How to delay the end of the world
JAMES LOVELOCK, who developed the Gaia theory of the earth, has issued an apocalyptic prediction. He claims that global warming is now irreversible and, as a result, more than six billion people will die before the end of the century. He offers one suggestion as to how we might help ourselves, but declares that this mechanism will not be implemented, writes WILLIAM REVILLE
This is mind-numbing stuff. The strong majority scientific position is that human activities have caused, or have strongly contributed to, global warming. My immediate reaction is one of anger. If Lovelock is even within an ass’s roar of being correct, how the hell did we allow this situation to develop – and what are we going to do about it?
The official scientific position holds that Lovelock’s claim is greatly exaggerated. Nevertheless, Lovelock must be taken seriously. He is one of the most eminent scientists of our time. He invented the electron capture detector, which alerted the world to the build-up of CFCs in the atmosphere; he originated and developed Gaia theory; he predicted that there is no life on Mars, based on a brilliant analysis of the Martian atmosphere; and he developed effective methods to freeze cells.
Basically, he now believes that earth’s feedback systems, which maintain our planet’s current moderate conditions, have been pushed beyond their capacities to cope by the stresses of pollution and the destruction of natural habitats. He sees the planet slipping into a new hotter equilibrium, a condition akin to a “fever”, where it may remain for 10,000 years.
Here is how Lovelock sees things developing. Rising temperatures, driven largely by human emissions of greenhouse gases, melt more polar ice, producing more water and bare land. This causes positive feedback, because water and land absorb heat from sunlight whereas ice reflects sunlight, causing more ice to melt. The rising temperature increases rainfall in some places and causes drought in others. Seas rise. The Amazon and the great northern forests die. The permafrost in northern latitudes melts, releasing methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – and so it goes on, and on.
Lovelock predicts that extreme weather and droughts will be common by 2020. The Sahara will be moving into Europe by 2040, Berlin will be as hot as Baghdad and London will face severe flooding. Millions of people will be driven north by food shortages. Epidemics will kill millions. By 2100 earth’s population will be reduced to 500 million from its current level of 6.6 billion and the survivors will mostly live in the far latitudes of Iceland, Canada, Scandinavia and the Arctic Basin.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) doesn’t agree with Lovelock and says we can still control global warming by drastically reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases. Let us fervently hope the IPCC is right. But, so far, we haven’t been taking the IPCC prescriptions seriously and, in Lovelock’s words, quoted in New Scientist , January 2009 (Issue 2693): “Kyoto was 11 years ago. Virtually nothing has been done except endless talk and meetings.”
Lovelock reckons that we have only one last hope of saving ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. Growth of plants removes huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year, incorporating the gas into the plant structure. When residual plant waste material is later broken down by microbes in the soil, this carbon dioxide is returned to the atmosphere. The charcoal solution would prevent this return of carbon dioxide to the air. Farmers would annually take all the agricultural waste, burn it at very low oxygen levels, thereby turning it into non-biodegradable charcoal which they would then plough into the soil. This scheme would need no subsidy and would quickly bring down atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide. Lovelock predicts that the charcoal solution will not be implemented and that we will just continue on with what he calls “useless gigantic scams” such as carbon trading.
We can let Lovelock’s doomsday scenario either numb us into despair or kick-start us into activity. We must have hope. We must re-dedicate ourselves to meet strict emissions targets. We must protect existing forests, plant new forests and protect natural ecosystems. We must add nuclear power to our energy-generation mix. And why not implement the charcoal option? But, in case Lovelock is right, we must also start to prepare to meet the worst, taking measures to mitigate the ill-effects of flooding of coastal areas, and so on. We no longer seem to have a choice. In the words of Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins in the The Shawshank Redemption , as he contemplated, and rejected, the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison: “It comes down to a simple choice – get busy living, or get busy dying.”
William Reville is associate professor of biochemistry and science awareness officer at UCC – http://understandingscience.ucc.iehttp://understandingscience.ucc.ie