In November, the British Environmental Agency published a list of 100 people who have made significant contributions to saving the world. Lovelock, the Gaia Nostradamus, is fifth on the list, which puts him ahead of environmental activists like Al Gore and Prince Charles. French President Jacques Chirac recently offered him a position on a senior French climate committee. Lovelock will travel to Paris in February.
At the end of this week, an event will take place in Paris that will likely heat up the global warming debate even further. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will present its fourth World Climate Report, the first since 2001. On Friday the IPCC's Working Group I will present a report, based on the most detailed scientific models to date, describing how the planet's climate will change by 2100 and beyond.
Their conclusions reflect a consensus among more than 2,500 researchers and government employees from more than 130 countries. Although members of the working group are likely to grapple over the contents of the report until the very end, some of its conclusions have already been leaked.
According to the group's conclusions, there are no longer any doubts over the validity of the manmade greenhouse effect. Icebergs and glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising and both the air and the oceans are getting warmer. Climatologists have calculated that the average temperature on earth, compared to the pre-industrial age, will have increased by between 2 and 4.5 degrees Celsius (3.6 and 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. The most likely scenario predicts an increase of 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit).
Not everything the IPCC researchers have to report is bad news. They have made a surprisingly significant downward correction to their prediction of the maximum increase in sea levels by the end of the century -- from 88 centimeters (35 inches) to only 43 (17 inches).
The outlook for the more distant future is less favorable. The greenhouse gases released by human activity during the 21st century alone will continue to cause sea levels to rise for the next 1,000 years, a reflection of just how long the gases remain active in the atmosphere.
In early April, the IPCC's Working Group II will analyze what all this means for life on Earth. The most disturbing report will appear in early May, when Working Group III explains everything else humankind still needs to do.
Lovelock is convinced that he has recognized that in the past Gaia has consistently endeavored to keep living conditions on earth as constant as possible. Although the sun's radiation is now 30 percent more intense than it was when the planet was born, temperatures on earth have not increased by 30 percent. The Earth, says Lovelock, regulates its operating temperature through the interplay between ground, water, air, plants, bacteria and all the animals. But suddenly it was confronted with what Lovelock calls "the human epidemic." In other words, by cutting down forests and engaging in agriculture, humans deprived Gaia of its repair mechanisms.
Gaia, says Lovelock, has been overcome by a fever that has launched a new geological era, one in which disastrous effects are feeding on themselves. In other words, it is getting warmer because it is getting warmer. Someday, says Lovelock, crocodiles will be swimming in the Arctic Ocean once again, just as they did 55 million years ago.
"Our situation," Lovelock says, "is similar to that of a boat that suddenly loses engine power shortly before reaching Niagara Falls. What's the point of trying to repair the engine?" To save what it can, Lovelock believes, the world must embark on a completely different path. Most important, it must abandon the notion of "green romanticism."
Lovelock has nothing but ridicule for environmentalists' favorite issues, such as "sustainable development" and "renewable energy," calling them "well-meaning nonsense." He is convinced that wind and solar energy will never be even remotely capable of meeting worldwide energy needs. In China alone, for example, a new large coal power plant is put into operation every five days, imposing additional burdens on the atmosphere. The only solution, according to Lovelock, is the massive expansion of nuclear energy worldwide.
A reliable supply of electricity, says Lovelock, is the key issue when it comes to survival on a warmer planet. He loses no sleep over the risks of nuclear power.
"Show me the mass graves of Chernobyl," he demands provocatively. No more than a few thousand people died after the 1986 meltdown -- a small price to pay, he says, compared to the millions who could fall victim to CO2. He adds that compact nuclear waste is vastly easier to control than the close to 30 billion tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere each year by the burning of fossil fuels.
"Fanatical Greens" who confuse nuclear power with nuclear bombs, says Lovelock, have discredited this source of energy. Do-gooders, he adds, are concerned about pesticide residues in bananas and the link between mobile phones and cancer, all the while accepting CO2 poisoning as a necessary evil. "They strain out the mosquitoes while blithely swallowing camels," he says.
Lovelock does give his readers at least some reason for optimism. Humankind, he writes, could use the tools of technology to ease its suffering. For example, engineers should develop jet engines that can tolerate traces of sulfur in kerosene. This, according to Lovelock, would be the easiest way to eject sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere, where they would reflect sunlight back into space, thereby helping cool the earth. Giant mirrors positioned in space would be another option.
And yet none of this will prevent the planet's illness from progressing, at least according to Lovelock's diagnosis, which is ultimately fatal.
But, like almost all prophets of doom, Lovelock will no longer be around to witness the possibility that he could be wrong.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan