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The Climate Crisis - Fanciful Myth or Clarion Call?

3 July 2006

From the BBC

 James Lovelock and Gaia

James Lovelock and Gaia
Image © Comby Institute

The BBC is to gather expert evidence this week on whether human-induced climate change is truly a crisis for planet Earth, as James Lovelock believes. The originator of the Gaia concept wrote in his recent book "...the fever of global heating is real and deadly". If this is true, then we are already in serious trouble and a crisis has already begun.

The BBC has commissioned a panel of scientists to review Professor Lovelock's evidence and opinions. Panel members include top British experts on the Antarctic, climate modelling, interactions between oceans and atmosphere, and sustainable development. It will meet on Monday and Tuesday, with conclusions and comments reported on Thursday on Radio 4's Today programme and on the BBC News website.

The Revenge of Gaia, published earlier this year, is the latest in a series of books in which James Lovelock has developed the Gaia theory, which takes its name from the goddess of the Earth, or the Earth Mother, in Greek mythology.

The key idea is that the segment of Earth from the bottom of its crust to the top of its atmosphere acts as a self-regulating being, keeping conditions suitable for life.

A subtitle for Gaia theory is "the science of planetary medicine"; and in The Revenge of Gaia, James Lovelock argues that the planetary patient is seriously unwell. "We may truly be in grave danger... few of the present inhabitants of the earth are likely to survive beyond the 21st Century" 

"In January 2004, Sandy [his wife] and I were invited to the Hadley Centre in Exeter [part of the UK Met Office], and that visit made us both aware of the deadly seriousness of the Earth's condition," Professor Lovelock told the BBC News website.

"We discussed the rapid melting of ice floating on the Arctic Ocean, and the way that Greenland's glaciers are vanishing. We talked about global heating in the tropics and the threat to the forests there, and about the response of the great boreal forests of Siberia and Canada to climate change.

"It was a deeply gloomy picture; but for me the gloomiest of all things was the detached, almost academic, air with which the grim predictions were presented - almost as if we were discussing some other planet, not the Earth."

Professor Lovelock intends The Revenge of Gaia to be a "wake-up call" to spread awareness that "the Earth is truly in danger".

In the past, many environmentalists have supported Professor Lovelock's ideas, but his support for nuclear energy has recently alienated some. His rationale is that nuclear power is the only short-term way to provide enough energy to support humanity, without causing more climatic harm.

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But is he right? Are the Earth's regulatory systems in crisis, with temperatures heading inexorably for a higher level, unpleasant and perhaps uncontrollable?

If he is, what should we make of his contention that renewable energy and the traditional concept of sustainable development are misguided?

Is he right to say that nuclear fission is the only way to provide humanity with the energy it needs until technologies such as nuclear fusion and tidal power can be introduced to a substantial extent? Does "a lack of constraint on the growth of population" lie at the root of modern environmental problems?

James Lovelock's genius has perhaps been to bring such threads together into a logical whole.

"He is a superb scientist, an originator of the view of the Earth, including its life, as a complete interacting system and an all-round free thinker," said Professor Brian Hoskins of Reading University who will chair the panel.

"I hope we can explore Jim's views on why the problem of climate change is so serious, and see if we can agree that it should be a clarion call for positive action rather than the bleak view that some have taken from it."

Professor Lovelock is adamant that his book and his thesis is not defeatist, as some observers have suggested.

"Only those lacking imagination would take the book as a counsel for despair," he said.

"I am hoping that... The Revenge of Gaia will be taken seriously, together with the recognition that we may truly be in grave danger and that few of the present inhabitants of the Earth are likely to survive beyond the 21st Century.

"It would be wonderful to have positive and sensible suggestions for civilised adaptation." 

UK's Olive Groves and Tea Plantations 

The BBC panel are meeting in a week of unusually hot weather in the UK and in a fortnight during which the UK's first olive grove and first tea harvest have been reported. 

120 olive trees are now growing in Devon, having been imported by a smallholder with help from an Italian neighbour.

 Jonathan Jones - the UK's first tea farmer

 Jonathan Jones is head gardnerer at
the UK's first commercial tea plantation

Image © Mary Jordan
The Washington Post


t's also the week of the first tea crop harvest in Cornwall, which "has sold for high prices in the London shops". Maize, sunflower and soybeans are also being touted as crops which may be grown in Britain under some future climate change scenarios.

The UK Environment Minister Ian Pearson, who was attending one of Britain's largest agricultural events, the Royal Show, also said he saw a "really significant opportunity" for farmers in energy crops.

Crops such as grains and oilseeds can be grown to produce motor fuels bio-ethanol and bio-diesel which are substitutes for fossil fuels. Biofuels are expected to help reduce the greenhouse gases which have been linked to climate change.

Other crops such as large grasses and coppice willow can be grown to produce electricity and heat.

Pearson, however, said climate change also posed major challenges.

"The significant decrease in cold snaps in Britain, together with an overall warmer climate and wetter winters, increase risks of new pests and diseases," he noted.

Pearson described climate change as the biggest long-term challenge to the human race and said Britain must do more to help tackle it.

"We need to do more as a government domestically. I don't think frankly that we have credibility internationally in arguing that we need to tackle climate change if we can't credibly show we are leading the way domestically, he said.

Pearson noted that Britain was not on course to meet its own target of a 20 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010, noting latest figures indicated a 16.2 percent cut would be achieved.

He said there was a need to reach an international agreement on climate change with key countries such as the United States, China and India.

"Let no one be under any illusion this is a huge task and trying to get international agreement with some of these countries is going to be enormously difficult," Pearson said.

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