On May 26, Dr. James Lovelock, world-renowned scientist and originator of the Gaia Hypothesis, spoke to a packed Glenn Gould Studio at the CBC in Toronto on the topic of his latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia.
A bucolic Englishman who will celebrate his ninetieth birthday in July, his apocalyptic predictions belie his gentle nature. Corporate Knights hosted him and his wife Sandy in Toronto for a few days in May.
The Gaia Hypothesis proposes that the earth is a single self-regulating organism and should be studied as such. Lovelock posits that humans are “the nervous system” of Gaia—and Gaia’s face as we know it is now vanishing. A tipping point has already been crossed: feedbacks from melted ice caps that formerly reflected solar radiation, and melting permafrost that used to store methane, will dwarf almost anything we can do. According to Lovelock, we have 30 to 40 years until the global average temperature rises by 5 degrees Celsius and locks into place for the next couple hundred thousand years—as happened 55 million years ago. That will degrade much of the world to scrub deserts, causing the human population to plunge to about one billion, depending on how well we adapt to these drastic changes. Pretty scary stuff.
As a student of chemistry at Manchester University, Lovelock saw little urgency amongst his peers regarding the impending war until World War II was full blown. Lovelock likens this to the current disbelief in climate change. “We’re no longer at the Goldilocks point,” says Lovelock; we’re well past the “just right” temperature. He believes the UN climate models lowball the severity of climate change because they aren’t yet able to consider the dynamic relationship between the biosphere and the atmosphere.
Also known for his support of nuclear power, Lovelock says that “in small, crowded countries,” nuclear is an essential low-carbon form of power generation that will be able to fuel climate adaptations such as air conditioning. Lovelock is also a proponent of efficiency improvements, and where it makes sense, geothermal, hydropower, and concentrated solar thermal farms. He is not bullish on wind, seeing it as too niche, intermittent and relying on advances in energy storage not yet seen.
So what can we do? Lovelock, a self-professed optimist despite his predictions, says the first priority is adapting infrastructure to prepare for a hotter climate and, in Canada, the rush of climate refugees that will soon be knocking on our cooler doors. Because of this, Lovelock says Canada is an ideal home for an international centre for climate change adaptation.
While he is not hopeful on humans’ ability to turn back climate change, he admits he could be wrong. So what offers the best prospect of sucking sufficient carbon out of the atmosphere at this point? “Throw everything into biochar,” he advises the head of Royal Dutch Shell. He says the most effective way to bring carbon dioxide levels back to pre-industrial levels is to let the biosphere pump it from the air for us. Turning agricultural wastes into charcoal, a carbon-inert substance that is as stable as gold, and then dropping it to the bottom of the ocean, is the best form of carbon capture and storage, he says.
In the end, Dr. Lovelock believes that it’s hubris to think we can save the planet. “Our main task is to adapt and survive,” he says. “Gaia will save itself.”
While we think it’s good to have an insurance policy, better to also come out of the corner swinging—sometimes David turns Goliath’s tide, even one as big as Gaia faces.