James Lovelock to celebrate 90th birthday.
Credit: Courtesy of Sandy Lovelock
"I Hope We Are Civilized When Climate Disaster Hits"
By Stephen Leahy
"It's like the pre-World War II calm," says British scientist James Lovelock in describing the human situation and lack of action to adapt to global climate change.
TORONTO, Jun 1 (Tierramérica).- "When the first great climate disaster strikes, I hope we will all pull together just as if our nation were being invaded," stated British scientist James Lovelock in an exclusive Tierramérica interview.
As the climate warms and the carbon content of the atmosphere soars, Lovelock argues that humanity is facing a far grimmer future that will be upon us sooner than any of the projections made by the Intergovernmental Panel Climate Change (IPCC).
Chemist, physician and biophysicist, Lovelock is one of the world's foremost environmental scientists and founder of the Gaia Hypothesis, which describes the planet as a living organism, a complex system in which the components of the biosphere and atmosphere interact to regulate and sustain life.
Although his ideas often feed controversy, Lovelock has wide-ranging scientific credentials. As an inventor, he holds more than 50 patents, including the first devices for detecting the presence of ozone-depleting CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) and pesticide residues in the environment.
He is also author of many books. The most recent, "The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning", was published in April. Lovelock spoke with Tierramérica's Stephen Leahy in Toronto.
TIERRAMÉRICA: Why are you critical of the IPCC?
JAMES LOVELOCK: There are many excellent scientists working with the IPCC but their computer climate models cannot model the biosphere's response to increasing temperatures from global warming. The models do not include forest or ocean response to rising carbon dioxide levels. They cannot model a self-regulating Earth as yet. That is why the IPCC projections are so far off the mark.
Observational evidence shows sea level rise has been much higher and the melting of the Arctic is happening far more quickly than IPCC predictions. Climate change is happening much faster than most realize.
TA: Has the Earth already passed a climate tipping point?
JL: Yes, I think it has. The Earth is already moving towards a hotter state in response to the changes we've made in transforming much of the surface of the planet and adding CO2 into the atmosphere.
Let's not forget that the Earth was once nearly entirely forested and those forests were a major part of a living planet's regulatory system.
Based on Gaia theory at some point in the future there will be a sudden shift to a new global climate that may be 5 or 6 degrees Celsius warmer on average than today. I have no idea when that shift might happen but my guess is that we may have 20 years to prepare.
TA: What will this new climate be like?
JL: The tropical and subtropical zones of the Earth will be too hot and dry to grow food or support human life. People will be forced to migrate towards the poles to places like Canada. There will be less than one billion people by the end of the century. My hope is that we will stay civilized and those in the North will give refuge to the unimaginably large numbers of climate refugees.
TA: You paint a grim view of the future. Is there no hope?
JL: My main point is that we humans need to adapt and survive on this new hotter planet. Humans survived the last interglacial age, when ice covered much of North America and Europe and sea levels were 120 meters higher than today. The first step is to stop thinking blindly that all we have to do is reduce our carbon footprint, and begin preparations to adapt to what is coming.
TA: Are you saying we shouldn't try to reduce carbon emissions?
JL: I'm not saying there is nothing we can do. I am saying that many of the "green" alternatives like wind energy are at best tokens. Germany is a world leader (second to the United States) in wind energy, and its carbon emissions have increased.
It is so difficult to make significant cuts in carbon emissions. And the real problem is that the total human footprint from nearly 7 billion people is far more than the planet can support under current conditions.
What we should be doing is protecting all remaining forests, return much of our farmland into its natural state and utilize the oceans to sequester carbon and get our food from some form of biosynthesis.
TA: Is nuclear energy a better alternative to wind or solar?
JL: The only practical, low-carbon energy source is nuclear energy. Opposition to nuclear by environmentalists is just foolish. Nuclear energy is safer than other forms of energy and concerns over waste are unfounded. The high-level waste generated each year from a large nuclear reactor would fit inside a car.
In France, 25 to 30 years of such waste are contained inside a large well-shielded area about the size of small concert hall. Carbon dioxide is far more dangerous, as we are beginning to learn.
TA: What about geo-engineering, manipulating the Earth's climate to counteract the effects of global warming?
JL: I think it's worth looking into proposals like injecting sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect some of the sun's heat back into space as a way to cool the planet. Such proposals, if they work, could buy us some time, but they won't solve the problem.
TA: How did we end up in such a difficult position, in which the human species is at risk?
JL: It's like the pre-World War II calm in Britain when I was a young man. No one did anything until bombs began to fall. We really don't notice climate change; it seems theoretical to most of us. When the first great climate disaster strikes, I hope we will all pull together just as if our nation was being invaded.
* IPS correspondent.