Lovelock and the Revenge of Gaia

Simon Batterbury, senior lecturer, Environmental Studies, University of Melbourne

Commissioned by, but not published in, news wire service, Jan 2006.

The comments of James Lovelock in the Independent (UK), that refer to his forthcoming book entitled The Revenge of Gaia (Penguin, 2006), exemplify the dangers of what Steve Schneider calls “Mediarology. Schneider, one of the world’s leading experts on climate impacts and a professor at Stanford, argues no scientist should be forced into supporting polarized “we are doomed” or “we will be ok” positions on future climate change. Nor should do they do so voluntarily, without a number of preconditions being met (see below). To do so is irresponsible because  the science of climate change necessarily entails difficult assessment of probability, much uncertainty, and it deals with such complex multi-scaled problems that definitive statements about impacts are rarely justified or appropriate, no matter how much journalists and the public may want them.  Schneider deems the concealing of complexity to be “dishonest’.  He argues that the presentation of op-ed journalism by scientist popularisers, Lovelock included, needs to be backed by further evidence, preferably presented in longer popular articles, books, and scientific papers. Schneider actually edited a book on the Gaia hypothesis back in 1992, to which Lovelock contributed.

This concern with evidence and balance seems reasonable to me. Lovelock’s book is extremely worrying. However,  and it may seem pedantic, we need to wait to see the detail of what he has to say, comparing his evidence with that of others, including Schneider himself. Only then may we cast judgment on op-ed summaries like Lovelock’s in this month’s newspapers.

Secondly, we need, again following Schneider, to know more about Lovelock’s “values and biases”, in as far as they are relevant to his treatment of the issues. Hard for these to appear in a newspaper article but as numerous other commentators remind us, Lovelock is a brilliant scientific loner now in his late eighties, is known for his Gaia theory of planetary self-regulation, but at the same time he hates urbanization and intensive land use and in recent years (like David Bellamy) has undergone an environmentalist U-turn - he now dislikes wind farms (now threatening rural Britain where he lives, he says) and places scant faith in other forms of renewable energy. He now endorses nuclear power as the only credible way forward, dismissing demand-side arguments for energy conservation.  All of this has some bearing on the way that the already-confused public will, or should, trust the doom laden future he predicts, which has Gaian self-regulation exhausted, and sweeping global climatic change as its key element. We must hope that Lovelock acknowledges his personal biases when assessing the scientific evidence for future climate change. Certainly he is contrarian in his views on energy, notably in the view that that nuclear power could somehow save the day. The time may come when mainstream environmental organizations and their scientists also support nuclear energy… out of despair. But we have not yet reached that point, and as FoE remind us the campaign against it is still on, especially in countries where cynical decisions about nuclear fuels are taken on the basis of greed, or geopolitics, rather than concern with CO2 - i.e. nations where uranium may be sold at great profit if such fuels receive public endorsement internationally.

Thirdly, for scientists, Schneider cautions that  "The best safeguard for public participation in science-based policy issues is to leave subjective probability assessment to the larger scientific community rather than a few charismatic individuals." Lovelock, who works largely on his own outside the mainstream, needs to defer to the larger scientific community -  in this case we can include the IPCC, which has consistently forecasted significant global temperature increases this century, although not quite of the severity that Lovelock projects. Readers need to do the same, leaving the speculation over rates and distribution of climatic change to such communities of experts.

And my own position? I work on how humans deal with changes in the natural environment in some extreme places, and what they do about these changes. So my expertise is human-centered and deals with present generations. Ever since I saw the famous “hockey stick” of global temperature rise, built from hundreds of climate reconstructions and numerous data sources, and endorsed in IPCC documents, I have found impossible to doubt the veracity of claims that we will see significant global temperature increases to 2100 and beyond. Mark Stein in the Australian calls the hockey stick graph “almost laughably fraudulent”, but does not have the broad expertise, or the column space, to explain why. Current research is placing narrow confidence limits on this curve, but not radically altering its trend lines or its projections. Listening to climate scientists like Prof. Jonathan Overpeck at the Institute for the Study of Planet Earth at the University of Arizona (where I taught until 2004) has only improved my own confidence in such predictions. Watching the harassment of former colleague Prof. Malcolm Hughes at the hands of the US government for daring to predict temperature rise as part his input to the IPCC (work built  on decades of empirical research), (and the more recent muzzling of James Hansen by NASA), while trying to keep up with the climate policy debate on three continents, leaves me in little doubt that the existing scientific “consensus” on climate change is credible. It certainly seem threatening to the fossil fuel industry. Yet of course, scientists are often not the best communicators of their own work (Lovelock included), especially given the need to go beyond mediarology soundbites. Some of them, like all of us, can sometimes fall prey to strange ideas, or be the victim of unpleasant vested interests, including those from oil-rich Texas and also here in Australia, that will always fight them to protect their own industries and will enlist science to do so.

Lovelock’s predictions, and others more moderate in tone, all deliver dire prognoses for threatened and sensitive ecosystems, including many in Australia. On the other hand, living with West African farmers in Burkina Faso and Niger for two years (in the hottest region on earth by annual averages, with the most variation in rainfall this century, too - Hulme M, 2001, Global Envt.Change) as part of my own work on drought adaptation has concluded that adaptive capacities, even in  those societies lacking material wealth, are alive and well and they will continue to be practiced.  Life is not pleasant in poor countries that already have vicious and unpredictable weather,  and individuals would rather not have to adapt to drought and floods as they do (which, at this stage in W.Africa, is mainly through clever livelihood diversification rather than reliance on the land). They are responding to climatic changes and biodiversity loss that was not of their own making - but they are responding, often without any international or government support. Direct observers like Mike Mortimore have documented these strategies with amazement, but we certainly cannot afford to be complacent about climate change, just because poor people still get by in harsh environments. Many don’t.

 On the evidence presented in Australia’s media debates of mid-Jan 2006, I suggest we can dismiss Steyn’s piece in the Australian as highly suspect given his selective use of data and the undercurrent of laissez-faire, pro-growth ideology. Then, we need to go back to the broader scientific consensus for some trustworthy data, support the work that the international scientific community are doing on climate change and try to keep them honest, and treat Lovelock’s claims as draconian, although the jury is still out for a few more weeks on that last one. So I am still hesitant to embrace his particular stance, against those of the IPCC, even if they both recommend emissions reduction now. Precaution suggests we do that anyway. This issue will not go away, even if Australian’s net contribution to global warming is smaller than the large industrial powerhouse nations (or even some global cities) where debate is even more intense and convincing people to reduce emissions is turning out to be even more difficult.