Lovelock outraged many Greens by criticizing as irrational the green movement’s fear of nuclear generation as a way to reduce carbon emissions
By Paul MacRae
James Lovelock, the inventor of the “Gaia” theory of planetary wholeness, died July 26, 2022, at the age of 103.
Lovelock, a medical doctor and ecologist, came to prominence with his theory of “Gaia,” which proposed that thanks to human consciousness the Earth had achieved a kind of sentience. He wrote that he was not “thinking of the Earth as alive in a sentient way, or even alive like an animal or a bacterium,”1 but Gaia is nonetheless a “vast being who in her entirety has the power to maintain our planet as a fit and comfortable habitat for life” and she is “now through us awake and aware of herself.”2
As an example of Gaia’s power, Lovelock noted that although the Sun has increased its intensity by about 30 per cent since the Earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago, Gaia had rather cleverly put the planet in an ice age so it won’t burn up,3 a strategy that worked well until human beings began to heat up Gaia with our fossil-fuel emissions, creating what he called a “fever.”
Indeed, for Lovelock, people were “perceptibly disabling the planet like a disease.”4 As a result of this disease (us), he asserted: “Before this century [the 21st century] is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.”5 For the ultra-alarmist Lovelock, what was most important “is the health of the Earth, not the health of people”6—a frankly anti-humanist position
Gaia is a religious belief, not scientific fact
He acknowledged that the Gaia hypothesis was “like a religious belief … scientifically untestable,”7 which it most definitely was not. For example, perhaps human carbon emissions (the “fever”) are overcoming Gaia’s attempts to keep the planet cool in the face of a warming sun. But it’s also possible that carbon emissions are part of Gaia’s plan to keep the planet from getting too cold—we are within about five degrees Celsius of the next glaciation, which really would make parts of the world uninhabitable.
Either explanation works perfectly well; there is no testable, falsifiable hypothesis here, so, yes, Lovelock’s Gaia idea does not come close to qualifying as “science”; it is basically a religion or myth. In fact, Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is stock Old Testament stuff: humans are evil, God is angry (one of Lovelock’s books is entitled The Revenge of Gaia), and the Apocalypse is coming soon, just as the early Christians believed. Based as it is on the traditional Western religious archetypes, it’s perhaps not surprising that so many Greens have bought into the Gaia myth.
Moving to a realistic position
So, Lovelock began as an ultra-alarmist. But over time his views evolved into a much more realistic position and he wasn’t afraid to admit that he might have been wrong in his earlier extreme views, in part because he valued scientific truth over alarmist ideology, noting:
Fudging the data in any way whatsoever is quite literally a sin against the holy ghost of science, I’m not religious, but I put it that way because I feel so strongly. It’s the one thing you do not ever do. You’ve got to have standards.8
Looking at the alarmist climate data, Lovelock observed a lot of fudging:
The great climate science centres around the world are more than well aware how weak their science is. If you talk to them privately they’re scared stiff of the fact that they don’t really know what the clouds and the aerosols are doing. They [clouds and aerosols] could be absolutely running the show. We haven’t got the physics worked out yet.
We do need scepticism about the predictions about what will happen to the climate in 50 years, or whatever. It’s almost naive, scientifically speaking, to think we can give relatively accurate predictions for future climate. There are so many unknowns that it’s wrong to do it.9
support for nuclear power
He also became more realistic about the claims that renewable energy sources—including solar and wind—could somehow take us to the next, carbon-neutral level of civilization, as claimed by so many environmentalists and green politicians.
Instead, Lovelock outraged many Greens by endorsing nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions and by criticizing as irrational the green movement’s fear of nuclear power.10 He wrote:
Renewable energy sounds good, but so far it is inefficient and expensive. It has a future, but we have no time now to experiment with visionary energy sources: civilization is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear energy now, or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet. … Nuclear energy is merely the medicine that sustains a steady secure source of electricity to keep the lights of civilization burning until clean and everlasting fusion, the energy that empowers the sun, and renewable energy are available.11 [emphasis added]
Lovelock cited reams of statistics showing that nuclear plants, far from being risky, are in fact far safer than any other type of energy generation. So, for example, he noted, from 1970-1992 coal had 342 deaths per terawatt year (twy) of energy, almost entirely coal workers. Natural gas had 85 deaths per terawatt year, to members of both the public and workers. Hydroelectric power had 883 deaths per twy, mostly to members of the public due, for example, to bursting dams. Deaths in nuclear plants? Eight workers per terawatt year—a mere one per cent of the deaths caused by non-carbon-emitting, renewable hydroelectric power.12
This more realistic Lovelock even had good things to say about climate skeptics:
I think you have to accept that the skeptics have kept us sane — some of them, anyway. They have been a breath of fresh air. They have kept us from regarding the science of climate change as a religion. It had gone too far that way. There is a role for skeptics in science. They shouldn’t be brushed aside. It is clear that the angel side wasn’t without sin.13
Lovelock is a fine example of a scientist who moved from an alarmist (even ultra-alarmist) position to a much more realistic view that is based not on ideology but on scientific facts—Lovelock was honest enough to recognize that the facts supported a realist position, not alarmist dogma, when it came to coping with climate change. It’s a pity more so-called climate “scientists” haven’t taken a similar cold, hard look at the data and joined Lovelock on the realistic side of the argument.
- James E. Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia, Toronto: Penguin Books, 2006, p. 20. ↩
- Lovelock, Gaia. Toronto: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979, pp. vii, 2, 148. ↩
- Gaia, p. 20. ↩
- Revenge, pp. 55-57. ↩
- Lovelock, “The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever.” The Independent, Jan. 20, 2006. ↩
- Revenge, p. 8. ↩
- Revenge, p. 20. ↩
- Leo Hickman, “Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change.” Interview with James Lovelock. The Guardian, March 29, 2010. ↩
- Hickman, “Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change.” ↩
- Revenge, p. 112 ↩
- Revenge, p. 14. ↩
- Revenge, p. 131. ↩
- Charles Clover, “Grandaddy of green, James Lovelock, warms to eco-skeptics.” Sunday Times, March 14, 2010. ↩