It is hard for me not to like James Lovelock. South London grammar-school boy, walker, mountain climber, scientist and admirer of Margaret Thatcher: what is not to like? But as the creator of the Gaia hypothesis, he is arguably one of the most influential and provocative radical thinkers of the last 50 years.
Forty years ago he thought up the Gaia concept, and was attacked for what people misguidedly saw as a mystical idea, when it was a very scientific concept. He was described as a maverick, which he probably took as a compliment.
He is doing it again, with his new book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia (Allen Lane, £20). In it he predicts that it is too late to reverse climate change. Worse, it is approaching a tipping-point, and will soon accelerate with cataclysmic consequences.
But he is no easy ally to the Greens. When I bumped into him this Monday in the Today studio, he had been on air charming the nation about this new book, with the delicately detached air of an absent-minded scientist. In person this delightful grey-haired 90-year-old made me think of Q in the Bond films. Appropriate, really, since he once made gadgets for MI6. But out of the studio he was all business. ‘Do you think you could introduce me to your spokesman?’ he said. ‘Which one?’ said I, wondering if I could remember which member of the Tory front bench covered the area he was interested in.
‘Don’t know his name,’ he said, ‘Useless with names. He wrote in the Times about a week ago. Terrible. Made me really angry. Completely Old Green.’
‘Ah, that would be Greg Barker,’ I said. ‘OK.’
I had never heard the term ‘Old Green’ before, but reading his book I see what he meant. He is pretty scathing about some of the sloppy thinking of the ‘Old Greens,’ and indeed about their prescriptions.
For example he is dismissive of wind farms, and is a firm believer in nuclear energy. He is very practical about it, though: ‘It takes 15 years to get a project underway in this country, of which only five is actual building.’
Lovelock argues that this is not about saving the planet — it will take care of itself, he thinks — but about saving humanity. His prognosis for mankind is dire.
He thinks that the Earth cannot support the close on seven billion people that it has now, and that much of this is to do with agriculture, not just the fashionable obsession with energy-generation methods. As he puts it, ‘If there were 100 million of us on the earth, we could do almost anything we liked without harm. At seven billion I doubt if anything is possible or will significantly reduce fossil fuel consumption; by significantly I mean enough to halt global warming.’
What is more, he thinks that the warming trend is about to accelerate as a result of two associated factors, both related to oceanic ice sheets. First he thinks that the melting of the ice will cut the earth’s albedo, its ability to reflect light and heat. Secondly, the current heat absorption is being used to melt ice, which is very heat-intensive. Once the ice is melted, the heating effect on the atmosphere will sharply accelerate.
So his prognosis is apocalyptic, and, he says, unavoidably so. The consequences for humankind are disastrous, and the attempts to avert it by Kyoto- and Copenhagen-style protocols both expensive and futile.
Interestingly, he says the prospects for places like Britain are quite good, with continued decent climate and high fertility levels. However, he goes on to describe them as global ‘lifeboats’, about to receive hordes of desperate refugees from more benighted parts of the world.
Which leaves us with the question, what to do now? He disagrees with Nigel Lawson’s book debunking much of the climate change movement, An Appeal to Reason, but in a way they both end up in the same place. They both conclude that if we do anything, it should be action to cope with the consequences of climate change, rather than expensive and doomed attempts to stop it.
It may be that this common position arrived at from two very different analyses may become the conventional wisdom of an uncertain future.
In the case of Lovelock, some of these possible responses are spectacular pieces of geo-engineering, such as oceanic mixing to encourage algal growth and change the climate feedback systems, or a massive injection of sulphuric acid droplets into the stratosphere to reflect more solar energy back into space. It is all pretty high-tech, high-vision stuff, but again with a sharp eye on the problems.
This is a fast-paced and sometimes scary book. It took his ideas on Gaia some 40 or 50 years to achieve the political centre stage. If this one takes as long, if he is right, it may be too late.