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Overstating the obvious?
Jon Lebkowsky, 30 Nov 06
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More "apocaphilia" from James Lovelock, co-author of the Gaia hypothesis, who said in a news conference that "the earth has a fever that could boost temperatures by 8 degrees Celsius making large parts of the surface uninhabitable and threatening billions of peoples' lives." Reuters reports Lovelock's prediction of a "planetary wipeout," though not quite an apocalypse. "We are not all doomed. An awful lot of people will die, but I don't see the species dying out." The Reuters piece is based on a lecture he gave yesterday to the Institution of Chemical Engineers in the UK, but this is pretty much his argument from his book, The Revenge of Gaia, published last January. Following the book's publication, RealClimate posted a
of his "gloomy vision":

We should be very clear. No one, not Lovelock or anyone else, has proposed a specific, quantitative scenario for a climate-driven, all out, blow the doors off, civilization ending catastrophe. Mr. Lovelock has a feeling in his gut that something terrible is going to happen. He could be right, but for what it's worth, there aren't any models that explode as catastrophically as this. We can never say that it's impossible that something might fall out of balance, something we haven't thought of. But I think in general the consensus gut feeling among small-minded working scientists like me is that the odds of such a catastrophe are low.

You might think that it makes sense to emphasize the extreme ("planetary wipeout"), that the apocalyptic argument will create a sense of urgency about climate change. Hasn't worked so far – in fact, extreme arguments might produce extreme denial. Google "climate change apocalypse" and you get, as first reference, Christopher Monck's denial published in the Telegraph.

Climate change is confusing because there's so much we don't know, and the complexity of climate systems is daunting. Consider the difference in the last two hurricane seasons – the volatility that produced Katrina and Rita vs the unexpected calm this year (described in retrospect as an effect of unpredicted wind patterns and dust storms in the Sahara). Experts tend to think 2006 is just a respite, a calm before greater storms, but the fact that the expected 2006 volatility didn't materialize creates in the minds of many sufficient doubt so that denial is easier. Easier still when predictions, like Lovelock's, ignore the WorldChanging possibility, which is that we can think and act our way into a plausible better future.

A solution to the problem of global warming begins with a cautious, balanced, and rational approach, and getting there is as much about our psychological and social frameworks than our ability to analyze and predict. We have to be careful about analogies that work on the emotions (e.g. Lovelock's metaphor, the earth is a patient with a fever), and avoid a quite arguable conclusion that something like "planetary wipeout" is inevitable. The increasingly obvious fact that climate is changing, and that human factors are associated with that change, should create a sense of urgency about the problem, not a sense of despair. Our WorldChanging challenge is to incubate and engineer solutions that will mitigate potentially catastrophic effects, without diminishing our quality of life. Consider, for instance, the possibility of a carbon-free future.

We have met the enemy, and he is us. - Walt Kelly, via Pogo Possum.Walt Kelly famously coined the phrase "We have met the enemy, and he is us." If that's true, it's time to declare a truce and start negotiations. A better world is possible... "the tools, models and ideas for building a better future lie all around us."

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Lovelock is getting more than a little odd. His latest version of this sees British cities being converted into Hong Kong-like skyscraper megalopoli to house the hundreds of millions of desperate refugees who converge on the UK, the last habitable developed country.

It's oddly like something out of good British sci-fi.

Posted by: Alex on 30 Nov 06


In my limited contacts with Gaia theory I find it an intriguing and potentially compelling framework for understanding mankind's impact on an intricately self-balancing system. But I fear that its broader appeal, publicly speaking, as well as its contribution scientifically are hindered by the more than occasional personification used to express its ideas. I think there's a fine line between the widely accepted notion of 'Mother Earth' and the language used in Gaia theory to attribute human emotions and 'personality' to the biosphere--and Gaia crosses it. Not that it's wrong necessarily, but this use of language seems to evoke a 'frame' (to use George Lakoff's framing theory) that relegates Gaia to the sci-fi, mystical end of the spectrum. That said, I agree with your caution against using analogies that "work on the emotions".

Clearly we do need to strike an emotional chord for eConsciousness to build and broadly activate...but we have to be very careful about the language used. There's lots of work to be done.

Larry Grob

Posted by: Larry Grob on 30 Nov 06

All the discussion of the mild 2006 hurricane season leaves out 50% of the planet: The Pacific typhoon season was extremely destructive with the most recent storm killing over 200 people in Indonesia. We also saw a higher frequency of hurricanes on the west coast of Mexico which came close to threatening major cities.
While the deniers claim that we don't have a large enough window of information to make a judgement about warming trends (though I'd say the current 1.2 million years of ice core data is statistically wide enough) they are still willing to point to one mild Atlantic season as proof that warming isn't occurring. Double standard or what?
It is vital that those of us in the West not focus our views on one side of the planet. The violence of the typhoon season is a perfect example of the dangers of segmenting out one part of a closed system and using it as an example.

Posted by: Martin Edic on 1 Dec 06

Around 300 professional chemical engineers sat through Jim Lovelock's lecture later that evening. His contribution was well recieved. That said they didn't necessarily aggree with the "we're all doomed" analysis - a selection of responses can be read in the IChemE statement via the following link

Posted by: Andrew Furlong on 2 Dec 06

Thanks for that pointer, Andrew.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 2 Dec 06

Here is a link to the guy we are talking about, many people agree he revolutionised the Earth sciences (although many more think he invented hippies). Here is a disscussion on realclimate about how much CO2 is too much. Note the figure of 8C in some regions when polar amplification is taken into account.

His "agenda" is to ramp up the use of nuclear power as a band aid to reaching the muted targets in the realclimate article and as a "futurologist" is allowed some flights of fancy. More power to the "senile" old codger, I say.

Posted by: alan on 3 Dec 06



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