April 9, 2014

Lovelock Recants

Matt Ridley is one of the most prolific of the climate skeptics. A terrific writer who can explain complicated scientific questions to the general public with ease, Ridley is the author, among other works, of The Rational Optimist. In that work, Ridley shows astonishing progress in sector after sector, taking us back to the bestial days before penicillin and other modern medical wonders, and making us appreciate that material progress is not an illusion.

In my course “Smiling Through the Apocalypse,” in May 2013, I used Ridley’s work as a counter to the doom and gloom message percolating through the other readings. With few exceptions (I don’t actually recall any), the students did not like it and did not find it persuasive. (I was persuaded by many, but not all, of his arguments.) Since I am not using his book this year, and don’t want to lose his voice in the conversation, I was anxious to find a short piece expressing his outlook. His most recent posting on James Lovelock's new book admirably fills the bill.   

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This book reveals that James Lovelock, at 94, has not lost his sparkling intelligence, his lucid prose style, or his cheerful humanity. May Gaia grant that we all have such talents in our tenth decades, because the inventor of gadgets and eco-visionary has lived long enough to recant some of the less sensible views he espoused in his eighties.

Eight years ago, at the height of global warming alarmism, Lovelock turned uncharacteristically pessimistic in his book The Revenge of Gaia. He’d been got at by the greens. Despite all our efforts, he thought, “we may be unable to prevent a global decline into a chaotic world ruled by brutal warlords on a devastated Earth”. Billions would die, he said, and the few breeding pairs of human beings who survived would be in the Arctic.

In his new book, he now thinks he “tended to exaggerate the immediacy of global warming”, that “we may muddle through into a strange but still viable new world”, and that we can “keep our cool as the Earth gently warms, and even enjoy it when we can”. He admits that “the global average temperature has not risen as expected”, having “hardly warmed at all since the millennium”, and that he was “led astray” by the ice cores that seemed to imply changes in carbon dioxide were the dominant cause of changes in temperature. He thinks it is a mistake to take the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “projections almost as if written in stone”; instead we “need to stay sceptical about the projections of climate models”.

For those of us who have been saying such things for a while, and who were told more than once (as I was by the head of the Science Museum among others), that if Lovelock was very worried so should I be, this is delicious to read. Welcome to the Lukewarmer Society, Jim.

He regrets that huge sums have been “squandered on the renewable energy sources”, many of which are “ugly and hopelessly impractical” and threaten a “green satanic change” to Britain’s landscape. Yup. He thinks that Greenpeace is “a great and powerful negative feedback on all that enlightened technological progress stands for”. Amen to all that.

He still thinks climate change will happen, of course, as I and most people do, but he expects us to adapt to it, especially in the design of our cities. Singapore, he points out, is a very habitable city in a climate far warmer than expected for most of the world by the end of the century. He expects us, by combining our biological and our electronic brains, to “give Gaia to the wisdom to proceed to the next step, whatever that may be, with or without us as the lead species”.

Ah, Gaia. Lovelock famously borrowed this name from Greek theology to label his idea that life alters the physics and chemistry of the planet in ways that are self-regulating. If the planet gets too hot, for instance, living things get whiter, which cools it down. I have always had difficulty with Gaia, because I am never sure how seriously Lovelock wants us to take her. If he means by Gaia that the Earth has a tendency to self-correct, which has kept it lukewarm for billions of years through changes in the atmosphere unconsciously aided by evolution among life forms, I’m with him. But I never quite feel he does enough to disavow the idea that in some sense this tendency has become conscious or mystical. The book does little to clear up my confusion, but there are some fascinating ideas to enjoy along the way.

One of these is that he thinks Thomas Newcomen’s atmospheric steam engine, invented in 1712, marks a turning point in the history of the planet — when we began to tap the almost limitless energy of fossil fuels, accessing cheap and abundant energy. Thereby we began to transform not only our population and our prosperity, but the ecology of the planet itself. I agree, and would go further, because I think Lovelock misses the fact that this was in effect the first occasion on which we linked heat with work.

Till Newcomen we had heat energy, from wood and so on, and work energy (motion mainly), from wind, oxen and so on, but the twain did not meet — except instantaneously in the barrel of a gun. Today nearly all the work done in the world starts out as heat. That is what has enabled cultural evolution to change at a breakneck pace.

Lovelock is a lone scientist, a species that he says is now “as rare as ectoplasm”, and he values the independence to think that comes with loner status. He comes up with plenty of thoughts that I happen to think are bunk, but no matter: there’s lots of marvellous ideas too. As the autobiographical snippets in this fine book illustrate, he is at least as much an inventor as a scientist, exemplifying in his career the fact that technology drives science at least as much as vice versa.

Roll on Lovelock’s eleventh decade: he’s getting better all the time.

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Matt Ridley, “A Rough Ride to the Future: James Lovelock recants his alarmism,” Matt Ridley's blog, April 8, 2014. 

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