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Lovelocked to a metaphor
on 20 October 2014
Understanding our place in the universe, in space and time, can be an invaluable guide to how to manage our lives. James Lovelock has contributed significantly to this understanding through his exceptionally long life as a scientist and author of important books accessible for a broad readership. The present book conveys some of this insight, although the recent book by his former collaborators Tim Lenton and and Andrew Watson, "The Revolutions that Made the Earth, " is infinitely better in this respect. The main problem with Lovelock's book is that it is stuck with the Gaia metaphor as a "theory of everything" and applies the same principles to fundamentally different issues operating on vastly different time scales and raising incomparable moral dilemmas.
Lovelock (deliberately) confuses the survival of the the complex system that many of us like to think of as the Living Earth in the face of an increasingly brighter Sun, with the global warming resulting from unrestricted combustion of fossil fuels. The confusion is that the former is a problem that will gradually arise over the coming few hundred million years, while the latter is an issue that will affect us and our children and grandchildren. Lovelock's concern and compassion is not with present-day humans and our offspring, but with the prolonged future of Gaia beyond the "normal" astronomically determined future lifespan of nearly a billion years of life on Earth.
Despite Lovelock's assertion that the book is about the distant future and fate of Gaia, a considerable part of it is spent on mocking those of us who are concerned about anthropogenic warming. He puts us all in the freak bag, writing: "Climate scientists, philosophers, environmentalists, governments and the media all seem to assume that we have no option but try to ameliorate planetary climate change, or join with the rest of life and be roasted over the fire that we have built for ourselves."
Personally, I know a considerable number of individuals among those groups, but none of them believe that anthropogenic global warming can end life on Earth, the human species, or civilization. But many acknowledge the scientific evidence that global warming may put future generations into deep trouble.
New in this book is that Lovelock has adopted some traditional climate-denial rhetoric and for instance claims that global warming has come to a halt after the turn of the century. If this were a fact, it could be heralded as a great victory of Gaia theory. Perhaps Gaia already has fixed the problem? Unfortunately, the present hiatus in surface warming does not signal a halt in the rise of heat content in the climate system, and does not prove that the IPCC projections are wrong. The ocean heat content grows steadily, and individual runs of the climate models show variability of global surface temperature that allow temporary episodes of surface cooling. Lovelock's critique of the IPCC models is based on the purely atmospheric models of the 1990s, not those of the two latest IPCC reports which all incorporate ocean dynamics, and many also sea ice, ice sheets, atmospheric chemistry, carbon cycle, and vegetation cover.
In later chapters Lovelock decides to disregard that he does not believe in anthropogenic warming, and jumps from the denialist camp to his old position as an alarmist. There is no middle ground for Lovelock. From this position he attacks the mainstream IPCC mitigation strategy, which he believes is doomed to fail. Without giving us any documentation he claims that a strategy of adaptation to climate change is much more rational and efficient. This conclusion seems logically inconsistent with his own views of the uncertainty of climate projections, and even more so if we examine the nature of our knowledge about climate change. What we know is that the heat content of the climate system increases as a response to the increasing CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, but our knowledge about the precise consequences in given regions and locations at given times is very limited. Effective adaptive measures may involve relocation of entire cities and may take many decades to accomplish. Adaptive measures will therefore require accurate projections which in many cases are impossible to produce. Despite the Lovelockian claims, there exists no scientific evidence that adaptation is a more cost-effective strategy than mitigation through development of non-fossil energy technologies and smarter energy use.
Lovelock is eager to ridicule concepts like renewable energy and sustainability, and to accuse the proponents of these concepts of deliberate deception and lies. Such accusations would have greater weight if he tried to avoid to fall in the same trap himself. A few examples: "...the breath of 7 billion people, our pets and livestock puts into the already overburdened atmosphere 7 billion tons of CO2 per year." Here he gives the reader the impression that these emissions play a similar role in the climate system as those from fossil fuel combustion. This is a deliberate lie made to cover up the fundamental difference between carbon emissions from fossils and those that are part of the CO2 cycle within the biosphere. As long as primary production of food and biofuels are in balance with consumption they represent no additional burden of the atmosphere, and it plays no role for the climate whether the biomass is consumed as food or fuel, or rottens on the ground. If we stop carbon emission from fossil fuel combustion by a combination of limiting fossil fuel use and carbon capture and storage the planet can probably house our projected population at a comfortable standard of living.
Other examples of deception are the incorrect picture painted of the prospects of renewables like wind and solar energy, and the complete avoidance of discussion of general problems of fossil and nuclear energy. It is claimed that all of England would have to be made into a wind farm if the country should produce all its electricity from wind alone on a windy day. This is in stark contrast to the fact that Denmark now can cover its total electricity needs in the winter months from wind, and has further plans for expansion. Renewables are accused of being heavily and unfairly subsidised, but so will also fossils have to be in the future, facing diminishing resources. In fact, Lovelock's book completely avoids mentioning that easily accessible fossil fuel resources are running out. My country, Norway, which has been made very rich from oil and gas, now pays more in subsidies for search for new resources than it earns from taxation on oil companies.
Nuclear has more problems than the irrational scare stories of radiation. The danger of proliferation of fissile material to terrorist groups and irresponsible nations is real, and so is the vulnerability of nuclear plants to terrorist and military attacks. A very objective gauge on the problems is the unwillingness of the insurance industry to get involved. Governments have to take the entire blow when something goes wrong, and this explains much of the reluctance among politicians. One could perhaps have wanted them to be more courageous, but I don't think their scepticism is irrational. I also find it strange that Lovelock, who likes to think big and on long time scales, systematically avoids discussion of fusion energy in his books. I never understood why. Is it because fusion is "big science" and involves thousands of scientists working in concert towards a common goal, and thereby does not fit into his perception of "evolutionary inflation driven by lone inventors?"
A forerunner of Lovelock's grand idea of adaptation by retreat to city fortresses appeared already in his previous book "The Revenge of Gaia" (2006). There he proposed to make the British Isles a sanctuary for climate survivors, well protected against hordes of climate refugees by a strong mililtiary defence. In the present book he suggests a strategy of "retreat to the best cities that we can design and build with the objective of saving as many of us as we can, and entirely abandon the absurdly hubristic idea of saving the planet." The rest of the planet and human population should be left to Gaia. He finishes the book with the the phrase: "But there is one snag. The system cannot sustain the present level of human population for very much longer. The future world may be a better place, but getting to there from here will not be easy, and we will not all make the journey."
Lovelock does not make any attempt to describe the sociopolitical process of selection of those fortunate enough to be allowed into the fortresses of retreat, and those doomed to be fried by Gaia. But maybe it will be no problem at all? I am not so sure that all human Gaia dwellers will find the insect-like city communities so attractive. Lovelock mentions Singapore and Hong Kong as present-day examples what such a city could look like. The recent student uprising for democracy in Hong Kong may suggest that Lovelock underestimates the moral forces and new-won egalitarian ideas that have infested the human mind in the anthropocene.
Some reviewers of the present book find Lovelock's vision "refreshing." My gut feeling is the opposite. I find it sickening. And if someone asks me about my concern about Gaia's future a hundred million years from now, I must be honest and admit: "I don't care!"