Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Lovelock: optimistic, but not for humanity

The Times, Saturday 29 March, 2008

For a man billed as one of the most important environmental thinkers of his generation, Professor James Lovelock does not sound like a regular tree-hugger.

Yes, of course he accepts that mankind’s energy consumption has brought on the climatic catastrophe which is engulfing us. But he immediately scoffs at the technologies which have been most frequently proposed as alternatives to oil and gas. Wind and wave power? They are “a wicked joke”, he says shaking his head. He prefers the nuclear option.

And the notion of planting trees to offset carbon emissions? He dismisses that as “a crazy idea”. Then with a sigh he says, “That’s the trouble with the Greens, they live in a Green world. It is an ideology and not a science.”

Lovelock is speaking at his home, an old mill in an idyllic corner of Cornwall, but audiences at the Edinburgh International Science Festival will soon get a taste of one the great contrarians, who insists he deals in neither optimism nor pessimism, but realism. Next week he will award the Edinburgh Medal to his friend and colleague Christopher Rapley, the director of the Science Museum in London, and introduce an oration, “Great While it Lasted - Now what?”

The “it” of the title refers to humanity’s relatively comfortable existence on Earth, and the answer, should you be rooting for humanity, is likely to err towards the apocalyptic. Rapley and Lovelock are friends and colleagues and their views entwine. “I think 20% alive by the end of the century would be optimistic,” says Lovelock.

All of his thinking is based on the increasingly influential Gaia hypothesis which he first proposed more than 40 years ago. This described the Earth as a self-regulating, interconnected super-organism within which life ebbs and flows. In his most recent book, The Revenge of Gaia, he warned that the ebb tide is on the rise, bringing on a catastrophe which will have deep consequences for every living thing.

The prognosis is grim. The Sahara is already marching northwards, and swathes of mainland Europe will soon become a desert. Britain, with its maritime climate and relative fertility will inevitably become “a lifeboat” and its population will treble as Europeans migrate here (well, it is their “unconditional right” to come, because of EC membership, notes Lovelock).

When will this happen? “If you believe the [United Nations] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – I do, but I think it’s an underestimate – by before mid-century, say 2030 or 2040.” If you look back on the Earth’s history, he says, you can see that change happens quickly.

So, within two or three decades, as climate rises by eight degrees centigrade, populations will shift rapidly over the face of the globe, most heading North as the arctic warms up.

Canada will be obliged to open its door to its southern neighbour. Russians will be relocate to a rapidly-warming and congenial Siberia: “no more gulags there” chuckles Lovelock. China will look westwards and complete a process which is already firmly established by annexing Africa. “I don’t think the Africans will lose. The Chinese mightn’t be the most ideal colonists, but it’ll be better than the current state.”

Again, Lovelock insists, this is not a pessimistic view. “You have to recognise that we are not the end product of evolution. Everything keeps evolving. It is wonderful that a planet, after three and a half million years has evolved a species like us, that can think and communicate and to begin to understand what the universe is all about. But we haven’t got far enough yet – we have a lot more steps to make.”

Though he has a PhD in medicine and a fellowship of the Royal Society, Lovelock dislikes academia. He has worked alone since the age of 40, developing a device which detected CFCs in the Earth’s atmosphere. But for years, his environmental theories ensured he remained on the fringes of accepted scientific wisdom. Then in 2001, 800 scientists signed the Amsterdam Declaration on Global Change; suddenly Lovelock was the wise old man.

In a recent contribution to the magazine Nature, with Rapley, Lovelock proposed a possible solution to the crisis engulfing the world. They suggested a system of sea-going pumps and pipes which bring algae to the surface from nutrient-rich layers of the oceans which lie at depths of 100m and more. At the surface, the algae could absorb man-made carbon dioxide and excrete it to the ocean floor.

It sounds plausible and an American engineering company is already investigating a similar system, but success is only a possibility. “It’s not impossible we might find a way out,” shrugs Lovelock, “but I wouldn’t put your shirt on it.”

For now the challenge of his work drives him on. He has been offered “the ultimate upgrade” next year by Sir Richard Branson, a flight on the Virgin Galactic. This will take Lovelock and tourists who can afford the £100,000 fare on a sub-orbital flight over the Earth at a height of 100km. Lovelock is already preparing a book, Seeing the Face of Gaia, to coincide with his flight. “ It will hit the fan as far as publicity is concerned – and what a bright moment to publish,” he says.

He has a shorter journey this weekend – from his home in Cornwall to Edinburgh. But while po-faced Greens insist on taking the train, Lovelock has different ideas.

“Did you know that if you calculate the amount of breath the 6.7million people put out, it’s four times as much carbon dioxide as all of the airlines put together? If you want to improve your carbon footprint – don’t give up you flight, why not stop breathing or hold your breath? A lot of old fashioned envy comes into the flight business. It’s nothing to do with the planet.”

So he didn’t consider taking the 10-hour train journey? “O God no, I wouldn’t dream of it. I’m flying from Exeter. It saves you a pile of money. All you have do is book a couple of months in advance.”

* The Edinburgh Medal Presentation and Address, McEwan Hall, Edinburgh. Monday, 6.30

No comments: