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Forget Windfarms - Go Nuclear!
on 11 February 2008
I first read "The Revenge of Gaia" two years ago, when it was published. By early 2006, of course, we were all becoming aware of a progressively strident chorus about the imminent catastrophe that global warming was going to cause and how there was a scientific consensus on the matter. Lovelock was the first book I read on the subject.
I was suitably alarmed by Lovelock's analysis, and particularly by his identification of "tipping points", whereby a relatively modest increase in temperature would lead to positive feedbacks, e.g. from a hotter Amazon rainforest dying and releasing its stored CO2, by a greening Greenland absorbing rather than reflecting heat, and thus causing further, and unstoppable, global warming. Lovelock envisaged humanity reduced to a few million "breeding pairs" on the Arctic and Antarctic fringes.
Two years on, I have re-read in a more critical way and have a number of observations about the way Lovelock states the case for there being a major and immediate problem.
Firstly, Lovelock makes no reference to any experimental work to justify the feared quantitative relationship between a rise in "greenhouse gases" and average global temperature. There is much reference to computer modelling - Lovelock is a keen computer modeller, and the Gaia theory is supposedly validated by it - and correlations. (What experimental, as opposed to modelling, work has been done? If you have any recommendations do let me know via a "comment".)
Secondly, he makes some sweeping leaps of logic. Having stated that climatic prediction is easier than forecasting the weather on the basis that we an predict that it will be colder in Berlin on December 2010 than it was in the previous July, he states that an increase in CO2 to 500ppm will accompanied by "profound climate change".
I was struck by his personal reliance on Michael Mann's so-called "hockey stick" graph, adopted uncritically in the 2001 IPCC 3rd Report, which had been pretty thoroughly discredited by the time the book was written (and which has all but disappeared from the 2007 IPCC 4th Report). If his fear of man made global warming is based primarily on this work, then I am reassured that it is probably not as bad as it seemed.
Lovelock quotes Dick Taverne (March of Unreason) warmly for criticising the greens' "impractical romanticism". I would disagree that that is a fair synopsis of Taverne's book, but in any case in his recommendation of the adoption of the "precautionary principle" he ignores one of Taverne's principal criticisms, that overcaution without a scientific basis threatens economic progress that can lift millions out of poverty.
Finally, Lovelock's arguments encompass warming and cooling trends over a variety of timescales, from the geological epochs, the last 100,000 years and the last hundred. He states that we are in an interglacial period, then that it has been hotter in he past. I found it hard to identify a pattern in this. He talks about a gradually warming sun, but not of any other cycles that might affect the sun's warming of the Earth. Svensmark's (more recent) book provides a coherent explanation of solar and galactic effects, and I am aware of others.
That having been said, the book is evidence that, back in 2005, Lovelock and others predicted that warming was occurring, (however it was caused). He predicted the opening of the North-West Passage, which indeed did happen this year. CO2 and CH4 may be contributing to this, and (by my reading at least) science cannot reliably tell us how much and to what eventual effect. What, then, of what Lovelock recommendations as to what we do about it?
I am struck, on re-reading Lovelock, at how little notice the global scientific consensus and its British offshoots have taken of his recommendations: forget wind turbines, go nuclear. The downsides of wind turbines have been covered more recently, and extensively, by the sceptical Booker and North. Lovelock writes on the basis that we need technological solutions to manage a "sustainable retreat" to a world living within Gaia's means, ideally with just 500 to 1,000 million people - he quite clearly hankers after the "idyll" of 1800AD. (1800AD in England might have been bearable for Jane Austen, great for Mr Darcy, but for the rest of us...?) I fear he underestimates the difficulty of making nuclear fusion a viable solution, and even of using plutonium for fission reactors, but there is much to be said for trying if you think that CO2 emissions are going to destroy life on the planet. Lovelock also advocates the Severn Tidal Barrage, and one wonders why this proven and predictable technology is not being implemented instead of the plan for thousands of off-shore wind turbines. Some of his other sustainable retreat solutions are less appetising - notably the suggestion that we should synthesize our food so that more of the planet can be allowed to revert to the wild.
Lovelock's book is short and well written. The courteous way in which he refers to global warming "sceptics" and other opponents is commendable, and is quite unusual in this polarised debate between "alarmists" and "deniers". His summary of possible positive feedbacks is compelling (in a frightening way) irrespective of the extent to which warming might be being driven in the first instance by man made or other effects, and his arguments as to which alternative energy sources to pursue are delivered with scientific objectivity. As to the extent to which he represents that there is an immediate and catastrophic problem, however, the way that Lovelock rubbishes the over-reaction to the fear of acid rain is illuminating. "It is", he says, "all to easy it seems to lose our sense of proportion." Consumed by the Gaia theory that he finds difficult not to imbue with new-age spiritualism despite his rational scientific basis, it is possible that Lovelock has done so himself.