James Lovelock On Why Global Warming Has Stalled
The scientist known for his Gaia theory and warnings about climate change is 94 but feels he still has work to do
James Lovelock in the garden of his home in Dorset, ©Rick Pushinsky
[...] In 2007 the influential scientist, inventor and environmentalist spoke of dire and imminent climate change. Warning of a lethal rise in temperatures over the next two decades, he noted that since 1970 sea levels had risen 1.6 times faster than predicted, and stated that worse was to come.
Since then, Lovelock has revised some of his assertions – and aged 94, he has little to worry about personally – but is he concerned about the fate of his pretty 1820s coastguard’s cottage?
“Not one bit. We’re 70 yards from the sea but we’re also more than 50 feet above it, and by 2100, when I’ll be long gone, it won’t have risen – at most, I should think – more than a metre,” he says, though he can’t resist a bit of doom-mongering. “I think we’re more likely to be done by a tsunami caused by a bit dropping off one of the volcanoes on the Canaries.” [...]
Despite the influence his work has had on “green” politics, he has an ambivalent relationship with the environmental movement, and little time for eco-posturing. A quick glance around confirms the house has all the usual electrical appliances; a bottle of Fairy Liquid, rather than any all-natural cleaner, stands at the kitchen sink; and having experimented with a biofuel boiler in the 1970s with disastrous consequences, Lovelock now uses oil to heat his home.
Over the years, he has infuriated many environmentalists with his criticism of renewable energy sources, including wind turbines – a stance that many have interpreted as mischievous provocation – and with his promotion of nuclear power as the cleanest, safest and most efficient alternative to fossil fuels. More recently, he has even voiced his support of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as a short-term option.
“People don’t decide on logic or sense, or even on economics, they decide on fear,” he says. “When you look at the actual records you find that wind turbines have killed far more people than nuclear energy.”
For years, Lovelock has devoted a great deal of energy to highlighting the risks of global warming, or “global heating” as he prefers it. The next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, due to be published in part next month, will have to address the fact that, despite an increase in the use of fossil fuels, and carbon dioxide emissions, temperatures have not risen as rapidly over the past 15 years as in previous decades. So what does Lovelock make of this anomaly?
“I remember back to the IPCC in the 1990s, the ice-core data were coming in very well,” he says. “At that time you could look at the temperatures in Antarctica and the atmospheric concentrations together over about 500,000 years, now you can look at about a million, and it’s extraordinary, there’s a complete one-to-one correlation between temperature and CO2. So they said, ‘Right, well we know the sensitivity now, so we can predict the climate’. The problem is that there’s now all that junk going into the atmosphere from burning fuels so the sensitivity’s no longer what it was.”
Some have suggested an increase in aerosols – particles of smoke, and mist in the earth’s atmosphere that reflect some of the sun’s heat – has affected temperatures. Lovelock agrees and he points to the smoke produced as a result of large-scale coal and forest burning in China and Indonesia, suggesting that the growth of emerging economies could, in fact, be contributing to a short-term cooling effect.
As for the cold winters experienced in the UK in recent years, he sees this as a more local effect. “I think – and a lot of others do too – it’s attributable to the melting of the floating ice up in the north,” he says. “Ice is pure water so when it melts it becomes fresh water not salt water, which is lighter, so it floats on the surface of the sea and drifts downwards [south]. That does two things, it makes the water off western Europe a lot cooler but, much more seriously, it stops the sinkholes that drive the Gulf Stream.”