Thirty years ago, the scientist James Lovelock worked out that the
Earth possessed a planetary-scale control system which kept the environment
fit for life. He called it Gaia, and the theory has become widely accepted.
Now, he believes mankind's abuse of the environment is making that mechanism
work against us. His astonishing conclusion - that climate change is already
insoluble, and life on Earth will never be the same again.
The world has already passed the point of no return for climate change, and civilisation
as we know it is now unlikely to survive, according to James Lovelock, the scientist
and green guru who conceived the idea of Gaia - the Earth which keeps itself fit
In a profoundly pessimistic new assessment, published in today's Independent,
Professor Lovelock suggests that efforts to counter global warming cannot succeed,
and that, in effect, it is already too late.
The world and human society face disaster to a worse extent, and on a faster
timescale, than almost anybody realises, he believes. He writes: " Before
this century is over, billions of us will die, and the few breeding pairs of
people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable."
In making such a statement, far gloomier than any yet made by a scientist of
comparable international standing, Professor Lovelock accepts he is going out
on a limb. But as the man who conceived the first wholly new way of looking
at life on Earth since Charles Darwin, he feels his own analysis of what is
happening leaves him no choice. He believes that it is the self-regulating mechanism
of Gaia itself - increasingly accepted by other scientists worldwide, although
they prefer to term it the Earth System - which, perversely, will ensure that
the warming cannot be mastered.
This is because the system contains myriad feedback mechanisms which in the
past have acted in concert to keep the Earth much cooler than it otherwise would
be. Now, however, they will come together to amplify the warming being caused
by human activities such as transport and industry through huge emissions of
greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2 ).
It means that the harmful consequences of human beings damaging the living
planet's ancient regulatory system will be non-linear - in other words, likely
to accelerate uncontrollably.
He terms this phenomenon "The Revenge of Gaia" and examines it in
detail in a new book with that title, to be published next month.
The uniqueness of the Lovelock viewpoint is that it is holistic, rather than
reductionist. Although he is a committed supporter of current research into
climate change, especially at Britain's Hadley Centre, he is not looking at
individual facets of how the climate behaves, as other scientists inevitably
are. Rather, he is looking at how the whole control system of the Earth behaves
when put under stress.
Professor Lovelock, who conceived the idea of Gaia in the 1970s while examining
the possibility of life on Mars for Nasa in the US, has been warning of the
dangers of climate change since major concerns about it first began nearly 20
He was one of a select group of scientists who gave an initial briefing on
global warming to Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet at 10 Downing Street in April
His concerns have increased steadily since then, as evidence of a warming climate
has mounted. For example, he shared the alarm of many scientists at the news
last September that the ice covering the Arctic Ocean is now melting so fast
that in 2005 it reached a historic low point.
Two years ago he sparked a major controversy with an article in The Independent
calling on environmentalists to drop their long-standing opposition to nuclear
power, which does not produce the greenhouses gases of conventional power stations.
Global warming was proceeding so fast that only a major expansion of nuclear
power could bring it under control, he said. Most of the Green movement roundly
rejected his call, and does so still.
Now his concerns have reached a peak - and have a new emphasis. Rather than
calling for further ways of countering climate change, he is calling on governments
in Britain and elsewhere to begin large-scale preparations for surviving what
he now sees as inevitable - in his own phrase today, "a hell of a climate",
likely to be in Europe up to 8C hotter than it is today.
In his book's concluding chapter, he writes: "What should a sensible European
government be doing now? I think we have little option but to prepare for the
worst, and assume that we have passed the threshold."
And in today's Independent he writes: "We will do our best to survive,
but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China
and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of [CO2] emissions.
The worst will happen ..."
He goes on: "We have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise
how little time is left to act, and then each community and nation must find
the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long
as they can." He believes that the world's governments should plan to secure
energy and food supplies in the global hothouse, and defences against the expected
rise in sea levels. The scientist's vision of what human society may ultimately
be reduced to through climate change is " a broken rabble led by brutal
Professor Lovelock draws attention to one aspect of the warming threat in particular,
which is that the expected temperature rise is currently being held back artificially
by a global aerosol - a layer of dust in the atmosphere right around the planet's
northern hemisphere - which is the product of the world's industry.
This shields us from some of the sun's radiation in a phenomenon which is known
as "global dimming" and is thought to be holding the global temperature
down by several degrees. But with a severe industrial downturn, the aerosol
could fall out of the atmosphere in a very short time, and the global temperature
could take a sudden enormous leap upwards.
One of the most striking ideas in his book is that of "a guidebook for
global warming survivors" aimed at the humans who would still be struggling
to exist after a total societal collapse.
Written, not in electronic form, but "on durable paper with long-lasting
print", it would contain the basic accumulated scientific knowledge of
humanity, much of it utterly taken for granted by us now, but originally won
only after a hard struggle - such as our place in the solar system, or the fact
that bacteria and viruses cause infectious diseases.
Rough guide to a planet in jeopardy
Global warming, caused principally by the large-scale emissions of industrial
gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), is almost certainly the greatest threat
that mankind has ever faced, because it puts a question mark over the very habitability
of the Earth.
Over the coming decades soaring temperatures will mean agriculture may become
unviable over huge areas of the world where people are already poor and hungry;
water supplies for millions or even billions may fail. Rising sea levels will
destroy substantial coastal areas in low-lying countries such as Bangladesh,
at the very moment when their populations are mushrooming. Numberless environmental
refugees will overwhelm the capacity of any agency, or indeed any country, to
cope, while modern urban infrastructure will face devastation from powerful
extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Katrina which hit New Orleans last
The international community accepts the reality of global warming, supported
by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In its last report, in
2001, the IPCC said global average temperatures were likely to rise by up to
5.8C by 2100. In high latitudes, such as Britain, the rise is likely to be much
higher, perhaps 8C. The warming seems to be proceeding faster than anticipated
and in the IPCC's next report, 2007, the timescale may be shortened. Yet there
still remains an assumption that climate change is controllable, if CO2 emissions
can be curbed. Lovelock is warning: think again.