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The End of Eden
He measured atmospheric gases and ocean temperatures, and examined forests tropical and arboreal (last year a forest the size of Italy burned in rapidly heating Siberia, releasing from the permafrost a vast sink of methane, which contributes to global warming). He found Gaia trapped in a vicious cycle of positive-feedback loops -- from air to water, everything is getting warmer at once. The nature of Earth's biosphere is that, under pressure from industrialization, it resists such heating, and then it resists some more.
Then, he says, it adjusts.
Within the next decade or two, Lovelock forecasts, Gaia will hike her thermostat by at least 10 degrees. Earth, he predicts, will be hotter than at any time since the Eocene Age 55 million years ago, when crocodiles swam in the Arctic Ocean.
"There's no realization of how quickly and irreversibly the planet is changing," Lovelock says. "Maybe 200 million people will migrate close to the Arctic and survive this. Even if we took extraordinary steps, it would take the world 1,000 years to recover."
Such dire talk no doubt occasions much rolling of eyes in polite circles, particularly among scientists in the United States, that last redoubt of global-warming skeptics. Lovelock's so intemperat e, and more than a few of his peers distrust his preference for elegant nouns and verbs served with no crusting of jargon. His grim predictions tend to be twinned in the press with those of the skeptics, each treated as a radical diversion -- purveyors of "climate porn," an English think-tank called them recently -- from a moderate mean.
Lovelock's radical view of global warming doesn't sit well with David Archer, a scientist at the University of Chicago and a frequent contributor to the Web site RealClimate, which accepts the reality of global warning.
"No one, not Lovelock or anyone else, has proposed a specific quantitative scenario for a climate-driven, blow the doors off, civilization ending catastrophe," writes Archer.
The headline on Archer's essay, which is in fact respectful of Lovelock's science, calls the Englishman a "renegade earth scientist." It's a curious description.
Lovelock works independently on various biochemistry projects, in a lab in an old barn behind his farmhouse in Devon. He often quarrels with the scientific establishment, which he sees as crippled by clubby orthodoxy. (Nor does he hesitate to tweak environmentalists -- Lovelock is a passionate backer of nuclear power as a carbon-clean palliative for global warming.) But it's difficult to see Lovelock, an inventor with 50 patents to his name, a fellow in the Royal Society -- England's scientific society -- as a Gaian bandito.
What's perhaps as intriguing are the top scientists who decline to dismiss Lovelock's warning. Lovelock may be an outlier, but he's not drifting far from shore. Sir David King, science adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair, saluted Lovelock's book and proclaimed global warming a far more serious threat than terrorism. Sir Brian Heap, a Cambridge University biologist and past foreign secretary of the Royal Society, says Lovelock's views are tightly argued, if perhaps too gloomy.
Then you dial up Paul Ehrlich, the eminent Stanford University biologist, at his cottage in the mountains of Colorado, where he's been meeting with other scientists. Three decades ago Ehrlich wrote "The Population Bomb," a best-selling jeremiad in which he warned that the Earth's population was expanding much too fast.
Disaster did not arrive precisely as Ehrlich foretold, and he was treated as a doomsayer debunked. Maybe Ehrlich just was too early to the party.