Monday, 29 October 2007

We're all doomed

As a complete contrast to the weekend, tonight we went to a talk by James Lovelock at the Royal Society. Free science, I love it! These are government funded and highly egalitarian in that you can't even book tickets but just have to turn up and queue. That's great except for the time when we came to see David Attenborough (he is my god) speak and didn't get in after queueing for an hour in a snowstorm. I got chilblains that night that have never really gone away.

Listening to Lovelock speak you'd think there'll never be snowstorms again. He is one of our most eminent environmental scientists and the originator of the Gaia Hypothesis. This says that the planet and its living inhabitants (its biota) should be viewed on a holistic basis as, effectively, a single living organism which can regulate itself. Just as the human body when exposed to heat sweats, leading to evaporation which cools the skin and blood supply, so when the planet heats up water evaporates (using up heat energy) and forms clouds (reflecting radiation back into space) and raining, cooling the surface. To bring the biota in, just as the human body can sense too much CO2 in the blood via chemoreceptors in the circulatory system and automatically increases the breathing rate to remove it, so when CO2 levels rise in the atmosphere, plants which "breathe" CO2 flourish and multiply, thus using up more and more CO2, and levels in the atmosphere fall. The earth therefore regulates itself and stays relatively constant for atmosphere, temperature etc: "homeostasis".  It is much like Le Chatelier's Principle in chemistry: give one variable in an equilibrium a shove and the system, after swinging a little like a pendulum, will eventually find a steady state to rest in again. Of course this is on a much more geological/evolutionary timescale.

Gaia was initially rejected and is still misunderstood as some kind of mystical, pagan belief system. Blame William Golding who suggested to Lovelock that he name it after the Greek goddess of the earth. There is no conciousness involved in Gaia, or "Earth System Science" as it has come to be known in an attempt to escape the spiritual connotations. The system merely reacts and recalibrates as necessary, whether the outcome be good or bad. Animals and plants on the planet will evolve to best suit their new environment, and they will in turn alter their environment by their behaviour, creating the need to evolve again in a feedback loop.

Unfortunately the subject of Lovelock's talk tonight was that climate change represents an alteration to the ecosystem which is going too fast for the environment to equilibrate fast enough to prevent catastrophe for civilisation. The rate of additional CO2 emissions is such that plants have no chance of growing fast enough to use it all up in time, especially since we have constrained the vegetation's potential to help through extensive farming (because crops just aren't as good at metabolising CO2 as rainforests). Worse still, our nice, balanced negative feedback loop may now have become a rather more terrifying positive feedback loop, where changes become amplified rather than corrected. For example, polar ice caps are melting due to global warming, and where we previously had white areas of ice to reflect back sunlight like a mirror (the earth's "albido"), now we have dark seas which absorb those photons and accelerate the heating process.

He didn't use the word "catastrophe" but he did use "apocalypse". He also referred to us being in a blitzkreig-like war with our planet, which is moving too fast for the current methods (reduction of carbon emissions, sustainable living) to make any difference whatsoever. He says it is just too late and that the IPCC's latest report on climate change is vastly optimistic. His models show polar ice disappearing totally in the next five years, and he estimates that realistically the earth can support only one billion people. The rest of us will die of drought and starvation (heat will cause desertification of vast tracts of Europe and the Americas and so where will we grow our food?) unless drastic action is taken. His suggestions were the stuff of science fiction: mirrors in space to reflect back the heat, ways of turning CO2 and nitrates into food, an as-yet-untested theory of churning up the oceans to absorb more CO2. But who knows if we can do those in time or whether they will work?

Lovelock did say that he doesn't know for sure if this will all happen, because he is a scientist and knows that we can rarely be 100% certain of anything. But his talk and his data were pretty compelling and, as you would imagine, all rather depressing. So where does this leave us? Tempting to just give up on all our green credentials to which society is only just warming (no pun intended), as we are about 200 years late in starting? I think not, because doing something is better than doing nothing, and Lovelock did agree that we need to work on living sustainably in addition to the drastic action needed. But we mustn't be complacent that cutting down on fossil fuel use and recycling a few plastic cups will be enough long-term. And we have to insist that governments take this seriously - granted the UK seems to at least be meeting its Kyoto obligations (again, not enough, but a start) but the USA and Australia are just not taking this anything like seriously enough.

The point being, I suppose, that a large-scale natural disaster because of global warming is highly likely to happen in our own lifetimes, even in the next decade, not just in some wishy-washy future time in the lives of our children and grandchildren. Something needs to be done and what we are doing is just not enough.

A press release on his talk can be found here which explains things in a little more depth.

Also, I am horribly upset that the world's oldest animal, a 400+ year old ocean quahog clam that has been named Ming (after the dynasty not after the ex-leader of the Lib Dems), appears to have been killed in the attempt by scientists in Wales to age it, given the past tense of the article and the dissected shell in the photo.

Sleep well.

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