Lovelock and the Revenge of Gaia
Simon Batterbury, senior lecturer,
Commissioned by, but not published in, crikey.com.au 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.
at the Institute for the Study of Planet
Earth at the
and others more moderate in tone, all deliver dire prognoses
for threatened and sensitive ecosystems, including many in
On the evidence presented