Archive for the ‘mass extinctions’ Category
I have been looking back at some of my earliest posts on this blog; and have decided that now would be a good time to pull together some of the key points I have highlighted over the years – regarding anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD). I prefer the use of ‘ACD’ because it is far more accurate than more popular terms such as ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’.
Firstly, then, ACD is an observed multi-decadal reality that cannot be explained by natual causes (i.e. sunspot cycles or volcanic eruptions, etc). See:
Comfortably numb is not good enough (3 September 2012).
The reason we keep getting double six (7 August 2012).
Secondly, climate science is not complicated or contentious, it is simply inconvenient for big business to accept. This is why the fossil fuel industry has spent the last 50 years trying to perpetuate the myths that it is both of these things. See:
Climate science in a nutshell – Part 1 (31 October 2011) (see also Part 2 that followed it).
Peddlers of doubt – monkeys or organ-grinders (20 Feb 2012).
Thirdly, and most importantly, the key thing to which the title of this post alludes: Research by a team at the University of Oxford published in 2009, which I first referenced in the first month of this blog’s existence (August 2011). This research shows that it is the total (i.e. cumulative) amount of fossilised carbon that we (have and will) put into the atmosphere that will determine the temperature change we will see over the next 50 years or so.
As per the Climate Change By Numbers programme on BBC4 Television, climate scientists are agreed that, in order to avoid irreversible and unsurvivable changes to the Earth’s climate, humans need to avoid adding 1 trillion tonnes of fossilised carbon (1000 GtC) to the atmosphere.
It therefore strikes me now, looking again at the above graph, that limiting global cumulative emissions of fossilised carbon to 1000 GtC will only be feasible if emissions peak within the next 10 years and the later the peak the more rapid the phase-out needs to be to keep the area under the graph the same (i.e. equivalent to 1000 GtC).
Governments around the world were very slow to react to the existential threat of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa last year. Evidence is now growing that, in taking over 25 years to take decisive action to minimise ACD, our governments have endangered the future survival of the vast majority of species on the planet (see biological and financial evidence below).
This is an avoidable tragedy. What our governments have lacked is a public mandate to act. I really hope this will soon emerge because, if it does not, evidence is growing that the sixth mass extinction of speies is already underway. See:
‘Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?’ (Nature, 471, 51–57, 3 March 2011).
That being the case, given the glacial pace at which progress has been made thus far, I think it is fair to say that humanity is rapidly running out of time to act. Furthermore, the problem is compunded by the fact that, under pressure from government-appointed scrutineers and/or sock-puppets of the fossil fuel industry, the UN/IPCC have consistently underestimated the costs of adapting to climate change. See:
‘Assessing the costs of adaptation to climate change’ (IIED, 2009).
Must the World Bank now be added to the supposed list of environmentally-alarmist institutions seeking to use the perceived threat of climate change as a pretext for imposing global authoritarian government via the United Nations? This is essentially the position of all those that dispute the reality of the 97% scientific consensus – or the IPCC’s 95% confidence – that humans are the primary cause of the climate change we are now witnessing.
Unfortunately for such conspiracy theorists, the truth of the matter is much more unpleasant: Climate scientists are not engaged in a global conspiracy to provide the UN with an excuse to subvert the power of national governments. Conspiracy or not, it would be bad enough if our national governments had spent the last 25 years ignoring the warnings of climate scientists. However, the truth of the matter is even more insidious: The IPCC has spent the last 20 years or so compiling reports detailing the nature, scale and urgency of the problem we face, only to have our national governments systematically neuter their reports and ignore the warnings they contained.
Similarly, it seems, our national governments appear determined to ignore warnings from professional bodies, national scientific academies, and international organisations. Anyone who asserts that humanity needs to stop burning fossil fuels as fast as possible is, it seems, immediately dismissed as an environmental ‘alarmist’.
If you stop to think about it objectively, even for a moment, the reasons for this are very obvious: Far more serious even than the USA defaulting on its debt repayments, the problem is that the share prices of the World’s fossil fuel companies are entirely dependent upon the assumption that all the Earth’s fossil fuels will be burned. This is referred to as ‘business as usual’ (BAU).
Thus, in the minds of our politicians at least, if they accept the reality that we have a problem at all, the only solution to the problem is one that allows fossil fuel companies to continue with BAU.
Unfortunately for our politicians, fossil fuel companies, and all life on Earth (human and non-human), such a solution does not exist and is, almost certainly, technologically unachievable in the timescale that it would now be required.
The solution everyone is hoping will emerge is carbon capture and storage (CCS). This is a subject about which I have written a great deal; and I do not intend to repeat myself now other than to say this: CCS will only be able to help solve our problem when the rate of removal of CO2 from our atmosphere is greater than global emissions. Getting CCS to work will take decades (as will decarbonising our economies). It is quite possible that we do not have decades of time in which to do either but, one thing is for sure, it makes no sense to delay making a serious attempt to do either.
Therefore, I believe all would do well to ponder the question as to why the World Bank published ‘Inclusive Green Growth: The Pathway to Sustainable Development’ last year. There is a big clue given in the ‘Abstract‘, which reads as follows:
Economic development during the next two decades cannot mirror the previous two: poverty reduction remains urgent but growth and equity can be pursued without relying on policies and practices that foul the air, water, and land.
The World Bank accepts that humanity cannot go on treating the Earth with contempt; treating it as if both its resources and regenerative capacity are infinite. This is because, as is becoming increasingly obvious (in the case of the latter at least), they are not infinite.
This brings us to the crux of this post, which is to refute the entirely bogus argument that we humans have nothing to be afraid of because climate change is natural; life has survived it in the past; and will therefore do so again. There are at least two problems with this line of argument:
1. Because we were already in a warm interglacial period – and atmospheric CO2 is now 40% higher than at any time in the last 1 million years – it is highly unreasonable to dispute the fact that post-Industrial warming is unnatural (i.e. all sparrows may be birds but not all birds are sparrows).
2. In the entirety of Earth history, there have been 5 mass extinction events (i.e. periods when between 50 and 95% of all species have been wiped out). These events are each associated with periods when global average temperatures were more than 5 Celsius warmer than they are now (and there is strong evidence that a sixth mass extinction is already underway).
In responding to sensible comments on my previous post, ‘A summary of the ‘Climate Departure’ research of Mora et al.‘, I found myself referring to the most recent mass extinction event in the Earth’s history, the so-called Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), which occurred 55 million years before present (MaBP). However, as the following video graphically demonstrates, what is now happening to the Earth’s climate as a result of the post-Industrial burning of fossil fuels, is looking increasingly like the Permian mass extinction event, which occurred 252 MaBP.
This video is only about 10 minutes long, so I hope people will watch it. If not, however, the main points are summarised below:
1. There have been five mass extinctions before and humans are now almost certainly causing a sixth.
2. The ongoing melting of terrestrial ice will now cause sea level to rise continuously for several centuries.
3. This is probably unstoppable but is survivable (i.e. assuming all humans can move away from coastal areas).
4. All past mass extinction events occurred when global average temperatures > 5 Celsius warmer than now.
5. Common to each event is further rapid warming triggered by methane release from permafrost and seabed.
6. We already have evidence that rates of both species extinction and methane release are now accelerating.
7. Positive feedback mechanisms (such as disappearing sea ice) will soon make methane release unstoppable.
8. If this ‘tipping point’ is passed, anthropogenic climate disruption will almost certainly be unsurvivable.
This is why the World Bank agrees that we need to decarbonise our global economies as fast as possible.
The video below contains a very compelling 22-minute summary of an impressive array of work, widely reported in the World’s newspapers this week. The research team, based in the Geography Department at the University of Hawaii, was led by Associate Professor Camilo Mora.
Sadly, it has already been dismissed by people with a track-record denying, downplaying or dismissing the nature, scale and urgency of the problem of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD). People such as Bjorn Lomborg, for example.
A brief summary of the key points of the research:
1. For any geographic location the time of ‘climate departure’ is the time beyond which even the coldest monthly average temperature will be warmer than anything observed in the last 150 years. The same method was used to determine the time beyond which a range of other factors (such as precipitation and evaporation) would no longer fall below the range of local values observed in the last 150 years.
2. The monthly average data for all these calculations, data were obtained from 39 global climate models (GCMs – the accuracy of which I discuss below) constructed by 21 climate modelling centres in 12 different countries around the World. Common to all of these models is the same suite of CO2 emissions projections scenarios, two of which the research team used to define the range of possible temperature rises: RCP8.5 – representing a business as usual (BAU) scenario where humanity makes no attempt to reduce CO2 emissions; and RCP4.5 – representing a scenario where globally co-ordinated and concerted efforts are made to reduce CO2 emissions. With regard to atmospheric CO2 concentrations, it should be noted that:
— RCP8.5 is projected to result in a continuing increase to 900 ppm CO2 by the end of the Century; and
— RCP4.5 is projected to result in a peak value of 500 ppm being reached by mid-Century.
3. The results suggest that on average, climate departure (for temperature) is reached 2047 under the RCP8.5 scenario, or 2069 under the RCP4.5 scenario. This therefore implies that aggressive attempts to reduce carbon emissions could delay the onset of climate departure by several decades. Furthermore, the results suggest that climate departure will come to lower latitudes (equatorial and tropical areas) first. Under RCP8.5 this is as early as 2020 in some places. Under RCP4.5, climate departure is projected to be experienced almost everywhere by the end of the Century.
4. The team has produced an interactive map, published online here by the Washington Post newspaper, which can be used to see when climate departure is predicted under both scenarios for any location on the Earth’s surface.
5. The team suggests that the historical focus on absolute changes in temperature (i.e. predicted and observed to be greatest in polar regions) have given humans a false sense of security about the likely personal impacts. This study inverts that pattern and shatters the illusion that humans will not be directly impacted by changes in temperature. This is because, where the natural climate variability is smallest, less absolute change is required for it to be significant and most of the species present have less resilience to that change.
6. The research highlights the changes that have already occurred. Indeed, the most striking finding of the research is that the pH of seawater across the entire planet – i.e. without any exceptions – is already lower than it has been at any time in the last 150 years.
7. The research highlights the fact that those areas that are likely to reach climate departure soonest are also areas with the highest average population density and the lowest capacity to adapt. Under RCP4.5, it is expected that 1 billion people will be living in area experiencing unprecedented climatic conditions by 2050. Whereas, under the RCP8.5 this is expected to be 5 billion people (i.e. half the currently-projected global population).
8. The research indicates that the Earth’s most significant biological assets (essential ecosystem services and biodiversity) are at risk. This is the consequence of three facets of the above: (a) equatorial and tropical regions will be the first to experience climate departure; (b) they contain the greatest proportion of the Earth’s biological assets; and (c) are the least resilient to any change and the least able to adapt.
Conclusions (some readers may find some sentences upsetting)
1. If we stick to BAU, we will guarantee that (a) the long-term consequences will be increasingly unpleasant; (b) mitigation will become impossible; and (c) adaptation will be required sooner and faster and therefore be more costly. Alternatively, if we decide to try and mitigate ACD (by aggressively reducing CO2 emissions), we may be able to limit the unpleasantness and the scale and total cost of adaptation required (by humans and non-humans alike).
2. If we do nothing, the extinction of a significant proportion of species on Earth would appear to be unavoidable in the long-term (and, if that happens, the survival of humanity would have to be seriously in jeopardy). Alternatively, if we take action, the extinction of some species looks highly probable but, critically, this will buy most species several decades to adapt. This means that the costs of adaptation can be spread over those extra decades.
3. Given all of the above, how can it make any sense to continue to argue about what we should do?
Comments about the accuracy of Global Climate Models (GCMs)
One very easy way to dismiss all this is to point out that, in the course of the last decade, global average temperatures have slipped from well above 75th to just above 5th percentile of GCM predictions. Despite this, however, the exponential nature of the observed temperature increase over the last 150 years is very obvious in the above video.
Furthermore, the only way anyone can justify reaching the conclusion that this increase will not continue is by asserting that CO2 is not the main driver. A recent article on the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media website, entitled ‘Examining the Recent Slow-Down in Global Warming‘, has an excellent set of graphs that explain how and why we can be certain that CO2 is the main driver.
In addition, as per the comments I have posted on the above article, none of the GCMs include the global dimming effects of industrial pollution. Given that this is the case, I really do not understand why so many climate scientists keep saying we do not understand the reason for the current hiatus. In his book, ‘Storms of my Grandchildren’, James Hansen repeatedly complains about the fact that, 20 years ago, NASA refused to invest in satellite monitoring of this pollution. Thus we have been unable to model its effects because we have no data to put into the GCMs.
I decided that my review of The Revenge of Gaia, as published by James Lovelock in 2006, was dragging on a bit, so have decided to finish it off. This is therefore the fourth and final part (and thus longer than normal posts).
Having explained what Gaia is (part one), discussed the need to decarbonise our economies (part two), and discussed the various sources of renewable energy available to us (part three), we must now confront ‘the radiating face of Gaia’. The possibly surprising reality is that almost half the book is taken up by Lovelock discussing the sensibility – if not inevitability – of the widespread use of nuclear energy to generate electricity.
As before, some may consider this a self-contradictory position to adopt because, as indeed Lovelock concedes, the ecological carrying capacity of the Earth in a post-carbon age is unlikely to be greater than it was before the Industrial Revolution. That being the case, why would such a small population (of say one billion humans) need nuclear energy; and who is to say they would be capable of harnessing it? When the history of human failure (to see the writing on the wall) has finally been written, catalogued and left in the library long enough to be coated in dust, some may well wonder if today’s nuclear power plants will become the curious prehistoric monuments of a distant, post-carbon, future.
However, I see Lovelock’s pro-nuclear stance as part of the technological optimist side of his split personality: Whereas his pessimistic side laments the unintended ecocide being caused by human arrogance, greed and stupidity; the optimistic side of Lovelock assumes humanity will somehow avert the approaching environmental catastrophe and will, therefore, need lots of energy to power a post-carbon civilisation.
However, to be fair, Lovelock has always been in favour of nuclear energy. In this respect, he is probably very unusual amongst those concerned with issue of environment degradation. He may never have quite been a lone voice crying in the wilderness, but the truth of the matter is that most pro-nuclear environmentalists have not always thought as they do now (e.g. Mark Lynas and George Monbiot). Nevertheless, however and whenever they came to be so, they join with the likes of Tom Blees, Stewart Brand and James Hansen – in being pro-nuclear. Personally, I think it is much more accurate to describe them as ‘ecopragmatists’ (and would count myself as one too). Indeed, Brand’s most recent book sounds like it is worth reading: Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto.
As such, all would agree that nuclear energy will have to be the main source of power in decades to come if billions of humans survive the approaching environmental meltdown, which we are causing by burning fossil fuels.
Before continuing, I think it is worth drawing attention to a couple of things recorded by Brand in the online Afterword he is maintaining in relation to this book. (i.e. as quoted on the Wikipedia page for the book – as per the above link):
(1) Brand quotes Lovelock as having repudiated his alarmism because “Something unknown appears to be slowing down the rate of global warming”. This would appear to suggest that Lovelock was not satisfied by the answers that climate scientists have given, namely that: (a) warming is being offset by ‘global dimming’ (caused by other forms of atmospheric pollution); and (b) the ‘missing’ heat will be found in the deep ocean (because it must have gone somewhere).
(2) Brand has appears to admit having been influenced by the ‘global warming has stopped’ myth that has been peddled so fiercely by the fossil fuel lobby. He has therefore suggested that maybe nothing (more) will happen as a result of the accumulating greenhouse gases. However, he also chose to add that doing nothing about our CO2 emissions would be “like playing Russian Roulette with five cylinders loaded”.
As I have now said quite a few times, although sympathetic to the overall message, I am concerned by intellectual incoherence, selective blindness and a tendency to exaggerate, which Lovelock appears to display in the writing of The Revenge of Gaia. Although not limited to his remarks about radiation and nuclear power, these traits are certainly very much present. This is a shame, in my view, because Lovelock also makes some very valid points about the irrational way most people assess the chances of either good or bad things happening. For example, the chances of any individual winning a lottery is extremely small but, even so, a great many people waste an awful lot of money trying to do so. Similarly, the risk of any individual dying as a result of travelling in a car is much higher than that of flying in an aeroplane but, even so, how many of us worry about the former more than the latter?
Lovelock, correctly in my view, blames widespread anti nuclear sentiment today on fears, stoked by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), over mutually assured destruction that grew out of the insanity of the Cold War. Such fears were entirely justified but, as Lovelock says, the demonisation of the civil nuclear power industry was not. Just because it was a by-product of military programmes to build atomic bombs does not make it inherently bad. Mobile Phones were a product of military surveillance technology, but they are generally accepted as being beneficial (apart from those who blame them for killing bees and causing brain cancers).
Cancer is another subject about which Lovelock has a lot to say; but here also, I think he takes his argument too far. It is undoubtedly true that cancer is very common; that very little of it is caused by radiation; and that even less is caused by artificially-created radiation. Lovelock makes the point that the whole planet was irradiated as a result of atomic bomb tests in the 1950s but the only deaths linked to such tests have been among those who witnessed them. Lovelock also recalls the reactor fire at Windscale (now called Sellafield), which also irradiated the entire UK but has not been linked to any deaths. Most famously of all, of course, Lovelock cites the meltdown at the Chernobyl plant in what is now Ukraine. Estimates vary but, given the amount of hysteria caused in Europe about radiation clouds, the numbers of people killed as a result (i.e. as determined how many more people have died than might otherwise be expected to die) is really not that great. This is not intended to belittle the suffering of individuals; merely to suggest that people put these things in some proper perspective: Perspective that might include considering how many people are shot dead every day; or die in car accidents every year; or how many were killed in wars in the last decade; or died as a result of the Spanish Flu epidemic nearly 100 years ago.
However, Lovelock goes further; and the point at which I think he ceases to be reasonable is this: He suggests that oxygen is a carcinogen. Noting that – whereas some photosynthesising plants can live for hundreds of years – humans tend not to live for much more than 100 years, he argues that oxygen is a carcinogen because it of its involvement in biochemical processes at the level of individual cells (i.e. respiration). This may be true but, if so, it would also be true to say that eating causes constipation. However, that does not mean that we should be worried about eating! Furthermore, there are also scientific studies that have linked the development of cancer with oxygen-deficiency at cellular level. Far more importantly still, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the risks of any individual dying of cancer are dramatically increased by their inherited DNA and lifestyle choices they make (such as excessive alcohol consumption or tobacco smoking). For all of these reasons, I find Lovelock’s argument about oxygen being carcinogenic to be misleading; if not disingenuous.
Nevertheless, I agree with Lovelock that civil nuclear power should not be feared in the way it is (in many minds); and it should not have been abandoned in the way it has (in many countries). However, I remain bemused by the conflict between Lovelock’s misanthropic pessimism (most recently echoed by Bob Geldof) and his technological optimism, which ignores the geologically unprecedented rate of both CO2 rise and warming that has occurred in the last 200 years.
In addition, there remains the problem that the global use of civil nuclear power would likely be a new form of technological dependency (along with the widespread use of GMOs) that will probably not reduce inequality of opportunity because the ‘trickle-down’ effect does not seem to work.
There is also growing evidence that time is no longer a luxury that humanity has. The relatively stable sea level and climate that has made agriculture, civilisation, urbanisation and modernity possible has now been brought to an end by the folly of humans believing they were superior to nature; rather than part of it.
We have fouled our own nest; and we appear to be running out of time to clean it up.
The text below is reproduced from a comment I have just posted on the Climate Slate website. The comment itself was prompted by my having recently watched the movie ‘Chasing Ice’, conceived and produced by James Balog and Jeff Orlowski. This documents how James came to set up the Extreme Ice Survey and reveals some genuinely alarming facts such as the reality that many of the Earth’s glaciers have retreated further in the last 10 years than they did in the entire 20th Century.
Without further ado, therefore, here is my comment:
With apologies to all, I have not got time to argue percentages with anyone. There is today no legitimate debate about whether the end of the [Holocene] sea level and climate stability of the last 12 thousand years is human caused. This is because its ending cannot be explained solely by reference to natural forces (i.e. those that operate on shorter timescales and/or are random).
Those with a vested interest in the continuation of business as usual have turned residual uncertainty in climate science into unreasonable doubt regarding climate scientists. Given that the tobacco industry did this so successfully to medical science, it is not really that surprising that the fossil fuel industry has copied its modus operandi. What is surprising, however, is that so many perfectly intelligent people have been (and continue to be) fooled by the same ‘Merchants of Doubt‘ (e.g. fooled by ‘Astroturf‘ groups into believing that they are in a fight to preserve their liberty).
There is only one plausible explanation for this, which is that people prefer conspiracy theories to reality because they make them feel better about the World and/or themselves. However, I think it is time for people everywhere to stop reading their ‘bedtime stories'; and start dealing with reality.
The worst-case scenario is that anthropogenic climate disruption continues to accelerate and becomes unstoppable (i.e. climate sensitivity becomes irrelevant because no new equilibrium will be reached). If we allow that to happen, the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history will be inevitable. Fortunately, amongst those best-qualified to have a valid opinion, the majority view is that change is not quite unstoppable yet. However, the majority view is also that the change we have caused is already – and will be – irreversible in any timescale meaningful to humanity (i.e. it will take tens of thousands of years to be reversed).
“The geological evidence from the 55 million year event and from earlier warming episodes suggests that such an addition [of CO2 to the atmosphere] is likely to raise average global temperatures by at least 5-6ºC, and possibly more, and that recovery of the Earth’s climate in the absence of any mitigation measures could take 100,000 years or more.”
Anyone genuinely open to the idea of following the evidence wherever it leads should be very concerned by the carefully-considered choice of words in the above ‘Position Statement on Climate Change’ published by the Geological Society of London (or, indeed, any similar statement by any equivalent National body anywhere in the World).
To dismiss this as politically-correct fear-mongering is to admit you are a conspiracy theorist.
If you have not already done so, please get ‘Chasing Ice’ out on DVD. Failing that, at least view the photographs (e.g. below – click on image for more) and/or the time-lapse photography on the Extreme Ice Survey website.
When he published The Revenge of Gaia in 2006, James Lovelock probably felt that he had finally been accepted back into the mainstream scientific community. If he was right to think so, then that is a major indictment of the scientific community.
In the book, Lovelock begins by trying to explain the complicated history of an idea – much misunderstood and maligned – that others named ‘the Gaia hypothesis’. It is a peculiar thing in science but, names that detractors devise in order to ridicule an idea often end up – when the idea later proves worthy – being adopted as the common name for it. The ‘Big Bang Theory’, the idea that the Universe had a definitive beginning some 13 billion years ago, being another case in point.
As such, the book is effectively a review of the history of environmental science. I say this as someone who is not quite old enough to remember watching – although I was deliberately made to watch – the live television coverage of Neil Armstrong being the first human to walk on the Moon. As I point out at the beginning of my own book, it is commonly accepted that the concept of ‘the Environment’ developed – just as Fred Hoyle had said it would – once humans had seen a photograph of the Earth taken from Space.
However, not long after the concept of the environment was born, Lovelock was challenging it: The concept of ‘Spaceship Earth’ – along with reductionist and mechanistic thinking in science as a whole – being something that Lovelock makes very clear he considers deeply unhelpful. In the book therefore, Lovelock begins by explaining what Gaia is; and what it is not.
As implied above, Gaia was not Lovelock’s name for his ‘hypothesis’ – it is just the name everyone else gave it. Furthermore, Lovelock uses the term hypothesis very reluctantly: Reading the book, it becomes quite clear that he does not see Gaia as a hypothesis or an idea; he sees it as an insight into the way Nature works. Therefore, despite using the word hypothesis, Lovelock defines Gaia as seeing the biosphere as… “an active, adaptive, control system” that has maintained the Earth as a place capable of supporting life for at least the last 3 billion years (i.e. page 29 in the paperback).
It is therefore tempting to see Lovelock’s insight as being of similar importance to science as that of Charles Darwin almost a century earlier. This would be ironic, however, as evolutionary biology was probably the biggest impediment to the Gaia hypothesis being accepted. This is because (as Lovelock also points out on p. 29) “…a self-regulating biosphere could never have evolved, since the organism was the unit of selection, not the biosphere.” Another possible reason that the Gaia hypothesis failed to catch on, one which is also ironic as it too was a problem that Darwin faced, is that Lovelock managed to upset both the British scientific community and Church leaders. This is because, far from seeing Gaia as evidence of Intelligent Design, the Church mainly saw the Gaia hypothesis as a piece of ‘New Age’ thinking masquerading as science. Indeed, it is entirely possible that disapproval of both groups was mutually-supportive; with both being strengthened in their prejudice towards the idea by the opposition of the other (i.e. both dismissing Gaia as ‘unscientific’).
However, although he may use labels like ‘hypothesis’ and metaphors like ‘the living Earth’, Lovelock warns his readers not to “…assume that I am thinking of the Earth as alive in a sentient way, or even alive as an animal or a bacterium.” (p.20)
So much, then, for what Gaia is not. What, however, is it? I think the best analogy that Lovelock produces is actually an anecdote from his own childhood: This is the account (on p.47) of an early visit to the Science Museum in London during which, for the first time, he saw a working model of a steam engine “complete with James Watts’ famous governor.” As Lovelock points out, Watts’ innovation was an early example of a control system using a negative feedback (i.e. a self-correcting rather than self-reinforcing mechanism) to govern the otherwise uncontrollable engine.
So, then, Lovelock’s insight was to see the biosphere as a self-regulating system, wherein changes that might otherwise make the planet uninhabitable for life tend to be eliminated in the same way that a gyroscope tends to self-stabilise. The latter being a consequence of the Law of conservation of angular momentum – the same thing that enables an ice dancer to change their speed of rotation just by moving their arms. The ice dancer may be intelligent but the gyroscope is not. Thus, there is nothing unscientific or hypothetical about the concept of Gaia.
However, The Revenge of Gaia is much more than the reminiscences of an old man whose idea took some time to be accepted. The Times newspaper described Lovelock’s book as, “Riveting… a stark warning to mankind” – and the BBC’s Andrew Marr described it as, “The most important decade for decades”. This is because it is; and buried within its pages is a very stark warning indeed…
‘Daisyworld’ is an early computer model that Lovelock created to prove that the biosphere could be self-regulating: This simplistic model biosphere contains only two types of flower; white daisies (that reflect heat) and black daisies (that absorb it). Running the Daisyworld model, Lovelock demonstrated that the changing populations of the two daisies had a similar effect to Watts’ governor on the steam engine; counteracting external factors that might otherwise alter the Earth’s temperature.
Nothing too scary in that, I agree. However, what makes the book almost impossible to put down, is the way in which Lovelock repeatedly emphasises two things: (1) that the Sun is now nearly 25% hotter than it was when life on Earth first emerged 3 billion years ago; and (2) that the biosphere is capable of supporting more life when colder than it is now. With regard to the latter, Lovelock points out that, with the exception of areas surrounding coral reefs, cold polar oceans support much greater biodiversity than warm tropical seas.
However, the really scary thing in the book is this: Lovelock and his colleagues did not stop with Daisyworld. In 1994, James Lovelock and Lee Kump produced a more sophisticated model in which the CO2 content of the atmosphere was gradually tripled from its pre-industrial level of 280 ppm over a 20 thousand year period. The results, subsequently supported by a variety of different and more complex models, suggest that our current biosphere is likely to collapse when atmospheric CO2 reaches 500 ppm and/or average atmospheric temperature rises above 20 Celsius (i.e. 3 Celsius above its pre-Industrial level) – because the surface layer of the oceans becomes too warm for oceanic algae producing cloud condensation nuclei (i.e. vital for the maintenance of the hydrological cycle).
At current rates of increasing CO2 emissions, the Earth will reach this state within the next 40 years. Furthermore, just phasing out the use of fossil fuels in the next couple of decades (something we seem reluctant to contemplate doing at present) will not be sufficient to prevent the 500 ppm target being reached later in this century. To do that, CO2 will have to be artificially removed from the atmosphere. It is time, I think, that we got serious about investing in carbon capture and storage.
In order to limit this blog post to a reasonable length, I have simplified a great deal and omitted an awful lot. Therefore, if you have never read The Revenge of Gaia, I would recommend that you do so (as I am doing). However, I reserve the right to return to this subject in the near future. In the interim, I would particularly welcome comments from anyone who has actually read the entire book.
Greenland was never called Iceland – even though it is largely surrounded by the ice cap and covered in glaciers. Iceland, which often has brilliantly green places, is also in the Arctic Circle. But Iceland is not connected to the rest of the Arctic sea ice.
The Arctic can be confusing. But it’s needs protection. If you have not already done so, please sign up to save the Arctic, before big oil risks it all for profit, by visiting: www.savethearctic.org.
For the avoidance of any doubt:
According to the 12th Century oral history “Landnámabók”, Iceland got its modern name from the Norwegian Viking Flóki Vilgerðarson when he saw a distant fjord full of sea-ice from a tall mountain.
In the “Icelandic Sagas”, Erik the Red, a Norwegian-born Icelander was exiled for murder. He sailed away to Greenland and supposedly gave it a pleasant name to attract more settlers.
Confusion may be understandable but ideological blindness is unforgivable. Increasingly obvious climate disruption will not stop until we make serious attempts to stop causing it. Effectively irreversible, it will soon be unstoppable. End of story (in more ways than one).