James Lovelock’s pursuit of answers has made him one of the world’s most distinguished scientists.
The 100-year old Briton has authored more than 200 scientific papers on topics from airborne bacteria to detecting planetary life. He worked on the Mars Viking mission and won awards from NASA for his inventions used in space exploration. He is perhaps most famous for his groundbreaking Gaia theory that the Earth is as a massive self-regulating organism.
But when it comes to convincing the global elite gathering in Davos this week to abandon fossil fuels — an act on which he believes our life on Earth depends — he is stumped. While there’s money to be made, while jobs and political careers depend on it, we’re going to keep burning carbon, and the world’s going to keep getting hotter.
“I don’t have an answer for that very human problem of how do we stop it,” he said by phone from his home in Dorset on the south coast of England. “The same applied with major wars. We knew they would be disastrous things that would cause a great deal of misery and damage but we couldn’t do anything about it. Human nature is not amenable to sensible cures.”
The last five years on earth have been hotter than at any time since the start of the industrial revolution, according to Europe’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. A study published this month in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences showed temperatures in the world’s oceans rose to a record last year.
And it’s only getting worse. Even taking into account current national pledges to slow global warming, the Earth is on track to warm by about 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, according to Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of climate experts and scientists. That’s double the rate scientists have identified as needed to constrain the worst impacts of climate change.
Lovelock’s “sensible cure” is to stop burning coal, oil and other fossil fuels, the single biggest source of the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving global warming. It’s a pill — however bitter — that the world’s policymakers, chief executives and investors need to swallow as they meet in Davos for the World Economic Forum.
“They have just got to face the fact that the days of carbon fuel are over,” he said. “We are close to the edge of the planet failing to work and global heating getting out of hand and unless they stop supporting coal and oil and other carbon fuels, we have no chance.”
With 3 degrees of warming, many glaciers and ice caps would melt, sea levels would rise and inundate low-lying areas. Deserts would grow and storms would become more violent, leaving more areas uninhabitable. The World Meteorologic Organization expects an increase of 3 degrees to 5 degrees Celsius by 2100.
Lovelock’s entreaty to the global elite echoes that of teenage activist Greta Thunberg who last week called on Davos delegates to stop investing in and subsidizing fossil fuels immediately.
A complete halt in consumption would prevent any further appreciable heating of the planet in the immediate future, according to Lovelock. It may even start to cool off slightly before heating again slowly as the sun inevitably continues to heat up. “This would give us a good breathing space,” he said.
Global leaders heading for the Swiss Alps acknowledge the threat represented by climate change. Respondents to a survey by the Davos organizers last week identified extreme weather events, the failure of climate-change mitigation, major natural disasters, biodiversity loss and human-made environmental damage as the world’s biggest risks.
Financial institutions are facing increased pressure from investors over their climate stance. Just last week, the world’s biggest fund manager, Blackrock Inc., unveiled a set of climate-related changes to its investment processes, including expunging thermal coal producers from its active portfolios (but notably not the passive funds that make up two-thirds of its $7 trillion in assets).
But that’s still far from the complete abandonment of fossil fuels that Lovelock and Thunberg are demanding. And while it’s a “simple choice,” Lovelock isn’t confident that humans will make it. There’s too much at stake, financially and politically. Global investment in oil, gas and coal was almost $1 trillion in 2018, according to the International Energy Agency.
It’s a dilemma being played out in real-time in Australia, one of the world’s resources powerhouses, where Lovelock’s 11 great-grandchildren live. The country is being ravaged by bush-fires exacerbated by its hottest and driest year on record. Some scientists, including Lovelock, say there’s no doubt the increasing ferocity of the fires is linked to climate change, intensifying calls for the country to move away from fossil fuels.
But they’re critical for the country’s economy, with energy exports contributing to almost 7% of GDP. The fossil fuel extraction industry alone employs almost 90,000 people. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government remains unwavering in their support for the industry and even the opposition is cautious about being too critical.
A complete withdrawal from fossil fuels would of course be unfeasible without an alternative source of energy, and Lovelock is convinced that the solution is nuclear.
“I have no doubts about nuclear energy, I haven’t all along, I’ve strongly supported it,” he said. He sees particular promise in thorium as a radioactive element, which is more abundant than uranium. “It will keep us going for quite a long time.”
He believes the atomic power industry has been hamstrung by anti-nuclear lobbying and legislation as well as unfounded fears over its safety. “A lot of nonsense talked on this subject is on nuclear waste,” he said. “It isn’t a problem. In fact it’s a waste not to use it.”
Lovelock acknowledges he has changed his opinion about renewable energy, which he had previously dismissed as a viable source of power. Solar and wind energy are “rather better than we had thought” as they become increasingly competitive, he said. He remains scornful, though, about carbon capture.
“It’s almost absurd to think about digging up coal and oil, burning it to get energy, which is then used to pump the CO2 back into the ground,” he said. “Of all the silly ways of treating a problem, I can’t think of one that’s sillier than that.”
If humans can’t save themselves, there’s still hope for Gaia — the name Lovelock uses for Earth that was his inspired by his friend, the novelist William Golding — as it enters its next era, the Novacene.
It’s the title of his latest book, published last year, and describes the coming age of hyper-intelligence. It foresees cyborgs taking over from humans as the dominant “kingdom of life” and understanding that their continued existence depends on regulating the climatic conditions of the planet.
The new kingdom “will be part of the earth’s system, that is the important thing, and it will strive to maintain constant conditions on the earth along with us and the plants and everything else.”
As part of the Gaia ecosystem, the cyborgs will still require us, just as humans have continued to require plants. And they’ll do better at saving the planet for future generations.
Speaking of future generations, Lovelock says his great-grandchildren are too young to really understand climate change and grasp the colossal danger it represents. When it comes to preparing our children for the future, his advice is poignant.
“Make them feel at home, comfortable and safe, and hope that we will solve the climate problem.”
— With assistance by James Thornhill
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