We should salute the (now) 89 -year-old author, James Ephraim Lovelock (Ephraim is Hebrew for fruitful): an independent, dissenting voice in science. Rebelling against reductionist philosophies, he took an inclusive, systems view of the planet, publishing his Gaia Hypothesis in 1970. It took over 30 years for the international scientific community to come round.
Having studied chemistry at Manchester U and received his PhD in medicine at London U, Lovelock was engaged in the 1960s by NASA to find ways to detect life on Mars. He realized that life would influence the atmosphere and designed an instrument to detect trace gases. Thinking about the reason why Mars is so barren and Earth so fruitful, he arrived at his Hypothesis.
In brief the Hypothesis stated that the Earth is not just a rock that happens to have things living on it: it is a complex interacting system of soil, sea, atmosphere and living things that shows a tendency to keep itself stable in a way that supports life. In particular this complex web has acted to hold temperature within a narrow range over hundreds of millions of years even as the sun warms and the planet wobbles in its orbit.
Lovelock calls this system Gaia after the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth and persists in referring to Gaia as a person who acts with intent. Some find this annoying and unscientific. This reader accepts it as poetry and metaphor.
In summary, in his latest book, Lovelock revisits his Hypothesis and argues that:
1. Not only is climate change an impending disaster but an irreversible tipping point may already have been reached
2. The single most important step to take now is a major switch to nuclear power
3. Too many people simply do not understand the issues correctly: the well-meaning Greens are also at fault
4. Gaia's revenge will be to restore the equilibrium of the planet by removing most of the human population
On page 1 he states bluntly: `we are now so abusing the Earth that it may..move back to the hot state it was in 55 m years ago and most of us and our descendants will die.'
He starts with a by-now familiar history of the issue of climate change and goes on to say: ` we are now approaching one of those tipping points and (are) like passengers on a small pleasure boat sailing quietly above the Niagara Falls, not knowing that the engines are about to fail.'
He reminds us how huge are the effects of what seem like minor temperature shifts: only 3 degrees separates us from the last ice age; the same scale of increase now seems likely this century: very rapid change indeed in geological time.
The tipping point factors of climate change are by now well-known:
1. The poles melt and less sun is reflected: this seems to be happening now
2. The bogs thaw and methane is released (a far worse greenhouse gas than CO2)
3. The seas warm and the algae stop fixing carbon and making clouds
4. The forests bake and catch fire
5. Methane clathrates are released from the deep sea bed
What makes Lovelock distinctive is his Gaian perspective. He argues that:
1. A `cold' planet' is healthier than a `hot' one. If the Earth was 5 C cooler than now (as it has often been) , there would be glaciers down to the English Channel. But the Atlantic would be teeming and Africa would be a green garden.
2. We are mistaken to think that the Earth is in a Goldilocks orbit. It started out too cold for life. The sun is slowly warming and now the Earth is becoming too hot. So Gaia keeps tilting to coldness. There have been 11 recent ice-ages in the British Isles. We are in the `fever' of a warm interglacial and would normally be heading to the `cure' of the ice-age.
3. But man has disrupted the balance, not just by burning fossil fuel but also by replacing forest with farm. Gaia will do what it must to restore the balance.
4. The underlying problem is that the sustainable human population is probably under 1 billion. Today it is 6 billion, forecast to be 11 billion by 2050.
His argument for nuclear power is simple: all the other solutions produce lots of CO2 or don't work well and/or take too long (new approaches such as carbon sequestration take 20-40 years to mature):
1. Nuclear power is tried, tested and economical and produces very little CO2
2. Wind power is unreliable and costly. It would take 56000 large wind-mills plus fossil fuel back-up just to replace current nuclear capacity (20% of our total needs)
3. Solar is poor for the UK: unreliable and 3x more expensive than conventional methods
4. Wave power apart from a Severn barrage is expensive .....
And so on.
He believes that popular misconceptions of cancer risk militate against nuclear. (It's arguably worse than that: the UK government has ducked the issue for over a decade. Only in the last few months, stampeded by the risk that (a) the lights will go off around 2012 and/or (b) we will depend on a hostile Russia for gas, has the UK government moved). Lovelock bemoans the fact that our political classes do not have any feel for nature or the planet. (They also know little of science or business and there is often a grim determination among temporary ministers to avoid difficult decisions.)
He feels that the Green movement has lost its way: for example by wanting `sustainable development' when much more radical action is needed and for promoting low-productivity organic farming when this means eating up yet more of the countryside. This is putting a lifestyle choice ahead of the planet. He detests the Green wish to cover the land with tens of thousands of windmills.
He offers several examples of similarly faulty decisions: including the massive error of banning DDT. Because the vocal western middle-classes did not want pesticide in its food, Africans died. Yet the use of DDT to kill human disease vectors posed little food risk: it was abuse of DDT by farmers.
Lovelock explores some blue-sky technical fixes to global warming: planetary sun-shades, for example, but without real enthusiasm. Perhaps because it would distract from his here and now message: go nuclear.
So are his arguments complete and wholly compelling? No. The central question of power sources deserves a large book in its own right. Do you have to accept Gaia to believe that climate change is likely to destroy us? No. Do you have to accept Lovelocks' wistful argument for a countryside free of windmills? No.
But although bits of the book can be faulted, the whole seems to me to succeed. It is a well-written, lively, provocative book on a critical subject and a key idea of our times written by one our most gifted and original thinkers.
It's nice to know that when climate Armageddon arrives: the poles and the permafrost melt, the bogs and tropics catch fire and much of Southern Europe, Asia, Africa and the USA and Australia starve and fry, the Atlantic Conveyor will also switch off resulting in a local temperature drop. The result could well be that the UK climate remains equable. On the other hand the UK will be a shrunken archipelago, with our major cities submerged, tens of millions of people looking for a home and many millions of refugees landing on our beaches.