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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. 101
    Juola (Joe) A. Haga says:

    In re Mr. Hank Roberts comments #98 and #99. Sir, you are much abler than I to turn up more on Mr. Joaquim Goes and team. What I suspect happened, to account for the NASA e-mail feed and the marvellous linkage of phytoplankton nitrous oxide emission to the drying of the Himalayas, was that the gnomes of NASA, emboldened by Mr. James Hansen’s tantrum, perhaps with the permission or even collaboration of Mr. Goes, decided to let it all hang out. You, Sir, are at perfect liberty to dismiss the above as paranoid ravings or the appropriate fancies of a bar-stool occupant. However, I assure you, I DO want more than anything (we-ell, almost anything) else to get the measure of the fascinating processes which entwine with us in the processing by which we talk of ourselves as a species. You may read that I find it painfully unsatisfactory to imagine myself giggling, laughing, and belly-aching on nitrous oxide into a death rictus,–without due measure. As much deficient is the imagining of Gaia and her eunuchs poofing methane from their hookahs at the bottom of the northwest corner of the Black Sea and then going to the Siberian outhouse for explosive relief. So, as an aid and comfort and warm-up device before I try lapping the pool again, I intend to re-read L.A. Coldispoti et alii multi, “The oceanic fixed nitrogeon and nitrous oxide budgets: Moving targets as we enter the anthropocene?”SCIENTIA MARINA, March, 2001 for its simplified chemical reaction diagram and its numbered cautions against spraying iron across the seas as a quick “cure”. That last some of our mob of yahoos have been hustling with an enthusiam which swept me up, too, until I read Coldispoti. I am sorry that I can not be of help to you. I guess that like the other 6.8 billion we’ll have to hang upon events. Joe Haga

  2. 102
    Lewis Cleverdon says:

    I would not presume to comment on the accuracy of Lovelock’s scientific prognosis of a BAU growth of GHG emissions.
    Where I would differ with him is in his wild and emotive assertions that it is “inconceivable” that a sufficient international treaty will be negotiated and implemented –
    and also in his grossly counter-productive generation of public apathy by such a statement. – Few people will take radical action without a substantial confidence of success.
    I would observe that the status quo is just as content with apathy due to hopelessness as it is with apathy due to uncertainty.
    Indeed, proselitysing that hopelessness is very probably the next propaganda-of-inaction in the long sequence we have observed.
    All the more reason for other scientists to make known their views on the necessary structure and sufficient goal of that future treaty.


    Lewis Cleverdon

  3. 103
    Lee Perkins says:

    I have to admit that I didn’t read all of the comments herewith, but definitely get the gist of what is going on.

    As a geologist I, and my fellow geologists, tend to look at things a little differently than most since the time frames we deal with (millions of years) are largely beyond the scope of climatological studies (a couple hundred years if you’re lucky). Most “global warming” arguements are based on a very very limited data set when viewed in geologic time. As with all geologists, I am aware that the earth has been far warmer (and colder) in the past than it is today. The climate of the earth is always changing. I remember the early 1970’s when everybody was talking about “global cooling”, and how catastrophic that was going to be. My how times have changed in just 30 years.

    The common thread in all of these doomsday arguements is that the activities of man are the cause. Funny how some of the most dramatic climatological changes we have record of happened long before man existed. I’m not saying that we can’t have an impact on the climate of the earth, I just think that we overestimate just what that impact is.

    As for treaties, Kyoto was a joke. If I remember correctly China and India were exempt…only about half the population of the planet.

    [Response: People who work on paleoclimate modelling and verification against geological data would find your comment bizarre. I myself work on some features of climates 4 billion years in the past, and find plenty of data to argue about. As for Kyoto, it may be imperfect, but it does apply to the bulk of current CO2 production, if not the bulk of the world population. Similar controls will eventually have to apply to China, but meanwhile Kyoto gets some signals in the market that push development of the right technology. By the way: guess which country has reduced coal usage in the past 5 years, China or the US? (hint — it’s not US). –raypierre]

  4. 104
    A. Inoue says:

    Global warming is not a science but a politics. The GW politics will be used to develop nuclear energy instead of oil.

  5. 105
    Steve Latham says:

    Regarding how much ideas have changed in 30 years (comment 103), I’m surprised that they haven’t changed more. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but the Gaia hypothesis hasn’t been modified much. Similarly, some would say that the idea of AGW started in the 1860s with Tyndall (some would say earlier and some would say later?). With more and more data collected and available for analysis, and more and more computing power and statistical sophistication, I suspect that climatology has been improving roughly exponentially, as has understanding about AGW. The claim that “everyone was talking about global cooling” in the 70’s is going to make William upset, but if we allow it for a second, who would consider climatological predictions from 30 years ago on an equal footing with those of today?

  6. 106
    Henry Molvar says:

    Re #104 by A. Inoue
    Setting aside the issue of GW as science or politics for a moment, the idea of developing nuclear energy to replace oil and presumably coal as the predominant energy source in the US is very interesting.

    There is no doubt that the first attempt to do so over the past several decades has been terminated, mostly due to the psychological impact of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, The China Syndrome, waste storage, etc. and the linkage of nuclear power to nuclear weapons.

    Will there be another attempt? A proposal that I find attractive is to use the data from our previous experiment to implement a STANDARDIZED design for nuclear power plants of the future to minimize the engineering, materials and operational weaknesses of the previous designs. This should make them less expensive to construct and also provide a basis for continuous improvement of the design, including retrofits.

    The psychological issues, however, are likely to be the show stoppers.

    [Response: Or simple arithmetic: at the AAAS meeting last week, a nuclear industry representative proposed a plan to stop global warming with the help of nuclear power, and concluded that to achieve that, 9,000 new nuclear power stations should be built by the year 2040. That means erecting about 300 nuclear power stations worldwide every year. Not too many people would find this either feasible or desirable, considering the safety, terrorism security, waste and nuclear proliferation issues involved. Especially once you consider which countries have the rapidly growing energy demand, i.e. where you need to build those nuclear power stations.
    Oh, and he gave the electricity generating cost of nuclear power stations as 4-5 cent/kWh – good windpower sites already undercut that today, and prices are falling rapidly in the wind sector. -stefan]

  7. 107

    Comment on #50 and others: Potential of wind energy

    There have been some doubts if wind could potentially deliver considerable parts of our energy.

    In “The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years”

    James Lovelock writes “We could grow enough to feed ourselves on the diet of the Second World War, but the notion that there is land to spare to grow biofuels, or be the site of wind farms, is ludicrous.”

    Despite this “apodictic” statement actually the wind energy potential is huge. According to different sources the kinetic energy in the winds worldwide is between 3*10^7 and 3.8*10^7 TWh/a. Comparing these Figures with the world-wide global horizontal radiation of 8.3*10^8 TWh/a at earth surface level we find that between 3.6% and 4.6% are converted into wind energy. If we roughly estimate the world-wide electricity consumption to be about 15 000 TWh/a we see that we would only have to use between 0.04 and 0.05% of the wind energy potential. This is a simple estimate which shows us the relations.

    David W. Keith did study the question a bit more detailed. He computed what would happen if one would use 10% of the world-wide land surface (distributed on Europe, USA and China) to produce about 10 times (17 TW * 8760 h/a = 148,920 TWh/a) the today’s world-wide electricity generation (as mentioned approx. 15,000 TWh/a today) from wind energy (This is considerably more than the total annual world-wide primary energy consumption.). Following his research outcome even on this small part of the land surfaces (10% of the earth’s land surface almost entirely without offshore areas, altogether – with offshore – only about 3% of the earth’s surface) this is possible without bigger climatic problems. The largest part of the surface lies within Europe. Thus here the calculated production would clearly be above 10 times the European consumption. Altogether the additional dissipation at ground level caused by the wind power utilization (with approx.. 6 TW) would be 0.7% of the total actual dissipation of wind energy at ground level. (about 1/4 [850 TW or 7.4*10^6 TWh/a] of the entire world-wide atmospheric wind power [which always will be dissipated somewhere naturally] is dissipated at the ground level.) This can be found in

    The influence of large-scale wind power on global climate

    In “Wind power and climate change”

    David Keith writes:

    “Indeed, our initial results suggest that the (very small) climate changes due to wind power may slightly reduce the much larger impacts of climate changes due to global warming. It is possible that wind power provides a double benefit both by reducing global warming and by creating additional climate changes that slightly reduce the impacts of that warming.”

    In a phone call David Keith said that a world-wide wind energy use of 50 TW could be seen as being a quite sensible estimation. This would be

    50 TW * 8760 h/a = 438,000 TWh/a

    or nearly 30 times the actual world wide electricity production. Here again the huge offshore potentials have not been mentioned. What is clear is that no problematic climatic changes would result if we would produce our total electricity from wind power (By the way, about half of the CO2 Emissions are a result of our electricity production.). Much higher potentials are available.

    See also following e-mail of David W. Keith

    The Influence of large-scale wind power on Global Climate

  8. 108
    Lee Perkins says:

    Response to your response to 103 Raypierre.

    I am not sure why you say geologists would find my statement bizarre. You must walk in different geological circles than I do, or be studying a different planet, or both. I guess we can agree to disagree on whether the earth’s climate has been warmer in the past than it is today. Personally, I find it bizarre that anyone with any knowledge of even the Mesozoic, much less other periods of geologic time could say that the planet is anywhere near as warm today as it has been in the past.

    [Response: No one is claiming that the Earth was not warmer at some points in the past. What is bizarre is assuming that people working on modern climates have no knowledge of deep time climate change. Both Ray and I have published on Cretaceous, PETM, Snowball Earth etc. -gavin]

    As far as the Kyoto treaty goes: [not in this forum – gavin]


    From what I have read, man contributes about 0.4% (point four of one percent) of the greenhouse gases produced on earth. One good volcanic eruption effects the planet’s climate more than a decade of man’s activities. “Global warming” may be occurring, and it may not. If it is, it is most likely not because of man’s activities. We give ourselves entirely too much credit.

    [Response: Rubbish. Read this post for both the source of that (incorrect) number and why the actual amount is around 30%. -gavin]

    Although fiction, Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear” very nicely illustrates my view of the global warming “movement”. The nutshell version can be found here: if you care to read it. Bottom line, science and politics should not be mixed in large quantities.

    [Response: I agree, science and politics can be treated separately – but the sine qua non of doing so is properly representing the science. The distorted, misleading and frankly highly politicised take that Crichton presents is the antithesis of un-politicised science. – gavin]

  9. 109
    Steve Sadlov says:

    RE: #103. My finding is that most geologists are with you (and me). There are, however, a faction who are not. I know this because I am a former member of said faction. An anecdote. I was doing my undergrad studies. There were about 5 or 6 of us on our way back from some field work, in the same Carryall. So, me, being the young, romantic Gaia worshipper (this was back when I was young, dumb and impressionable) blurted out one or another stock radical Green comment. Sitting next to me is this “country boy” fellow geology candidate, probably the son of a geologist, raised some place geologists of that day tended to live. He called me a “quaternary urbanite.” I remember seething at the time, and thinking he was some sort of “fascist, on the take from Big Oil.” Of course, time, age and wisdom intervened, and now I can see the fool I was back then. However, how many other people who were young Greenies back during the “Greenhouse: It WILL Happen In 1997” / Earth First heyday did not grow up, as I *thankfully* did?

  10. 110
    Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Re 107

    James Lovelock writes “We could grow enough to feed ourselves on the diet of the Second World War, but the notion that there is land to spare to grow biofuels, or be the site of wind farms, is ludicrous.”

    Lovelock’s partisan perspective on technical “solutions” to the GHG problem appears to undermine his credibility as a scientist.

    While Onshore Wind power can, obviously, co-exist with agriculture, its failings in terms of lack of return to the host community, of intermittency of supplly, of aesthetic intusion, and of bird-kills, etc, have yet to be resolved.

    That we cannot afford to re-dedicate farmland for biofuels’ production does seem patently obvious, particularly in the light of growing food insecurity due to climate destabilization, to population growth, and to the commercial encouragement of meat-eating.

    Yet these factors do not apply to the globally massive areas of uplands and hill lands that are of only marginal agricutural value, and hold very great potential for Forest energies.

    As with any power source the desirability of Forest Energy’s use depends on the ethic governing the detail of its development. That said, if it is sustainably managed, this could provide a supply of fuelwood, charcoal, woodgas,(CO+H2), methanol (CH3OH0 & derivatives, power-on-demand, and surplus heat.

    That Forest Energy has the potential to provide these without interdicting food supply, with some potential for carbon sequestraion in new woodlands, and could provide additional rural employment practically wherever trees grow well, would appear to make it a prime option for development.

    Yet rather like say Geothermal and Wave-energy, it is ignored by Lovelock (and most commetators) in favour of a sterile and commercially convenient debate of Nuclear versus Onshore Wind + Agri-biofuels.

    I would suggest that Lovelock’s views on the energy options are thus irrelevant to their serious discussion.



  11. 111
    David B. Benson says:

    Re 106 and nuclear power

    There simply is not enough minable uranium to supply 9000 stations, even once.

  12. 112
    J. Sperry says:

    Re Raypierre’s response in #103:

    By the way: guess which country has reduced coal usage in the past 5 years, China or the US? (hint — it’s not US).

    This is quite hard to believe (not that the answer isn’t US, but that China is). The US Dept. of Energy
    says that coal usage in the US has increased 5.3% while coal usage in China has increased 14.0%, using the latest available 5 years of data (1999-2003). To get a decrease from 2001-2005, the two years of data not yet available would have to show a greater than 12.9% decrease for China to show reduced coal usage, which would be difficult to reconcile with the upward projections through 2025. (For instance, from 2001-2010, a projected 70% increase for China vs. 16% increase for US).

    However, coal usage as a percentage of total energy appears to be decreasing in China, if that’s what you mean. The US DOE sums it up as follows (as of Aug. 2005), “China’s demand for coal is rising rapidly as its economy grows… Over the longer term, China’s coal demand is projected to rise significantly. While coal’s share of overall Chinese energy consumption is projected to fall, coal consumption will still be increasing in absolute terms.”

  13. 113
    Lee Perkins says:

    Response to Gavin in 108

    Gavin: “No one is claiming that the Earth was not warmer at some points in the past.”

    Thank You

    Gavin: “What is bizarre is assuming that people working on modern climates have no knowledge of deep time climate change.”

    I never said that ALL of the people working on said subject, just most…. In addition, the public discourse regarding GW seldom (I would say never, but….) mentions anything about todays temps as compared to those of past eras. Any public discussion that I have heard simply says we are getting warmer (warmer than what?), and we are the cause. I am sure you are aware of the Holocene maximum which ocurred during man’s existance, but before industrialization. You certainly don’t have to go back to the Cretaceous to see evidence of higher temps.

    Gavin: “not in this forum” (Kyoto treaty)

    Sorry to hear that. If this forum is going to discuss that proposed phenomenon of man made GW, the proposed solutions would seem to have some import.

    Gavin: “rubbish”

    So is this I suppose:

    [Response: Yes, this too is rubbish. See the post “Calculating the Greenhouse effect” for details. -gavin]

    Gavin: “I agree, science and politics can be treated separately”

    Can be? Hmm. I would go a step further, and say SHOULD be. Whether that is possible with this subject is another matter altogether.

    Gavin: “The distorted, misleading and frankly highly politicised take that Crichton presents is the antithesis of un-politicised science.”

    I’m thinking that perhaps you missed the point, at least as I see it. The point he is making is that we have enacted policies, as nations, in the past based on scientific suppositions that were, at the time, supported by many revered institutions, and prominent scientists only to find out later that those suppostitions were false. Further, these rash actions caused untold misery, and even death, for millions of people. He simply does not want to see us go down the same road again. He who does not study history is destined to…..

    What I, and others on “the other side” of this discussion see is a general PUBLIC acceptance of a scientific supposition that is far from conclusive given what we know of the earths past. The widespread acceptance of same has the potential to lead to bad policy; policy that can needlessly cause undue human suffering.

    Kudos to Steve #109 and J. Sperry #112.

  14. 114
    Pat Neuman says:

    “In the scientific community, there is no question that the Earth will be warmer in the future. The remaining questions are how warm, and what climate surprises we might expect.”
    Managing Global Warming Risk

    Earth ‘on fast track’ to warming
    By Paul Rincon
    BBC News science reporter, St Louis
    “The findings came from probing sediments on the ocean floor Greenhouse gases are being released 30 times faster than the rate of emissions that triggered a period of extreme global warming in the Earth’s past.”

    Ocean Warmer Than A Hot Tub
    by Staff Writers
    St Louis MO (SPX) Feb 20, 2006
    “Scientists have found evidence that tropical Atlantic Oceantemperatures may have once reached 107°F (42°C) “about 25°F (14°C) higher than ocean temperatures today and warmer than a hot tub.”

    St. Louis Independent Media Center

  15. 115
    Hank Roberts says:

    Has anyone besides Lonnie Thompson focused specifically on the kind of event he’s been talking about —

    As far as I know he doesn’t have a cause, but says he sees a clear effect signaled in the ice cores, something happened rather suddenly 5200 years ago, perhaps a brief up-spike of solar output (I’d wonder if it might also be a dust cloud crossing the solar system, or something else, that could show up in the ice cores).

    It seems a quite specific description — yet I don’t hear it talked about. Perhaps because with only one event, there’s no way to say what the heck happened?

    I guess the “skeptics” don’t want to talk about his findings because he says people are doing now what some natural event did 5200 years ago — causing a sudden warming spike.

    But how about the climatologists — is he by himself in this particular concern? Are there discussions anywhere looking at his material?

    It fits with Lovelock’s comments to me, because it sounds like Lovelock is saying humans have taken up all the slack in the climate system, putting us out at one extreme, where if we aren’t just lucky Earth can’t recover easily from what we’ve done, let alone from another natural sudden change if one comes along.

  16. 116
    Lee Perkins says:

    That would have been almost in the middle of the Holocene maximum, which is the hottest period in human history. I don’t think anyone knows for sure what caused it, but solar activity would certainly be plausible.

    [Response: Not solar activitiy, but orbital forcing (see Schmidt et al, 2004 for some discussion) – but be careful that you don’t overextrapolate undoubted northern high latitude warmth to global warmth – Kim et al (QSR, 2004) show good evidence that it was cooler in the tropics. Thus the global mean change is somewhat ambiguous. Models suggest either very minor changes in the global mean or a slight cooling (assoiciated mainly with the minor reduction in GHGs compared to the more modern pre-industrial). -gavin]

  17. 117
    Coby says:

    NOAA claims to understand the Holocene pretty well and their conclusion is that it was not a pervasively warmer period than today, basically due to orbital changes in insolation, it was only warmer during summers in the northern hemisphere.

  18. 118
    Hank Roberts says:

    So Thompson is suggesting a unique event on top of an orbital forcing, if I understand it, one that was enough to tip the climate to change? I realize the modelers may not be working at the resolution he’s describing finding in ice cores.

    I know the Sun’s not particularly prone to flares or sunspot minima that we know of, but I can imagine those, or a dust cloud in the solar system’s path, being the sort of unique extra kick at the climate system.

    Or something like a flock of these hitting the Sun:

    (link is to a cached HTML version; original is a Word .DOC file accessible from the linked page).

    Just speculating, trying to guess what Dr. Thompson is suggesting might’ve happened to make a brief sudden excursion (presumably the models would ‘average that out’ if it’s not put in explicitly?)

  19. 119
    Coby says:

    Re #113

    I’m thinking that perhaps you missed the point, at least as I see it. The point he is making is that we have enacted policies, as nations, in the past based on scientific suppositions that were, at the time, supported by many revered institutions, and prominent scientists only to find out later that those suppostitions were false.

    At the risk of straying too far off topic, what are you refering to? The only time I hear this is from people who do not believe in the Ozone Hole and/or mistakenly believe that DDT is banned for use against malaria.

    As for missing Crichton’s point, I thought his point was that Global Warming is a hoax perpetrated by a powerful and corrupt environmental movement on the populace as a way of becoming rich and more powerful. It is also clear that he has no understanding of the scientific basis for AGW.

  20. 120
    Lee Perkins says:

    Coby: “The only time I hear this is from people who do not believe in the Ozone Hole and/or mistakenly believe that DDT is banned for use against malaria.”

    Any time you hear what? That the best science is done outside of the public, and political arenas? That govenments should not inact policies that have potentially adverse effects on their citizens based on the science of the day? The best science I know of is done without a preconceived outcome, and without outside opinionated influence. The best governmental policies are based on science done in that environment.

    It is apparent that people get different things out of what Crichton is saying.

    The book, of course, is fiction, and should be viewed as such. Most works of fiction that deal with real life issues skew their portrayal of those events in one direction or another (read: dramatization) for entertainment value. What I am referring to is his statement found here which is entitled “Why Politicized Science is Dangerous”. If you believe that the issue of GW has not become politicized you must have been on a very long vacation in a very remote place. If you think that the politicization of a scientific issue is beneficial….well, I just don’t know what to say to that.

    Regardless of what side of this issue you are on, as scientists, we (at least most of us) loath the the fact that GW has become such fodder for politicians, and the media alike since the facts so often get lost in those arenas. Unfortunately, bad science is more likely to be done in environments such as this. A good example of the politicization of this issue, and the less than desirable effects of that politicization can be seen in the testimony of Patrick Michaels before congress when he showed only one of three curves from a graph that Jim Hansen had presented in order to try and discredit Hansens testimony (to Gavin: from your update on that curve, it looks like we may be tracking C).

    It may surprise you that the example I use here shows how a global warming OPPONENT altered data to suit his needs, but, in my opinion, it makes no difference on which side that type of behavior occurs, it’s wrong. I am sure there are plenty of examples I could find for both sides of this discussion.

    [Response: Any science that is policy relevant will likely be politicised to an extent which, as Roger Pielke Jr is fond of saying, is because it is easier to cherry-pick (uncertain) science results that fit your policy agenda, rather than argue about your values. This is one reason why governments set up agencies like the IPCC or the NAS to give more considered summaries and assessments than simply asking individual scientists what they think. By and large that works as well as can be expected. However, the only time that people start jumping up and down and complaining that the ‘science is poiticised’ is when they disagree with the consensus opinions, which is just another level of ‘scientizing’ the policy debate. Having seen Crichton in action, there is absolutely no doubt that his sudden concern about politicisation is simply because he doesn’t like the answer that scientists are giving. One of the roles of scientists (and here on RC) in this case is to point out where people are misusing science studies (which happens across the spectrum) and explain why the mainstream position is what it is. Crichton is a notorious abuser of science results, and as such loses credibility when decrying the ‘politicisation’ of the science. Everyone agrees that is bad, but when the worst offenders start pointing the fingers, methinks they protest too much…. – gavin]

  21. 121
    Henry Molvar says:

    Re Stefan’s response to #106
    “…nuclear industry representative proposed a plan to stop global warming with the help of nuclear power, and concluded that to achieve that, 9,000 new nuclear power stations should be built by the year 2040.”

    I do not envision nuclear power as the only weapon in our arsenal to stop global warming. Wind, solar, bio-fuels, etc. are all very attractive in this pursuit and should all be encouraged. Adding a safer and more efficient standardized nuclear power plant design to these others is what I had in mind.

    Re # 111
    A new standardized design would eliminate this constraint if it were the fast-neutron type.

    Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste. William H. Hannum, Gerald E. Marsh and George S. Stanford, Scientific American, December, 2005
    Fast-neutron reactors could extract much more energy from recycled nuclear fuel, minimize the risks of weapons proliferation and markedly reduce the time nuclear waste must be isolated.

  22. 122

    Comment on #71, #72 and #110 and others: Volatility of wind energy

    There have been some concerns about the fluctuations of wind energy which I would like to comment.

    Some people see a insolvable problem in the volatile nature of wind energy. Looking a one single wind mill nature of wind seems to be very problematic. Wind does not switch on if I switch on my hot plate. Everybody can approve this. But the approach is a bit too simple. Not everybody switches on his hot plate at the same time and no wind mill sees the same wind as the other. Here is a key for, how to come to very high shares of wind power in the electricity supply.

    The bigger the area where wind energy is used for a common electricity supply the less volatile the common production. In my paper

    “High wind power penetration within huge catchment areas shown in an European example”

    Bernhard Ernst and I present our studies about this topic comparing the smoothing effects of wind power production beginning with two wind mills near each other, smoothing the production for timescales of about one minute and ending with distances of some thousands of kilometres. Latter prove to be able to smooth out even seasonal variations.

    In my internet presentation

    Global Renewable Energy Potential – Approaches to its Use

    I furthermore show on a very simple example how one could use the smoothing effects of wind power spread over huge distances combined only with existing storage hydro power to provide the electricity supply for western Europe. This begins with “Folie 50”

    and ends with “Folie 65”. Only a small part of 1.4% of the electricity is not delivered at the time it is asked for. Therefore this would have to be delivered from another backup system.

    A detailed study of a totally renewable electricity supply for Europe and its neighbours I have done for my scenarios. It is an approach which searches for the cost optimumof our future electricity supply including production and transmission of electricity where the supply of the electricity demand is an unavoidable side condition. Details of my scenarios you find in publication

    Low Cost but Totally Renewable Electricity Supply for a Huge Supply Area – a European/Transeuropean Example
    Here you find a description of the approach, some results of different scenarios (costs of electricity, security aspects, comparison of the costs with national economies, transferability of the results…) and a short description of the most important input parameters and assumptions. As an overview I would recommend the chapters

    – Abstract
    – 1 Overview
    – 6 Scenarios: Cost-Optimised Electricity Supply Entirely with Renewable Energies
    – 7 Conclusions Drawn from the Scenarios

    In chapter 6 findings are presented which show that a totally renewable electricity supply with today’s technology at today’s costs (investment and O&M) for all system components utilised is possible and could deliver electricity at about 4.5 ct/kWh to Europe and its neighbours. An international system for producing and transmitting renewable electricity is found as the best solution. In the economic optimal case 72% of the electricity is produced from wind energy. Remarkable, only 4% of the possible production from wind energy can not be used since they exceed the actual demand. Some details you find in the article. The scenarios can be understood as solid basis for further decisions since they are calculated on a very conservative basis, even with respect to the economic implications. They demonstrate the affordability of a renewable electricity supply. They demonstrate the possibility to overcome the intermittency problem. They demonstrate the economic reasonable solvability of the CO2 problem (az least in the electricity sector which actually is responsible for about 50%).

    The rest is “just” politics. ;-)

    PS: Some further information on the intermittency “problem”. You find within:
    Tackling The Intermittency Myth (Corin Millais, EWEA Chief Executive)

  23. 123
    Randall Simpson says:

    I have not read Lovelock’s new book, but a few points in to chew on related the the general notion or “gut feeling” that something nasty is ahead as Gaia has her “revenge”.

    If you look at the balance of atmospheric and geological forces from the perspective of Chaos theory…Lovelock’s gut feeling is quite justified. He doesn’t have to know exactly what is going to happen nor have any theory to explain it with precision. When you take a delicately balanced system and suddenly interject chaotic elements into it…you can simply know that “something” chaotic will happen. For example, set slow trickle of water from a kitchen tap until a stable flow is happening. Then simply stick your finger in that flow so that the water splashes about and runs in a chaotic manner down your finger. You did not know and could not predict exactly what sort of splashes and chaotic flow would occur, but you could have a gut feeling that something chaotic was about to happen. Exactly the same thing now with the even flow of Gaia’s natural balances that human induced rapid change is about to disrupt. Human’s are sticking their “fingers” in the flow of Gaia’s natural atmospheric and other cycles. We can’t possibly know exactly what will occur, even with our most powerful supercomputers as the future will be a chaotic event…suffice to say, that if an even flow has been good for developing human civilzation, the chaotic events ahead (of which Hurricane Katrina type events may be a early taste of), will not be considered as friendly to human comfort or survival. In sum, we have not yet learned to apply Chaos theory most effectively to the grand experiment we are conducting to the planet…but as we stick our fingers in the flow…we can be certain that this indeed could be viewed as Gaia’s revenge.

    [Response: I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of both chaos, and of the dynamics of the climate system. You don’t go around “injecting” chaos – what would this mean? You might, perhaps, change the forcing and move the dynamical system towards an unstable state… but there is precious little evidence for that – William]

  24. 124
    Randall Simpson says:

    To William’s response to my comment:

    Anyone who is a trained scientist reading my post can quickly probably see that I am not a “trained” scientist, but I disagree about my general understanding of both Chaos Theory and the dynamics of the climate system. Humans are the finger in the steady flow of this “system”. We are disrupting the system and this “experiement” and its results are quite in line with tipping a system into a chaotic and unpredictable period. Of course there are not chaotic elements that you introduce. Just like a finger itself in the steady flow of water from a faucet is not “chaotic” in itself, it “tips” a steady and predictable system into chaotic behavior that is not predictable. Scientists I feel will be quite frustrated by attempts to predict the future climate by any standard models or theories. Specific events during Chaotic episodes are by their nature unpredictable.

  25. 125
    Steve Latham says:

    I read this regarding the new mars orbiter:

    “Present-day Mars is dry and cold with large caps of frozen water at its poles, but scientists believe the planet once was warmer and wetter eons ago — conditions that might have been suitable for life.”

    I knew this, but it seems to disagree with the idea that the sun has been getting hotter (and Gaia fighting to remain cool). Why has mars become so cold (or why was it so warm before)? Oh, I just checked your global warming on Mars ( — it’s the eliptical orbit interaction with the axis of rotation to the sun thing. But does this mean that its ice caps melted every 170,000 years?