James Lovelock should be applauded

James Lovelock, the scientist most famous for the Gaia hypothesis*, once wrote an article published by The Independent and entitled “The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years”. He wrote:

My Gaia theory sees the Earth behaving as if it were alive, and clearly anything alive can enjoy good health, or suffer disease. Gaia has made me a planetary physician and I take my profession seriously, and now I, too, have to bring bad news.

The climate centres around the world, which are the equivalent of the pathology lab of a hospital, have reported the Earth’s physical condition, and the climate specialists see it as seriously ill, and soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years. I have to tell you, as members of the Earth’s family and an intimate part of it, that you and especially civilisation are in grave danger.1

These stark warnings were issued more than twelve years ago, with Lovelock going on in the same article to predict that “as the century progresses, the temperature will rise 8 degrees centigrade in temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics”, the consequences being of such severity that “before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.”

So it comes as comfort, at least to some of us, to hear that Lovelock now views our immediate prospects as somewhat less catastrophic. Especially so, as the reasons he gives for changing his mind are entirely sound and scientifically objective ones. Here is what Lovelock said to Ian Johnston of msnbc in a recent telephone interview:

“The problem is we don’t know what the climate is doing. We thought we knew 20 years ago. That led to some alarmist books – mine included – because it looked clear-cut, but it hasn’t happened.”

“The climate is doing its usual tricks. There’s nothing much really happening yet. We were supposed to be halfway toward a frying world now.”

“The world has not warmed up very much since the millennium. Twelve years is a reasonable time… it (the temperature) has stayed almost constant, whereas it should have been rising – carbon dioxide is rising, no question about that,” he added.

Does this mean Lovelock has become the latest ‘climate denier’? Johnston put the question to him, and Lovelock replied:

“It depends what you mean by a skeptic. I’m not a denier.”2

Click here to read the full msnbc article.

Which is precisely right, and the correct position for any responsible scientist to take when presented with a disparity between their theoretical predictions and the available data. The average global temperature has indeed been more or less stable since over a decade, and this is in flat contradiction to the projections of the climate modellers, as well as to Lovelock’s own previously (in his own words) alarmist forecasts. It is right too, that Lovelock points the finger of blame for much of the hysteria to Al Gore’s staggeringly overrated and misleading documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”.

Unfortunately, the line between what is science and what is speculation can often become blurred in the public mind; a situation made far worse thanks to so much junk reported by scientifically illiterate journalists. So when the public are told that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and that combined with this, the human population is putting more and more ‘carbon’ into the atmosphere, then two and two makes four, right? Well, no actually – the real question being the more subtle one of “climate sensitivity”.

It is acknowledged by all scientists on both sides of the global warming debate that our human emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere couldn’t possibly produce the kinds of apocalypse which Lovelock and others have been predicting, unless, that is, its initial warming effect is then significantly amplified by, most significantly, the more powerful greenhouse gas, water vapour, driven up into the atmosphere thanks to already increased surface temperatures. An increase in water vapour being one of a number of positive feedback loops that acting together might force global temperatures to dangerous levels. So Lovelock then, isn’t suddenly saying that carbon dioxide doesn’t warm the atmosphere, since no-one denies this fact, but that other mechanisms, as yet not fully understood, must be ameliorating its effect up to now. And this is demonstrably the case.

To begin to grasp the real complexities involved in this whole debate about global warming, you need to understand some physics; however, and more importantly, to more simply comprehend why there still is any debate at all, you must understand more deeply what it means to be a scientist.

Science, that great bastion of hard truth, rests precariously upon the unlikely underpinning of skepticism and doubt. These seemingly unsteady foundations are precisely what give it strength. Even established scientific theories, ones that have been tested over and over almost to destruction, nevertheless remain under threat of being uprooted and superceded by some novel alternative, if any turns up that fits the available facts more completely, and, hopefully, more elegantly too.

A few weeks ago there were reports that physicists had measured neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light, which is in direct violation of Einstein’s wonderful Theory of Relativity. These reports weren’t immediately dismissed as impossible. Quite the contrary. Physicists held their breath and waited for confirmation, though it turned out that the announcement had been premature. The measurements were incorrect, not Einstein.

The layman is inclined to think that all physicists must have breathed a long, satisfied sigh of relief. Not at all. Winkling out discrepancies and uncovering strange anomalies is actually what gets physicists and other scientists most excited. Why? Because if it had turned out instead that Einstein was wrong, then his error would automatically open up fresh possibilities. In the ensuing search for a deeper truth, there would have been tremendous prizes waiting for any aspiring physicists to be first to detect, and then account for, whatever it was that Einstein didn’t know and had never imagined. Rewards not merely glittering like Nobel Prizes, but the satisfaction of having sudden understanding that no human being ever had before, not to mention a slim chance of gaining instant immortality; your place in posterity secured next to Einstein himself, Newton, Galileo and the other giants. These are the kinds of dreams all scientists have.

Science became, and remains, the intellectual powerhouse chugging away in the background and quietly driving the progress of our civilisation – without science, there simply would be no world we could call modern. Yet this extraordinary achievement is due to science’s inherently self-correcting and entirely open-ended inquiry into the true nature of our universe. Unlike earlier systems of thought, systems that set artificial limits on what might be discovered, science alone freed itself from the shackles of infallible orthodoxy. Instead, scientists put their faith in scrupulous measurements and observations, unbiased experimentation and reasoned argument based wholly upon empirical facts. If this approach is stifled, then science itself withers away.

In making his latest statements, James Lovelock has redrawn the proper line between where the science ends and the speculation begins, putting theory back in its rightful place, behind, and not ahead, of the empirical data, and it is for this reason that I say he should be applauded. Lovelock has also shown that he is courageous enough to change his mind, and that he has the necessary integrity to sacrifice a little of his own reputation for the sake of truth. One might hope that following Lovelock, the debate about global warming could move on and regain its focus on the scientific facts. However, in contrast to a decade ago, Lovelock’s reappraisal has so far received little attention. This is in part because the debate, and especially the public debate, has been steadily steered in another way too.

You may indeed be wondering why I am still talking about global warming and never use the updated term of “climate change”. The reason is precision. Global temperature is something that is measured, and then directly compared against earlier records. Records go back about a century and a half, but we can also use proxies such as tree-rings and ice-cores to extrapolate the data backwards to much earlier periods. So if the science is done carefully we can make an accurate determination of whether or not the earth is warming, and if so, whether the rate of that warming is exceptional.

“Climate change” on the other hand is not something that is meaningfully quantifiable. It is a vague ad hoc notion that lumps together storms, droughts, floods and every other kind of change in weather patterns you might imagine. For instance, and sticking with the issue of surface temperature, globally that temperature may either rise or fall, and both results are indicative of “climate change”. So only if global temperature were to remain perfectly static – something entirely contrary to what we already know about climate from past measurements – might we begin to talk of “climate stability”. Now read this:

“Scientists believe it’s all a question of balance. As the Earth struggles for climate stability, the weather begins to get extreme and weird.”

This is my own transcription of part of the narrative linking sections in a recent episode of BBC flagship science programme Horizon.3 It was a programme that introduced the public to the latest ‘theory’: not of global warming but “global weirding”.

Now quite aside from the emptiness of meaning in the quoted narrative, it is interesting to note that the language employed here actually owes much to Lovelock and his original Gaia hypothesis. “A question of balance.” “As Earth struggles for climate stability.” The Earth conceived as a single living organism. Lovelock himself doesn’t appear on the programme, and it would be nice to think that he will be keener to avoid any association with concepts as flaky as “global weirding”. After all, he hardly wants to start apologising all over again ten years down the line.

*

* One of the early tests Lovelock ran on his Gaia hypothesis, a computer simulation he called “Daisyworld”, demonstrated how biological feedback mechanisms might actually help to regulate the surface temperature of a planet. Working with Andrew Watson, he and Lovelock together constructed a model for an initially grey world planted with the seeds of just two species, black and white daisies. A world in orbit around an ever brightening sun. They then ran the model to see what would happen. As the sun got hotter, it triggered first the growth of the black daisies, since these are the better absorbers of radiant heat, and which therefore amplified the warming effect, until soon the temperature on the planet was hot enough for white daisies too, and the growth of the more reflective white daisies, had the effect of gradually cancelling out the warming of their black competitors. All of this was expected, but what Lovelock and Watson also discovered is that in this Daisyworld, the surface temperature stabilises once it reaches a level that is comfortable for both species. This was obviously an extremely simplistic model, and so Lovelock later tried simulations with greater numbers of species, such as foxes and rabbits. He then found that his addition of more species had markedly improved the temperature regulation of his virtual world. These results strengthened his conviction that the Earth’s life support system may be similarly regulated by biological feedback mechanisms.

1 From an article entitled “The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years”, written by James Lovelock, published in The Independent on January 16, 2006. http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/james-lovelock-the-earth-is-about-to-catch-a-morbid-fever-that-may-last-as-long-as-100000-years-523161.html

2 From an article entitled “’Gaia’ scientist James Lovelock: I was ‘alarmist’ about climate change”, written by Ian Johnston published by msnbc.com on April 23, 2012. http://worldnews.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/04/23/11144098-gaia-scientist-james-lovelock-i-was-alarmist-about-climate-change

3 Horizon: Global Weirding was first broadcast on BBC2 on March 27, 2012 at 9:00pm. It is scheduled to be repeated on BBC1 on Wednesday May 16, 2012 at 2:15am.

The programme was somewhat of a mish-mash of information and speculation, interesting in parts but incoherent overall, and managing to somehow even incorporate archive footage of the D-Day landing. With dramatic editing together of storms, lightning strikes, and Dutch sewerage systems, the sense of menace was also heightened by use of an unnecessarily distracting and overly portentous soundtrack. As Tom Sutcliffe’s review in the Independent says: “To ease your mind, the producers accompanied the film with an almost unbroken soundtrack of the kind of apocalyptic techno music that science fiction films use to tell you Something Really Bad Is Coming.” http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/last-nights-viewing–the-syndicate-bbc1-horizon-global-weirding-bbc2-7593387.html

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Filed under analysis & opinion, did you see?, global warming

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