Just occasionally you find yourself at an event where there is a sense of history in the air. So it was the other night at the Royal Society, when a small gathering of luminaries turned up to hear that extraordinary nonagenarian, the scientist James Lovelock.
They had all come: David MacKay, chief scientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change; Michael Green, Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge; Michael Wilson, producer of the James Bond movies; Chris Rapley, director of the Science Museum; and more. You knew why they had answered the Isaac Newton Institute’s invitation. They wanted to learn where one of the most interesting minds in science stood in the climate debate.
Lovelock has been intimately involved in three of the defining environmental controversies of the past 60 years. He invented an instrument that made it possible to detect the presence of toxic pollutants in the fat of Antarctic penguins — at roughly the same time as Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, her hugely influential book about pollution. In the 1970s the same instrument, his electron capture detector, was used to detect the presence of chlorofluorocarbons — CFCs — in the atmosphere. Although Lovelock mistakenly pronounced these chemicals as no conceivable toxic hazard, the scientists F Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina later won the Nobel prize in chemistry for proving they were destroying the ozone layer.
Then, in 1979, Lovelock published the book-length version of his Gaia theory, which postulates that the Earth functions as a kind of super-organism, with millions of species regulating its temperature. Despite initial scepticism from the Darwinists, who refused to believe that individual organisms could act in harmony, the Gaia theory has been widely accepted and now underlies most atmospheric science.
What, I wondered, would be the great man’s view on the latest twists in the atmospheric story — the Climategate emails and the sloppy science revealed in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)? To my surprise, he immediately professed his admiration for the climate-change sceptics.
“I think you have to accept that the sceptics have kept us sane — some of them, anyway,” he said. “They have been a breath of fresh air. They have kept us from regarding the science of climate change as a religion. It had gone too far that way. There is a role for sceptics in science. They shouldn’t be brushed aside. It is clear that the angel side wasn’t without sin.”
As we were ushered in to dinner, I couldn’t help wrestling with the irony that the so-called “prophet of climate change”, whose Gaia theory is regarded in some quarters as a faith in itself, was actively cheering on those who would knock science from its pedestal.
Lovelock places great emphasis on proof. The climate change projections by the Meteorological Office’s Hadley Centre — a key contributor to the IPCC consensus — should be taken seriously, he said. But he is concerned that the projections are relying on computer models based primarily on atmospheric physics, because models of that kind have let us down before. Similar models, for example, failed to detect the hole in the ozone layer; it was eventually found by Joe Farman using a spectrometer.
How, asks Lovelock, can we predict the climate 40 years ahead when there is so much that we don’t know? Surely we should base any assumptions on things we can measure, such as a rise in sea levels. After all, surface temperatures go up and down, but the rise in sea levels reflects both melting ice and thermal expansion. The IPCC, he feels, underestimates the extent to which sea levels are rising.
Do mankind’s emissions matter? Yes, they undoubtedly do.
No one should be complacent about the fact that within the next 20 years we’ll have added nearly a trillion tons of carbon to the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. When a geological accident produced a similar carbon rise 55m years ago, it turned up the heat more than 5C. And now? Well, the effect of man-made carbon is unpredictable. Temperatures might go down at first, rather than up, he warns.
How should we be spending our money to prevent possible disaster? In Britain, says Lovelock, we need sea walls and more nuclear power. Heretical stuff, when you consider the vast amount that Europe plans to spend on wind turbines.
“What would you bet will happen this century?” a mathematician asked him. Lovelock predicted a temperature rise in the middle range of current projections — about 1C-2C — which we could live with. Ah, but hadn’t he also said there was a chance that temperature rises could threaten human civilisation within the lifetime of our grandchildren?
He had. In the end, his message was that we should have more respect for uncertainties and learn to live with possibilities rather than striving for the 95% probabilities that climate scientists have been trying to provide. We don’t know what’s going to happen and we don’t know if we can avert disaster — although we should try. His sage advice: enjoy life while you can.
The Sunday Times, 14 March 2010