James Lovelock: Have we passed the point of no return?

September 8, 2006

In cinemas nationwide from September 15
Book by Al Gore (Bloomsbury, £14.99)

Politicians are not often remembered for their concern about climate and the environment. Surprisingly, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher seems to have pioneered this use of politics, and in her 1988 speeches before the Royal Society and the UN she warned that before the end of the century the environment would usurp the political agenda.

The play of the climate ball has now crossed the court from Right to Left, and former presidential candidate Al Gore is a lead player in this truly important task. In his film and book An Inconvenient Truth he uses political muscle to project his warning of adverse climate change soon to come. These two very different politicians have spoken out with courage at times and in places where their views were leading, not following, public perception.

The well-respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its 2001 third assessment report and in its update due in 2007 clearly states the probability of global temperatures rising 3C by the end of the century and a possibility that they might rise more than 5C. To most of us, 3C or even 5C seems no big deal, but what we forget is that that is a global average.

It is the size of change that made the difference between the Ice Age 14,000 years ago and temperatures in recent times. Put another way, Sir John Houghton, a former chairman of the IPCC, tells me that such a rise in temperature implies that by 2050 European summers will almost all be as hot as the deadly summer of 2003, when more than 20,000 people died from overheating. Moreover, agronomists warn that should such hot summers become the norm, then much of the world and Europe would be scrub or desert and quite unable to sustain its present agricultural production.

Gore was active and constructive during the earlier global concern over the depletion of stratospheric ozone by chlorofluorocarbons, and he is now a lead figure in the politics of climate science. He is right to be concerned, and I salute his bravery. But climate change could be worse than he realises because the Earth is a live planet that normally regulates its climate and composition so as to stay habitable. We have disabled its natural capacity to keep us and itself as cool as it was a century ago by clearing natural forests to use as farmland for food and for timber as well as by polluting the air with gases that heat the surface. As a result, the Earth will be forced into a hotter but stable state that it can sustain.

I disagree only with Gore's faith in sustainable development and the use of renewable energy as a way to "save the planet". My fear is that climate change may already have passed the point of no return, and it is now too late for these remedies. Of course, we will continue with carbon trading and renewables until their value is confirmed or denied; but, more importantly, we must make a sustainable retreat from the perilous state we are now in, otherwise most of us and our civilisation will perish. Belief in our ability to "save the planet" is hubristic and no more than a false dream of the urban rich with little understanding of the true nature of the Earth.

James Lovelock is an independent environmental scientist and author of The Revenge of Gaia , published by Allen Lane, £16.99.

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