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on 23 April 2009
Earth Day, celebrated each year on April 22nd, is almost over in my time zone. It was established in 1970 by Gaylord Nelson, a US senator with a view to encouraging awareness and appreciation of the Earth's environment. It is a day that I have been vaguely aware of like lots of other celebratory days for different causes, but this year I seem to be stumbling upon it at every turn. The reason is a 90-year old scientist called James Lovelock. His latest book The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning has just blown me away.
Gaia essentially casts the Earth as a self-regulating, living organism that is still evolving. Its goal is optimal conditions for its own survival and the survival of life - though not necessarily human life.
Over this past week I have learned a remarkable amount about the current state of the planet, the disagreement among and between scientists and politicians about this; and the vast array of plans and suggestions on how to deal with it.
Like many people these days I have had some interest in climate change and global warming, but can't say I've followed it in great detail. I dutifully wash and squash every plastic container and milk carton and collect every scrap of used paper in my house to fill my green bin. I use a compost bin and minimise anything going to landfill. I own a car, but use public transport to travel to work. I've tut tutted at people jetting off to Spain and New York with no good reason and no thought of carbon footprint. I repeat a mantra to my children about switching off TV's and computers and lights. I even signed up for the electricity company's smart meter trial last week. In short I'm a bit of a swot, but it is only since reading about Gaia that I have sat up and really paid attention to what is actually going on around us.
James Lovelock is convinced that it is too late. The damage we've done to the planet since industrialisation has passed its tipping point and from now on things are going to accelerate ever more quickly. There is no going back. Gaia, will take care of itself, adapting to the effects of ever-increasing CO2 levels and other greenhouse gases by getting hotter. It will continue without us, well without most of us anyway. He estimates that only a small proportion of the 7 billion currently occupying the planet will survive the 21st century.
Not everyone agrees. There was an article in the Irish Times last week after he made an appearance at University College Dublin. The headline referred to him as the Genial Prophet of Climate Doom. And he is a doomsayer. His claims place him in direct opposition to the general scientific and political consensus as established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
He dismisses their predictions on global warming and rising sea levels agreed at their most recent convention in 2007. Specifically he dismisses their estimated time frame. His view is that rising temperatures and sea-levels are proceeding much more quickly than they anticipated. He criticises them for being so pre-occupied trying to reach consensus that they missed the opportunity to recognise the extent of the problem and to take action.
The IPCC are not the only ones to come under fire. He is scathing about the Green movement in general claiming they are phaffing about the place with wind farms and solar energy, while the only real long-term solution to our energy requirements that will keep carbon emissions at a reasonable level is nuclear.
He laughs dismissively at the whole notion of carbon offsets likening them to the indulgences once sold by the Catholic Church as a sort of "Get out of Purgatory" card.
His message, his final warning, is an appeal to humanity to shift the focus from reducing carbon emissions to preparing for the inevitable. This includes the preparation on this island (Ireland) and our neighbouring island (Britain), his home, for a huge population influx over the coming decades. Temperate islands like ours and New Zealand along with Scandinavia are among the areas most likely to remain habitable in his scenario. We should be concentrating on becoming self-sufficient in food and energy. We should be drawing up policies on how to process climate refugees, because they will surely come and there will be many of them from continental Europe and beyond.
Early on he uses an analogy with the economy. Climate change, like the economy he says, is not a neat linear process; there will always be stops and starts, highs and lows.
I'd take the economy/climate analogy even further to ask what on earth were our leaders and bankers thinking during the latter years of the property boom. They must have known the walls would come tumbling down. Why didn't they take evasive action? Are the global "climate bankers" avoiding looking at the inevitable future?
At 90 James Lovelock is unlikely to witness the catastrophe he's predicted, nor perhaps will you or I, but our children and grand-children will if we are to believe even half of what he's saying.
I don't know enough yet to say I agree with some or all or any of what he says, but he has certainly given me a wake-up call and lots of food for thought. I can only hope that our "climate bankers" hear his warning too.
If you read nothing else in 2009, read this book!