Fiddling with figures while the Earth burns

If you want to get some idea of what much of the Earth might look like in 50 years’ time then, says James Lovelock, get hold of a powerful telescope or log onto Nasa’s Mars website. That arid, empty, lifeless landscape is, he believes, how most of Earth’s equatorial lands will be looking by 2050. A few decades later, and that same uninhabitable desert will have extended into Spain, Italy, Australia and much of the southern United States.

“We are on the edge of the greatest die-off humanity has ever seen,” said Lovelock. “We will be lucky if 20% of us survive what is coming. We should be scared stiff.”

In July in Bangkok, Thailand, the world’s governments finalised this year’s third and final report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) setting out how humanity might save itself from the worst effects of climate change.

In it was a message of hope, albeit a faint one. The report set out a complex mix of political, economic and technological solutions. If they all worked, said the report, they could achieve huge cuts in the 25 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) released by humanity into the air each year, thus keeping global temperature rises below 3C.

At the same time in Cologne, Germany, 4,000 sharp-suited bankers, lawyers and financial traders at Carbon Expo 2007 were congratulating themselves on the booming new markets in carbon credits that will, they boasted, save the world as well as making them rich.

“I have a dream,” Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, told the delegates. He set out his belief that carbon trading will help stabilise greenhouse gas emissions and aid developing countries by transferring £50 billion a year to these nations from the First World to support green development.

For Lovelock, however, such dreams are dangerous nonsense on a par with a drowning man clutching at straws. “It’s all ridiculous,” he sighed. “These new markets do some good in that they generate wealth and keep these people employed, but they and the IPCC are just raising false hopes. We have done too much damage to the world and now it is changing too fast for us to make much difference.”
Lovelock’s view is that the world has two stable states: the “icehouse”, when ice covers both poles, sometimes extending far into lower latitudes in the form of ice ages; and the “greenhouse”, when all the ice melts. Both have already happened many times in the Earth’s history.

“Human outpourings of greenhouse gases have flicked the switch that turns the world from its colder to its warm state – and it is probably too late to stop it,” he said. “The warming impact of the carbon we have already released is such that the Earth has taken over and our greenhouse gas emissions are being amplified by nature itself.”

Lovelock believes that the transformation is happening far too fast for humanity to tackle, especially in a world that remains committed to economic growth and whose 6.5 billion population is predicted to reach more than 9 billion by mid-century.

For evidence, he points to Siberia where the melting of the permafrost, already widely reported in scientific literature, will enable bacteria to decompose organic matter that has accumulated in the soil over tens of millions of years – potentially releasing billions more tons of CO2.

“I have just come back from Norway where the temperatures are even further above normal than Britain’s. The climate is changing every year now. Everyone can see it – as in this very warm April. By mid-century the heatwave [in Europe] that killed 20,000 people in 2003 will be a cool summer by comparison.”

At first sight Lovelock’s predictions seem wildly at odds with the IPCC’s reports, but in many ways the only difference is in the vividness of the language. “The progressive acidification of oceans due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide is expected to have negative impacts on marine shell-forming organisms (ie corals) and their dependent species,” said the IPCC report detailing the impacts of climate change – its careful language draining the drama from a warning that vast tracts of the ocean may turn so acidic that little life will be left in them.

What these measured tones imply, warns Lovelock, is that millions – perhaps hundreds of millions – of people living in equatorial lands will be forced from their homes, with most of them heading northwards. “The world will face mass shortages of food and water. That will lead to wars and the effective clearance of vast areas of land as the deserts spread,” he said.

Lovelock’s reputation as a scientific seer was founded four decades ago when he published his Gaia hypothesis. His idea, that the Earth’s chemistry, climate and life were all closely linked into a kind of self-sustaining system, is now received wisdom. It has become clear that the first life forms on Earth transformed its early climate and atmosphere, generating the oxygen that allowed life to evolve – eventually into us.

What’s more, that process continues. Oxygen is a reactive gas that would vanish from the atmosphere were it not for the plankton, and plants that keep topping it up. Lovelock’s warnings may seem remote (and he hasn’t always been proved right) and he says our scepticism about the damage we can expect from global warming is understandable.

“Britain and Scandinavia are becoming green oases. In 2050 or soon after, most of the world may be scrub and desert and most of the oceans will be denuded of life, but temperatures here will remain very tolerable. The downside of that is that we risk becoming like a lifeboat with millions of refugees trying to settle here.”

He is not alone in predicting a huge northwards shift in human populations: in his new book, How the World will Change with Global Warming, Professor Trausti Valsson, an Icelandic academic, predicts how population centres will move north.

“The Arctic ice cap is melting. When it goes it will open up new shipping routes, new fishing grounds and new oil fields,” said Valsson. “The Arctic Ocean will become the new Mediterranean with Siberia and Canada as the centres for human culture and civilisation.”

Lovelock is fond of recounting how, on a recent lecture tour of America, he was accosted by earnest academics seeking advice on whereabouts in Canada they should buy their second homes.

Behind such comic anecdotes, however, lies the grim possibility that billions of people face a miserable life and death as humanity finds a new equilibrium with the Earth. At 87 Lovelock acknowledges that he is unlikely to be one of them. His concern is for the generations represented by his nine grandchildren.
“What we have lived through, the 20th century, has been like a great party. Adults now have had the best time humanity has ever had. Now the party is over and the Earth is reckoning up.”