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James Lovelock

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Coral Reefs, Assisted Evolution and Geo-Engineering

Whenever I get the chance, I go diving. The whole family are divers, right down to the grand-children: it’s one of the pretexts we use to get together. And we all know the coral reefs are dying.

There are still healthy reefs, and even after they have been bleached they can recover – but only until the next time that sea temperatures rise beyond their tolerance range. Half of the world’s coral reefs are already gone, and the destruction continues relentlessly. The northern 750 km of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef were largely killed by heat stress last year. Global warming will kill almost all of the world’s coral reefs by 2050.

Prof. Madeleine van Oppen’s work at the Australian Instititute of Marine Science and the University of Melbourne is therefore good news. Her team is trying to breed hybrid coral animals and algae that can withstand higher temperatures.

“It is a story of hope, rather than saying: ‘It’s all going to die and there’s nothing we can do about it’,” van Oppen said at Oxford University, where her team presented their latest research at a conference last week. People worry about major interventions in the reef life, she concedes, “but it’s too late to leave them alone, given the pace at which we are losing corals…. It is only a matter of time before the next heatwave hits.”

She calls what her team is doing ‘assisted evolution’, but it’s really just a more intense version of the selective breeding that people have been doing with domesticated species for thousands of years. Van Oppen’s team have been cross-breeding corals adapted to cooler waters with other species from warmer regions to create hybrids that can withstand the coming higher temperatures worldwide.

They are also working with the algae that live inside the coral animals and are their major source of food, because it is when the water gets too warm and the corals expel the algae that bleaching occurs. So one team member, Leela Chakravarti, pushed the algae through eighty generations in the lab, selecting the most heat-tolerant in each generation. The final generation can live in water at 31 degrees C.

The next step, obviously, is to transplant these modified coral animals and algae onto living reefs, which will require regulatory approval. That may not be forthcoming right away, because there will naturally be concerns that these ‘evolved’ animals and plants will out-compete the existing reef life.

They are not different species, however, and the one circumstance in which they are likely to out-compete the existing reef-life is precisely during bleaching events, when they are more likely to survive. But that, surely, is the point of the whole exercise, and there are enough parts of the world with damaged reefs that van Oppen’s team will get permission for their experiments sooner or later. Probably sooner.

It is appropriate to deplore the fact that such experiments have become necessary, but that is where we are and it’s foolish to deny it. Even if all the pledges of cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions made in the Paris climate-change agreement of 2015 are kept, and even if the hope that follow-on meetings will bring deeper cuts in emissions is fulfilled, we are heading for ocean temperatures that will kill most or all of the coral reefs eventually.

We are therefore already in the situation, at least with regard to coral reefs, that James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia hypothesis, forecast almost forty years ago: that the human race will wake up one day to find that we have inherited “the permanent lifelong job of planetary maintenance engineer.” The self-regulating natural systems have been knocked out, and it’s up to us to regulate and maintain them.

Nobody would consciously choose such a job. We don’t yet even fully understand the ways that the systems we will have to manage actually work. But the changes we have wrought in the environment are overwhelming the ability of natural systems to maintain themselves in their stable and familiar forms, and so it will be down to us to keep them going.

The word for this, if we are being honest, is ‘geo-engineering’. It’s a very gentle, low-tech kind of geo-engineering, with relatively little chance of major negative side-effects if we get it wrong. We are definitely still on the learner slopes.

The interventions in natural systems will get much bigger, and the penalties for mistakes much more costly, as time goes on. We are probably going to end up trying to regulate the temperature of the entire planet, with megadeaths as the penalty if we fail. But by then there will be no alternative.

Welcome to the future.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 9. (“It is…eventually”)

Planetary Maintenance Engineer

2 February 2007

Planetary Maintenance Engineer

By Gwynne Dyer

Twenty-eight years ago, when we knew very little about the way human activities affect global climate, independent scientist James Lovelock warned that the sheer scale of human activities threatened to destabilise the homoeostatic system that keeps the Earth’s climate within a comfortable range for our kind of life, the system he named “Gaia.” “We shall have to tread carefully,” he said, “to avoid the cybernetic disasters of runaway positive feedback or sustained oscillation.”

Then he said something that has stuck in my mind ever since. If we overwhelm the natural systems that keep the climate stable, Lovelock predicted, then we would “wake up one morning to find that [we] had the permanent lifelong job of planetary maintenance engineer….The ceaseless intricate task of keeping all the global cycles in balance would be ours. Then at last we should be riding that strange contraption, the ‘spaceship Earth’, and whatever tamed and domesticated biosphere remained would indeed be our ‘life support system’.”

I have a nasty feeling that we are almost there. The years have passed, our numbers and our emissions have grown — have almost doubled since 1979, in fact — and the crisis is now upon us. The fourth assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published on Friday, says that global temperature rises of between 2 degrees and 4.5 degrees Celsius (3.6 and 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit) are almost inevitable in the course of this century — but much higher increases of 6 degrees C (10.8 F) or even more cannot be ruled out.

The IPCC reports are produced by some 2,000 of the world’s leading climate scientists, nominated by their various national governments, and they operate by consensus, so any predictions they make are likely to err on the conservative side. And they say the argument is over: “It is highly likely [greater than 95 percent probability] that the warming observed during the past half century cannot be explained without external forcing [i.e. human activity].” Indeed, the sum of solar and volcanic influences on the system ought to be producing global cooling right now, if it were not for the human factor.

It’s already worse than you think, the IPCC reports, because the sulphate particles that pollute the upper atmosphere as a result of human industrial activity are acting as a kind of sunscreen: without them, the average global temperature would already be 0.8 degrees C (1.2 degrees F) higher. And the report goes on to talk about killer heat waves, more and bigger tropical storms, melting glaciers and rising sea levels — but it doesn’t really get into the worst implication of major global heating: mass starvation.

If the global average temperature rises by 4.5 degrees C (8.1 degrees F), shifting rainfall patterns will bring perpetual drought to most of the world’s major breadbaskets (the north Indian plain, the Chinese river valleys, the US Midwest, the Nile watershed), and reduce global food production by 25 to 50 percent. If it goes to 6 degrees C (10.8 degrees F), we lose most of our food production worldwide.

The world’s six and a half billion people currently produce just about enough food to keep everybody alive (although it is so unevenly shared out that some of us don’t stay alive). Any major reduction in food production means mass migrations, war, and mass death. It is getting very serious.

Obviously, the main part of the solution must be to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and stop destabilising the climate, but we are probably not going to be able to get them down far enough, fast enough, to avoid catastrophe. Short-term technological fixes to keep the worst from happening while we work at getting emissions down would be very welcome, and a variety are now on offer. But they are all controversial.

Bring back nuclear power generation on a huge scale, and stop generating electricity by burning fossil fuels. Fill the upper atmosphere with even more sulphate particles (you could just dose jet fuel with one-half percent sulphur) to thicken the sunscreen effect. Scrub carbon out of the air by windmill-like machines that capture and sequester it. Seed clouds over the ocean with atomised sea-water to make them whiter and more reflective. Float a fleet of tiny aluminium balloons in the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight or orbit a giant mirror in space between the Earth and the Sun to do the same job.

The purists hate it, and insist that we can do it all by conserving energy and shifting to non-carbon energy sources. In the long run, of course, they are right, but we must survive the short run if we ever hope to see the long run, and that may well require short-term techno-fixes. Welcome to the job of planetary maintenance engineer.

We won’t like the job a bit, but Lovelock stated our remaining options eloquently twenty-eight years ago. If the consumption of energy continues to increase, he wrote, we face “the final choice of permanent enslavement on the prison hulk of spaceship Earth, or gigadeath to enable the survivors to restore a Gaian world.”

Maybe in a couple of centuries the human race will be able to restore the natural cycles and give up the job again, but it won’t happen in our lifetimes, or our children’s either.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“The IPCC…factor”;and “The world’s…serious”)

NOTE TO TRANSLATORS: Don’t bother converting the temperatures into Fahrenheit.

Lovelock and Warming

26 May 2004

James Lovelock, Nuclear Power and Global Warming

By Gwynne Dyer

“Unless we stop now, we will really doom the lives of our descendants. If we just go on for another 40 or 50 years faffing around, they’ll have no chance at all, it’ll be back to the Stone Age. There’ll be people around still. But civilisation will go.”

James Lovelock, ‘The Independent’, 24 May

When James Lovelock calls for a massive expansion in nuclear power generation to ward off the worst effects of climate change, as he did in a front-page article in ‘The Independent’ this week, you have to pay attention. The future may view him as the most important scientist of the twentieth century, and he is revered by the Green movement, which hates nuclear energy. But now he writes: “Every year that we continue burning carbon makes it worse for our descendants and for civilisation….I am a Green, and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy.”

Lovelock is an independent scientist who grew wealthy by inventing equipment to measure the presence of CFCs, the chemicals used in spray cans and refrigerators that were destroying the ozone layer before they were banned. But his real claim to fame, on a par with Darwin’s and Galileo’s, was his insight that the Earth is a living system.

He often regrets having named that system ‘Gaia’ (after the Greek goddess of the Earth), because the Green movement and various New Agers started using it as a beautiful metaphor, and delayed its acceptance as a valid scientific observation for several decades. But it is finally being accepted by the scientific community worldwide (with a name change to Earth System Science to placate the guardians of academic orthodoxy): last December the scientific journal ‘Nature’ gave Lovelock two pages to summarise recent developments in the field.

Lovelock has always been worried about radical climate change, because the essence of the Gaia hypothesis is that the current composition of the Earth’s air and seas — the global temperature regime, the salinity of the oceans, even the proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere — has been shaped over the eons by the activity of living things. Our planet would be radically different, he argues, if living things did not actively maintain the status quo that is so hospitable to life.

The concept of Gaia is no more mystical than the notion that triple-canopy tropical jungles create a local micro-climate under their leafy ceiling. The emerging ‘earth system science’ just studies the hugely more complex system of biological interactions and feedbacks, involving millions of species, that has evolved over several billion years to optimise conditions on Earth for living things. But this system that can lurch into massive change if some major input (like the proportion of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) is changed.

Recent evidence, including last summer’s unprecedented heat wave in Europe and new data on the speed that the Greenland ice-cap is melting, has persuaded Lovelock that global warming is now moving far faster than most studies anticipated, and will have calamitous effects on key support systems of human civilisation like food production in decades rather than centuries. He doesn’t believe that current efforts to reduce the output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases through the Kyoto accord (which has still to be ratified, in any case) and the encouragement of power generation by wind, wave and solar power can possibly cut carbon emissions enough in time.

“I think we should think of ourselves as a bit like we were in 1938,” he said. (He’s 84, so he remembers.) “There was a war looming, and everybody knew it, but nobody really knew what the hell to do about it.” The Kyoto protocol, he said, is “the perfect analogy for the Munich agreement,” because it would solve nothing: the cuts it mandates in greenhouse gases are tiny, while it lets politicians look like they are doing something.” And the Greens’ attachment to renewable energy is “well-intentioned, but misguided, like the left’s attachment to disarmament in 1938.”

So the man who was among the first to warn of climate change says that there should be a massive expansion of nuclear power, which produces hardly any carbon, to deal with the inevitable growth of demand for power without toppling the world into climate change so abrupt and extreme that it would cause a massive human die-off. The problems of radioactive waste and the danger of nuclear accidents are minuscule by comparison, and there is no third alternative.

Only France and Japan among the developed countries get most of their electrical power from nuclear energy. No new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States or Britain for over twenty years: the ‘fear factor’ linked to the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl killed the market dead. But those were local disasters that caused limited local damage, not massive and irreversible changes for the worse in the whole planetary environment, and with better design and more attention to safety they might have been avoided.

Would we be on the brink of massive climate change now if the nuclear power industry had continued to replace fossil-fuel-burning plants at the rate we expected in the late 1950s and early 1960s? Almost certainly not. We’d have a much smaller problem, and more time to deal with it. James Lovelock has done us all a favour: this debate is long overdue.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“The concept…changed”; and “I think…1938”)