June 2009

Arts & Letters

Goodbye to all that

By Tim Flannery
James Lovelock’s ‘The Vanishing Face of Gaia’

James Lovelock's latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning (Allen Lane, 192pp; $29.95), has an important message. In a few years, or a few decades at most, abrupt changes in Earth's climate will begin, which will end up killing almost all of us and cause the extinction of almost all life on Earth. The tropics and subtropics will be rendered uninhabitable by this shift, and the few survivors will cling to favoured regions such as Britain and New Zealand. Lovelock believes there is little we can do to avert our fate, for the causes of the climatic shift are now so entrenched that they are in all likelihood irreversible. In his view the best we can hope for is personal survival in a world of warring nations or, if we are particularly unfortunate, a world ruled by warlords.

Apocalyptic visions such as this are usually the province of doomsday cults or writers of science fiction. It's unusual to find a scientist advancing one. Yet James Lovelock's scientific credentials are impeccable. Over a long career he's made many discoveries of global significance, including the fact that cold and flu viruses are transmitted by physical contact rather than through the air, and that small mammals such as hamsters can be frozen solid for hours or days, then defrosted and returned to life. As a maker of scientific instruments, he is without peer. One of his instruments used to measure air pollution is still in widespread use today; indeed it made detection of the hole in the ozone layer possible. Lovelock's reputation as one of the world's most respected scientists was reinforced in 2006, when he received the Royal Geological Society's Wollaston medal. It's the highest commendation given in geology, and its previous recipients include Louis Agassiz (the discoverer of the ice age) and Charles Darwin.

The Vanishing Face of Gaia is based upon decades of work in the field for which Lovelock received the Wollaston medal. Called Earth Systems Science or Gaia Theory, it concerns Earth's methods of self-regulation. Lovelock himself founded the discipline in the '70s, when he first published his Gaia hypothesis, and the alarming warning issued in his latest book is based upon his almost unparalleled grasp of the subject. Among the many regulatory systems that make Earth habitable is the one by which Earth maintains its temperature. At the heart of this system is a complex series of interactions which have carbon dioxide (CO2) at their core. In 2004, Lovelock realised that our disturbance of this system, by burning fossil fuels, had set us upon a deadly path, and every book he's written since then has sounded a more strident warning.

Key to his latest warning is a simple computer model of a kind used by computer scientists principally to diagnose the behaviour of their larger models. Lovelock, however, used it for a different purpose:

[I] made an experiment with this model world to see what would happen if carbon dioxide were added as we are now doing to Earth. I found that as the carbon dioxide was added, at first the global temperature changed only slightly ... But as the carbon dioxide abundance approached 400 ppm [parts per million] in the air, signs of instability [in the climate] appeared ... Then suddenly, between 400 and 500 ppm of carbon dioxide, a small increase in heat or carbon dioxide causes a sudden 9 degree rise in temperature ...

The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere today is 390 ppm. Before we started burning fossil fuels it was 280 ppm. But that is only part of the story. There are other greenhouse gases in the air, and if we sum up their capacity to warm Earth and express that in terms of CO2 equivalent (what is called CO2e), we find that we stand at 430 ppm CO2e - well into Lovelock's danger zone. Here is the nub of Lovelock's urgent warning.

There is one curious feature of Lovelock's model world that bears further examination. Just before the deadly temperature spike occurs in his model world, a slight cooling - perhaps lasting only two or three years - takes place. "Do not be misled by lulls in climate change when global temperature is constant for a few years, or even, as I write here in the United Kingdom in 2008, appears to drop," he warns, for such an event could well mark the beginning of the end. And if Lovelock is right, the beginning of the crisis is likely to come with the onset of a severe El Niño event, which spikes global temperatures. We are currently in a cool La Niña phase, but we are almost certain to experience another El Niño before 2013.

As Lovelock admits, his projections are at variance with those of most other climate scientists, not least the august Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose projections Lovelock argues do not accord "with high quality evidence from Earth obtained by scientists whose job it is to measure and observe". In this he is right: a slew of recent scientific findings show that the key indicators of the climate system - including sea-level rise, temperature and CO2 concentration - are tracking the IPCC's worst-case scenario, which they considered a remote possibility. While Lovelock's model does fit recent observations, it's difficult to know what to make of this, for his model predicts only minor perturbations in the climate system before the arrival of the big catastrophe.

While Lovelock's science is of the highest calibre, his views on society and what we should do about the climate crisis are worth little more than anyone else's. He argues that wind power is next to useless, that our only hope lies in nuclear power, and that urban-green philosophies are dangerous. His vision of how humanity will respond to the climate catastrophe is just one of many. Musing on this bleak book, I realised that in Lovelock's view our last chance to avoid catastrophe occurred during the reigns of Howard, Bush and Cheney. It was their backers - companies such as ExxonMobil and many Australian miners, who argued forcefully (and continue to argue) that they should be allowed to go on with ‘business as usual' - who must bear the brunt of the blame. What a fate it would be to be drawn back into that hateful Bush-Howard world of conflict and avarice by a hand reaching out from the political grave.

James Lovelock is now 90 years old and looking forward to his first visit to space, courtesy of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic launcher. He hopes to see with his own eyes the thing he described as Gaia: to marvel at its spherical shape and its soon-to-be-changed greens and blues. This remarkable man is described by his peers as "completely open and honest, almost to the point of naivety", and he certainly pulls no punches in his latest work. Most of us will discover first-hand whether his understanding of the way our Earth works is correct or not.

Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery is a scientist and writer. His books include Now or Never, The Weather Makers, The Future Eaters and Atmosphere of Hope.

Cover: June 2009
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