Fracking is great, the green movement is a religion, his dire predictions about climate change were nonsense – and robots don’t mind the heat, so what does it matter? At 97, the creator of Gaia theory is as mischievous and subversive as ever.
[…] Sometimes described as a futurist, James Lovelock has been Britain’s leading independent scientist for more than 50 years. His Gaia hypothesis, which contends that the earth is a single, self-regulating organism, is now accepted as the founding principle of most climate science, and his invention of a device to detect CFCs helped identify the hole in the ozone layer. A defiant generalist in an era of increasingly specialised study, and a mischievous provocateur, Lovelock is regarded by many as a scientific genius.
Eight years after our previous encounter, he appears to have aged not one bit. At 97, he’s conceived a beautifully illustrated book of essays described as a “tool kit for the future”, The Earth and I, and written the introduction and conclusion; he goes walking every day, his hearing is perfect, his focus forensic and his memory unimpaired. “Yes, why not? I’m writing a fiction book at the moment. It’s tremendous fun, you know.” He applies his holistic philosophy of science to his own health. “I’m a firm believer that if you don’t use it, you lose it – and if you do a lot of walking, and if you use your muscles quite a bit, your brain seems to work as well. You’ve got to look at the whole system, not just bits of it.”
What has changed dramatically, however, is his position on climate change. He now says: “Anyone who tries to predict more than five to 10 years is a bit of an idiot, because so many things can change unexpectedly.” But isn’t that exactly what he did last time we met? “I know,” he grins teasingly. “But I’ve grown up a bit since then.”
Lovelock now believes that “CO2 is going up, but nowhere near as fast as they thought it would. The computer models just weren’t reliable. In fact,” he goes on breezily, “I’m not sure the whole thing isn’t crazy, this climate change. You’ve only got to look at Singapore. It’s two-and-a-half times higher than the worst-case scenario for climate change, and it’s one of the most desirable cities in the world to live in.”
There are various possible explanations for his change of heart. One is that Lovelock is right, and the models on which his former predictions were based were fatally flawed. Another is that his iconoclastic sensibility made revision irresistible. An incorrigible subversive, Lovelock was warning the world about climate change for decades before it began to pay attention, and just when the scientific consensus began to call for intervention to prevent it, he decided we were already too late. But there is a third explanation for why he has shifted his position again, and nowadays feels “laid back about climate change”. All things being equal – “and it’s only got to take one sizable volcano to erupt and all the models, everything else, is right off the board” – he expects that before the consequences of global warming can impact on us significantly, something else will have made our world unrecognisable, and threaten the human race.