A few days ago, the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking gave a speech in London in which he said that nuclear war no longer poses the only threat to humanity's very existence. According to Hawking, the dangers posed by climate change are now almost equally as great, and we must do everything that is humanly possible if we are to have any hope of averting them.
When James Lovelock heard about Hawkings' lecture, three hundred and fifty kilometers away at his remote estate near Cornwall, he exclaimed loudly: "Hawking is underestimating the danger."
Lovelock is a chemist, inventor, author and visionary environmental guru. Using a detector he invented himself, he was the first to provide evidence of ozone-consuming fluorochlorohydrocarbons (FCHC) in the atmosphere. More importantly, Lovelock is the inventor of the famous "Gaia hypothosis," which holds that the planet (which he named after the Greek goddess of the Earth, Gaia), constantly controls all of its systems on land, in the water and in the air in such a way as to preserve life -- almost as if the earth itself were a living organism.
Lovelock's fellow scientists were initially appalled by the New Age nature of his theory. But now his ideas have not only become a cornerstone of the environmental movement, but have also acquired a new name: "Earth System Science."
Lovelock's current prognoses for the earth's inhabitants are as gloomy as they are provocative. He is convinced that the 21st century will not be a good one. He claims that climate change caused by human activity will devastate large swaths of the earth, and by the year 2100 there will only be about a billion people left -- and possibly only half as many.
Lovelock is now 87 years old and happy that he will be able to avoid this future -- although he has nine grandchildren. Sometimes he feels like a Roman citizen living around the year 480, watching as an empire meant for eternity fades away, or like a doctor delivering a fatal diagnosis. And at times he probably relishes how he distresses his audiences (he is in demand worldwide as a speaker) in his role as a prophet of doom. "Even a nuclear war," says Lovelock, "would not lead to the level of devastation worldwide that global overheating will cause."
No world power, no scientist, no politician, no consumer forsaking his or her familiar comforts, and neither emissions trading nor wind energy nor biofuels will be capable of preventing the earth's demise, he says. According to Lovelock, it will at best be possible to delay the catastrophe for a while -- primarily through the massive expansion of nuclear energy.
Lovelock presents his bold theories in his shocking page-turner "The Revenge of Gaia," which will be published in German in February. The gist of Lovelock's message is that humanity must begin an "orderly retreat" involving smart planning and technology if it hopes to save its most precious asset: civilization itself.
Hardly any reputable climate researcher or politician is willing to wholeheartedly embrace this combative octogenarian's predictions. After all, the civilized world is beginning to seriously address the need to protect itself against climate change. Climate change was one of the dominant topics at last week's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged her counterparts to devise a new climate treaty. The Kyoto Protocol will expire in 2012, but a successor treaty is not yet in sight.
In a letter delivered to US President George W. Bush last week, the heads of global corporations like General Electric, Dupont and Alcoa urged him to support radical measures to protect the world's climate. After having long turned a deaf ear to the problem, Bush has suddenly taken to calling climate change a "serious challenge."
Lovelock, the apocalyptic prophet, is only moderately impressed by such efforts. The elderly gentleman sits in his study on his estate eating cookies and drinking hot chocolate. The stream outside used to freeze over almost every winter, he says, but this hasn't happened since 1991. England's first commercial olive grove was recently planted, and vineyards are also becoming established there. Scorpions will soon be indigenous to Kent, which has always enjoyed the kind of mild climate that has made its gardens famous. Botanists say that palm trees and eucalyptus will be part of England's future landscape.
Lovelock believes that the world needs different political leaders, politicians who are willing to accept the unavoidable and stop pretending that they can do something to stop global warming.
Part II: Avoiding environmental Armageddon
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