The end of the world as we know it?

psylent

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From The Independant on Monday.



James Lovelock: The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years

Each nation must find the best use of its resources to sustain civilisation for as long as they can

Published: 16 January 2006


Imagine a young policewoman delighted in the fulfilment of her vocation; then imagine her having to tell a family whose child had strayed that he had been found dead, murdered in a nearby wood. Or think of a young physician newly appointed who has to tell you that the biopsy revealed invasion by an aggressive metastasising tumour. Doctors and the police know that many accept the simple awful truth with dignity but others try in vain to deny it.

Whatever the response, the bringers of such bad news rarely become hardened to their task and some dread it. We have relieved judges of the awesome responsibility of passing the death sentence, but at least they had some comfort from its frequent moral justification. Physicians and the police have no escape from their duty.

This article is the most difficult I have written and for the same reasons. My Gaia theory sees the Earth behaving as if it were alive, and clearly anything alive can enjoy good health, or suffer disease. Gaia has made me a planetary physician and I take my profession seriously, and now I, too, have to bring bad news.

The climate centres around the world, which are the equivalent of the pathology lab of a hospital, have reported the Earth's physical condition, and the climate specialists see it as seriously ill, and soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years. I have to tell you, as members of the Earth's family and an intimate part of it, that you and especially civilisation are in grave danger.

Our planet has kept itself healthy and fit for life, just like an animal does, for most of the more than three billion years of its existence. It was ill luck that we started polluting at a time when the sun is too hot for comfort. We have given Gaia a fever and soon her condition will worsen to a state like a coma. She has been there before and recovered, but it took more than 100,000 years. We are responsible and will suffer the consequences: as the century progresses, the temperature will rise 8 degrees centigrade in temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics.

Much of the tropical land mass will become scrub and desert, and will no longer serve for regulation; this adds to the 40 per cent of the Earth's surface we have depleted to feed ourselves.

Curiously, aerosol pollution of the northern hemisphere reduces global warming by reflecting sunlight back to space. This "global dimming" is transient and could disappear in a few days like the smoke that it is, leaving us fully exposed to the heat of the global greenhouse. We are in a fool's climate, accidentally kept cool by smoke, and 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.

By failing to see that the Earth regulates its climate and composition, we have blundered into trying to do it ourselves, acting as if we were in charge. By doing this, we condemn ourselves to the worst form of slavery. If we chose to be the stewards of the Earth, then we are responsible for keeping the atmosphere, the ocean and the land surface right for life. A task we would soon find impossible - and something before we treated Gaia so badly, she had freely done for us.

To understand how impossible it is, think about how you would regulate your own temperature or the composition of your blood. Those with failing kidneys know the never-ending daily difficulty of adjusting water, salt and protein intake. The technological fix of dialysis helps, but is no replacement for living healthy kidneys.

My new book The Revenge of Gaia expands these thoughts, but you still may ask why science took so long to recognise the true nature of the Earth. I think it is because Darwin's vision was so good and clear that it has taken until now to digest it. In his time, little was known about the chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans, and there would have been little reason for him to wonder if organisms changed their environment as well as adapting to it.

Had it been known then that life and the environment are closely coupled, Darwin would have seen that evolution involved not just the organisms, but the whole planetary surface. We might then have looked upon the Earth as if it were alive, and known that we cannot pollute the air or use the Earth's skin - its forest and ocean ecosystems - as a mere source of products to feed ourselves and furnish our homes. We would have felt instinctively that those ecosystems must be left untouched because they were part of the living Earth.

So what should we do? First, 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. Civilisation is energy-intensive and we cannot turn it off without crashing, so we need the security of a powered descent. On these British Isles, we are used to thinking of all humanity and not just ourselves; environmental change is global, but we have to deal with the consequences here in the UK.

Unfortunately our nation is now so urbanised as to be like a large city and we have only a small acreage of agriculture and forestry. We are dependent on the trading world for sustenance; climate change will deny us regular supplies of food and fuel from overseas.

We could grow enough to feed ourselves on the diet of the Second World War, but the notion that there is land to spare to grow biofuels, or be the site of wind farms, is ludicrous. 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 emissions. The worst will happen and survivors will have to adapt to a hell of a climate.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that Gaia will lose as much or more than we do. Not only will wildlife and whole ecosystems go extinct, but in human civilisation the planet has a precious resource. We are not merely a disease; we are, through our intelligence and communication, the nervous system of the planet. Through us, Gaia has seen herself from space, and begins to know her place in the universe.

We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone, and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia. We must do it while we are still strong enough to negotiate, and not a broken rabble led by brutal war lords. Most of all, we should remember that we are a part of it, and it is indeed our home.

The writer is an independent environmental scientist and Fellow of the Royal Society. 'The Revenge of Gaia' is published by Penguin on 2 February
 

crikey

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The logical conclusion of which would seem to be that we should stop wasting money on schemes to cut down on emmissions, and instead divert the funds into schemes intented to help us cope with the inevitable effects of global warming.

Prevention has failed, it is now time for treatment of the symptons?

But of course the environmental movement has a vested interest in maintaining that it is still possible to prevent global warming and so this study will be rejected by Greepeace, Friends of the Earth et al.
 

Stuoolong

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I have every respect for Lovelock's Gaia world theory, but I can't really accept this one. Doom-mongering on this scale is as inplausible scientifically as the fools who still pronounce that there is no climate change happening.

There just isn't the knowledge to be able to stake claims either way in this debate. Without thorough knowledge, we need to both reduce the damage we are doing and prepare for the future which may or may not involve dramatic climate change.

I was struck by one thing he says though:we must [make our peace with Gaia while we are not]...a broken rabble led by brutal warlords. I'd like to know at what point in history has the human race ever not been this?
 

RedZebra

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Interesting article.
Haven't read any James Lovelock though his theory of gaia makes intuitive sense, even if it's controversial, and most "serious" scientists wouldn't touch it with a barge pole (mainly cos of his loose use of the concept of evolution as applying to more than just the individual organism)... He also seems to be accepting the "upper limit" of predicted temperature rises.

Be interesting to read this book though Crikey's got a good point - a defeatist argument does give justification to those who say we can merrily continue on humanities polluting / destructive paths.
 

MoonWatcher

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Doh, just put a post up with that quoted in it, didnt see this one first - at least we all think alike lol :Smile3: xx
 

tortoise

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Rah Rah Rah!!!! BAD MOONWATCHER!! :ilol:
 

martin_e

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crikey said:
The logical conclusion of which would seem to be that we should stop wasting money on schemes to cut down on emmissions, and instead divert the funds into schemes intented to help us cope with the inevitable effects of global warming.

Prevention has failed, it is now time for treatment of the symptons?

But of course the environmental movement has a vested interest in maintaining that it is still possible to prevent global warming and so this study will be rejected by Greepeace, Friends of the Earth et al.
I don't think the two are mutually incompatible. Schemes to make the most use of our resources would naturally reduce wastage, reduce pollution and in adapting to a simpler - less energy-consuming - lifestyle we would be reducing emissions anyway.
It is increasingly obvious that we've already done irreversible damage, however to try and maintain civilisation for as long as possible we need to stop CONTINUING to damage the earth in the way in which we are.

If we stop chopping down the Amazon Jungle then we won't stop global warming, however if we continue to chop down the Amazon Jungle at the rate we are then the speed of the approaching catastrophic climate change will continue to increase.
 

Stuoolong

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Lovelock will appear on the "Start the Week" programme on Radio 4 today, should be interesting! At 9am and repeated later I think.
 

youarethecat

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crikey said:
The logical conclusion of which would seem to be that we should stop wasting money on schemes to cut down on emmissions, and instead divert the funds into schemes intented to help us cope with the inevitable effects of global warming.

Prevention has failed, it is now time for treatment of the symptons?

But of course the environmental movement has a vested interest in maintaining that it is still possible to prevent global warming and so this study will be rejected by Greepeace, Friends of the Earth et al.
Crikey, please explain the vested interest of the environmental movement? I belong to Friends of the Earth locally, and I believe they do a lot of necessary work, involving raising awareness of many environmental and social issues, putting pressure on local authorities for all sorts of things from the banning of gm foods to public transport and the people who are local coordinators actually have a lifestyle that is very eco-aware, from growing their own food to building out of found materials. I would not really say they had a vested interest, but if you have examples then please post!

I heard the Lovelock report on the radio, and he said we have 30 to 100 years before it all goes completely wrong, but he also advocates nuclear power in order to keep civilization living like we are. Not sure i agree, but we all know that it is looking pretty bleak unless we are prepared to greatly change our lifestyles. Only problem is our lack of knowledge in these areas, leaving many of us with no alternative but to keep living in the only way we know how!
 

Stuoolong

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Listening to him speaking today I found myself being swayed by the nuclear thing. The complete inefficiency of all of the renewable fuels is something I've always brushed under the carpet, but the statistic about wind gennies - we would need 240,000 of them to power the UK which is roughly one in every street - made it clear to me. I still think we should use renewables, but sensibly. Making that many wind gennies would itself use vast, vast amounts of power and resources. Putting proper funding into all the renewable technologies may yet yield better value from them than we already have.
But you've got to admire him ,he's a realist. While I'm not sure about this doom-mongering, he's got a point that nuclear is about the only viable option we have at the moment [unless we cut down our consumption by 90%.] Bring on fusion reactors!
 

psylent

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I posted this on the Greenpeace vs Nuclear Energy thread, but it's relevant here.

TWO KINDS OF MASS DEATH

The argument for nuclear power has strengthened, but it’s still not good enough. By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 7th September 2004

For 50 years, nuclear power has been a solution in search of a problem. Now – oh happy days! – two of them have arrived at once.

Suddenly, climate change exists: George Bush says so.(1) After years of ridicule, the greens’ jeremiads about declining oil production are now spilling from other people’s mouths. Politicians and the press have at last picked up our arguments, and are using them as a stick with which to beat us. If we care about climate change, if we care about future energy supplies, then surely we should support the revival of nuclear power?

It is a question we have to answer. A few months ago, nuclear power was finished. The public hated it, the corporations wouldn’t pay for it, the government wouldn’t risk it. Its energy white paper established that there should be no new nuclear electricity without a full public consultation.(2)

In May this began to change. James Lovelock, the environmentalist famous for his Gaia hypothesis, made this plea in the Independent. “I am a Green and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy.â€(3)â€Green guru goes nuclear!†the headlines said.

They weren’t quite right. Lovelock has always been an enthusiast. It is, in both senses, a generational thing. Fifty years ago, Britain was promised that nuclear power would generate “electricity too cheap to meterâ€.(3) That dream lodged in the minds of his generation: almost all the technology’s big fans are over 60.

In July, Tony Blair was asked by the parliamentary liaison committee to answer Lovelock’s points. “I have fought long and hard,†he told the MPs, “both within my party and outside, to make sure that the nuclear option is not closed off … you cannot remove it from the agenda if you are serious about the issue of climate change.â€(4) Two weeks ago Blair’s former energy minister Brian Wilson, bravely abandoning the convention that articles in the Observer should be written in English, assured us that “retrievability has been established as being deliverable. In any case, waste is overwhelmingly a legacy issue. The waste produced by a new generation of nuclear stations would be incremental only at the margins.â€(5) I haven’t the faintest idea what this means, but there might be a clue in the title: “Face the facts. The future must be nuclearâ€.

Last month the directors of the Centre for Alternative Technology – which is supposed to be developing alternatives to nuclear power – argued that “the worst possible nuclear disasters are not as bad as the worst possible climate change disastersâ€, and suggested “a modest revival of nuclear energy in sites where there are already nuclear installations … to sell the idea to the sceptics.â€(6)

Their premise is surely correct. Let us use the cruel moral calculus with which we became familiar during the arguments over the Iraq war. The daily discharges from a plant like Sellafield probably kill several dozen people a year. A meltdown could slaughter thousands, possibly tens of thousands. Climate change has already killed hundreds of thousands, will kill millions, and, if we don’t do something pretty dramatic pretty soon, could kill billions.

Nuclear power isn’t carbon-free. Mining uranium and building and decommissioning power stations all use oil, and concrete releases carbon dioxide as it sets. But the total emissions, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, are tiny by comparison to the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels.(7)

It certainly looks more expensive, when the costs of decommissioning and waste disposal are taken into account. But what about the full costs of burning coal and gas? These are, and should be, incalculable: how do you put a price on global starvation?

And it may no longer be true to say that there is no safe means of disposing of nuclear waste. I have just read a technical report produced by the Finnish nuclear authority Posiva which, to my untrained eye, looks pretty convincing.(8) The spent fuel is set in cast iron, which is then encased in copper and dropped down a borehole. The borehole is filled with saturated bentonite, a kind of clay. Posiva’s metallurgists suggest that under these conditions the copper barrier would be good for at least a million years.(9)

Of course what can be done is not the same as what will be done. There’s a danger that Posiva’s good example is used as a Potemkin village by the rest of the nuclear industry: a showcase project which creates the impression that the problem has been sorted out. We certainly can’t expect Britain’s nuclear generators to behave as responsibly as Finland’s.

On Friday, for example, the European Commission took the British government to court over Sellafield’s refusal to let European inspectors examine one of its dumps.(10) (Didn’t we go to war over something like this?). Some 1.3 tonnes of plutonium has been sitting around in ponds there for about 30 years. On Tuesday, the Guardian revealed that British Nuclear Fuels has secretly buried 10,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste from other countries.(11) This sort of thing goes on all the time. The UK Atomic Energy Authority used to chuck its waste into two open holes in the cliffs beside its power station at Dounreay. One of the shafts exploded in 1977, scattering plutonium over the beaches, but the authority didn’t bother to tell anyone for 18 years.(12) The Ministry of Defence has dumped 17,000 tonnes of nuclear waste on the seabed off the coast of Alderney.

This, rather than Posiva’s expensive method, is the kind of disposal we can expect from most of the world’s nuclear generators. So it’s probably fair to say that the nuclear industry WILL kill tens of thousands. If, as seems ever more likely, terrorists get hold of some of this stuff, the deaths could run into millions.

So the moral calculus shifts a little, but still comes down on the side of nuclear power, if that is the only alternative to burning fossil fuel. But it’s not. When Lovelock claimed that “only one immediately available source does not cause global warming and that is nuclear energyâ€, he was wrong on two counts. It is not the only one, and it is not immediately available.

A new generation of nuclear power stations can be built only with government money: the private sector won’t carry the risk. It would take at least ten years, and it would cost tens or possibly hundreds of billions of pounds. The government will not spend this money twice: it will either invest massively in nuclear generation or invest massively in energy saving and alternative power. The Rocky Mountain Institute has shown that you can save seven times as much carbon through electricity efficiencies as you can by investing in nuclear.(13) And you kill no one. There’d be plenty of change too for a research programme to develop cheaper solar cells, with which, in time, almost every building in Britain could be roofed.

So the dilemma established by James Lovelock and explored by Tony Blair and his incoherent ministers is a false one. There need be no choice between two kinds of mass death. We are still permitted to choose life.
 
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