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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 amazon.co.uk. 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. 51

    I was disappointed as heck to find environmentalists faulting wind turbines because they kill birds. I’m as fond of birds as the next citizen, but all energy sources have some environmental impact, and wind is a lot cleaner than fossil fuels and a lot less dangerous than nuclear. Most people are very properly not willing to give up modern technology in order to preserve the environment. I consider myself an environmentalist, but I’m not a raving nutbar about it.

  2. 52
    Dano says:

    Re #51 [BPL]:

    I agree, Barton, but perhaps this is a case of ‘we can do better’ rather than ‘this is good enough’.

    Best,

    D

  3. 53
    Don Baccus says:

    Re #51:

    The issue wasn’t first raised by “environmentalists” but rather biologists who study raptors. I first learned of the problems at the Altamont Wind Farm from the retired ex-head of all USF&W National Wildlife Refuges in California and Nevada, for instance. By then USFWS biologists had dubbed the turbines used there as “raptor blenders”.

    If all windfarm installations were as deadly to raptors as Altamont, the impact would be very large.

    The dispute heated up in part because of the attitude of wind power supporters who seemed to feel that their favorite technology should be above criticism. As an early wind power supporter myself, as well as a conservationist working to preserve our nation’s biological heritage, I found that attitude most annoying. They fought, for instance, against raptor surveys at potential wind farm sites back in the 1980s.

    However, things have come around. We know that damage to foraging and migrating raptors can be minimized by a combination of careful siting, by changes in design (the older turbines at Alamont were supported by derrick-style towers, which provide convenient perches for species like red-tailed hawks that perch-hunt, a really bad idea), by manipulating the operating schedule, etc. The wind power industry, much to their credit, now accepts the need for pre-siting bird surveys and for monitoring after a wind farm is installed. The more we learn, the better we can do to have our cake and eat it too.

    Interesting to see biologists and conservationists who are concerned with impacts on raptor populations being called “raving nutbars”. We were called the same when DDT was banned…

  4. 54

    Are You an Optimist, a Pessimist, or a Realist?
    Someone responded to Stu’s recent blog with the following quote. The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist thinks it will change; the realist adjusts the sails. — William Arthur Ward I think it’s a great quote, and it got…

  5. 55

    Okay, Dano, you have a point, certainly. Let’s erect iron cages around the turbines or something to protect the birds. But I fear some really do want to eliminate human use of energy on a modern scale. Not most, I know.

  6. 56
    TopsyT says:

    I need someone to explain to me how the mountain glaciers are melting. The Ohio State paper goes into excellent detail on what is going on at Kilimanjaro but does not explain the mechanism. It seems to me that it is a stretch to say that a small, seasonal temperature change, even over a long time, would cause all of that. And Pat Michaels claims that there is no record of a temperature increase in that specific area.
    I personally went to Alaska and saw a Kenai glacier where signs indicated its annual reach for several centuries of withdrawal well before “global warming” started. Then I went to Glacier Bay and saw a dramatic ice calving that many say had to be another manisfestation of global warming. However, only about 30 miles away we went ashore to see another glacier that was actually growing! The naturalist on the tour (a grad student in glacier study) said that glacier variability is due more to precipitation changes rather than to temperature. I have seen this explanation confirmed in papers on both the Antarctic land mass and on interior Greenland glaciers(yet Greenland is supposedly warming).

    Granted that global warming could change precipitation cycles; so could many other things. Yet glacier melt is cited everywhere as evidence of GW. Would someone please explain these contradictory observations and offer a mechanism? Thanks.

  7. 57
    Dano says:

    RE: #53:

    Yessir, and some Wiccans want to have sylvan druid theocracies too, but they are outliers and do we give them prominence in our political rhetoric?

    The ‘they wish to return us to the days of Neandertals with spears’ is a classic constructed narrative – I’ve never met anyone who wants to return us to horse and buggy days, nor have I met anyone who knows these people, nor do I know anyone who knows of someone who has heard of someone that has an acquaintance who knows…

    I think the point is reducing our impact on ecosystems, as ecosystems are the source of our economies and our life support; if we can rationally reduce our impact, lets. Reducing the cuisinartization of our energy sources is a good thing in the long run, as tweety birds eat bugs that eat our food and eat bugs that give us West Nile virus. Pointing out the externalities might create a market demand. I can’t look up the arty right now, but I recall a professor at Berkeley who recently was up in the Altamont Pass studying how a little noisemaker he put on the end of a blade scared away birds, reducing mortality. Now here is a market opportunity waiting to happen.

    Best,

    D

  8. 58
    Pat Neuman says:

    Humidity, condensation increase melting (48.), and more rainfall vs snowfall.

  9. 59
    Doug Percival says:

    The number of bird deaths from wind turbines is a very small percent of the number of bird deaths caused by house cats, or collisions with automobiles, or collisions with buildings, or high-tension wires, or pesticides, or numerous other human causes, and would likely remain so even with a massive expansion of wind power generation. In addition, unrestrained anthropogenic global warming and consequent climate change would themselves likely lead to large numbers of bird deaths, and indeed the extinction of entire species of birds.

    And the already low bird mortality from wind turbines can be further reduced by appropriate design measures, such as taller towers, slower moving blades, noisemakers, and avoiding critical bird habitat or migration sites. The owners of the wind farm in Altamont Pass that has killed a large number of birds (including protected species) are being sued for refusing to implement fairly simple and relatively inexpensive mitigation measures.

    I am an animal rights activist and insistent that everything possible be done to reduce bird mortality from wind turbines to an absolute minimum, but having said that, the issue of bird deaths from wind turbines is greatly exaggerated by some people who, for whatever reason, like to raise objections to wind power. Many, many more birds will be killed by a “business as usual” approach to electricity generation than would be by a rapid and large scale conversion from coal, natural gas and nuclear electricity generation to wind and photovoltaic generated electricity.

  10. 60
    Steve Sadlov says:

    Interglacials as fevers? When in point of fact, the larger glacials in which they reside may be unprecedented against the backdrop of Earth History? Does your admission of affinity for Gaia suggest a bias?

    If an interglacial is a fever, than I must say I am proud to be part of the infection.

  11. 61
    John Monro says:

    To Stephan

    Thanks for your comment about renewable power generation and for your reference, which I will read more thoroughly later. I have seen a somewhat similar paper , advocating combined desalination and solar generation plants in North Africa with transmission to Europe, which would allow up to 60% renewable electricity generation in Europe. I have on my own web site a proposal for an entirely renewable electricity generation for New Zealand. With our hydro and geothermal recources, we used to have over 80% renewable, but with increasing economic activity, and particular a fast growing population, partly related to high immigration levels, this is now down to about 60-65% . Wind power, energy efficiency and solar hot water and passive solar heating can easily though fill the balance. In regard to electricity generation I am sure renewable resources are feasible. However it is when you consider the fact that electricity generation is only about 1/5th of total energy needs, in particular the amount of fossil fuels used for transport, in industry and agriculture etc., that one starts to see the sheer scale of the difficulties, and although I haven’t read James Lovelock’s book yet, I imagine this is what he is talking about. You will, if you read my article, see that I think even this is feasible for NZ, with our relatively low population, (4 million on an island the size of the UK) but when you consider the highly populated areas of Europe one has to wonder how this could be done. Whilst we will have to deal with this matter, oil depletion will mean this, and whether global warming is taken seriously or not, it will require a revolutionary change in industry, commerce and investment, and in political and social will, to do this – our present institutions are, I believe, entirely unable to cope. I say somewhere on my internet site, I forget where now, that to overcome the twin problems of oil depletion and global warming (and other ecological problems) will require an international investment of effort and money to the same order of magnitude as was required by the allies to fight the Second World War. It could be done, but will it?

  12. 62
    llewelly says:

    Re Steve Sadlov, 60:

    ‘Interglacials as fevers’ is obviously a human perspecctive; Earth has
    been in one glacial or another for most of humanity’s existance. I
    suspect most dinosaurs from the late Cretaceous would find Earth of today
    inhospitably cold, except in the tropics.

    However, the Cenozoic glacial cycles, the most recent series of
    glaciations, are *not* unprecedented; there were probably 3 or 4
    previous major glacial periods; see for example the wikipedia ice age
    article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_age , or
    http://academic.emporia.edu/aberjame/ice/labs/lab03.htm, which gives
    an overview, and references at the bottom.

  13. 63
    Almuth Ernsting says:

    Re 59 and wind turbine debate:

    James Lovelock has a nightmare vision in which the remaining intact ecosystems of the world are sacrificed to make way for industrial-size wind farms and bio-fuel fields. This could wipe out biodiversity and key ecosystems (including rain forests and peat swamps) as certainly as global warming and with dramatic consequences for CO2 emissions from drained peat and deforestation. The fact that biofueld production is becoming a major cause of tropical peat drainage in south-east Asia and of deforestation there and in the Amazon shows that we cannot dismiss Lovelock’s fear. In Scotland, the largest onshore windfarm proposed (I think it might be the largest onshore windfarm in Europe – on West Lewis Peatland)would be built on a rare peat bog, an area with strong habitat and wildlife protection, and would destroy the main remaining breeding grounds for several endangered bird species. Building it would set a precedent to open up highly protected nature reserves to development if required for electricity production and it could push bird species into regional extinction.

    Unlike Lovelock, I do not believe that a renewable energy revolution and a strong and growing wind energy sector have to lead to this nightmare scenario. I believe that a good national strategy, careful siting, incorporation into urban designs and agricultural land, and good environmental impact assessments could ensure that renewable energies (particularly wind) can reduce our impact on the planet. Birdlife International (www.birdlife.net/) have done a lot of work on this. They warn of potential bird deaths (and warn that the sea eagle population of Norway may be endangered by a badly sited off-shore windfarm), but they also advocate such a strategy to massively expand wind energy. I think we should keep Lovelock’s worst-case vision in mind and look carefully at proposals by organisations like Birdlife International on how to expand renewables and make sure it does not come true.

    Almuth Ernsting

  14. 64

    Re #53 and “Yessir, and some Wiccans want to have sylvan druid theocracies too, but they are outliers and do we give them prominence in our political rhetoric?
    The ‘they wish to return us to the days of Neandertals with spears’ is a classic constructed narrative – I’ve never met anyone who wants to return us to horse and buggy days, nor have I met anyone who knows these people, nor do I know anyone who knows of someone who has heard of someone that has an acquaintance who knows…”

    For your information, pal, I am someone who knows such people and has read their work. It isn’t something I’m making up or lying about, and I resent the insinuation that I’m merely repeating a stereotype. Just because YOU haven’t run into such people doesn’t mean I haven’t.
    They’re real, as the victims of the Unabomber found out. I never said they represented even a sizeable minority of environmentalists, and I don’t like the implication that I’m talking about a nonexistent problem. Back off.

  15. 65
    Matt McIrvin says:

    “I think he’s basically trying to put the frighteners on, and make people realise there’s a problem. ”

    But if that’s what he’s trying to do, he goes too far. If Lovelock is right, there’s nothing we can do; we’re simply all going to die soon. We might as well emit all the greenhouse gases we want and have a good time waiting for the end of the world–or maybe keep our plans to move to the South Pole secret so we end up as one of the few who live!

    To actually get people to take corrective action, you have to get them to walk a tightrope between complacency and despair. If you think the catastrophe is avoidable, you have to convince them that it’s avoidable and that they have to do something to avoid it. If you convince them of certain doom, that provokes a different reaction, one of either suicidal despair or survivalist lifeboat-ism: to hell with you, Jack, I’m going to be king after the Great Crash.

  16. 66
    Hank Roberts says:

    > survivalist lifeboatism … king after the Great Crash

    Perhaps it’s only a coincidence:

    http://www.religionnewsblog.com/8997-.html

  17. 67
    Don Baccus says:

    Re #59: The number of bird deaths from wind turbines is a very small percent of the number of bird deaths caused by house cats …

    House cats don’t kill many eagles or hawks. I’ve seen this cut-and-paste snippet from a pro-wind power site before, and while they do provide a bunch of good information, the “wind turbines don’t kill as many birds as cats or pesticides” line makes me cringe.

    DDT didn’t kill a particularly high number of birds, you know? However those species that DID suffer from eggshell thinning, species like peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and osprey nearly became extinct in the lower 48. The fact that species with large populations like the house sparrow weren’t affected is of little consequence …

    I really wish the website you poached that bit from would remove it and stick to the more positive things they have to say regarding the importance of siting and turbine design …

  18. 68
    Dano says:

    RE #64 [BPL]:

    Ahem. Apologies. I didn’t mean for that to come off that way. I’ve asked my editor to pay closer attention to my metaphors.

    But my point is that, for purposes of marginalization, we commonly see conflation/assignation of fringe thought to mainstream thought, esp. wrt environmental groups [and political leanings but I'll leave that off here]. The issue is not whether fringe thought exists or does not exist or in what quantity (which I screwed up in my metaphor), but that it is used to tar a different group with the same brush.

    Best,

    D

  19. 69
    Gordon Edge says:

    Re #67: Don is correct that house cats don’t kill raptors. However, the other things that Doug referred to in #59 do, and in larger numbers than well sited wind turbines – for instance I remember reading that one of the key causes of mortality of owls is overhead power lines (read some years ago, I’m afraid I don’t have a source). We in the wind industry like the cats line because it can personalise the issue for people, giving them a means to measure impacts alongside the points about cars, buildings and power lines. It provides a means to move people from ‘wind turbines kill birds and are therefore bad’ to ‘many things kill birds and in the scheme of things wind turbines are relatively benign’.

    With regard to the wider issue of wind farm siting, the industry is excruciatingly aware of the need to site in minimal impact areas. Since the early experiences at Altamont and Tarifa, we know that if even a tiny handful of raptors are killed we will be as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit. Where there is some doubt about the ability of a wind development to coexist with wildlife with acceptable impact, then planning systems are there to judge, as will be happening with the Lewis project cited by Almuth in #63 – I expect there to be a very thorough public enquiry before a decision is made about that.

  20. 70
    Don Baccus says:

    Re #69: The cats line is ridiculous. [rhetoric removed - moderator]

    When I first saw that line, I must admit I almost didn’t bother reading the rest of the pro-windpower site that used it because I figured “if they’re this dishonest on page one, they’re probably equally dishonest elsewhere”. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the site wasn’t entirely full of dishonestly misleading statements of that sort, but you nearly lost me. It certainly encourages me to examine any information provided me by windpower spokespersons extremely closely and critically.

    The quality’s right up there with junkscience.com’s “debunking” of AGW.

    So Altamont taught you that “even a handful of raptors killed will be as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit”? Why? Altamont has killed far more than “a handful”. Altamont taught industry that killing large numbers of raptors is unacceptable, not handfuls.

    Your attitude, which seems to be that your industry’s being forced to improve siting and turbine design because of a bunch of unreasonable conservationists and biologists, that you wave off with ad hominem attacks, is kinda unhelpful.

    Raptor biologists and biology-minded conservationists have worked with the windpower industry to help determine why poorly designed and poorly sited projects kill raptors. Improvements in both areas have been the result. After, of course, the requisite bitching and moaning by the industry, and the labelling of those who’ve brought forward concerns as being (among other things) “anti-environmental”. I had to admit I was thoroughly amused when my organization, one of the largest conservation organizations in Oregon, was so labelled by windpower representatives a few years ago.

    [Response: I would urge the participants commenting here to please not get personal and stick to the issues. Light not heat should be the watchwords. - gavin]

  21. 71
    bgloa says:

    Wind power obviously has great advantages over nuclear, it is a lot cleaner, however, why is no-one mentioning the cleanest energy supplies, Geothermal (where cold water flows into the earth and comes back up hot and turns turbines in a never ending cycle. Similarly with tidal power. There is no fluctuation in the temperature of the earth or with the flow of the tides. Hence no “volitility” in the supply. Wind is dependent on when the wind decides to blow… and it doesn’t always, supply becomes slightly more “volitile” (or erratic – not dependable). Energy supply MUST be dependable AND devoild of volitility, as well as sustainable and free of harm to the inhabitants of our planet.

    Wind power generation comes a very low third in the scheme of clean, sustainable, safe (for animals), energy production. And solar is tainted with the same brush as wind… the energy and metal/plastics/raw compenents required to produce the cells, batteries and wind towers BEFORE any energy output is achieved, leaves these two options in the dark in comparison to geo-thermal or tidal energy production.
    As far as nuclear power goes, well let’s just not even think about going there.

    bg

  22. 72
    Roger Smith says:

    “Energy supply MUST be dependable AND devoild of volitility, as well as sustainable and free of harm to the inhabitants of our planet.”

    Which doesn’t preclude wind and solar from being a significant PART of said energy supply, despite its intermittent nature.

  23. 73
    Almuth Ernsting says:

    Re 65:
    Matt suggests that Lovelock is frightening people and giving the impression that it is not worth doing anything because most of us are going to die anyway. Some of the press coverage certainly was along those lines. However, the book states many times how absolutely crucial it is that we do our utmost to reduce emissions and that this would lead to less warming less quickly. He also states that he would expect life to bounce back as it did after catastrophic events in the distant past. Indeed, his suggestion that 500 ppm of CO2 would commit us to the irreversible melting of Greenland sounds rather optimistic compared to James Hansen’s announcement.

    But I agree that some of the press coverage (as opposed to the book) was completely fatalistic and might not inspire people to cut back on emissions.

    Almuth Ernsting

  24. 74
    G. Sotir says:

    I actually have to give a presentation on climate change to my Union next month and this wonderful website is making me quite nervous, especially in light of Lovelock’s predictions…

    One thing that has not been mentioned yet (and I have not read the book yet either) is Lovelock’s ability to step outside the overwhelming and very human myopia of seeing our own lives and our own cultures as the alpha and omega of the terrean biosystem. If we pollute our own bed than we will have to lie in it. And it does seem polluted.

    Geothermal, wind, and even nuclear power shifts may not be enough to continue our upward spiral to Aynrandian utopia, but life will continue on the planet. Or is there some doubt about this?

    As far as humanity goes…what can we do to best weather the coming changes and how can we deal with the effects of this …contamination …of our biosphere that will outlive us all anyways.

    At least Lovelock is trying to start that debate.

    I don’t know what to say to my Union brothers and sisters. I don’t want to sound like an alarmist, but after decades of work trying to convince Americans to look beyond their own selfish interests (and of trying to walk my talk in my own life too), I kind of feel that it may be too late to ignore the obvious…and nature is now up to bat (even more fearsome than the Damon/Ramirez/Ortiz trio I am afraid.)

    Whose team is she on?

  25. 75
    David B. Benson says:

    Glaciers wax and wane — I just finished reviewing what I needed regarding glaciology, for a climate related project. Here goes a quick summary. Snow turns to ice, increasing a glacier above the “snow line”, above which the snowline survives the winter. Increasing (local) temperature raises the snow line, but more important is the snowfall. Raising the local temperature may increase the snowfall.

    The glacier ice moves downslope under its own weight. Below the snowline it begins to melt. The melting is often neglictable until near the terminus. Sometimes the melt water runs under the glacier and lubricates it so that it moves faster. This depends, in part, on the summer temperatures.

    So a surging glacier may or may not be shrinking. Determining whether it is appears to require extensive instrumentation.

    I hope this brief summary is helpful. I am reminded of a quotation attibuted to
    J.Pierpont Morgan when asked what the stockmarket would do. “It will fluctuate,” was the response.

  26. 76
    Steve Sadlov says:

    RE: # 75. Essentially, what you have correctly described is the confluence of snowfall and gravity. I was “classicially trained” regarding glaciers in a few courses I took way back in the stone age. I read through some of the above and was shocked to find “climate scientists” arguing that a surge meant a melt. I suppose in rare cases it’s possible, but historically most surges came after a series of high snowfall years. And certainly the combination of high snowfall years and colder than average conditions helped even more. Read the accounts of glacier surges in Iceland during the LIA. Telling.

    [Response: Some surges are associated with basal melting and thinning of the glacier (i.e. most of what is being reported in Science today (Rignot et al)). Though you do also get surges after high accumulations in previous years (such as in Norway after the high NAO period in the 1990s). When you have a surge (faster moving ice) and a retreat of the calving front you have serious melt going on. - gavin]

  27. 77
    james says:

    I have begun investigating the climate change issue as it relates to business and found this site. The global mechanism is beyond our direct control because of scale and the 200 or so governments around the world. I am of the opinion that by the time the scientists come up with a conclusion (scientifically measured) the correction, whatever it will be, will be happening. We (humans) do enough to reduce population (war and disease and Darfur) such that the correction, unless it is the true end of a climate epoch, will only be one of the problems that lesser developed countries struggle with. It will only be different in that the developed countries will be involed.

  28. 78
    Hank Roberts says:

    Belatedly, on Biosphere 2′s problems — carbon dioxide is absorbed when concrete is in the process of curing — they had a lot of new concrete and it was taking up CO2; before they caught that problem the CO2 levels were too low for a while. Later, the deeply buried excess topsoil as it began dying off bumped the carbon dioxide level, faster, up.

    http://www.chemistry.org/portal/a/c/s/1/acsdisplay.html?DOC=vc22mymy2_biosphere.html

  29. 79
    Hank Roberts says:

    oops.
    This URL is being broken by the editor here — it’s removing backslashes from 2 places
    http://www.chemistry.org/portal/a/c/s/1/acsdisplay.html?DOC=vc22mymy2_biosphere.html
    to fix the URL, put a single backslash between these letters: _22_and_ym_

    Looks like this:
    hypothesis was that microbes were using oxygen to metabolize the excess organic matter … if microbes were responsible for the observed drop in oxygen, the CO2should have reached 40,000 ppm or more….
    With every plausible theory dashed on the rocks of experimentation, … he said, ‘What about the concrete? Maybe the concrete is absorbing the CO2′ Sure enough, we took cores of concrete, analyzed them, and found that they were very rich in calcium carbonate, about ten times richer in calcium carbonate than concrete from outside the structure.”

  30. 80
    daCascadian says:

    Re #79 Hank Roberts >”…put a single backslash between these letters: _22_and_ym_…”

    There is no such place in the string you posted “DOC=vc22mymy2_biosphere.html”

    I keep getting “No document” messages no matter where I put the slash

    Place quotes around the URL to get around the broken editor behavior

    “…You either wear the tinfoil shiny-side-out, or shiny-side-in…” – jimfl@tensegrity.net

  31. 81

    #75#76- The snowline is not a fixed feature it shifts daily seasonally and annually. Yes above it the glacier is covered with snow. At the end of the summer season the snowline-annual equilibrium line does have importance. Warmer temperatures can cause an increase in snowfall, but in Western North America and particularly the North Cascades, Washington what is notable is that despite an increase in winter precipitation, April 1 snowpack is down considerably, 25% in the last 50 years in the North Cascades. Warming also increases winter melt and winter rain events. Surging is seldom directly related to a particular climate shift.

    Surging is more typically related to a tipping bucket mechanism. Where the glacier must thicken to a certain point increasing the force on the bed, and changing the hydrostatic pressure. Changes in water pressure increase and decouple the glacier and the bed. This tends to happen periodically and is influenced by climate but is not directly controlled by it.

  32. 82
    Hank Roberts says:

    >Re #79 Hank Roberts >
    >”…put a single backslash between these letters: _22_and_ym_…”
    >in the string you posted “DOC=vc22mymy2_biosphere.html”
    –here————————————^^–^^——
    put a backslash between “22″ and one between “ym” where marked

    I’ve tried to indicate exactly where (I”m seeing the ‘comment’ typing field in Courier but the Preview in Arial, so besides editing out characters it’s hard to line up a pointer, but I assure you there is a “22″ and a “ym” in the string, put a backslash between each of those pairs and it’s a working URL that leads you to the paper.

  33. 83
    Barney Lewis says:

    re #33 Hank Roberts – The TCS article you quote suggests that the sunspot minimum predicted by Dirk Callebaut would consequently lead to the sort of conditions experienced during the Maunder Minimum (coincident with “The Little Ice Age”) – thus rendering the notion of global warming nonsensical, and it implies this is a view shared by the author. This is most definitely not the case.

    The abstract of his paper “A grand solar minimum inducing a temperature decrease on Earth” PDF or Google HTML (apologies as I can’t ascertain if this is the original or a translation) – makes it clear that his concern is that any decrease caused by such an event would in fact mask the ongoing rise caused by anthropogenic global warming, and underpin the arguments of those who discount such a rise. An excerpt:

    “The grand minimum will lead to a temperature decrease which according to various estimates may beabout 1 degree. However, with the global warming up this decrease will be partially masked. Neverthelessthe resulting minor decrease may be wrongly interpreted as if the global warming up by pollution is notreal, only a fluctuation. The global warming up may thus be strongly underestimated, preventing necessarymeasures to be taken, and thus leading to a very strong global warming up, which by the end of the grandminimum, will even get a supplementary push”

    I suspect that he did not realise that his work would already be being abused in such a way long before the predicted minimum has even occurred.

  34. 84
    David B. Benson says:

    Gaia’s Revenge —

    I don’t buy Lovelock’s opinion. Looking at a graph of the ocean temperature for the entire Cenezoic, page 175 of Macdonald’s “Frozen Earth”, it seems clear enough that Gaia has been suffering a cold for the last few million years and needs to warm up.

    Comments?

  35. 85
    Pat Neuman says:

    Not so fast and not so much.

  36. 86
    Hank Roberts says:

    > TCS …. work would already be being abused in such a way.

    Thanks for spotting the misreporting by TCS, that’s par for that course.

    “The DCI Group, LLC is top Republican lobby and PR firm … publishes the website Tech Central Station….”

    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=DCI_Group

  37. 87
    llewelly says:

    Re: 84, David Benson:
    ‘the last few million yeas’ covers the entire past existance of homo sapiens, and a few of our ancestor species.

  38. 88
    David B. Benson says:

    Re: 84 & 87:

    How fast is fast? I’ll just treat sea stand, since this is the only data I know even moderately well. The estimate for the increase in sea stand during the 20th century is 0.3 mm/yr. In comparison, one estimate for the increase while the LGM ice melted back to its current volume is 4 mm/yr. An estimate of for the maximum rate of increase during this time is 160 mm/yr.

    How high is high? If I knew when the last time the earth had as high a level of CO2 as today it might be possible for me to say something.

    I don’t actually understand the Gaia hypothesis of Lovelock and Margulis. But think it is some form of ‘emergent property’ in which all life, working together, tends to preserve the conditions on the face of the earth necessary for life. So Gaia works to overcome the effects of volcanos, space rocks, etc.

    But clearly Gaia doesn’t care about mere genera or even families. So Homo Sapiens Sapiens is simply of no interest to Gaia.

    That said, Homo Sapiens Sapiens is clearly highly adaptable, having evolved during, and survived the end of, the most recent ice age. I have little doubt that Homo Sapiens Sapiens can survive some additional global warmth.

  39. 89
    daCascadian says:

    Re #82

    Thanks, I got it finally

    the first few times I got the No Document error message & then the site went down for some work (back up etc I assume)

    I`ll parse through it soon

    “All animals except Man know that the ultimate purpose of life is to enjoy it” – Samuel Butler

  40. 90
    Blair Dowden says:

    Re #84:

    The biggest problem with Gaia is that the major climate regulation processes are geophysical, not biological. Perhaps the most fundamental process is the recycling of the Earth’s crust by plate tectonics. But this process has an interesting side effect – it changes the configuration of the continents, which affect ocean currents and thus the Earth’s climate. In the present configuration we have an island continent over the South Pole (to draw down sea level and reflect sunlight), long continents to interfere with ocean circulation, and an almost enclosed Arctic Ocean. Worse, there are large land masses around 60 degrees north, perfect for growing large glaciers and melting them again, giving us climate instability.

    This unusual situation has resulted in the past few million years being colder than 90% of the Earth’s history. Indeed, Gaia has caught a severe cold. I do not understand Lovelock’s perspective. Did Gaia move Antarctic over the pole because she knew the sun was warming? Why does Gaia prefer ice ages, with their larger deserts and reduced tropical rainforests. Rather, it appears clever Gaia has come up with an organism that metabolizes fossil fuels into carbon dioxide, allowing her to return to her happier, more normal warmer state. As with most Gaian biological processes, the organisms are behaving for their own immediate benefit, with long run results that may cause problems for those organisms. But Gaia is happy to dispense with a species or two, if it comes to that.

  41. 91
    Coby says:

    Re #88

    I have little doubt that Homo Sapiens Sapiens can survive some additional global warmth.

    I too don’t doubt humans will survive. But I disagree that this is a relevant yardstick. Presumably we would like to continue thriving, not just surviving, and this is what is in jeopordy. As fun as it is to think of ourselves as masters of the planet and above all the other life forms around us, the fact is we are completely, 100% dependent on them, and the coming global mass extinction event will take its toll on our species, whether we survive in the end or not.

  42. 92
    Blair Dowden says:

    Or to put it another way, Gaia might be happier with a lot fewer of us.

  43. 93
    David B. Benson says:

    Re #90 and then #91

    Indeed, Gaia is limited to only biological processes (as I understand it). So Gaia has to cope with changing positions of continents and changing geochemistry. I will point out the Gaia is capable of modifing the latter: consider all the limestone, etc., and the result on ocean chemistry.

    The mass extinction ‘event’ is already upon us according to some
    biologists: The Sixth Mass Extinction.

  44. 94
    Steve Sadlov says:

    RE: #90. I think you will find that many here want to downplay what you have written. At least that’s what I found on another thread. Of course there are sources to back up such downplaying. But there are also sources that bolster our own perspective. Personally I’d prefer a return to conditions before the Pleistocene, however, in spite of all the noise stating that such an outcome will come to pass, I seriously doubt it. Call me a skeptic!

  45. 95
    Steve Sadlov says:

    RE: #92. You might be interested in the following website: http://www.dieoff.org

  46. 96
    Hank Roberts says:

    Alternatively, there’s the contemporary research (from the current AAAS meeting)

    http://www.igbp.kva.se/cgi-bin/php/press.show.php?section_id=12&article_id=429

    “The symposium features research highlights from a global effort, coordinated by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP), to locate and monitor Earth’s “vital organs,” those locations and processes that regulate the functioning of the entire planet. Human-induced changes to the planet, now occurring at an unprecedented rate, could alter these processes ….”

    “….A new generation of Earth System models that help assess the consequences of these changes, and a new internet-based databank “Collaboratory” linking global and local land-use knowledge, also will be presented.”

  47. 97
    Juola (Joe) A. Haga says:

    Dear Ms’s/Srs,

    Perhaps Sir James Lovelock’s position will not seem so extreme or incomprehensible if one examines the e-mail posting of NASA on 2-21-06. They enclose the tale of a correction to nitrate mappings in which a Mr. Joaquim Goes discovers the possibility that phyiplankton blooms in the Arabian Sea might release overwhelming amounts of nitrous oxide. The narrative of Mr. Goes’s discoveries is quite charming. That laughing gas might constitute a forcing has caused me many smiles, After many re-readings of elegant earlier discussions concerning forcings and feedbacks, my vaporous short-term memory still tries to condense itself around a well-defined concept and then overheats again with such tales as those of Mr. Goes.

  48. 98
    Hank Roberts says:

    Here’s a mention of a Goes article, in Science last year; is there a more recent report you can point us to?

    “In a paper published in Science [2005, 22 April], Goes’s team shows that the amount of phytoplankton at the surface of the Arabian Sea has been gradually increasing every year since the late 1990s.”

    http://www.scidev.net/News/index.cfm?fuseaction=readNews&itemid=2057&language=1

  49. 99
    Hank Roberts says:

    Here’s an earlier summary from 2001 and what appears to be an extensive online collection
    == Journal of Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry.
    http://overview.sref.org/1680-7375/acpd/2001-1-167

  50. 100

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