Published on 21 Feb 2014

Adapt and survive: James Lovelock’s advice on climate change

Britain has a long and noble tradition of independent thinkers and inventors – but very few ever escape the garden shed.

Fewer still are celebrated in their own lifetime, feted with medals, fellowships and honorary doctorates. And in that way James Lovelock breaks the mould.

Gaia hypothesis

When Lovelock first published his Gaia hypothesis its distinctly new-age title meant it instantly found a home among the early environmental movement of the late 1970s. But few mainstream scientists took it seriously.

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Its central tenet, that life on Earth modifies the biosphere of the planet so that it functions as a self-regulating system suited to supporting life, was seen as a bit deterministic, even fruity, for the scientific mainstream.

But now scientists broadly accept Gaia’s basic message.

Our planet does function a bit like an organism – cycles of water, nitrogen, carbon form a seamless interrelationship between physical and biological processes – sustaining life on Earth.

Lovelock’s original way of describing the planet’s life support systems helped shape current thinking about our climate and man’s influence on it.

Electron capture detector

In 2006 he was awarded the Royal Geological Society’s Wollaston Medal for his work – an honour he shares with Charles Darwin.

But Lovelock’s position as an independent scientist who has never held a full-time academic post is that he could succeed as a doer as well as a thinker.

In the early part of his career he invented the electron capture detector, which found a use as a detector of CFCs in very low concentrations in the atmosphere.

Lovelock’s device was used in some of the earliest work showing these CFC’s were destroying the ozone hole.

This was one of the first pieces of research that showed human activity was having a detrimental effect on our home planet.

Again it paved the way for subsequent thinking about greenhouse gases and climate change.

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5 reader comments

  1. GG says:

    That was a very entertaining interview with a truly great Englishman. Concise, rousing and full of good advice. “Those that have ears, let them listen”. Thanks Tom. Any chance to see the full unedited tape ? :-)

  2. Paul V Cassidy says:

    My Comment:
    “Controversial but essentially he’s favouring the notion of Transition which is to say that in a world of limited options we must work with the best options we’ve got.

    The overarching view must surely be that as an industrial society we must focus on transitioning away from the direct consumption of hydrocarbons to electricity transitioning the grid as we go. But while we focus on going electric we must also attempt to use the grid more efficiently through conservation measures and by augmenting domestic and industrial demand with new technologies.

    My solar panels keep my buffer tank in thew 20-30C during the most of the Winter meaning the pellet boiler has far less work to do so one cannot say they are useless. I will replace that boiler with a CHP (Combined Heat and Power Unit) in time which will generate electricity as well as heat exporting the excess to the grid. In that way I’ll become a net contributor to the grid. But that CHP unit will likely be gas ran – assuming Calor ever get back to me on it. Biogas may be an option into the future but for now I’ll be sucking off the transition pipe – assuming I ever get the funds to get the job done. The point is Lovelock is being overly cynical with regard to the environmental movement and his ringing endorsement of the nuclear industry is surely the advice of a man who’s time is all but done. Many radical ecologists see the contamination of the human food chain as the best way of purging humanity and no better way than through controlled nuclear disasters so I would not trust a man who’s made a God of the planet. Nuclear is there and some advanced nations have to deal with it but its deeply worrying especially in the light of Germany’s decision to go post nuclear.

    But Lovelock is surely right in relation to the pragmatic stance he is adopting, we simply have to get on with the broad process of adapting to a changing world, which is not to advocate buying a parachute while sawing off the branch you’re sitting on. ‘Muddling though’, is really the best we can do but it must be planned and purposeful muddling. We cannot afford to give free reign to industry especially the hydrocarbon industry and Ireland has it’s agri-island status and water resources to consider. So while it remains a complex debate anyone who imagines that we can make the move away from hydrocarbons in one ‘Great leap’, is not dealing with realty.

    We need to prioritize conservation creating dedicated global funds from the carbon and financial services taxes with which to promote carbon sequestration and reduce energy demand across the domestic and industrial sector while poverty proofing the energy descent. We do not want poor households to be faced with negotiating the ‘Heating versus Eating’, dilemma even to the extent of building district heating systems into all local authority housing schemes and rents. Where vulnerable cities are concerned – Cork and Limerick come to mind where Ireland is concerned – flood defenses will have to be considered allied to comprehensive water harvesting schemes aimed to minimizing the impact of deluges.

    A controversial man. We can only hope to last as long and look as well. Pragmatic advice for sure cept on the nuclear end. And while Ireland will not be going nuclear, Britain will likely remain heavily dependent on this Pandora’s box techno fix – not that I ever had the privilege of meeting up with her or her box”.

    @paulvcassidy

  3. eric smith says:

    Thanks to Lovelock for so much independent thinking- we are indebted to him.
    On nuclear-
    Oak Ridge Labs was pursuing thorium reactors and were not supported because they wanted bombs I suspect.
    But they were very confident thorium reachers would work with very safe waste, complete safety, plenty of available thorium (many times that of uranium ) and no weapons grade possible use of the fuels or waste. Outside of some easily solvable liquid salt corrosion issues they should have been an incredibly safe source of massive amounts energy and still could be. Really- look into it, damn near a silver bullet.
    Why this has not been developed utterly baffles me. I suspect we are daft beyond description.

  4. Bob says:

    Adapt and survive?
    Isn’t that the story of life on Earth?

  5. liam says:

    he might have asked him for his views on fukushima.

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