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James Lovelock’s Gloomy Vision

Filed under: — david @ 13 February 2006

James Lovelock, renegade Earth scientist and creator of the Gaia hypothesis, has written a gloomy new book called “Revenge of Gaia”, in which he argues that we should be stashing survival manuals, printed on good old-fashioned paper, in the Arctic where the last few breeding pairs of humans will likely be found after a coming climate catastrophe. The book is not published in the U.S. yet, but it is available from Lovelock has never been one to shrink from a bold vision. What is it he sees now?

Gaia In the first biogeochemistry class I took, I was assigned to read the first few chapters of Lovelock’s 1978 book, “Gaia: A new look at life on earth”. Since then, I have assigned those same chapters to every biogeochemistry class I have ever taught. Lovelock wrote very eloquently about the eerie stability of the earth system. The sun has been warming throughout its lifetime, and yet the climate of the earth has remained stable between the relatively narrow range of the boiling and freezing points of water. This observation was labeled the “faint young sun” paradox by Carl Sagan [1972], and now has at least a partial explanation in terms of the weathering of silicate rocks, the silicate weathering thermostat [Walker et al., 1981]. Lovelock also points out that the oxygen concentration of the atmosphere has been remarkably stable over the half-billion years since multicellular life appeared in the fossil record, never high enough to explode (doubled atmospheric oxygen would lead to unstoppable continent-scale forest fires), nor low enough to wipe out the animals. Nitrogen, Lovelock points out, ought thermodynamically to exist as nitrate dissolved in the oceans; the reason that most of Earth’s nitrogen exists as nitrogen gas in the atmosphere is because of life.

Lovelock’s bold leap was to envision life on Earth as a single unified organism, capable of regulating the environment on Earth for its own well-being, analogous to the way that you or I regulate the temperature and chemistry of our bodies. A weak version of the Gaia hypothesis would state that the geochemistry of the biosphere is regulated by negative feedback mechanisms, many of which include the effects of life on Earth as integral components. This statement is no longer controversial among Earth scientists. A stronger version of the Gaia hypothesis might conclude, as Lovelock did, that methane is produced by bacteria because Gaia requires a flux of hydrogen to the stratosphere and hence to space, as a long-term balance of her oxidation state. A new idea in “Revenge of Gaia” is that we animals dispose of excess nitrogen in a bioavailable form as urine, rather than saving water and energy by exhaling it as the biologically less available nitrogen gas, because Gaia prefers for us to keep the nitrogen available for plants.

The strong Gaia hypothesis raises issues of altruism and cooperation among different components of Earth’s biota. I personally don’t understand how a Gaian biota would be stable, in the face of competition between organisms. If an organism spent metabolic energy for the common good, would it not be out-competed by another more selfish organism? The evolution of Gaia is another difficulty. Darwinian evolution is essentially a process of trial and error. Evolving a Gaia leaves very little room for error.

The closest I ever came to believing the strong Gaia hypothesis was during a talk I heard by Lynn Margulis, coauthor with Lovelock on the first Gaia paper in the scientific literature [Lovelock and Margulis, 1974]. Margulis’ claim to fame is that she championed the idea that organelles in eukaryotic cells might have originated as symbiotic relationships between multiple cells sharing the same external cell walls. This idea was ridiculed but is now settled as being probably correct. In her talk, she said something like, “The more we look, the more we see symbiosis in life. Gaia is simply symbiosis as seen from space”. For an instant there, I saw the vision.

Gloom So what does visionary Lovelock see now? There is no specific, mechanistic scenario for the downfall of civilized man, but rather a gut feeling of approaching catastrophe. Lovelock’s foreboding arises in part from his impression that Gaia is healthiest in the glacial climate state, such as Earth was in 20,000 years ago. The interglacial climate states, such as we inhabit now, he describes as fevers that Gaia must overcome. The origin of this seemingly peculiar perspective is twofold. First, the sun has been warming over geologic time, so the challenge facing Gaia at present is to stay cool. The glacial Gaia is more in control of this challenge than is the interglacial Gaia, so the glacial Gaia must have been the healthier. Second, the CO2 concentration was lower in the glacial atmosphere, which Lovelock interprets as a product of a healthier, more robust biosphere. (I feel compelled to point out here that the carbon isotopic composition of the deep ocean tells us that there was less organic and biosphere carbon during glacial time than there is now. Plants must have struggled to grow in the lower-CO2 atmosphere. It’s not clear to me how the glacial biota was happier than today. Forgive me, I’m small minded, I nitpick.)

Lovelock argues that a cooler land surface retains water better; a warm land surface is either desert or it could be rain forest, which has learned tricks to recycle water efficiently but is very fragile and would collapse with any further warming. A cool surface ocean is biologically productive, while a warm surface ocean is nutrient-limited and therefore a biological desert. Lovelock argues that a robust thriving biosphere is essential for Gaian regulation. (Small-minded me again. The regulation of CO2 by silicate weathering, alluded to above, in theory doesn’t really require trees or life as a central component. The terrestrial biosphere apparently is taking up carbon from the atmosphere, but the real heavy-hitting mechanisms for regulating CO2 on the long term involve dissolution of rocks, chemical reactions that can be influenced by life but do not really require it. A stronger case can be made for life as a necessary part of atmospheric O2 regulation, but it would take millions of years to change O2, so we are not really concerned about asphyxiating in the next century. The critical process is burial of organic matter in ocean sediments, however, not some process associated with forests on land. Despite what you may have read, the rain forests are not actually the lungs of the planet.)

The argument for approaching doom is made by analogy. (Again I feel compelled to editorialize. Argument by analogy is a powerful rhetorical tool, at which Lovelock is a master. Reasoning by analogy however is not a reliable divining rod for scientific discovery. “As above, so below” was a central tenet of the alchemists. We don’t do that anymore.) The analogy is to the failure of natural regulation of a human body, requiring artificial intervention. If the kidneys fail, a doctor has to take over regulation of blood chemistry using dialysis. If the pancreas fails, the patient requires manual regulation of sugar metabolism by insulin injection. It is generally bad news when the doctor tells you that your body’s natural regulation mechanisms are failing, because artificial, technological fixes are typically not as reliable as the natural ones. There is no doubt that mankind is taking over the reins of global geochemical balance. Industrial production of fixed nitrogen for fertilizer now matches the natural rate of nitrogen fixation on the planet. Rates of fossil-fuel CO2 emission dwarf the natural rate of CO2 release in volcanic gases. Lovelock’s conclusion, by analogy, is that the biosphere of the Earth will soon be beset by all manner of unanticipated complications.

This does not seem to me an unreasonable conclusion, I must admit. Consider Biosphere II. This was a sealed greenhouse in the Arizona desert, an attempt to create a managed, self-contained biosphere. A very humbling effort it turned out to be, all in all. Biological control proved to be completely out of reach. Several species of birds were introduced into the system, based on rational design of ecological balance, and all of them went extinct. The only birds that flourished in BII were a local species that invaded the structure while it was under construction that they never managed to eradicate. Ants and cockroaches became so abundant in BII that the biospherians took to sucking them up into vacuum cleaners and feeding them to their domesticated chickens. Geochemically, the oxygen concentration plummeted and nitrous oxide rose, until the structure became uninhabitable.

At this point in the book, about half-way through, Lovelock diverts from the question of our impending doom into various other, much smaller issues like whether nitrates in food are really bad for you. It felt surreal, like the serving staff on the Titanic arguing about whether a time card had been properly punched or not. Lovelock uses this material to make the point that people worry about all the wrong stuff. OK, that’s a legitimate point, but I was left wishing for some discussion of what shape the catastrophe might take.

Based on the experiences of the Biospherians, I would imagine that the wildest instabilities might be biological. We can cope with bacteria, at least better than humankind could back in the days of the Black Death in Europe, but bacteria are adept at evolving defenses to our chemical weapons, and viruses are much more difficult to attack. A new plague would spread globally, much faster than it did in the middle ages. A biological collapse might be attributable to human overpopulation, or monoculture agriculture, perhaps more so than to climate change.

Geochemically, I could imagine the chemistry of the atmosphere shifting to a new equilibrium, in which (say) carbon monoxide could suddenly rise up to harmful levels. The oxidation chemistry of the atmosphere has been altered in all different directions by human emissions of organic compounds, nitrogen compounds, and methane. No one understands why the lifetime of methane in the atmosphere is as stable as it appears to been over the past decades. Surprises could lurk here.

Methane hydrates seem dangerous, because there is so much methane. If all of the hydrates were to melt within a few years, we would have a methane spike in the atmosphere that would be catastrophic, because methane is such a powerful greenhouse gas. But it seems more likely that the hydrates would melt slowly, over centuries and millennia. If that is the case, the climate impact might be comparable to fossil fuel CO2 combustion. It could double the human climate impact, but probably not make it 10 times worse or anything like that.

Physically, there have been abrupt climate changes in the past, which we are just beginning to figure out. Transitions between stable climate states may be sudden. Some transitions are driven by sharp changes in physical properties of substances like water. There is a sharp boundary between a stable and a runaway greenhouse effect, because of the sharp phase boundary between water vapor and liquid. Abrupt climate changes in the glacial North Atlantic may have been amplified by freezing of sea ice. Dynamical systems may also change states quickly. Ocean circulation seems to have multiple configurations, also apparently generating abrupt glacial North Atlantic climate changes. The dynamical balance in hurricanes on earth is between latent heat and wind friction with the ground, but if the pressure dropped low enough, ground friction fails as a regulator and a new beast, called a “hypercane”, could arise [Emanuel et al., 1995]. No one is suggesting that hypercanes will arise on Earth, but this is an example of a sharp transition in a dynamical system. It would be extremely difficult to forecast abrupt climate changes such as this for the future.

The Earth has existed in hot-house configuration before, and contrary to Lovelock’s vision, I don’t know of anything intrinsic to the hot-house Earth which would preclude human life. The transition from present-day climate to a radically new climate could be catastrophic from the point of view of human civilization however, especially given that Earth is loaded with so many people already. Past climate transitions often drove extinctions and eventually new speciation. Past societies, such as the Classic Mayans, apparently vanished from the face of the earth, leaving behind mute relics of past social structure. These societal collapses were regional, often triggered by regional climate changes. The world today is globalized to an extent that was never a factor in the past, and climate is poised to change in a global way such as civilized humanity has not before witnessed.

We should be very clear. No one, not Lovelock or anyone else, has proposed a specific, quantitative scenario for a climate-driven, all out, blow the doors off, civilization ending catastrophe. Mr. Lovelock has a feeling in his gut that something terrible is going to happen. He could be right, but for what it’s worth, there aren’t any models that explode as catastrophically as this. We can never say that it’s impossible that something might fall out of balance, something we haven’t thought of. But I think in general the consensus gut feeling among small-minded working scientists like me is that the odds of such a catastrophe are low.

Low odds of catastrophe does not imply negligible. Nordhaus [2001] considered the possibility of catastrophe in his analysis of the economics of climate change. He defined catastrophe as comparable to the Great Depression, a 25% decrease in global economic activity that lasts for a long time. The probability of such an event he estimated by polling the gut instincts of a group of climate scientists; for what it’s worth, they came up with probabilities of a few percent. Economically, Nordhaus found that this possibility imposed the largest cost of adapting to climate change, greater than the costs of sea level rise, potential change in storminess, and so on. My own belief is that economics is a flawed tool for managing global climate, because it neglects issues of fairness, and reduces the value of the natural world to units of money. The point is that, within this framework, a small possibility of a large catastrophe looms large as a practical issue.

Emanuel, K.A., K. Speer, R. Rotunno, R. Srivastava, and M. Molina, Hypercanes: A possible link in global extinction scenarios, J. Geophysical Res., 100 (D7), 13755-13765, 1995.
Lovelock, J.E., and L. Margulis, Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: the gaia hypothesis, Tellus, 26, 2-9, 1974.
Nordhaus, W.D., Climate change – Global warming economics, Science, 294 (5545), 1283-1284, 2001.
Sagan, C., and G. Mullen, Earth and Mars: Evolution of atmospheres and surface temperatures, Science, 177, 52-56, 1972.
Walker, J.C.G., P.B. Hays, and J.F. Kasting, A negative feedback mechanism for the long-term stabilization of Earth’s surface temperature, J. Geophys. Res., 86, 9776-9782, 1981.

125 Responses to “James Lovelock’s Gloomy Vision”

  1. 1
    Pat Neuman says:

    … “but for what it’s worth, there aren’t any models that explode as catastrophically as this.”

    If true, then there aren’t any models of the Permian/Triassic boundary. More to current, I’m curious about the status of stratospheric ozone.

    [Response:Good point, but if you clobber a model with a huge enough rock from space or some massive degassing from the Earth, it can blow up as severely as you like. It's not clear whether the P/T was caused by an impact or by something else. I meant to say that no models explode given anthropogenic CO2 forcing. As for ozone, I believe it's recovering, slowly, in response to the Montreal Protocol banning freons. David]

  2. 2
    Stephen Balbach says:

    A recent study I read about in New Scientist found that statistically, experts are not very good at predicting the future in their own field of knowledge. Essentially a forest for the trees problem, knowing too much the imagination can pick a path that would not be obvious or likely to most other people, and is usually wrong.

    In addition it should be noted that Lovelock is approaching the twilight years of his life and this will certainly color his outlook on life.

  3. 3
    Hank Roberts says:

    Biosphere II got screwed up because, in a hurry to close the structure, someone decided to skip the design step where they would go get mineral soil and create proper soil profiles, supporting a layer of topsoil and duff.

    They filled the damned thing with topsoil, and closed it up. Topsoil all the way down.

    Once they described what they’d done, given the fact that they were way over planned CO2 level in the internal atmosphere, a little thinking about what “dirt” is explained the mistake.

    The toposil, buried way below normal depth, mostly died — half of topsoil is critter shit, I remember learning somewhere long ago, and much of the rest is critters and fungi. Buried too deep, it died, exhaled CO2, way above the amount that would have come from a properly created soil profile — which would have been mostly mineral soil or clay or rock, below the top few inches.

    I remember a discussion on “The Well” some years back that included people coming in on telecom from inside the Biosphere II, in which this got talked about a few weeks before they announced it; I visited the place years later — that explanation was part of the standard public tour talk, given as the explanation of why the project didn’t succeed as planned.

    Control there wasn’t what was completely out of reach. Following the plan and understanding why the papers said do it that way, was out of reach for someone at the wrong time. Design, maybe OK, we won’t know because the execution was fouled up beyond hope of recovery.

    Lovelock does have a big mistake in his past — remember he is the inventor of the electron capture detector device that let people detect trace amounts, very tiny levels, of not just chlorofluorocarbons but also DDT and DDE in eggshells. His work is what got the first worries discovered about eggshell thinning, the disappearance of the pelicans from California, and many other bird issues. That is the basis from which Rachel Carson the information to write “Silent Spring.”

    But Lovelock announced confidently, quite early on, that while these CFCs were certainly everywhere, they couldn’t possibly be present in a quantity sufficient to harm the biosphere. He thought of them, at first, as handy tracers for circulation.

    Fortunately, he’d gotten other scientists interested in the stuff; they got the Nobel.

    Once you’ve been wrong that badly — whether you’re talking about the Biosphere II management, or Lovelock decades earlier about CFCs — you might want to err in the opposite direction next time a big question gets asked.

    I’m just sayin’.

  4. 4
    PeterW says:

    If we’re to talk about a world environmental catastrophe, shouldn’t we acknowledge that climate change, while a very important piece of the puzzle, is only one piece?

    For example coral reefs are dying around the world, in part probably because of warmer and more acidic oceans, but there are other man made problems that are contributing. What happens when they disappear? Fish stocks around the world are also plummeting. This probably has more to do with the strip mining of the oceans than climate change. When the only edible food coming out of the ocean is jellyfish, do we have a catastrophe?

    And what about the birds and animals that depend on the ocean, what happens then? For example; what happens when wild salmon disappear from rivers around the world? Would this be a catastrophe?

    What about biodiversity? Foreign species from around the globe are setting up shop in new areas and causing the extinction of local species. At what point does this become a catastrophe? Is this made worse by climate change stress?

    The rapid increase in mountain glacier melt seems to be surprising scientists. How many river systems are dependent on these mountain glaciers? What happens when the glaciers of the Himalayas disappear? India for one is already drilling deeper and deeper to retrieve ground water. What happens when the rivers are disrupted? How much rice is grown on rivers dependent on these glaciers? Do 3 billion people starve, especially with an already degraded environment?

    What about the forests, they are under assault by the humans, by insects and also by climate change. If we have a major loss in forests is this a catastrophe?

    When you dismiss catastrophe as a small risk, are you really thinking about all the ramifications of climate change and other environmental problems that the earth currently faces. My gut feeling tells me that a major die off is quite possible. Are you being a bit too myopic?

  5. 5
    Stuart Blaber says:

    I believe it was David Suzuki who said (not an exact quote):
    “The whole of mankind is in a car driving at ever increasing speed towards a brick wall, and we are busy arguing over who is going to drive”

  6. 6
    Tim Jones says:

    “My gut feeling tells me that a major die off is quite possible.” Comment by PeterW.

    A major dieoff is already happening. It’s called the Sixth Extinction. Global warming can only add to the catastrophe for many species through sea level rise and shifts northward and upward of available habitat until temperate zone conditions disappear. Many vegetative species cannot migrate fast enough to cope with changing conditions in a world sliced and diced by humanity. Another result of warming seems to be seen in the disappearance of plankton – the base of the marine food web. Another is the disappearance of mountain glaciers – the source
    of rivers in many parts of the world.
    As for “die off” – it’s already a website. The effects of post peak oil fuel scarsity and global warming will precipitate economic hardship and population attenuation like nothing mankind has seen before. Lovelock isn’t wrong. The planet is in for a correction.

  7. 7

    It’s interesting to see that reading Lovelock for the first time had a similar effect on the author to what it had on me. I thought “Wow, this is really exciting!”, and was a bit disappointed to find that he was regarded as something of an “enfant terrible” by respected scientists.

    Today, I suppose climate scientists are pretty much the “planetary doctors” he wrote that he wanted, trying to figure out how we can keep our planet healthy in an experience-based way.

    It’s reassuring that his words of impending disaster find little support by the “doctors”. However, there are other worrying things in the Worldwatch reports, to put it like that. Although climate modeling integrates an impressive variety of disciplines, we don’t know very much about how the economy will cope, how people will behave, or even such practical questions as how much oil we’ve got left. There’s plenty of room for disaster still, unfortunately, so the bad gut feeling of someone like Lovelock shouldn’t just be dismissed.

    And you didn’t. Thank you for taking my old hero seriously.

  8. 8
    phototropism says:

    Totally agree with Stuart quoting David Suzuki.

    Yes it is true that James Lovelock has been wrong in the past, he is the first one to admit it. This fact though does not undermine what many see as one of the most original thinkers of the 20th Century.

    Although a trained biologist I am not a scientist, it seems to me that a braver attitude about the interpretation of the current data available will be needed to communicate effectively what is happening.

    If scientists seem to disagree, the public perception of the severity of the changes suffers.

    In this very site there are vast amounts of scientific evidence concluding how humans are systematically destroying every single life supporting system involved in the highly complex global homeostatic mechanism of keeping the planet cool and fit for life. It is now too foolish to try to deny such evidence.

    Even if we want to believe the most conservative of the scenarios of the IPCC , let us see what the new 2007 report bring us, the world is going to become a very different place within the next decades, and very hot too!

    Politicians, under the overwhelming influence of the industrialists lobbies and the business-as-usual attitude driven by short term goals of GDP and growth won’t find the courage needed to put in place a set of actions to stop the now out of control emission of green house gases, the spread of the agri-business, etc.

    Just when the planet is getting hotter, the very organisms that help to regulate the amounts of Co2, plants and photosynthetic algae are getting scarcer. It is not all about silicate wheathering it seems.

    Here in Europe there is a grownig resentment against the USA. I think that it is too late to get angry with the American administration because their negative to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. As many have argued, see, their attitude may not be as arrogant and selfish as many want us to think. The Kyoto Protocol was a very naïf and good-hearted start in a world where the hard scientific evidence that now is freely available; to anyone had yet to be produced.

    Ratifying the Kyoto protocol without involving developing countries is a no-starter, besides, reaching the Kyoto targets wonâ??t be enough to counter-balance the process that we already have started.

    The data is there, we need more brave original thinkers like Lovelock to interpret it!!

    Norwich, UK.

  9. 9

    Just to pick up on one of your ‘nitpicks’ – I don’t see why the idea that CO2 regulation in the longterm is primarily by geochemical / weathering processes is really relevant. If the anthropogenic rise in CO2 has been fairly short term (last 200 years) then any weathering process isn’t likely to have much chance to deal with it, so any regulation has to be via biological processes.

    [Response:Point taken. David]

    From what you’ve said, some of Lovelocks ideas may be rather extreme, but there is certainly something going very very wrong. I think he’s basically trying to put the frighteners on, and make people realise there’s a problem. The other message that comes through in his book is that it is important to question the received wisdom, something many environmentalists and greens are very poor at.

    Thanks for this site – its extremely useful to have something which an educated layperson can understand without having to wade through academic papers.

  10. 10
    Matt says:

    The reason we want to damp out the glacial cycle is to reach a point of minimum potential energy, and that point is right dab in the center of the cycle. So, you do not need too much chemistry to figure that out.

    How do we get there? Trigger the greenhouse, this gets us over the hump. On the way down we start releasing carbon back into the atmosphere, sort of damp out the carbon driven oscillation. If we do not damp in time, then we hit the bottom of the cycle, then start sequestering carbon on the way back up.

    The problem with this, is that we are a carbon based species, evolved under the glacial cycle, and we may be constitutional incapable of working against the carbon cycle.

    What is our problem today? We are sitting on a time bomb. Over the ages, mankind has put some 1 trillion tons of carbon under his management, and this readily available fuel, taken out of the natural cycle, has forstalled the ice age for thousands of years by preventing green house gas build up. Now, after all these thousands of years, with 1 trillion tons of fuel under management, in the hottest, parchest time on record, with the glacial just determined to oxidize carbon; we have created a global bomb.

    We let things go to far. We should have gone greenhouse some one thousand years ago.

  11. 11
    kyangadac says:

    “We should have gone greenhouse one thousand years ago” LOL

    In the context of catastrophe or not. Consider that reproductive work is cyclical in time(whereas production is linear). Moreover, reproductive work is time compulsory, “the baby needs feeding now”. As well, as Mary O’Brien pointed out, reproductive work is necessarily social(as opposed to be socially necessary).

    We need water every day, food every week, and air every minute. We are dependent on other people for all these things. Sydney, escaped having a serious water crisis last year because the drought of the last 7 years broke enough to fill the reservoirs half full. All climate models suggest that temperate mainland Australia will be drier. How long will the next drought/dry spell last? Sydney ordered desalination plants but these have been put on hold because of protest over their environmental impact, there now looking for deep ground water to mine. Why does this remind me of peak oil?

    The point is – biological systems have quite strict constraints. More importantly, humans possess weapons of mass destruction that will inevitably be used if humanity is incapable of co-operating over this oncoming crisis.

    Sceptics on the catastrophe front are refered to “The Sheep Look Up” by John Brunner(1972?) still be far the most accurate prophecy around.

  12. 12
    Hank Roberts says:

    I should add — you do understand this, but you’ve started your book review off with that “single organism” nonsense as though it were an accurate description of the man’s work, and buried the clarification. Just irks me to see it yet again, and from someone who says he’s a teacher.

    [Response:"We believe that these properties of the terrestrial atmosphere are evidence for homeostasis on a planetary scale" Margulis and Lovelock, Icarus, 1974. "My Gaia theory sees the Earth behaving as if it were alive" Lovelock, The Independent, Jan 22 2006. David]

  13. 13
    Hank Roberts says:

    Oh, one error in the first post worth emphasizing, David wrote:
    > Lovelock’s bold leap was to envision life on Earth as a single unified organism …

    This one sentence is wrong in so many ways, few words are left correct.

    No leap, no vision, no single, no unified, no organism.

    He was looking for signs of life on Mars, the original task he took on for NASA, and realized — as the inventor of the device used — that could be done by analyzing the atmosphere.

    He applied the same logic to looking at Earth.

    I suspect you’ve missed one or two other important points in your review above, and that you’d do well to actually read some of Lovelock’s peer reviewed publications and patents.

    Oh, yes, “renegade” — there’s another one.

  14. 14
    Camden Lady says:

    Real Climate review of ‘Revenge of Gaia’
    For a far more scientific take on James Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia than my own reviews, pop over to Real Climate and take a look.  This site is excellent for explanations of climate science which are understandable by the lay reader with an inte…

  15. 15
    Karen Street says:

    OK, I’m confused.

    James Hansen and others are saying that we have a good chance of creating a world as different from today as was the world of the ice age. Climatologists’ gut feelings are that we will not suffer a major economic downturn (we, or the Bengalis?)

    It seems that if we are going to be spending loads of money moving infrastructure over a period of centuries, desalinating water, and so on, that there would be an effect on the economy.

    Please help!

    [Response:Extreme climate events such as droughts must be devastating to the local economies, so devastating that it's not even how you describe them anymore. Sure, I do think that climate change can have an effect on the economy. My own gut feeling is not so carefree as you represent it. David]

  16. 16
    Ian says:

    Mankind seems to almost have an inherent need to prophesies and repent for an upcoming apocalypse of one sort or another. If people really want something to worry about, worry about viruses. We don’t have to look very far into the past to see that this can be a very real threat. I am not prophesizing it however, I am just pointing out that in terms of threats to mankind viruses rank as a higher probability and with higher impact than almost anything else. For example the avian flu has a 100% mortality rate among chickens (50% among humans). There are something like 13 billion birds in China for this virus to evolve amongst. The flu virus is messy and fragile and mutates extremely easily. A virus that emerges from this that spreads from human to human with say a mortality rate of say 10% would be absolutely devastating. And if such a virus were to occur it would all be over in a couple of years.

  17. 17
    Lars Marius Garshol says:

    “The strong Gaia hypothesis raises issues of altruism and cooperation among different components of Earth’s biota.”

    To me it sounds indistinguishable from Aristotle’s teleogical model for the explanation of physical processes, which has been discredited for centuries. The real problem seems to be that the strong Gaia hypothesis is not a scientific theory, since no specific mechanism for these processes is suggested. Until a mechanism is identified it’s all just a nice “vision,” as you put it.

  18. 18
  19. 19
    Hank Roberts says:

    You state exactly the confusion I’m referring to: confusing “acts like” and “acts as if” with “is.”

    Let’s not argue about what the meaning of “is” is (wry grin).

    Lovelock states the exact problem with those words in a recent speech:

    “… near the end of the 1960s ..William Golding… suggested the name Gaia….

    “[after the first statement of the hypothesis] .. with the biologist Lynn Margulis … We restated the hypothesis as â��â��The Earthâ��s atmosphere is regulated by life on the surface so that the probability of growth of the entire biosphere is maximized.â��â��

    “I now realize that both statements were misleading. Worse, enthusiasts of the idea began to speak of the Earth as a living organism â�� not as we said, â��â��The Earth behaves like a living organism.â��â��

    The point of looking at living systems as changing climate is robust.

    A couple of quite recent examples:
    “Palaeocene/Eocene thermal maximum … The aftermath of this rapid, intense and global warming event may be the best example in the geological record of the response of the Earth to high atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and high temperatures … an intensified flux of organic carbon from the ocean surface to the deep ocean and its subsequent burial through biogeochemical feedback mechanisms.”

    See also: Schmitz, B., 2000. Plankton cooled a greenhouse. Nature, v. 407 14 September 2000, p. 143-144.

    Enough from me on this. I just wanted to make the point that understanding what the man is actually saying and has been — all along — makes it easier to take him seriously. He, like Rachel Carson, was the target of a lot of skepticism well funded by interests his discovery was putting at economic risk. Science does that.

  20. 20
    pete best says:

    Revenge of Gaia is a highly emotive term and not very scientific by the looks of it. Needless to say that as any system is “pushed” (the Bisosphere of earth being such a system) then any sufficiently complex system (again the Biosphere is such a system)) will begin to exhibit behaviour (weather) that is potenitally very different from what we get now. Tipping Point and Abrupt have been mentioned and appear to allude to the fact that points of no return and flipping of the climate can possibly take place due to a forcing of the system away from equilibrium towards potenital scientific stochastic behaviour. No one knows at the present time what will happen but rest assured if we use up our 44 years of Oil and 60 years of Gas and 200 years of coal in the appropriate time then we are more likelly to experience sudden and dramatic climate change.

  21. 21
    William says:

    If Gaia is happiest in a glacial state, why are they punctuated by D-O events? I thought Gaia aimed for stability?

  22. 22
    Tony Noerpel says:

    Hi Dave: I’d like to cast my vote with Peter W (#4) and Tim Jones (#6), the catastrophe is already occurring. As a comedian once said we humans are the most self-important species there is.

    Just a sampling:


    [Blaustein] Blaustein and Dobson, â??Extinctions: A Message From The Frogsâ?? Nature 439, 143-144, 12 January 2006

    Bees and betterflies:

    [Giles] Giles, Nature News, â??Transgenic crops take another knock, Shift in weed species hits bees and butterflies, Published online: 21 March 2005.

    More amphibians:

    [Pound] Pound et al., â??Widespread amphibian extinctions from epidemic disease driven by global warming,â?? Nature 439, 161-167 (12 January 2006)


    [Schmittner] A. Schmittner “Decline of the marine ecosystem caused by a reduction in the Atlantic overturning circulationâ??, Nature 434, 628-633 (31 March 2005)

    More Pollinators:

    [Vamosi] Vamosi, Knight, Steets, Mazer, Burd and Ashman, â??Pollination decays in biodiversity hotspotsâ??, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, January 24 2006, vol. 103, no. 4, 956-961

    Just about everybody else:

    [Thomas] Thomas et al., â??Extinction risk from climate changeâ??, Nature 427, 145-148 (8 January 2004)

    Us humans cannot survive without pollinators, forests, coral reefs, ocean fish, amphibians and phytoplankton. And Ken Deffeyes now says we are past peak oil. And I know we can’t survive without the prize, which actually makes for two very real, very now catastrophes.

    Just my gut but I think we’ve past several tipping points.

  23. 23
    Pat Neuman says:

    re: response to 1. [... I meant to say that no models explode given anthropogenic CO2 forcing. As for ozone, I believe it's recovering, slowly, in response to the Montreal Protocol banning freons. David]

    So, there are no models that explode like Lovelock’s gut. Maybe the reason they don’t is that the modelers are only running them out a century or two. What happens when you run the models out 10K? It seems that maybe Lovelock’s gut is on a longer time scale than the modeler’s scenarios. Did Lovelock say when the approaching catastrophe
    will become a catastrophe?

    [Response:On timescales of tens of thousands of years, the released CO2 will be absorbed by dissolving rocks, so that's a good thing. The clathrates and peats could release carbon, which would mostly affect climate as it accumulates as CO2. That could maybe double the climate impact from the human CO2, according to my model (for what that's worth). ]

    Several climate stations in KY and TN show Jul-Aug warming trends for avg daily minimum temperatures. I’m on the side of approaching catastrophe.

    I hope you’re right about ozone. The stratosphere is getting colder with global warming of the troposphere, right? A colder stratosphere results in more ozone depletion, right? It’s a good thing freons were banned, but is having done that enough?

    [Response:There is some coupling like that, yes; I don't remember in which direction it goes or how strong it is. Look, I'm not trying to poo-poo Lovelock's gut. I would never do that. It was a very disquieting read. ]

  24. 24
    Ike Solem says:

    Lovelock is worth listening to , but of course his ideas go back to people like Vernandsky and Winogradsky, who proposed concepts of nutrient cycling and showed how microorganisms can play dominant roles in these cycles (denitrification returns aqueous nitrate to nitrogen gas in the atmosphere, as described above). The robust nature of microorganisms means that even if a massive meteorite strike or volcanic event acidified the oceans, or if ocean anoxia set in, there would still be vast microbial activity in the oceans. Eventually, the oxygen-based photosynthetic system would recover (based on the fact that it always has.)

    It is interesting that atmosphere and ocean scientists were reportedly most interested in Gaia, while geologists tended to be much less forgiving, with biologists having a variety of viewpoints. At worst, Gaia was considered teleological (religious?), particularly among evolutionary biologists who saw no selective evolutionary ‘forces’ that could affect global-scale phenomena. Atmospheric scientists on the other hand were happy that they had reasonable explanations for the mysterious composition of our atmosphere.

    Today many once separate disciplines have been lumped together in the ‘Earth System Sciences’, which is a way of recognizing the many tight linkages between the hydrosphere, the biosphere, the geosphere and the atmosphere. These are all very complex systems and it seems that the ‘stong Gaian hypothesis’ is not accepted widely, but rather the view is that living systems can ‘buffer’ physical and chemical forces in many ways (as can non-living systems and effects). Perhaps the theory needs a new name; I would humbly propose “Pele Theory” after the somewhat destructive Hawaiian goddess of volcanos. Or would that be another deplorable example of how science and religion should remain as friends, not lovers?

    The danger to human society posed by global warming is far greater then the danger to life on Earth, which has survived far worse. If we reduce the total productivity of the biosphere within a hundred years when we already rely on 40% of that productivity, not including the one-time extraction of fossilized hydrocarbons, then it is hard to imagine the kind of life we can expect to live. An erratic climate, higher sea levels – all mean a reduction in food production for an ever-growing human population. A collapse into pre-industrial agrarian lifestyle, with even reduced ability to support large populations, etc., seems possible. Extinction rates would skyrocket as humans struggled to survive on any arable land they could find.

    Still, it seems that the technologies and knowledge exist to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels and the world could endure a limited amount of climate change (which it will have to anyway, apparently). The problem is the need to build trillions of dollars worth of renewable energy infrastructure (including new kinds of electrical grids, with power plants dedicated to storing and releasing intermittent energy feeds), while voluntarily halting use of fossil and nuclear fuels. Sustainable agriculture concepts will then be critical to growing food and other materials.

    The stumbling blocks seem to be economic and political – which is certainly better then fundamental physical barriers to change. I suspect that if the Earth had only inherited a third or so of its actual fossil resources, we would already be running everything with solar, wind, and water power, as well as with biofuels like ethanol, biodiesel and hydrogen.

    Analysis of the economic and political situation is a tedious and unpleasant business for scientists who would rather work on renewable energy or climate science, and who are interested in seeing some positive change. So, try doing this yourself. Go to yahoo finance and find out who the major institutional holders are in fossil fuels (ExxonMobile, ChevronTexaco, etc.) and do the same for major media companies (TimeWarner, Viacom, etc.). Notice that the same investment banks are majority shareholders in these businesses. Now, ask why these investment banks are not investing in renewable energy technologies? My guess is that renewables are going to turn out to be far less profitable then fossil fuels, just on basic physical considerations. Investors in oil and energy have come to enjoy very high rates of return on their investments, and they are loathe to give that up. But then, this is all economics and politics, and I really haven’t a clue.

  25. 25
    Hank Roberts says:

    1, 19
    Anyone at NASA with primary sources? What I find is old but discouraging; there was also something in the latest AGU Abstracts (I emailed to the hosts here, the appropriate topic is closed)– that one saying even contemporary appearance of recovery may be due to a solar cycle, not an improvement locally).

    Below is from 2000, NASA (Google cache, can’t find an original) “… estimates that it will be several decades before an increase in the amount of total overhead ozone (called “total column ozone”) will be detectable.”

  26. 26
    Arthur Smith says:

    Lovelock had a short article summarizing his book in “The Independent” a few weeks ago; I think the main issue with his analysis is that he assumes we won’t respond on a scale sufficient to meet the challenge. Maybe he’s right on that – but there are at least some signs the US is finally starting to turn around on climate change…

  27. 27
    Almuth Ernsting says:

    I have read most of the book and must say that I am not surprised that he fears billions of people could die – when I look at summaries of the IPCC reports and the Millenium Report next to each other and also at scenarios for the loss of snow-fed river water once glaciers dry up, I, too, find it hard to see how the world would be likely to support at least two billion more people by 2050.

    What I cannot quite see is where Lovelock gets his optimism from that the Earth will stabilise after rapid warming to match the PETM and eventually recover its former health. He says that temperatures could rise as much as they did during the PETM, even though we have done a lot more harm to the planet’s regulatory systems and to the bisosphere than global warming did on its own 55 million years ago, but that there will be a stable system with life at the end of it. At least that sounds hopeful, although it would be nice to know which mechanisms he believes will stabilise the system eventually.

    There is one thing, however, which Lovelock keeps stressing but which I have not yet read about elsewhere: He emphasises that the sun is now considerably stronger than it was in the geological past. Obviously, the sun would have been much fainter billions of years ago, however he states that it is measurably stronger now than it was 55 million years ago. Is it generally accepted that the sun gets continuously warmer over those periods, or could it fluctuate and not matter too much unless you look hundreds of millions of years back? If so, does it mean that a similar carbon release to the PETM or even to the Permian extinction event would therefore lead to higher temperatures now, ie that equivalent CO2 concentrations in the past would have meant lower temperatures than now? This would make for an even bleaker forecast than one that only compares us to the very, very distant past – and it makes it even harder to understand how Lovelock thinks the earth could stabilise itself even in a worst-case scenario! Is he right (as regards the sun), or are other scientists less certain about this?

    [Response:I believe it warms steadily, from 25% lower intensity 4.5 billion years ago, so 55 myr is maybe 1% lower. That means it would have taken a higher CO2 concentration to keep the temperature warm. The silicate thermostat is what the process is called. Turn down the sun, the earth gets colder, weathering rates slow down, volcanic CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere until it warms back up). I think the science about the sun warming is pretty settled. Gravitational collapse as hydrogen converts to helium. ]

    Almuth Ernsting

  28. 28
    Thomas Palm says:

    There really are three steps here: climate change drives a change in economics that drive a change in politics. If you want disaster scenarios it’s the last term you should look at even if they are outside the scope of this blog. One possibility is that climate change will force large migrations, and that these migrations will lead to war, possibly involving WMD:s. (If you need a new country for your population any weapon that can depopulate another country is useful, and they are equally useful to get rid of massive floods of refugees).

    Another possibility is that people will be so scared/disgusted with technology that we will see luddites become a dominating force. Unfortunately it’s impossible to sustain the current population without technology so that too will lead to a massive dieoff. We shouldn’t assume that people will react to climate change in the most rational way, and this may seriously reduce the amount of change our civilization can handle.

  29. 29
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Thanks for the “Revenge of Gaia” preview. I do like the holistic approach Lovelock takes, considering everything (to the best of his knowledge) — and how things are pretty much interrelated. GW is only one among many environmental (& other) problems harming us, but it’s got to rank there near the top. The social sciences also talk of the “superorganic” – human sociocultural system that is sort of analogous to an organism in some ways — societies can get “sick” (probably our situation today). And, of course, the human sociocultural-psychological system is also a part of “Gaia.” But if humans are like an incipient brain, then we must be asleep at the wheel.

    “Catastrophe” is a matter of definition, like genocide. What is genocide – the murder of 1 million? Certainly. What about 10,000? Or, 1,000? Isn’t 100 people a lot, as well, esp. if you knew all of them.

    If WHO estimates 160,000 per year are dying from GW now, is that eco-genocide? Shouldn’t we do a cumulative count – like the 6 or 10 million during the whole of the holocaust? And what about the others dying from all our other environmental harms — sometimes from the same actions – like buring fossil fuels, causing GW, local pollution, acid rain, etc.

    Assuming the numbers of deaths from GW per year will increase, how many would have died from GW by 2100? 2200? Would it be eco-genocide? And since some GHGs have long life-times, and the warming we’re causing now may trigger positive feedbacks & spiralling warming, then we may be causing this genocide right now…

    I think we don’t even need catastrophes beyond a slow marching, mid-projection warming to label our actions (GHG emissions) as eco-genocide. Beyond that, the higher-end disasters of GW amount to…super-genocide? I’m trying to think of a word. There isn’t one. This is a first in human history.

  30. 30
    Dano says:

    RE #23:

    An acquaintance of mine attended a conference in late 2003-early 2004, put on and hosted by the US government for disaster-preparedness officials, sharing the military’s scenarios for just what you describe. The scenarios were generally Lovelockian.

    If the demographers are correct, the planet will have 3B more humans on it in 2050, and these mouths will require ~3.8M sq mi [1B ha] of land for food. Certainly Lomborgian entreaties to pay attention to these things are important, but climate is a component of our current agriculture and that needs to be paid attention to as well.



  31. 31
    John L. McCormick says:

    Dano, you usually cut to the chase and climate is THE essential component of our current and future agriculture. Lester Brown and few others track the world’s grain surplus and report their alarm to a public hardly aware of the source of their lettuce and strawberries.

    The Ogallala aquifer is already heavily mined and diminished snow pack in the Northern Plains this winter spells hardship for wheat farmers this coming season and perhaps further mining of the aquifer in seasons to come. Can anyone assure the ethanol and biodiesel advocates there will be adequate crop yield to feed our autos and beef/poultry industries to feed a growing population of +/- 3 billion people in the next two generations?

    Tipping points are best defined after they occur. The receding Arctic ice cap is measurable and given likely temperature amplification in the arctic and sub arctic (a recent topic of this web page) there is evidence we haven’t begun to feel the real impact of the abrupt climate change being documented by satellite images. Adapting to climate change impacts on US and world agricultural productivity is reaching a critical moment. Augmenting water resources for irrigation will take time and billions of dollars and international cooperation on scales that far exceed mitigation agreements.

    John McCormick

  32. 32
    Chuck says:

    Regarding #1 on the status of stratospheric ozone and the various chlorinated and bromiated hydrocarbons that contribute to the destruction of stratospheric ozone over Antarctica during the austral spring, I consider the most up-to-date source of information to be NOAA’s Climate Modeling and Diagnostics Laboratory (now merged into the Earth Systems Research Laboratory). The lab’s annual reports provide a detailed discussion on measured trends in these gases (CFCs, HCFCs, Halons, etc). The chapter about ozone in the most recent report can be found at

    My quick read indicates that the total amount of “ozone depleting chlorine-equivalent compounds” in the atmosphere did peak in the last few years and has started to decline, with most of the decline so far attributed to reductions in the bromine-containing compounds (halons and especially methyl bromide). The original “Freons” — CFC-11 and CFC-12 — have just recently started to decline very slowly, but their replacements (in equipment such as auto airconditioners and refrigerators)– HCFC-22, HCFC-141b, HCFC-142b and HFC-134a are increasing at likely a fast enough rate to counterbalance those other declines. I remember hearing a presentation by the NOAA-CMDL lab director a few years ago which suggested that a noticable reduction in the size of the Antarctic stratospheric ozone hole would likely take another 75 years to emerge from the year-to-year noise, all other things being equal. WHY the methyl bromide concentrations have decreased so dramatically since 1999 is not entirely clear. Perhaps it will be discussed at this year’s ESRL annual review, scheduled for 26-27 April at their headquarters in Boulder, Colorado (USA).

  33. 33
    Hank Roberts says:

    Thank you Chuck.

    Here’s one off the wall, courtesy of too much free time and an available browser this afternoon. It’s an alternative yet also dismal future.

    Anyone have anything on this? I can’t find any mention of it but this one web page I’m quoting from here:


    “Recently the astronomer Khabibullo Abdusamatov of the Pulkovo Astronomic Observatory in St. Petersburg declared that the Earth will experience a “mini Ice Age” in the middle of this century, caused by low solar activity. Temperatures will begin falling six or seven years from now, when global warming caused by increased solar activity in the 20th century reaches its peak. The coldest period will occur 15 to 20 years after a major solar output decline between 2035 and 2045, Abdusamatov said. This view is shared by the Belgian astronomer, Dirk Callebaut, who expects a “grand minimum” in the middle of this century, just like the Maunder Minimum (1650-1700), a period during which the Thames, the Seine and the Dutch canals were frozen in winter.”

    The writer of the above: “Hans Labohm, co-author of Man-Made Global Warming: Unravelling a Dogma, recently became an expert reviewer for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

    I’m going to see if the groundhog has a spare room …

  34. 34
    John Monro says:


    Thanks so much for your comments about James Lovelock’s “Revenge of Gaia”. I did e-mail Real Climate at the time of “The Independent” article, suggesting this as a topic of disussion. I haven’t yet read the book, but will certainly do so. I am also glad you mention Lynn Margulis, who should have a lot more recognition for her contribution to Lovelock’s work. What intrigued me particularly was how James Lovelock’s theories stood with “ordinary” climate scientists, and what they made of his “holistic” approach to the Earth’s goeostasis. ( I don’t know if there is such a word as geostasis, but I am using it as a corollary of the human’s homeostatic systems). What I was particularly hoping to read that despite James Lovelock being an 89 year old scientific eccentric, that he was going to be taken seriously, as his credentials dictate, and I am so pleased to see this. I suspect that James would know that he doesn’t have long in this world, and that he has a particular obligation, in view of the obvious major concerns he has about human interference in the worlds geostatic systems, to make a final and fearful warning, like a Jeremiah, I suppose. However, I have to say, in the deafening silence of the media here in NZ in regard to his dire predictions, he might as well have farted in the breeze.

    Along with many of the people posting here, and I know Real Climate is trying so hard to keep to he science of the matter and we probably shouldn’t be posting here, I see an increasing agreement that there is something fundamentally and seriously wrong happening with humanity’s relationship to the planet which sustains us. From Jared Diamond and Ronald Wright, James Lovelock, The Union of Concerned Scientists, Sir David King, Colin Campbell (of “peak oil”), biologists, ecologists, climatologists like you, astronomers, Nobel Prize winners, the Club of Rome, James Hansen, and countless others, we can understand that there is fast approaching a concatenation of environmental circumstances related to overpopulation, oil and other mineral depletion, desertification, global warming, loss of species and habitat, deforestation, etc., that will, whether we like it or not, revolutionise our society worldwide. Whether this revolution will be an opportunity or a catastrophe is entirely up to us.

    Was it George Bush senior who said “The American way of life is not negotiable”?. But most of the developed and developing world now lives “an American way of life” and he was talking about politics, international disputes, economics. But he didn’t mention nature. Whilst, of course, he was talking nonsense in any case, when we think whether nature is going to negotiate our way of life, then he was talking lunacy. There is no negotiation with nature, nature will always win on its own terms, whether we understand or like them or not.

    Real Climate’s self-professed job is to present the science of anthropogenic climate change in an intellectually and factually consistent way, using reliable data to inform, to point out the limits of this data, to prognosticate, but not to predict or politicise. But the problem isn’t just climate change, though that in itself is bad enough, it’s that concatentation of problems I and others have mentioned. It is in other forums, especially the political one, where those who are most concerned are going to have to act, as their conscience dictates.

    In the meantime, Real Climate, thanks so much for the work you do. Your site is one of my most frequently visited, and whilst you don’t yourselves wish to get involved in politics, the fact is that the information you supply is so vital and urgent, it will be used by others who do wish to change the world, for the better. It will continue to be an invaluable part of their argument and their armament.

  35. 35
    daCascadian says:

    So much good stuff & so little time !

    I have two notes to leave (I`ll restrict myself to them; lots more to comment on tho)

    1) Glacial Gaia

    There is some evidence that the cycle of glaciation has some connection to changes in the orbital dynamics of the earth, primarily the wobble of the rotational axis over a period of ~100Kyrs; we shouldn`t ignore this when dealing with cycles on these time scales

    2) Biosphere II

    As Hank Roberts (#3) notes, the Biospherians rushed to close & thereby “sealed” the fate of their experiment. I will note that one of the MAJOR reasons for their “problems” was that they failed to cure the concrete before they brought in the soil etc.

    Curing concrete requires HUGE amounts of oxygen and their recorded drops in oxygen levels closely match, I have been told, the amount of oxygen that would be absorbed by the concrete as it cured (which it continued to do, of course, after they “sealed”).

    Too bad the experiemnt won`t be rerun under more “adult” conditions !

    Thanks everyone

    “The only barrier to a successfully sustainable planet is ignorance.” – R. Buckminster Fuller

  36. 36
    S Molnar says:

    Re # 4: “The rapid increase in mountain glacier melt seems to be surprising scientists.” As a layman, I get the impression that global climate change is proceeding pretty much as climatologists expect, but various local and regional effects (glacier melt, permafrost melt, arctic ice melt, etc.) are still a surprise, at least in terms of speed and intensity. My question for the panel is: Is this a fair description of the reality of the situation? And if so, is it primarily due to (a) the fact that global temperature change is easier to predict than localized byproducts, (b) the statistical fact that if a lot of things change some of them are likely to be outliers, (c) psychological effects (i.e., “I know I predicted it, but it’s still surprising when I actually see it”), (d) all of the above, (e) none of the above, or what? If it’s only a result of sensational journalism, well, then, never mind.

    [Response:The ozone hole was a surprise, and there are inexplicable events documented in the past, abrupt and huge changes that we can't explain. But so far, my impression is that climate change is proceeding pretty much according to predictions. David]

  37. 37
    John L. McCormick says:

    In case anyone is curious about the academic training of the aforementioned recently appointed expert reviewer for the UN IPCC, I offer the following biography.

    From the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Web page, Hans Labohm’s credentials:
    Advisor to the Executive Board
    Hans H.J. Labohm was born in 1941. He studied Economics and Economic History at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. After military service, he joined the Ministry of Defence and was posted at the Dutch Permanent Representation to NATO, Brussels. In 1971, he entered the Dutch Diplomatic Service and was posted at the Dutch Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1974, he returned to the Netherlands, where he held various functions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague. From 1978, he was Deputy Head of the Policy Planning Staff, being responsible for, among other things, long-term in-depth analysis and speech-writing. From 1987-1992 he was Deputy Permanent Representative of The Netherlands to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), and Standing Member of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD in Paris, France. In September 1992, he became Senior Visiting Research Fellow and Advisor to the Board at the Dutch Institute of International Relations, Clingendael, The Hague. Over the years, he has published many books, articles and papers, mainly in Dutch, but also in English, German and French, on a wide range of issues, primarily in the field of international economics and politics. He frequently gives lectures to (foreign) students at universities and other educational institutions in the Netherlands and abroad. He also conducts special seminars and workshops for business audiences.
    He is a regular contributor to various Dutch quality newspapers, such as Het Financieele Dagblad, NRC Handelsblad and De Volkskrant. Moreover, he is a regular commentator on radio and tv. He also publishes frequently on internet.

    John McCormick

  38. 38
    Hank Roberts says:

    Thank you John. If anyone knows more about his report of a Russian prediction that the sun will begin cooling off in the next few years, please, make a thread for it.

  39. 39
    daCascadian says:

    Hank Roberts (38)>”…If anyone knows more about his report of a Russian prediction that the sun will begin cooling off in the next few years…”

    here is what I found through a short Google search :

    “Today, I was able to find the book “Multi-Wavelength Investigations of Solar Activity: Proceedings of the 223th [i.e. rd] Symposium of the International Astronomical Union Held in Saint Petersburg, Russia June 14-19, 2004,” edited by Alexander V. Stepanov, Elena E. Benevolenskaya and Alexander G Kosovichev. Pages 541-542 had the article “About the long-term coordinated variations of the activity, radius, total irradiance of the Sun and the Earthâ��s climate” by Habibullo I. Abdussamatov,1 Pulkovo Observatory, Saint Petersburg, Russia…”

    scroll down to February 10th here for several entries w/quite a bit of commentary

    “Proof depends on who you are. We’re looking for a preponderance of evidence, and some people need more of a preponderance than other people.” – John Kantner

  40. 40
    Pete Best says:

    I personally am unsure regarding the GAIA hypothosis as it seems to be suggesting that in some way the earth is “alive” as opposed to there being life on earth that is intrinsically linked to the planet thus appearing that the earth is “alive”. Our understanding of holistic/complex systems is limited at the present time as reductionist science has been our forte in the main. The climate and its effects on life due to it being purturbed by deforestation, destruction of habitat and fossil fuel burning is unknown at the present time, however I agree with most commentators that it is unlikely to be good and few peoples if any are likely to benefit.

  41. 41
    Lawrence McLean says:

    Relating to 38 and 39, the following link: have all of the Solar flux graphs from 1954. I cannot see any correlation between solar flux and warm years, for example 1998 was hot, however the solar flux shown in the graphs was low, as were previous years (1997..96…). In any case a general global dimming has been measured due to pollution. I suspect a spoiler at work trying to create confusion regarding global warming.

    If anything, I feel that the official figures for warming seem to be so small? From my own observations and that of people I speak with, the warming seems to be much more than the published figures. For example, I own a property just south of Canberra (Australia). To the east of my property is a hill called Mount Campbell (1180 meters), the original owners of the land have said that before 20 years ago the Hill was snow covered for much of the winter. Now however, you are lucky to see snow on it for half a day per winter. This is exactly the same sort of thing I hear from many locals. For example Nimmitabel (150 km south) hardly gets any snow, when it used to be common. The Bridabella snow line seems to be going up about 100 meters a year!
    Is the raw data being massaged to severely, that is, removing high data? The maximum temperatures seems to be now occuring later in the day, often after the “offical” maximum temperature time (15:00 est). We do not seem to get Cold fronts moving through here any more, we just get these wimpy throughs, as thay are called. There was a time we did not need air-conditioning in Canberra! We at least used to get relief from the summer heat at night, not any more!

  42. 42
    Chris Reed says:

    Hank Roberts And Dacascadian “…If anyone knows more about his report of a Russian prediction that the sun will begin cooling off in the next few years…”

    Ditto that, I can’t find anything substantive, given the take of TCSDaily I am immediately in ‘this is trash’ mode as my former scepticism about GW was based on such trash.

    The nearest I can find to something substantive is Rob’s summary on the UNSpace Blog: “To summarize the paper, Dr. Abdussamatov is stating: The “main cause of climate change” is change in the solar output. (p 541) The solar output varies with cycles of 11, 80, and 200 years. (p. 541) The current global warming is due to a recent increase in solar output. (pp. 541, 542) The current global warming is normal. (pp. 541, 542)”

    And finally we get to the meat of it. “The current global warming will end “in the nearest future” (p. 542)” I’d like to know the reasoning behind this statement, although given the above statements my ‘trashometer’ is still bleeping away.

    WRT Lovelock, interesting book, I got a copy the weekend prior to it’s UK release date. Read it in 1 day, not a heavy read. Disagree with the ‘few remaining breeding pairs’ stuff, but he has some interesting points. Civilisation doomed? Possibly, OK all things considered (not just Global Ave Temp) we’re probably in a nose dive. But a ‘Maunder Minimum’ until we hit the tail end of peak oil would be propitious. A Thing like that could even make suspect there’s a God after all. ;)

  43. 43
    Pat Neuman says:

    re 36.

    Excerpt: Snows Of Kilimanjaro Disappearing Glacial Ice Loss Increasing

    “In 2002, Thompson and his colleagues shocked the scientific community with their prediction that the ice fields capping the mountain would disappear between 2015 and 2020, the victims, at least in part, of global warming. Returning to his campus office last week, he admits that nothing has happened to alter that prediction.

    In fact, the mountain’s ice fields may disappear sooner.”

    Feb 13, 2006

  44. 44
    Sameer Marathe says:

    I guess I am a bit late to comment on this thread. I feel that Lovelock never (or at least in the beginning when he proposed it) argued the “Strong” Gaia hypothesis. As I understood it, the self regulation was a result of the numerous feedback mechanisms among living systems on the planet. He also demonstrated this using the “daisyworld” models where no “self-regulation” is explicitly programed into the equations but emerges as a result of the feedback. So the self regulation could be called an “emergent property” of a living system.

    Am I wrong to understand it in this way? I feel the strong “Gaia” hypothesis has been used by opponents of Gaia to undermine the hypothesis as a whole (strong and weak).

    [Response:It's all very slippery. Lovelock often writes that Gaia as a self-aware entity is just a metaphor, but on the other hand, the conclusions I cited, about methane hydrogen balloons to the stratosphere and urine as plant fertilizer, are his not mine. David. ]

  45. 45
    Henk Lankamp says:

    Re 37:

    Labohm entitles himself as an expert reviewer. As far as I know he ‘reviews’ the IPCC only from the outside. Over here in the Netherlands he is known as a person criticizing ‘global warming’ by all means.

  46. 46
    Hank Roberts says:

    > slippery
    Don’t go there, you won’t slip. Look at the math, always look at the math, when someone’s English is subject to misinterpretation. Especially in this area of climate

    Search “daisyworld” — here’s one discussion; math at the site:

    “… coming from a reductionistic Darwinian paradigm, he is reluctant to accept a teleological perspective. Yet ironically, many have criticised his hypothesis on precisely these grounds.

    “In response to the accusation of teleology, Lovelock introduced in his book The Ages of Gaia, the metaphor of “Daisyworld,” a “drastic simplification” of the Gaia hypothesis….”

    If we don’t make the math our keystone, we end up with the religious-based argument that word “theory” should be inserted after all mentions of the Big Bang or evolution, and the word “model” should be inserted after every mention of “ocean” or “ice” or “atmosphere” or “temperature” when they used by any of the climate modelers discussing their modeled results. People aren’t that precise with English.

    People use English, scientists use math, we come here to get people who understand the math to try to explain in English (grin). I know it’s not easy. I believe it’s vital not to accept vagueness and poetry by interpreters when the original author was trying very hard to write science. Don’t listen to their words alone, check the math. Tell me if it’s right — I need your help for that.

    None of this is arguing against what I take your intended point to be — that Lovelock’s latest book is not intended to be science. I’ll take your word for it that he has no mathematics and no published science to support the conclusion you report, that the global climate is going to go out of bounds and we should expect a failure of the climate system, a major excursion — on the order of those in the past that took tens of thousands of years for recovery.

    People have been saying for quite a while that humanity’s impact was equivalent to a major asteroid strike, as far as consequences. I don’t know of anyone questioning that.

  47. 47
    Mike Atkinson says:

    I have read “Revenge of Gaia” and found the book very disapointing. Lovelock seems to have no appreciation of the interconnectedness of problems like globals warming, peak oil, food production, reduction in wild caught foods, forest destruction, capital investment, etc.

    The worst bits are his attacks on “Environmentalists” and the energy sources part. He is very much against wind, and very much for nuclear fission. Even with a crash program fission could not supply enough electricity to make a dent in CO2 production for 20 years. Wind can actually be deployed much faster, and probably much cheaper as well. His objections seem to be mainly aesthetic, although he does introduce some other invalid objections. How can anyone say the problem is urgent then propose a solution that can’t take effect for 20 years?

    He dismisses the Uranium supply problem by:
    “Another flawed idea now circulating is that the world supply of Uranium is so small that its use for energy would last only a few years. It is true that if the world chose to use Uranium as its sole fuel, supplies of easily mined Uranium would soon be exhausted. But there is a superabundance of log-grade uranium ore: most granite, for example, contains enough Uranium to make its fuel capacity five times that of an equal mass of coal.”

    There are two flaws in this, most of the uranium is not “burnt” in conventional (slow) reactors (only 3-4%) so the energy available is much less. Secondly, the granite would take more energy to mine and process than the energy it contains, even if all the uranium were “burnt”.

    Finally he does not seem to appreciate that 2/3 of energy usage is not electricity. Without solving transport generation of CO2 the levels will not come down.

    Jared Diamond’s “Colapse – why civilizations choose to fail” is much better. The question is will our civilization choose to fail.

  48. 48
    Pat Neuman says:

    re 41.


    I think the global temperature averaging by NASA and NOAA NCDC is good.
    I think the reason we’re seeing more rapid snow and ice melting and warmer overnight conditions is due to higher humidity. Melting rates are enhanced by condensation on ice and snow. Higher humidity makes us feel warmer and slows atmospheric cooling at night.

    In plotting average minimum daily temperatures for the two warmest months in the U.S. using climate station data (1895-2005), I found that Jul-Aug of 2005 average daily min temps were the warmest of record at 1-3 stations in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Florida.

    Energy use for air-conditioning is bound to go up drastically, Canberra, the U.S. and elsewhere. People will not tolerate hot humid nights without air conditions if they can help it. I think your observation that maximum temperatures seems to be now occurring later in the day seems reasonable for a more humid atmosphere. I suspect part of the reason for delayed winter cold and earlier spring thaws is also related to a more humid atmosphere.

  49. 49
    Gordon Edge says:

    I’ve been lurking on RealClimate for a while now, content to soak up the debate, but since you’ve mentioned Jim Lovelock I’ve been inspired to break cover. I have every admiration for Lovelock’s insight into planetary systems, but when he talks about my area of expertise, wind power, he borders on the irrational, talking about hundreds of thousands of turbines needing to be installed in the UK alone (when 4,000 will provide about 10% of Britain’s power). Consequently, I find my judgement of his ‘Revenge of Gaia’ conclusions coloured by his inability to see beyond the local (he is an admitted anti-wind NIMBY: see ) despite his planetary-scale vision.

    [Response:He has some strong things to say about nuclear energy as well. He's not a man for wimpy opinions. David]

  50. 50
    John Monro says:

    Hello Gordon,

    In regard to figures of wind power etc. Certainly Lovelock has gained some notoriety in regard to his new enthusiasm for nuclear power. But there are indeed major issues in regard to obtaining enough uranium to power them. Recently George Bush in his State of the Nation address is pushing for a new nuclear programme involving the use of plutonium, and the Union of Concerned Scientists has already put out a statement highly critical of this. In regard to wind. It depends what you’re looking at. If this is purely for electricity generation then the UK’s power output in one year is about 350 TWh. One three megawatt wind generator will, if one is really generous at about 30% usage efficiency, provide about 9 GWh power p.a Thus to power the UK’s total electricity output with wind would need 39,000 three megawatt wind generators. (which is similar to your figure) But of course electricity is only part of the energy equation. Much fossil fuel is used in transport and industry and domestic heating (80% of the latter) . Electricity generation is only about 17% of total energy consumption in the UK, so crudely (because I have difficulty accessing reliable figures in regard to total energy usage) to provide the UK’s total energy needs by windpower for instance would require six times 39,000, or 234,000 three megawatt wind generators. In other words, James Lovelock is correct, it is a truly daunting (? impossible) task to replace the UK’s current energy needs with renewable energy resources – certainly wind, and the last time I was in the UK, there wasn’t a great deal of sunshine!

    [Response: 39,000 wind mills sounds a lot to a lay person - but Germany currently has 17,500, most of them built within the past 10 years. At peak time, more than 2,000 were installed per year. The potential to supply Europe completely with renewable electricity (including hourly-resolved wind fluctuations, and costs of the required infrastructure) has been analysed in detail in this paper. Their conclusion is that it is completely feasible, if you position your power stations at the best wind and solar sites around Europe and build a trans-European grid to distribute the electricity. -stefan]

    [p.s. In the 19th Century Germany had over 40,000 wind mills.]

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