James Lovelock Says This Time We've Pushed the Earth Too Far
Michael Powell -- Washington Post
ST. GILES-ON-THE-HEATH, England -- Sept. 2, 2006 --Through a deep and tangled wood lies a glade so lovely and wet and lush as to call to mind a hobbit's sanctuary. A lichen-covered statue rises in a garden of native grasses, and a misting rain drips off a slate roof. At the yard's edge a plump muskrat waddles into the brush.
A lean, white-haired gentleman in a blue wool sweater and khakis beckons you inside his whitewashed cottage. We sit beside a stone hearth as his wife, Sandy, an elegant blonde, sets out scones and tea. James Lovelock fixes his mind's eye on what's to come.
"It's going too fast," he says softly. "We will burn."
Why is that?
"Our global furnace is out of control. By 2020, 2025, you will be able to sail a sailboat to the North Pole. The Amazon will become a desert, and the forests of Siberia will burn and release more methane and plagues will return."
Sulfurous musings are not Lovelock's characteristic style; he's no Book of Revelation apocalyptic. In his 88th year, he remains one of the world's most inventive scientists, an Englishman of humor and erudition, with an oenophile's taste for delicious controversy. Four decades ago, his discovery that ozone-destroying chemicals were piling up in the atmosphere started the world's governments down a path toward repair. Not long after that, Lovelock proposed the theory known as Gaia, which holds that Earth acts like a living organism, a self-regulating system balanced to allow life to flourish.
Biologists dismissed this as heresy, running counter to Darwin's theory of evolution. Today one could reasonably argue that Gaia theory has transformed scientific understanding of the Earth.
Now Lovelock has turned his attention to global warming, writing "The Revenge of Gaia: Earth's Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity." Already a big seller in the United Kingdom, the book was released in the United States last month. (He is to speak in Washington, at the Carnegie Institution, Friday at 7 p.m.) Lovelock's conclusion is straightforward.
To wit, we are poached.
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."