A rough ride to the future and a policy paper even more uncomfortable with the truth

kevin harnack

This week we read two remarkable publications. The first was a brilliant new book by a 94- year old scientist who remains gifted with an astonishingly agile mind:

The second was a policy paper produced by a global project team of 157 experts in eight leading research institutes. Based on the advice from a 15 member Economics Advisory Panel, they condensed the input from over 100 organizations into a report to the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. The synthesized 72 page version of the report goes by the name BETTER GROWTH, BETTER CLIMATE. The full report will go into history under the name The New Climate Economy, and the collective authors refer to this important milestone in the anthropocene as ‘the flagship project’. We read the short version.

The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate consists of 23 international luminaries, either former heads of government or finance ministers, plus leaders in the fields of economics, business and finance. The report is certainly mandatory reading if you belong to the tribe that makes the yearly pilgrimage to Davos. Its true identity is revealed in the introduction on page 12 where it states as follows:

The question the project has sought to explore is not “how can greenhouse gas emissions be reduced?” but “how can economic decision-makers achieve their principal goals while also reducing their impact on the climate?”
The report does not try to be comprehensive: its focus is on the areas where the relationship between economic growth and climate risk is largest and most pressing. It does not focus on how economies should adapt to the climate change that is already occurring.

Those who remain ideologically devoted to economic growth at all costs will find much to applaud in the consistently optimistic tone in the report and the cheerful talk about the side benefits of ’low-carbon’ policies like lower energy costs, fewer premature deaths from air pollution and reduced medical bills. In long pages full of wishful thinking and self-evident truths we certainly did find some sensible recommendations (and an action plan is better than nothing) but occasionally the suggestions veer into the absurd. Listen to this:

By requiring investors to conduct climate (and wider environmental) risk assessments of their portfolios as part of their fiduciary duty, stock exchanges and financial regulators could drive significant behavior change throughout the global economy.”

Should we laugh-out-loud or cry our eyes out?

It is utterly ridiculous and grossly unfair to everyone, when we compare an international policy paper painstakingly created to offer an acceptable level of consensus across international borders on the contentious subject of climate change with a book that brilliantly summarizes the reflections of a scientist who is the author of several standard works on the subject and who has a fifty year track record of 200 scientific papers in his name.

Lovelock portrait

James Lovelock is without a doubt one of the most influential thinkers of our age. In 1979 he published Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. The Gaia hypothesis proposed that the earth is more than a mere ball of rock and in fact a self-regulating ‘super-organism’ that automatically maintains optimal conditions for life. Today the concept of a living Earth is no longer just hypothesis and although not yet fully embraced by the scientific episcopacy, it is usually referred to as the Gaia Theory and has become an important area of research in biogeochemistry. It is not absurd or inappropriate to compare Lovelock with Darwin. Lovelock, now in his nineties, is an independent scientist who works from home, as did Darwin. Living in the English countryside both were astute observers of nature before they developed their theories. Evolution by natural selection and Gaia were each proposed at a time when the basic ideas were far ahead of the evidence necessary to confirm them. The two theories are plainly related. The best way to understand Gaia is to think about evolution in the widest possible perspective.

In his previous book The Vanishing Face of Gaia published in 2009, Lovelock’s message still had been unambiguously pessimistic: dark clouds were looming on the climate horizon. Our gravest dangers are not from climate change itself, but indirectly from starvation, competition for space and resources, and from tribal war. It has come as a surprise to many that five years later his tone has changed. With habitual candor, in the very first words of the introduction to A Rough Ride to the Future he comes straight to the point: This is not a book about climate change and what we should be doing to improve our carbon footprints. It becomes clear that as a disciplined scientist Lovelock has carefully reviewed the actual observations and he now readily acknowledges that his own earlier warnings may have exaggerated the immediacy of global warming. However he still believes that global warming is equally as inevitable as population growth and tongue-in-cheek reminds us that we are a part of the problem ourselves:  Did you know that as you exhale your breath contains 40,000 parts per million (p.p.m.) of CO2? This is 100 times as much as is in the air and is comparable with the exhaust of your car – and there are 7 billion of us doing it, together with our pets and livestock.

Lovelock convincingly argues that the year 1712 was a crucial turning point in the history of our planet when an English blacksmith by the name of Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine. In evolutionary terms he calls the event as significant as the emergence of the first photo-synthesizers three billion years ago. What heralded the Anthropocene was the moment that mankind started burning coal, suddenly producing ten times more energy than before with the same mass of wood.
I see this as the start of a new evolutionary process that soon became one million times faster than Darwinian evolution by natural selection, and it was one that proceeded in parallel…In the last three centuries we have changed our planet in a way reminiscent of one of the great changes that punctuated the evolution of the Earth since life’s origin billions of years ago.
Yet Lovelock argues that the release of massive amounts of the Earth’s stored energy was an event waiting to happen and rather than feeling guilty about climate change and the explosion of human population we should understand that these events were in fact responses of the great Gaia Earth System. He suggests it set in motion a new accelerated evolutionary process that is irreversible and quite different from all that came before. However Lovelock flatly dismisses the notion that we merely have to ‘decarbonize’ the Earth’s atmosphere through sustainable development and the use of renewable energy and that global warming would be under control as a result.
There are no feasible ways to restore the climate to what it was nor to reduce our numbers…. Even if we reduced all emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to pre-industrial levels there would be no rapid return to the past climate and the less turbulent Earth we once knew…
Lovelock points out that global warming does not simply make it uniformly hotter everywhere. The increase of heat occurs mostly at the poles and hardly at all at the Equator.
The best course of action may not be sustainable development but sustainable retreat…The survival of the air-conditioned nests of termites in the Australian desert provides a fine example of how we might approach the problem of survival in a hotter world…Perhaps the world population should prepare to replace their inefficient sprawling cities with efficient compact cities designed to sustain an optimal internal climate, and leave the land and ocean to the Earth system to regulate as it has always done…
As a case in point he mentions that Singapore with 5.6 million inhabitants already has a natural climate 12.5 C hotter than the global average, even today far warmer than expected for most of the world by the end of the century. Life for the inhabitants in the city-state is kept comfortably cool without inordinate expense.
We can even put our farms in nests; indeed this is already extensively done in the Netherlands. The horticultural greenhouse is a nested farm that can be air-conditioned, even changing the gas composition in the air by adding CO2

Lovelock did inspire several generations of environmentalists but nowadays the relationship is strained because of his support for fracking and nuclear power. Mainstream media regularly quote his statement that environmentalism has become a religion and does not pay enough attention to facts. In the book Lovelock devotes an entire chapter to the myths of environmentalism and its consequences…
He views wind and photo-voltaic energy as ‘second-hand sunshine’ and sees nuclear energy as the only source available that offers a long-term solution. He argues that radioactivity occurs in nature, may even be good in small amounts, and that it is unfortunate how dogmatic fear of radiation keeps confounding common sense.

Consider the incontrovertible fact that we inhabit a universe that is nuclear powered. All the stars draw energy from nuclear reactions; out there in the cosmos there is no such thing as renewable energy or sustainable development; the second law of thermodynamics forbids it.

Few other people alive today could have a deeper understanding of the role humanity as a whole has been playing in the recent history of our planet, so Lovelock can afford to speculate about the next stage of inflationary evolution Gaia may  be entering and when he does he is at his best. To fully appreciate this you really must read the book yourself…

Because we are full of pride and see humanity firmly established as the rulers of the solar system we tend to think that nothing more powerful, more moral and more delightful, or in any way better than we are, could possibly come after us. Most of us find it difficult to even contemplate we are fulfilling a role like that of the feathered egg-laying reptiles who were the predecessors of the birds. But the signs are there: we already talk, first in fiction but now in science about artificial intelligence. There are many possible forms of life and evolutions of Gaia beyond the ones we know.

Now is a critical moment in Gaia’s history. It is a time of ending, but also a time of new beginnings. Despite the mess that we have made, carbon based life still flourishes, and is likely to do so for tens of millions of years. This is more than long enough for electronic life to evolve and then either continue alone or in symbiosis with carbon life. Civilization may collapse, but there have to be enough humans, or intelligent successors, surviving to give Gaia the wisdom to proceed to the next step, whatever that may be, with or without us as the lead species…

You think this far-fetched? Lovelock has lived with a pacemaker since 30 years…
I can see it’s only a matter of time before my body is on the internet and receiving spam…We wish James Lovelock many more years of good health and clear thoughts!