“The Revenge of Gaia,” by James Lovelock, Basic Books, August, 2006; 177 pgs.
By David L. Brown
If you enjoy horror stories, here is a fascinating book that will keep you up late at night. The plot involves a dire threat to the very existence of all human life, as our very own Mother Earth turns against her own creations.
James Lovelock is an environmental scientist known for his theory of Gaia, the metaphoric idea that the entire Earth is a self-regulating entity that responds to change in ways similar to those of living species of plants and animals. I do not intend to go into detail about the theory here, except to remind readers that there is much evidence that the concept of Gaia provides an accurate metaphor for the ways our planet has found to maintain the conditions required by life over more than three billion years. Those interested in knowing more can read Lovelock’s previous works, or the informative book The Coevolution of Climate and Life by Stephen H. Schneider and Randi Londer (1984).
In his latest book, Lovelock paints a gloomy picture of the near future, a time during which he now believes that global warming is about to rise precipitously, creating an ecological disaster that will make many parts of the planet unable to sustain life as we know it.
Basic to Lovelock’s theory is that the natural features of the Earth — such as forests, unbroken prairies, marshlands and peat bogs — are essential elements in the planet’s ability to maintain climate within the bounds required for life. By claiming those natural features for itself — burning or cutting down forests, plowing up prairies and meadows for monocultural agriculture, and draining wetlands — humankind has severely wounded its home planet, perhaps beyond the point of salvation.
Lovelock pulls no punches. It is clear that he believes we have already moved well past the tipping point from which there is no return. Sustainable alternatives are no longer viable solutions, and only what he terms a strategic retreat can save humanity. It is essential, he believes, to quickly reduce and even reverse the addition of carbon to the atmosphere. Even this may not be enough, for popular proposals for “sustainable” models could involve even further damage to Gaia (e.g., growing more crops to produce ethanol) and lead up a blind alley which will result only in more disaster.
The author demonstrates the potentially devastating effect that global warming may have on the Earth, stating: “…any catastrophe that caused Gaia’s regulation system to fail would lead to a hot and dead Earth with no natural means of returning back to its cooler state.” He lists many examples of how this devastation could occur; for example, he says that a rise of only 4 degrees C. “would be enough to disable the Amazon forest and turn it into scrub or desert.”
He makes clear that positive feedback effects will only strengthen and amplify global warming, listing these examples:
- The loss of the ice albedo effect, in which Arctic snow and ice floes reflect solar rays back into space and thus help cool the planet. The Arctic Ocean is rapidly thawing and when the ice is gone the open waters will absorb significantly more heat from the Sun;
- The death of ocean algae; these plants hold back global warming by absorbing CO2 and other GHG [greenhouse gases] from the atmosphere;
- Destruction of tropical forests as mentioned above, which would melt away like the snow and leave the barren land even hotter by removing the cooling mechanism of the forests;
- The spread of boreal forests in Siberia and Canada as Arctic snow and ice disappear and tundra melts; the dark foliage of the new forests will absorb even more heat from the Solar rays;
- The decomposition of dying algae and forest resources will release more CO2 and methane into the air, further accelerating the heating;
- The possible release due to ocean warming of large deposits of methane held as frozen clathrates on the ocean bottom; methane is 24 times more potent a GHG as CO2.
Lovelock compares what is happening today with an event 55 million years ago when “comparable quantities of carbon” to what is happening today were released into the atmosphere. That event caused global temperatures to rise by 8 degrees C. in the temperate regions and 5 degrees C. in the tropic zone, and the consequences of that heating took 200,000 years to reverse.
Nor should we expect climate change to take place in a slow and steady way, but with “sudden and wholly unpredicted discontinuities.” For example, Lovelock cites evidence that a total rise in global temperature of merely 2.7 degrees C. would cause the Greenland ice sheet to become destablized and melting will continue until most of it is gone. We may be approaching that tipping point now, one that will cause sea levels to rise by one meter or more and flood many heavily populated locations around the world.
Similarly, should CO2 in the atmosphere reach about 500 ppm (which at present rates will occur in about 40 years), oceanic algae will die with disastrous results.
Due to “global dimming” from particulates and aerosols in the atmosphere which block some Solar rays, we may have already passed the point of no return without realizing it, Lovelock points out. A sudden decrease in atmospheric pollution due to changes toward cleaner energy production or an economic collapse could cause this protective shield of pollution to disappear within days or weeks, causing temperatures to spike.
The book goes into far more detail about the dangers we face from climate change, and I will not attempt to cover them all. Lovelock’s discussion of possible solutions are a key part of his message, and his recommendations are startling. In effect, he dismisses the idea that modest moves toward “sustainable” energy will be sufficient to meet the impending danger, and calls for a full strategic retreat. In the short term, nuclear fission power plants offer the only possibility to continue to provide electricity without adding to the atmospheric GHG load.
Sadly, other “sustainable” power sources are fraught with difficulties. For example, wind generators must be manufactured using resources that emit GHG, and their operation affects the climate. Windpower could at most supply 3 percent of electricity needs, and at a cost 2.5 to 3 times higher than conventional or nuclear power generation. Growing crops to produce biomass or ethanol fuel similarly requires a large input of fossil fuels in any present farm technology. Natural gas (methane) cannot be transported or used without a certain amount leaking into the air to add to GHGs, and Lovelock says that burning natural gas instead of coal “could worsen not improve our chance of curbing global warming.”
Only nuclear power from fission, and in the future possibly from fusion, can bring down the carbon pollution that is killing the planet, he says. Surprisingly, Lovelock examines the fear that surrounds the subject of nuclear power and discovers that far from being more dangerous compared to coal, oil, natural gas and even hydroelectric plants, nuclear reactors are actually safer. He makes a convincing argument that the fears of nuclear power are irrational and unsound. For examples, fearmongering reports of massive deaths from the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine are put in a different perspective when it is revealed that the 400,000 deaths expected to result will actually be through a modest reduction in life expectancies. He writes:
“If the 400,000 were to die the week after the irradiation it would indeed be terrible, but what if instead they lived out their normal lifespans but died a week earlier than expected? The facts of radiation biology are that ten millisieverts of radiation reduces human lifespan by about four days, a much less emotive conclusion. Using the same calculations, the exposure of all those living in Northern Europe to Chernobyl’s radiation on average reduces their livespan by one to three hours. For comparison, a life-long smoker will lose seven years of life.
“No wonder the media and the anti-nuclear activists prefer to talk of the risk of cancer death. It makes a better story than the loss of a few hours of life expectation. If a lie is defined as a statement that purposefully intends to deceive, the persistent repetition of the huge Chernobyl death toll is a powerful lie.”
Lovelock points out that should a large hydroelectric dam catastrophically fail, it could cause a disaster on quite a different scale and the loss of life would be immediate, comparable to the recent tsunami in Southeast Asia that killed tens of thousands in moments.
Lovelock also minimizes the supposed danger of disposing of nuclear waste, and has offered to take the waste produced in one year from a nuclear plant for disposal in his own back yard. He says this could be safely held in a container measuring about one cubic meter and that he would use the residual heat to warm his house.
The economics of nuclear power are also sound, he says. It requires a million times more oil or gas to produce the same amount of power as can be gotten from uranium, and the latter does not contribute GHGs to the atmosphere except for the amount released through mining and transportation, which is far less than for the one million times greater amount of coal or gas.
This book contains far more, and as a horror story it makes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Bram Stoker’s Dracula seem like fairy tales for small children. Lovelock’s conclusion is that significant climate change is probably inevitable and inescapable, and that it is coming soon. He estimates at between 500 million and one billion the maximum human population that the planet could originally have supported in a sustainable fashion … far less than the present 6.5 billion and rising. Now wounded, Gaia could support significantly fewer in the future. Unless very determined and significant steps are taken immediately to reverse the trend, the coming adjustment after climate change takes place will see a much reduced population living a precarious existence primarily in the present-day Arctic, and with none of today’s technological comforts. And, that is Lovelock’s more optimistic prediction.
Unfortunately, the chances are that such a program of strategic retreat is quite unlikely to occur. Indeed, Gaia, a.k.a., Mother Earth is beginning to work her revenge against humanity.
How soon does Lovelock think the global warming disaster will occur? We get a hint from this statement: “Some like Sandy [his wife] and me will probably cheat the executioner and die before our time is due; the cruel consequences will come for our children and grandchildren.” Those are the words of a man who will turn 87 this Wednesday.