By Michael McCarthy
Environment Editor


The world has already passed the point of no return for climate change, and civilisation as we know it is now unlikely to survive, according to James Lovelock,the scientist and green guru who conceived the idea of Gaia - the Earth which keeps itself fit for life.

In a profoundly pessimistic new assessment, published in today's Independent, Professor Lovelock suggests that efforts to counter global warming cannot succeed, and that, in effect, it is already too late.

The world and human society face disaster to a worse extent, and on a faster timescale, than almost anybody realises, he believes. He writes: "Before this century is over, billions of us will die, and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable."

In making such a statement, far gloomier than any yet made by a scientist of comparable international standing, Professor Lovelock accepts he is going out on a limb. But as the man who conceived the first wholly new way of looking at life on Earth since Charles Darwin, he feels his own analysis of what is happening leaves him no choice.

He believes that it is the self-regulating mechanism of Gaia itself- increasingly accepted by other scientists worldwide, although they prefer to term it the Earth System - which, perversely, will ensure that the warming cannot be mastered.

T'his is because the system contains myriad feedback mechanisms which in the past have acted in concert to leave the Earth much cooler than it otherwise would be.Now,however they will come together to amplify the warming being caused by human activities such as transport and industry through huge emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (C02).

Why Gaia is wreaking revenge on our abuse of the Environment

'I'm a cheerful sod,so I'm not happy about writing doom books.But I don't see any easy way out'

by Michael McCarthy

With anyone else, you would not really take it seriously: the proposition that because of climate change, human society as we know it on this planet may already be condemned, whatever we do. It would seem not just radical, but outlandish, mere hyperbole. And we react against it instinctively: it seems simply too sombre to be countenanced.
But James Lovelock, the celebrated environmental scientist, has a unique perspective on the fate of the Earth. Thirty years ago he conceived the idea that the planet was special in a way no one had ever considered before: that it regulated itself, chemically and atmospherically, to keep itself fit for life, as if it were a great super-organism; as in fact, it were alive.
The complex mechanism he put forward for this might have remained in the pages of arcane geophysical journals had he continued to refer to it as "the biocybernetic universal system tendency".
But his neighbour in the village of Bowerchalke, Wiltshire, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Golding (who wrote Lord of The Flies), suggested he christen it after the Greek goddess of the Earth; and Gaia was born.
Gaia has made Professor Lovelock  world famous, but at first his fame was in an entirely unexpected quarter. Research scientists, who were his original target audience, virtually ignored his theory.
To his surprise, it was the burgeoning New Age and environmental movements who took it up- the generation who had just seen the first pictures of the Earth taken by the Apollo astronauts the shimmering pastel-blue sphere hanging in infinite black space, fragile and vulnerable, but our only home. They seized on his metaphor of a reinvented Mother Earth, who needed to be revered and respected or else.
It has been only gradually that the scientific establishment has become convinced of the essential truth of the theory that the Earth possesses a planetary control system, founded on the interaction of living organisms with their environment, which has operated for billions of years to allow life to exist, by regulating the temperature, the chemical composition of the atmosphere, even the salinity of the seas.
But acccepted it is,and now (under the term Earth System Science) it has been subsumed into the scientific mainstream;two years ago, for example, Nature, the world's premier scientific journal, gave Professor Lovelock two pages to sum up recent developments in it.
Yet now too, by a savage irony, it is Gaia that lies behind his profound pessimism about how climate change will affect us all. For the planetary control system, he believes, which has always worked in our favour will now work against us. It has been made up of a host of positive feedback mechanisms; now, as the temperature starts to rise abnormally because of human activity, these will turn harmful in their effect, and put the situation beyond our control.
To give just a single example out of very many: the ice of the Arctic Ocean is now melting so fast it is likely to be gone in a few decades at most. Concerns are already acute about, for example, what that will mean for polar bears, who need the ice to live and hunt.
But there is more. For when the ice has vanished, there will be a dark ocean that absorbs the sun's heat, instead of an icy surface that reflects 90 per cent of it back into space; and so the planet will get even hotter still.
Professor Lovelock visualises it all in the title of his new book, The Revenge of  Gaia. Now 86, but looking and sounding 20 years younger, he is by nature an optimistic man with a ready grin, and it felt somewhat unreal to talk calmly to him in his Cornish mill house last week, with a coffee cup to hand and birds on the feeder outside the study window, about such a dark future. You had to pinch yourself.
He too saw the strangeness of it. "I'm usually a cheerful sod, so I'm not happy about writing doom books," he said. "But I don't see any easy way out."
His predictions are simplybased on the inevitable nature of the Gaian system.
"If on Mars,which is a dead planet, you doubled the C02, you could predict accurately what the temperature would rise to," he said."On the Earth, you can't do it,because the biota [the ensemble of life forms] reacts. As soon as you pump up the temperature, everything changes. And at the moment the system is amplifying change. "So our problem is that anything we do, like increasing the carbon dioxide, mucking about with the land, destroying forests, farming too much, things like that - they don't just produce a linear increase in temperature, they produce an amplified increase in temperature.
"And it's worse than that. Because as you approach one of the tipping points,the thresholds, the extent of amplification rapidly increases.
"The an alogy I use is, it's as if were in a boat above the Niagara Balls. You are all right as long as the engines are going, and you can get out of it. But if the engines fail, you're drawn towards the edge faster and faster, and there's no hope of getting back once you've gone over - then you're going down.
'And the uprise is just like the steep jump of temperature Earth. It is exactly like the drop in the Falls?'
Professor Lovelock's uniqe viewpoint is that he is just not looking at this or that aspect of the Earth's climate, as are other scientists; he is looking at the whole planet in terms of a different discipline, control theory.
"Most scientists are not trained in control theory. They follow Descartes, and they think that everything can be explained if you take it down to its atoms, and then build it up again."
Control theory looks at it in a verydifferent way You look at whole systems and how do they work Gaia is very much about control theory.And that's why I spot all these positive feedbacks."
I asked him how he would sum up the messsge of his new book He said simply: "It's a wake-up call."

It means that the harmful consequences of human beings damaging the living planet's ancient regulatory system will be non-linear -in other words,likely to accelerate uncontrollably.

He terms this phenomenon "The Revenge of Gaia" and examines it in detail in a new book with that title, to be published next month.

The uniqueness of the Lovelock viewpoint is  that it is holistic , rather than reductionist. Although he is a committed supporter of current research into climate change, especially at Britain's Hadley Centre, he is not looking at individual facets of how the climate behaves, as other scientists inevitably are. Rather,he is looking at how the whole control system of the Earth behaves when put under stress.

Professor Lovelock, who conceived the idea of Gaia in the 1970s while examining the possibility of life on Mars for Nasa in the US, has been warning of the dangers of climate change since major concerns about it first began nearly 20 years ago.

He was one of a select group of scientists who gave an initial briefing on global warming to Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet at 10 Downing Street in April 1989.

His concerns have increased steadily since then, as evidence of a warming climate has mounted. For example, he shared the alarm of many scientists at the news last September that the ice covering the Arctic Ocean is now melting so fast that in 2005 it reached a historic low point.

Two years ago he sparked a major controversy with an article in The Independent calling on environmentalists to drop their long-standing opposition to nuclear power, which does not produce the greenhouses gases of conventional power stations.

Global warming was proceeding so fast that only a major expansion of nuclear power could bring it under control, he said. Most of the Green movement roundly rejected his call, and does so still.

Now his concerns have reached a peak- and have a new emphasis. Rather than calling for further ways of countering climate change, he is calling on governments in Britain and elsewhere to begin large-scale preparations for surviving what he now sees as inevitable - in his own phrase today "a hell of a climate", likely to be in Europe up to 8C hotter than it is today.

In his book's concluding chapter, he writes: "What should a sensible European government be doing now? I think we have little option but to prepare for the worst, and assume that we have passed the threshold."

And in today's Independent he writes: "We will do our best to survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of CO2 emissions. The worst will happen.

He goes on: "We have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act, and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can." He believes  that the world's governments should plan to secure energy and food supplies in the global hot house, and defences against the expected rise in sea levels. The scientist's vision of what human society may ultimately be reduced to through climate change is "a broken rabble led by brutal warlords."

Professor Lovelock draws attention to one aspect of the warming threat in particular, which is that the expected temperature rise is currently being held back artificially by a global aerosol a layer of dust in the atmosphere right around the planet's  northern hemisphere - which is the product of the world's industry.

This shields us from some of the sun's radiation in a phenomena which is known as "global dimming" and is thought to be holding the global temperature down by several degrees.

But with a severe industrial downturn, the aerosol could fall out of the atmosphere in a very short time, and the globaitem perature could take a sudden enormous leap upwards.
One of the most striking ideas in his book is that of "a guidebook for global warming survivors" aimed at the humans who would still be struggling to exist after a total societal collapse.

Written, not in electronic form,but "on durable paper with long-lasting print",it would contain the basic accumulated scientific knowledge of humanity much of it utterly taken for granted by us now,but originally won only after a hard struggle-such as our place in the solar system, or the fact that bacteria and viruses cause infectious diseases.

The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock is published by Penguin on 2 February, price £16.99

Global warming,caused principally by the large scale emissions of industrial gases such as carbon dioxide (C02), is almost certainly the greatest threat that mankind has ever faced, because it puts a question mark over the very habitability of the Earth.
Over the coming decedes soaring temperatures will mean agriculture may become unviable over huge areas of the world where people are already poor and hungry; water supplies for millions or even billions may fail. Rising sea levels will destroy substantial coastal areas in low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, at every moment when their populations are mushrooming. Numberless environmental refugees will overwhelm the capacity of any agency,or indeed any country,to cope, while modern urban infrastructure will face devastation from powerful extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Katrina which hit  New Orleans last summer. The  international community accepts the reality of global warming supported by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In its last report, in 2001,the IPCC said global average temperatures were likely to rise by up to 5.8C by 2100. In high latitudes, such as Britain,the rise is likely to be much higher, perhaps 8C. The warming seems to be proceeding faster than anticipated and in the IPCC's next report, 2007, the timescale maybe shortened. Yet there still remains an assumption that climate change is controllable, if C02 emissions can be curbed. Lovelock is warning: think again.


Global warming: the 'tipping point'

Global warming: the 'tipping point'

By Michael McCarthy
Environment Editor

A crucial global warming "tipping point" for the Earth, highlighted only last week by the British Government, has already been passed, with devastating consequences.

Research commissioned by The Independent reveals that the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has now crossed a threshold, set down by scientists from around the world at a conference in Britain last year, beyond which really dangerous climate change is likely to be unstoppable;

The implication is that some of global warming's worst predicted effects, from destruction of ecosystems to increased hunger and water shortages for billions of people, cannot now be avoided, whatever we do. It gives considerable force to the contention by the green guru Professor James Lovelock, put forward last month in The Independent, that climate change is now past the point of no return.

The danger point we are now firmly on course for is arise in global mean temperatures to 2 degrees above the level before the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century.

At the moment, global mean temperatures have risen to about 0.6 degrees above the pre-industrial era- and worrying signs of climate change, such as the rapid melting of the Arctic ice in summer; are already increasingly evident. But arise to 2 degrees would be far more serious.

By that point it is likely that the Greenland ice sheet will al ready have begun irreversible melting, threatening the world with a sea-level rise of several metres. Agricultural yields will have started to fall, not only in Africa but also in Europe, the US and Russia, putting up to 200 milllon more people at risk from hunger; and up to 2.8 billion additional people at risk of water shortages for both drinking and irrigation. The Government's conference on Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, held at the UK Met Office in Exeter a year ago, highlighted a clear threshold in the accumulation of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, which should notbe sur passed if the 2 degree point was to be avoided with "relatively high certainty".

This was for the concentration of CO2 and other gases such as methane and nitrous oxide, taken together in their global warming effect, to stay below 400ppm (parts per million) in CO2 terms - or in the jargon, the "equivalent concentration" of CO2 should remain below that level.

The warning was highlighted in the official report of the Exeter conference, published last week. However, an investigation by The Independent has established that the CO2 equivalent concentration, largely unnoticed by the scientific and political communities, has now risen beyond this threshold.

This number is not a familiar one even among climate researchers, and is not readily available. For example, when we put the question to a very senior climate scientist, he said: "I would think it's definitely over 400- probably about 420" So we asked one of the worlds leading experts on the effects of greenhouse gases on climate, Professor Keith Shine, head of the meteorology department at the University of Reading to calculate it precisely.Using the latest available figures (for 2004), his calculations show the equivalent concentration of CO2, taking in the effects of methane and nitrous oxide at 2004 levels,is now 425pp. This is made up of CO2 itself, at 379ppm; the global warnang effect of the methane in the atmosphere, equivalent to another 40ppm of CO2; and the effect of nitrous oxide, equivalent to another 6ppm of CO2.

The tipping point warned about last week by the Government is already behind us.

"The passing of this threshold is of the most enormous significance," said Tom Burke, a former government adviser on the green issues, now visiting professor at Imperial College London. "it means we have actually entered a new era - the era of dangerous climate change. We have passed the point where we can be confident of staying below the 2 degree rise set as the threshold for danger. What this  tells us is that we have already reached the point where our children can no longer count on a safe climate'

The scientist who chaired the Exeter conference, Dennis Tirpak, head of the climate change unit of the OECD in Paris, was even more direct. He said: "This means we will hit 2 degrees [as mean temperatare rise]."

Professor Burke added: "We have very little time to act now Governments must stop talking and start spending. We already have the technology to allow us to meet our growing need for energy while keeping a stable climate. We must deploy it now .Doing so will cost less than the Iraq war so we know we can afford it.

The 400ppm threshold is based on a paper given at Exeter by Malte Meinhausen of the Swiss Federal institute of Technology; Dr Meinhausen reviewed  a dozen studies of the probability of exceeding the 2 degrees threshold at different CO2 equivalent levels. Taken together they show that only by remaining above 400 is there a very high chance of not doing so.

Some scientists have been reluctant to talk about the overall global warming effect of all the greenhouses gases taken together, because there is another consideration - the fact that the "aerosol", or band of dust in the atmosphere from industrial pollution, actually reduces the warming.

As Professor Shine stresses, there is enormous uncertainty about the degree to which this is happening so making calculation of the overall warming effect problematic. However, as James Lovelock points out- and Professor Shine and other scientists accept - in the event of an industrial downturn, the aerosol could fall out of the atmosphere in a matter of weeks, and then the effect of all the greenhouse gases taken together would suddenly be fully felt.

Why flutter of butterfly's wings explains global warming
ANALYSIS
The inherently chaotic nature of the Earth's weather system can be summed up by a phenomenon known as the "butterfly effect", which states that the flap of a butterfly's wing in Brazil can result in a tornado ripping through Texas.
In other words, tiny perturbations in the highly dynamic system of the weather can result in far bigger effects further down the line, even on the other side of the world.
Weather of course, is not the same as climate. One happens day by day, the other involves long-term trends over many decades, centuries or even millennia. We remember changes in the weather but have a weaker grasp of climate change. Yet beth involve a level of chaotic complexity that poses immense problems for scientific analysis.
We know that the global climate is influenced by complex interactions between the weather systems of the oceans and those of the atmosphere. Land, too, plays its part, whether it is the effect of snow and ice reflecting sunlight -and hence heat - due to the "albedo effect", or mountain ranges that influence the directions of prevailing winds.
Scientists have also come to undersand the nature of some of the "feedbacks" that can influence both the speed and the direction of climate change. Some of these are positive feedbacks, which accelerate the rate of warming and some are negative, which tend to keep global warming in check by cooling things down.
Unfortunately it appears that positive feedbacks threaten to exert a stronger influence than the known negative feedbacks.
Perhaps we can hope that there are still some little-understood negative feedbacks that could kick in. Scientists for instance have only just understood how the winter snow in the forests of the Rocky Mountains acts like a thermal blanket, causing soil microbes to remain warm and so breathe out more carbon dioxide in the winter months.
Less snow cover actually means colder soil temperatures and hence the release of less carbon dioxide.
Nobody least of all the climate scientists, would say we know all there is to know about climate change. And however bleak the outlook, there is still every reason we should take action now to minimise carbon dioxide emissions.
Although we can expect matters to get worse, how much worse they eventually get relies largely on what we as a global community are prepared to do now. That's why we have no time to lose. Steve Connor

Roland Gaia


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The Independent 16Jan,2006 &11 Feb,2006

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