James Lovelock, the Prophet

Page 3 of 4

Daisyworld quieted some of the critics, but the scientific debate over Gaia raged throughout the 1980s. Lovelock continued refining his thoughts despite troubles in his personal life. His first wife, Helen, was in the midst of a slow and painful decline from multiple sclerosis. Lovelock himself had several major surgeries, including the removal of a kidney he damaged in a tractor accident. He supported himself in part as a consultant for M15, England's top counterintelligence agency, where he developed a method to monitor the movements of KGB spies in London by using an ECD to track their vehicles. To Lovelock, working for the spy agency was the equivalent of writing potboiler novels for a quick paycheck. "It was enjoyable work, and it kept food on the table," he says now.

Among scientists, Lovelock redeemed himself with a second book, The Ages of Gaia, which offered a more rigorous exploration of the biological and geophysical feedback mechanisms that keep the Earth's atmosphere suitable for life. Plankton in the oceans, for example, help cool the planet by giving off dimethyl sulfide, a chemical that seeds the formation of clouds, which in turn reflect the sun's heat back into space. "In the 1970s, plenty of us thought Gaia was nonsense," says Wally Broecker, a paleoclimatologist at Columbia University. "But Lovelock got everyone thinking more seriously about the dynamic nature of the planet." Of course, scientists like Broecker rarely used the word "Gaia." They prefer the phrase "Earth system science," which views the world, according to one treatise, as "a single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components."

In other words, Gaia in a lab coat.

Gaia offers a hopeful vision of how the world works. After all, if the Earth is more than just a rock drifting around the sun, it it's a superorganism that can evolve, that means – to put it in a way that will piss off biology majors and neo-Darwinists everywhere- there is a certain amount of forgiveness built into our world.

For Lovelock, this is a comforting idea. Consider his little spread in Devon. When he bought the place thirty years ago, it was surrounded by fields shorn by a thousand years of sheep-grazing. But to Lovelock, open land reeks of human interference with Gaia. So he set out to restore his thirty-five acres to its more natural character. After consulting with a forester, he planted 20,000 trees – alders, oaks, pines. Unfortunately, he planted many of them too close together, and in rows. The trees are about forty feet tall now, but rather than feeling "natural," parts of his land have the look of a badly managed forestry project. "I botched it," Lovelock says with a grin as we hike through the woods. "But in the long run, Gaia will take care of it."

Don't Ignore the Drought

Until recently, Lovelock thought that global warming would be just like his half-assed forest – something the planet would correct for. Then, in 2004, Lovelock's friend Richard Betts, a researcher at the Hadley Centre for Climate Change-England's top climate institute – invited him to stop by and talk with the scientists there. Lovelock went from meeting to meeting, hearing the latest data about melting ice at the poles, shrinking rain forests, the carbon cycle in the oceans. "It was terrifying," he recalls. "We were shown five separate scenes of positive feedback in regional climates – polar, glacial, boreal forest, tropical forest and oceans – but no one seemed to be working on whole-planet consequences." Equally chilling, he says, was the tone in which the scientists talked about the changes they were witnessing, "as if they were discussing some distant planet or a model universe, instead of the place where we all live."

As Lovelock was driving home that evening, it hit him. The resiliency of the system was gone. The forgiveness had been used up. "The whole system," he decided, "is in failure mode." A few weeks later, he began work on his latest and gloomiest book, The Revenge of Gaia, which was published in the U.S. in 2006.

In Lovelock's view, the flaws in computer climate models are painfully apparent. Take the uncertainty around projected sea levels: The IPCC, the U.N. panel on climate change, estimates that global warming will cause Earth's average temperature to rise as much as 11.5 degrees by 2100. This will cause inland glaciers to melt and seas to expand, triggering a maximum sea level rise of only twenty-three inches. Greenland, according to the IPCC's models, will take 1,000 years to melt.

But evidence from the real world suggests that the IPCC is far too conservative. For one thing, scientists know from the geological record that 3 million years ago, when temperatures increased to five degrees above today's level, the seas rose not by twenty-three inches but by more than eighty feet. What's more, recent satellite measurements indicate that Arctic ice is melting so rapidly that the region could be ice-free by 2030. "Modelers don't have the foggiest idea about the dynamics of melting ice sheets," scoffs Lovelock.

It's not just ice that throws off the climate models. Cloud physics are notoriously difficult to get right, and feedbacks from the biosphere, such as deforestation and melting tundra, are rarely factored in. "Computer models are not crystal balls," argues Ken Caldeira, a climate modeler at Stanford University whose career has been deeply influenced by Lovelock's ideas. "By observing the past, you make informed judgments about the future. Computer models are just a way to codify that accumulated knowledge into automated educated bets."

Here, in its oversimplified essence, is Lovelock's doomsday scenario: Rising heat means more ice melting at the poles, which means more open water and land. That, in turn, increases the heat (ice reflects sunlight; open land and water absorb it), causing more ice to melt. The seas rise. More heat leads to more intense rainfall in some places, droughts in others. The Amazon rain forests and the great northern boreal forests – the belt of pine and spruce that covers Alaska, Canada and Siberia – undergo a growth spurt, then wither away. The permafrost in northern latitudes thaws, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas that is twenty times more potent than CO2 . . . and on and on it goes.

In a functioning Gaian world, these positive feedbacks would be modulated by negative feedbacks, the largest of which is the Earth's ability to radiate heat into space. But at a certain point, the regulatory system breaks down and the planet's climate makes the jump – as it has many times in the past – to a new, hotter state. Not the end of the world, but certainly the end of the world as we know it.

Lovelock's doomsday scenario is dismissed by leading climate researchers, most of whom dispute the idea that there is a single tipping point for the entire planet. "Individual ecosystems may fail or the ice sheets may collapse," says Caldeira, "but the larger system appears to be surprisingly resilient." But let's assume for the moment that Lovelock is right and we are indeed poised above Niagara Falls. Do we just wave as we go over the edge? In Lovelock's view, modest cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions won't help us – it's too late to stop global warming by swapping our SUVs for hybrids. What about capturing carbon-dioxide pollution from coal plants and pumping it underground? "We can't possibly bury enough to make any difference." Biofuels? "A monumentally stupid idea." Renewables? "Nice, but won't make a dent." To Lovelock, the whole idea of sustainable development is wrongheaded: "We should be thinking about sustainable retreat."

Retreat, in his view, means it's time to start talking about changing where we live and how we get our food; about making plans for the migration of millions of people from low-lying regions like Bangladesh into Europe; about admitting that New Orleans is a goner and moving the people to cities better positioned for the future. Most of all, he says, it's about everybody "absolutely doing their utmost to sustain civilization, so that it doesn't degenerate into Dark Ages, with warlords running things, which is a real danger. We could lose everything that way."

Even Lovelock's friends cringe when he talks like this. "I fear he's overdrawing our despair budget," says Chris Rapley, head of the Science Museum in London, who has worked hard to raise international awareness of global warming. Others are justifiably concerned that Lovelock's views will distract from the rising political momentum for tough restrictions on greenhouse-gas pollution. Broecker, the Columbia paleoclimatologist, calls Lovelock's belief that cutting pollution is futile "dangerous nonsense."

"I wish I could say that wind turbines and solar panels will save us," Lovelock responds. "But I can't. There isn't any kind of solution possible. There are nearly 7 billion people on the planet now, not to mention livestock and pets. If you just take the CO2 of everything breathing, it's twenty-five percent of the total – four times as much CO2 as all the airlines in the world. So if you want to improve your carbon footprint, just hold your breath. It's terrifying. We have just exceeded all reasonable bounds in numbers. And from a purely biological view, any species that does that has a crash."

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Politics Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.