In an article in today's Independent, James Lovelock says that it is too late to stop catastrophic changes to the global climate. The average temperature will rise by 8 degrees C in temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics. Billions of humans of beings will die as a result, he says.
Nevertheless, he says , it is not too late to take meaningful action (however unlikely that action may be): "I cannot see the US or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time [emphasis added], and they are the main source of emissions".
Is Lovelock suggesting that action to limit emissions could still limit temperature rises to significantly less than 5 to 8 degrees, or that without action to limit emissions now the rise will be even greater? What is the basis for his conclusion?
When I interviewed Lovelock at length in late 1999 for an article that appeared the following year in edition 21 of Green Futures, his predictions were no less dire than in today's article and in his new book (to be published in Feb 2006).
His thinking has not changed much, then. What has changed is that the science has progressed and has largely confirmed the most pessimistic scenarios of the late 90s. Also, the political situation looks to have deteriorated substantially.
My 1999 article concluded:
Much of what Lovelock has to say is decidedly grim. But there is a positive side to Gaia that he is particularly keen to emphasise. Of at least equal importance to [Gaia theory's] usefulness to science, he thinks, is the [moral] guidance it can offer.
"This has been occupying my attention probably more than anything else. People do need something to revere or worship, and religion is beginning to fade all over the world because it's failing to deliver in two fields. One: it used to be the source of information about life, the cosmos and everything - in other words it did science's job for it. And science now does that job so superbly well that religion has become almost redundant in that sphere. Two: it used to give moral guidance. And it's beginning to fail in that too...And so what do we do instead? Science offers nothing, or hasn't done so far, where moral guidance is concerned".
"But now it just happens, quite by accident and not by any conscious thought on my part or anybody else's, that Gaia does offer moral guidance. It does so because its rules are simple: any species that improves its environment favours the welfare of its progeny, whereas any species that adversely affects the environment dooms it for its progeny. And this is very moral. It gives us something to which we are accountable - the Earth itself".
Gaia, Lovelock stresses, is not and should never be the basis of a religion, because religions have faith. "The word I prefer to faith is trust. If we put trust in Gaia then it gives us something that will fulfil the same kinds of needs as religions have." And the problem is that industrial civilisation in its present form is profoundly betraying that trust.
"I'm a grandfather with eight grandchildren" [says Lovelock]. "I need to be optimistic. I see the world as a living organism of which we are part; not the owner, nor the tenant, nor even a passenger. To exploit such a world on the scale we do is as foolish as it would be to consider our brains supreme and...our other organs expendable. Would we mine our livers for nutrient for some short term benefit?"
Lovelock remains a superb thinker and communicator, whether or not he's right about nuclear power. His reflection in today's article on how Darwin would have responded to Gaia theory is convincing. And the analogy with a boat above Niagra falls (quoted in the accompanying piece by Michael McCarthy) is well chosen.
But it's not clear to me that he's right to talk about total catastrophe as inevitable. There appears to be an inconsistency between on the one hand saying it's too late, and on the other hand refering to changes in future emissions trajectories that could be undertaken in time (however unlikely that change may seem at present).