasingly becoming more generally accepted.
But Lovelock acknowledges that there is “a lot of dislike” around his ideas. He seems to have accepted that it’s always been that way, and always will be. Why is that? His hunch is that it’s because he gnaws away at things people think they know. “Scientists feel like they have to rewrite their textbooks,” he says, “and they don’t like that at all.”
Initially, Lovelock saw no real_ dan_ger in climate change because of his belief in Gaia’s ability to take care of itself. That changed when he took a closer look. It occurred to him that climate experts’ theories were based on computer models, which he considers worthless. Lovelock learned this lesson when scientists told him his discovery of CFCs in the atmosphere must be inaccurate because it didn’t agree with their models. “You have to look at what’s actually happening,” Lovelock says. And what is actually happening is rather distressing. Already, many of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s predictions have been supplanted by discoveries in the Arctic, the tropics, the deserts and ocean surfaces that confirm and sometimes exceed their darkest scenario.
Moreover, Lovelock realized that climate scientists take little or no account of negative feedback. If icecaps melt, not only do sea levels rise but the ability of the Earth to reflect the sun’s heat declines, which causes sea levels to rise even faster. Lovelock, who likes to say that Gaia isn’t divided into convenient categories, believes that the division of science into numerous specialties has caused such interactions to be barely recognized, if at all.
The reason: Researchers are no longer free to do their work independently of commercial or ideological ties. “Scientists nearly all depend on grants,” he says. “You could almost say they’re on welfare, government handouts.” He himself partially finances his research using revenue from his books and lectures and a number of clients, including government institutions and universities. He plans to wind down his last projects this year. “I don’t have a negative view of scientists,” he adds. “I think they are doing their best. But we’re facing a problem which is a little bit beyond us, or rather a lot beyond us, and their best may not be good enough.”
Nor is the environmental movement beyond reproach. Lovelock often considers its proposed solutions, and its optimism about their potential, short-sighted. The drive to cut greenhouse gas emissions is a case in point. “I think it is helpful to cut them back,” he says, “but I think we shouldn’t expect that this will solve the problem.” Wind energy, perhaps? “What a waste of use for our countryside.” What about electric cars and recycling? “Sorry, it won’t do much really.”
But according to Lovelock, this does not mean we should do nothing. On the contrary, “there’s a lot we can do,” he says. “What we have to do is adapt to the change. Al Gore thinks this adaptation is one of the less important things we have to do. He thinks we should put all of our efforts into trying to stop climate change from happening, but I think that what we should be doing is preparing for the nasty things that might happen in the future.”
Needless to say, Lovelock has his own obstinate ideas: Put enormous sun shades into space to prevent a portion of the sunlight from reaching Earth; reflect sunlight back into space by placing aerosol droplets into the stratosphere; convert agricultural waste, which contains carbon that plants have sequestered, into charcoal and bury it underground, thus drastically reducing carbon dioxide emissions. These grand plans, critics say, are not necessarily realistic. Lovelock recognizes this, but stresses that some of these geo-engineering solutions could buy us time.
Impending disaster doesn’t stop_ Lovelock from making plans. Not only is he writing a new book—he is only half-joking when he says he despises the publisher’s choice to subtitle his current work “A Final Warning” because “it suggests I never get to write another book”—but he’s also making big travel plans. He’s going into space. With his Virgin Galactic service Richard Branson hopes to offer space flights to adventurous tourist and since he is such a big fan of Lovelock’s work, Branson has invited the scientist to join him as a guest. From space, Lovelock will be able to admire Gaia in all her glory.
Lovelock doesn’t even try to hide his excitement: “Oh, great fun!” The trip, which has been postponed several times, is now planned for 2010. Because Lovelock has undergone several operations—including a bypass—there were concerns he wouldn’t be healthy enough to go. But all the tests indicate he’s in excellent shape. The question, according to Lovelock, is not so much whether he’ll make it but whether all the technical challenges will ever be overcome. “Well, I’m not dead yet,” he says cheerfully. “In fact, I’m very much looking forward to the next decade.”
All the doom and gloom makes you wonder how Lovelock manages to keep the twinkle in his eyes. There is probably no one in the world who exudes so much good humor when announcing catastrophic rises in sea level or pronouncing that it is “absolutely hubris to think that we can save the planet.” “There are a few subjects more miserable than global heating,” he concedes, “but I’m a cheerful person by nature. I can think that some awful things can happen, but we can do so much to fight it. Even so, when the world is stable again we can resume cheerfulness.”
In the short term, we can expect some difficult times, Lovelock believes. It reminds him of the late 1930s, when World War II was about to erupt. He was 19 when the British “were expecting to be bombed and wiped out. Everyone was filled with gloom about the prospects of the war. But when it happened, the extraordinary thing was: Everybody suddenly became excited. Such times make us more alive.” That’s what may happen, he suggests, when there’s no escaping the fact that climatic meltdown has begun. His advice: “Enjoy life while you can.” And as we prepare to adapt to the changes, it may not hurt, he adds, to look into buying real estate in northern Canada or Scandinavia. “I’m pretty serious about this,” he says. “I’m not sure if now is the time to do it, but sooner or later it’s going to come up on the horizon.”
In the meantime, we should still do all these things we can to cut carbon, he says, because “I might be wrong. But I certainly hope my book won’t put off people from doing ordinary, sensible things. Do it because it’s good for Gaia, but not because it will stop global heating, because it won’t.”
Gaia will almost certainly survive, Lovelock says: “She has survived far worse insults than industrialized humans.” Civilizations however, are vulnerable. They “come and go. But we’re a tough species. We have survived for more than a million years, during which we have gone through seven major climatic crises. We’ve always been able to adapt ourselves, and that’s why we’re talking about all this right now. I think we’re unlikely to be made extinct by global heating. I hope that the ones who survive will slowly evolve to become an integrated part of the first intelligent planet of our galaxy. What a wonderful future.”