We should perhaps sit up and pay attention to the (now) 90 -year-old author, James Ephraim Lovelock, an independent, underestimated voice in science. Author of "The Gaia Theory" and "The Revenge of Gaia," Lovelock was engaged in the 1960s by NASA to find ways to detect life on Mars. He realized that life would influence the atmosphere and designed the first instrument to detect CFCs and their destructive presence in the atmosphere. Thinking about the reason why Mars is so barren and Earth so fruitful, he arrived at the Gaia Hypothesis.
In brief the Hypothesis stated that the Earth is not merely a rock in a "goldilocks" position that happens to have things living on it: it is an intricate interacting system of soil, sea, atmosphere and living things that shows a tendency to keep itself stable in a way that supports life, in spite of the temperature fluctuation of the sun and the constant wobble of the earth on its axis. Lovelock calls this system Gaia after the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth and persists in referring to Gaia as a person who acts with intent, but it is simply a metaphor for the Earth's self-regulating system.
In summary, lovelock states bluntly: `we are now so abusing the Earth that it may move back to the hot state it was in 55 m years ago and most of us and our descendants will die.' We may have less than a century left before the Earth becomes inhospitable to human life.
He reminds us how huge the effects of what seem like minor temperature shifts are: only 3 degrees separates us from the last ice age; the same scale of increase now seems likely this century: very rapid change indeed in geological time.
The tipping point factors of climate change are by now well-known:
1. The poles melt and less heat from the sun is reflected: this seems to be happening now.
2. The bogs thaw and methane is released (a far worse greenhouse gas than CO2)
3. The seas warm and the algae (cyanobacteria) stop fixing carbon and making clouds
4. The forests bake and catch fire
5. Methane clathrates are released from the deep sea bed
What makes Lovelock distinctive is his Gaian perspective. He argues that:
1. A `cold' planet' is healthier than a `hot' one. If the Earth was 5 degrees cooler than now (as it has often been), there would be glaciers down to the English Channel. But the Atlantic would be teeming and Africa would be green with foliage.
2. We are mistaken to think that the Earth is in a Goldilocks orbit. It started out too cold for life. The sun is slowly warming and now the Earth is becoming too hot. So Gaia keeps tilting to coldness. There have been 11 recent ice-ages in the British Isles. We are in the `fever' of a warm interglacial and would normally be heading to the `cure' of the ice-age.
3. But man has disrupted the balance, not just by burning fossil fuel but also by replacing forest with farm. Gaia will do what it must to restore the balance.
4. The underlying problem is that the sustainable human population is probably under 1 billion. Today it is 6 billion, forecast to be 11 billion by 2050.
Lovelock's solution: - Go nuclear.
His argument for nuclear power is simple: all the other solutions produce lots of CO2 or don't work well and/or take too long (new approaches such as carbon sequestration take 20-40 years to mature):
1. Nuclear power is tried, tested and economical and produces very little CO2
2. Wind power is unreliable and costly. It would take 56000 large wind-mills plus fossil fuel back-up just to replace current nuclear capacity (20% of our total needs)
3. Solar is poor for the UK: unreliable and 3x more expensive than conventional methods
4. Wave power apart from a Severn barrage is too expensive.
He believes that popular misconceptions of cancer risk impede our movement towards nuclear. (It's arguably worse than that: the UK government has ducked the issue for over a decade. Only recently, under the threat that we may have to depend on a hostile Russia for gas, has the UK government moved). Even if we were to make this radical shift immediately, it is doubtful that it would save humanity in the long run. It is likely that we have upset the delicate maintenance system of the Earth to such a degree that it cannot be restored. Not a cheerful outlook, but on the bright side, we will probably not see Gaia's grisly finale in our own lifetimes!