Renewed Doomsday Debate Abroad

It is hard to imagine any American news organization doing what The Independent of London's online edition did this week: give top billing to a dire global warming scenario from a leading environmental scientist.

"The world has already passed the point of no return for climate change, and civilisation as we know it is now unlikely to survive, according to James Lovelock, the scientist and green guru who conceived the idea of Gaia -- the Earth which keeps itself fit for life," the liberal London daily reported Monday.

The Independent's coverage was prompted by the upcoming release of Lovelock's new book, "The Revenge of Gaia," in which Lovelock says the Earth is "seriously ill, and soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years."

Lovelock's "profoundly pessimistic new assessment" suggests "that efforts to counter global warming cannot succeed, and that, in effect, it is already too late," wrote the Independent's environmental editor Michael McCarthy.

"In making such a statement, far gloomier than any yet made by a scientist of comparable international standing, Professor Lovelock accepts he is going out on a limb. But as the man who conceived the first wholly new way of looking at life on Earth since Charles Darwin, he feels his own analysis of what is happening leaves him no choice," McCarthy wrote.

"As the century progresses, the temperature will rise 8 degrees centigrade in temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics," he contended.

"Much of the tropical land mass will become scrub and desert, and will no longer serve for regulation; this adds to the 40 per cent of the Earth's surface we have depleted to feed ourselves...Before this 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," he said.

Are Lovelock's dire predictions well-founded enough to constitute news?

The Independent followed up with reaction from various environmentalists, who share Lovelock's concerns over global warming, but seem "unable -- or unwilling -- to agree with the awesome proposition that it may already be too late to stop it."

When The Scotsman sought out climate specialists for their reaction, several said his prediction was less a certainty than a "worst case scenario," albeit a welcome one.

Dr. Richard Betts, a climate modeler, said, "In terms of billions of dead, I don't know that anyone really knows what the cost of climate change is going to be in terms of lives. There are a lot of physically possible mechanisms for major climate change, but the flip side of that is a lot of these things are unlikely."

"There is no evidence that we have passed any tipping point already," Dr. Myles Allen, head of the climate dynamics group at Oxford University's physics department to The Scotsman. "That said, today's levels of greenhouse gases could already be dangerously high if we kept them at today's level."

Professor John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Research, described Lovelock as "one of the most influential scientists on the environment for many years now" whose views have to be taken "very seriously."

"It is a very extreme scenario he is using, but we are at least on the road towards disaster," Schellenhuber said. "If there was five or six degrees Celsius of warming over the century, that would be a different world."

The Independent's story was picked up in by the Hamilton Spectator in Canada and the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia.

"I can understand Lovelock's pessemism, but I don't agree with it," scientist Tim Flannery told the SMH. "You just have to keep up hope ... We've got maybe one to two decades to address the issue,'' he said.

Lovelock's comments drew virtually no news coverage among the U.S. media.

By Jefferson Morley |  January 18, 2006; 11:10 AM ET  | Category:  Europe
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Hmmm, Lovelock is about to come out with a book and the Independent gives it front page coverage even though Morley found it hard to find anyone who supported Lovelock's views that we are "past the point of no return". Maybe the Independent is doing what Oprah or other shows do, provide advertising for the latest book via a news article. Try investigating that perspective.

Oh, and as far as Lovelock being highly regarded, I remember when the Gaia hypothesis was rolled out back in the 1970s. It was and has continued to be debunked. Its actually in the rhelm of religion more than science since it considers the entire earth as not only a single organism but that this organism actually tries to maintain itself. Guess he never heard of mass extinctions. Back then it was put in the same scientific catagory as Von Danikan's "Ancient Astronauts".

Posted by: Sully | January 18, 2006 11:24 AM

We may not be at the point of no return but if our abuse of natural resources is not addressed we will probably see a real doomsday threat within the next generation. The snow on Mt Kilimanjaro has melted after 11,000 years. 30% of the polar ice cap has melted and is already affecting wildlife populations of polar bears, seals and other species. The lack of the cooling agent for ocean currents as they pass the polar ice cap and head south is now threatening the delicate coral reefs of the Carribean. The water is much warmer as it reaches the south Atlantic and the Gulf. It is speculated that the warmer, more volitile water contributed to the destructive storm season that all but destroyed the Gulf coast. Boil a pot of water and you will see a microcosm of what is happening. It was just reported a few days ago that several species of frogs in S America are now extinct. The result could be an increase in the regional insect population. The insects feed on foliage and that could affect the health of the remaining rain forests. It's all interconnected. The warning signs are right in front of us and the US still has not signed the Kyoto Accords. American attitudes are still in denial so a doomsday prediction may create an awareness and a dialoge that would spur action to stop the denegration of the earth's delicate eco-system.

Posted by: mjoy | January 18, 2006 12:55 PM

Wouldn't it be nice if we could put Doctor Lovelock off as a kook, then we could go into our denial and pretend all is well. Doctor Lovelock is well respected scientist and I don't see the debunking the poster here talks about. I read the article yesterday in the Hamilton Spectator. He says he cannot see the worst natons cutting back on CO2 emissions, the USA or the emerging economies of China or India. There is no sign of abatement of CO2 emmissions yet there are signs of the superstorms that scientists say are a sign of no going back. Katrinagate as an example.
We also have the report of a core sample taken by a Russian-French group of scientists working at Russia's Vostok research station. This core sample, which was 2 miles long, shows that levels of greenhouse heat-trapping gasses are higher now than in the last 420,000 years. They prove once and for all this is not a regular cycle that the earth goes through. This period of global warming is unique and never seen in the period of four ice ages which are recorded in these samples.
We should be very scared.

Posted by: SpeakoutforDemocracy | January 18, 2006 01:20 PM

Lovelock has refined the Gaia hypothesis since the first model -- this is how science works.

He does not consider earth to be a sentient being, but he does maintain that all earth's system's work synergistically -- that sea temperatures are related to climate, that climate affects rock formation, that the chemical content of rocks determines the salinity of sea water ... etc.

Interestingly enough, they are just these sorts of interactions that science-illterate climate change naysayers try to cite when they try to refute global warming.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon | January 18, 2006 01:52 PM

Perhaps global warming is a blessing in disguise. It should help to counteract the effects of the nuclear winter that will result from the thermonuclear wars we will be having with Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and China in the not-so-distant future.

Also, a war with Iran should bring about the collapse of the world economy. This global depression should serve as a natural check on the rate of global warming. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has his silver lining ... well, maybe it's a plutonium lining, but it looks silver if you squint just right!

Posted by: Dr. Strangelove | January 18, 2006 03:07 PM

To be fair, there are scientists and climateologists that do not believe that global warming is being caused by man, and there IS evidence to back up their points. You never read their opinions in the papers though, do you? Lets involve all sides of the debate in these articles, they are typically very one-sided.

Posted by: Be Fair | January 18, 2006 03:42 PM

Psuedo-Science Claptrap..... The science behind this is a sad joke..... We cannot model weather for much more than 10-15 days and we are supposed to take his prediction (sorry, that doesn't quite describe it..... We have a term in Engineering for what he is doing, its called making a SWAG (Super Wild Assed Guess)) at face value.
I am not denying that humans have an impact on the environment but until there are definitive, adequately peer-reviewed models that can come close modeling the environment then I will continue to mock those who pull up stuff like this as "facts" and accepted theories...

Posted by: Daniel | January 18, 2006 03:45 PM

As a civil engineer, I am required to assure that dams can sustain some very improbable events - such as a probable maximum flood (PMF) (In DC, this is the runoff from a 42 inch rainstorm - most of it falling over just 6 hours - a one in thousands-years probability) This must be done, even if the consequences of such a failure are the deaths of only a handful of people.

Well, Lovelock's prediction may be improbable, maybe similarly improbable to a PMF, but look at the consequences - mass extinctions and the deaths of billions, maybe all of, humanity.

So, in considering taking strong action versus no action, in which direction would you prefer we err??

Posted by: Paul Donahue | January 18, 2006 04:10 PM

Daniel does not understand the difference between climate and weather.

Heat a cup of hot chocolate to 200 degrees. Tell me the specific heat properties of the cup, the liquid, and the outside air and I will accurately predict the temperature. I cannot predict the location of each marshmallow.

If that doesn't dumb it down enough for you, then you'll just have to accept that many people embrace this kooky theory that CO2 traps heat, even if you don't see any scientific evidence for it.

Posted by: cynical ex-hippie | January 18, 2006 04:21 PM

Also, Mr. Morley, I am curious to hear why you find it hard to believe the US press covering Lovelock's statement.

Aren't we supposed to have a free press?

I know the answer, but it requires quoting a person who the US press also quietly bans - Noam Chomsky.

Posted by: Paul Donahue | January 18, 2006 04:24 PM

to : Daniel and Sully

You both reference debunking, and other scientists who cotnradict global warming, but are unable to offer any references whatsoever.
"The scientific opinion on climate change, as expressed by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and explicitly endorsed by the national science academies of the G8 nations, is that the average global temperature has risen 0.6 ± 0.2 °C since the late 19th century, and that it is likely that "most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities" [1](

Not to go off topic, but your argument is the same as those who support Intelligent Design. I'm sure you can find scientists who argue with this statement. More often you will probably find scientists who argue with the mechanics of global warming. How much of it are humans responsible? How exactly does it occur. But when it comes to science there are global bodies that have voted, and have signed petitions where the vast majority of scientists agree with a single general position.

And to your point Daniel I don't understand what is to be gained by NOT acting against global warming. Exactly how will better environmental standards hirt the american economy. Capitalism is always held up as an amazing model for its ability to adapt to new challenges. Why are new regulations not just seen as new challenges?

What will be the harm to car companies if they are forced by legal measures to make better cars? What if manufacturing plants are forced to pollute less. Will they decide its just not worht it and shut down completely. Recently the Sarbanes Oxley legislation was enacted, and corporations responded they bought more computer software and other companies made more money, and employed more people. If plants are forced to install smokestack scrubbers, that may be bad for them, but isn't it good for smokestack scrubber manufacturers?

Posted by: | January 18, 2006 04:35 PM

If you are looking for scientists who dispute global warming you can find them here:

However I for one am currently sceptical on what sort of science will be highlighted by a lobbying group whose sole interest is in retarding any legislation to reduce global warming or greenhouse gas admission.

Much like Daniel:
Prof. F. Sherwood Rowland, atmospheric chemist and Nobel Laureate, University of California, Irvine: "The combination of things that might happen due to global warming make it worth trying to slow its effects now. But climate models are limited about what they can say will happen."

So something bad MAY happen, but because we aren't certain it will happen we shouldn't do anything about it. Would you look at the idea of buying insurance from the same perspective?

Posted by: Marco | January 18, 2006 05:05 PM

Can someone tell me how it comes it is mainly 'Murricans who go into 'intolerably rabid denial' mode when Global Warming comes up? So weird. It looks like that "superheros will safe us in the last minute" Hollywood stuff has gone seriously to the head of some.

Well, maybe one should pump a few billions into NASA not to go back to the moon but to find a way to put a reflecting ice layer around earth.

Hey! Was that thumb Halliburton submitting a no-bid proposal for implementation?

Ok, some serious numbers are here, maybe:

Posted by: El Tonno | January 18, 2006 05:15 PM

I am not a total skeptic, but since when is it bad for scientists to be skeptics? Aren't they supposed to be skeptical? It seems like the ones that dont fully agree with the warming people are ostricised. Also, trying to predict what will happen in 20 years let alone 100 is impossible. There are so many variables no one can predict like poplulation, technology, etc. Just a note that there should alwasy be debate and examination of both sides.

Posted by: George | January 18, 2006 05:26 PM

What are you skeptical of, George? Scientists who devote their lives to this study, or politicians and their corporate backers? It's misplaced skepticism that I find so annoying.

And who is ostracized, exactly? Is it Steve Malloy, self-proclaimed "science guy" for Fox News, who claims scientists are a bunch of liberals in cahoots with trial lawyers to bring down America?

Posted by: cynical ex-hippie | January 18, 2006 07:25 PM

The problem with the so-called science sceptics is that they all seem to be working on grants from Exxon Mobil.

And by the way, these predictions that the climate is changing do happen to coincide with our own experience. This summer was weird. Now this winter is also weird. I'm in Montreal and all our snow is melting, in the middle of January.

Really, what more do people need than the overwhelming consensus of almost all scientists, especially those not bought by industry, combined with our own experience of, for example, worsening hurricane seasons?

Are you waiting for God to tell GW or something?

If it's impossible to predict what will happen in twenty years, then we may as well abandon all attempts to have any policy on anything.

What is so clever about doing nothing? If we act and the Americans and oilmen turn out to be right (for once), then the worst we've done is spend a few bucks and perhaps alleviated a few air quality-related health problems.

If we don't act and the scientists turn out to be right, we may have just engineered our own extinction, even turned our planet into another Venus.

It seems like a total no-brainer to me. Perhaps that's why all the resistance is coming from a country where the voters have no brains.

Posted by: OD | January 18, 2006 09:26 PM

Simon wrote:
"Lovelock has refined the Gaia hypothesis since the first model -- this is how science works."

I beg to differ. Science works by defining hypotheses, making predictions based on those hypotheses, experimenting with those hypotheses and writing all of this down in papers that are submitted to scientific journals where scientific peers can review and try to understand and run experiments based on the hypotheses. Based on the reviews and additional experimentation the hypotheses are either supported, shown to need modification, or are not valid. That is how science works and I haven't heard the Gaia hypothesis placed into that type of scientific rigor since he first wrote his book. In fact his website is nothing more than promotions of his book and a chance to enlarge many pictures of himself. And considering the few scientists who back his Gaia hypothesis it remains more mystical than scientific.

Now having a "kook" support the scientific work of others for his own reasons should not reflect badly on the work of those others. Many climatologists have been working to produce the climate data, writing and submitting papers for review, building hypotheses and generally working through the scientific method to build what we have today, a very convincing model of CO2 increase that predicts the temperature change, warming ocean temps and melting ice cap measurements. That took thousands of scientists from many countries many years writing thousands of papers whcih were reviewed by thousands. That is what it takes for science to develop a good scientific hypothesis that has been rigorously tested. Lovelock and his hypothesis is as far from that level of science as a science fiction writer.

Not to get too down on Lovelock but I was stunned to read the following from his "approved" website. From the title he seems to link the Indian tsunami, Gaia and global warming. Then he correctly points out the tsunami would have nothing to do with Gaia (even if it were real). So why make the connection in the first place? He seems to be warning us of tsunami-like consequences but gives no rational for expecting even that except that "Gaia will react". More pseudoscience wrapped up with scare tactics. Why not just compare it to nuclear war or the ice age. This is not science, it is literature. Here's the website and the first paragraph of the article.
"The recent tsunami in the Indian ocean is a result of plate tectonics and of an Earthquake, i.e. physical movements of the crust of the Earth, which have only very little interaction (except over the very long term) with the living biosphere of Gaia (the atmosphere, and Earth's surface). But if we continue to fool around with the atmosphere, and continue to increase global warming by the unreasonable burning of fossil fuels, then Gaia will react, and storms and other catastrophic climatic events with consequences somewhat comparable to those of the recent tsunami (although produced by an entirely different mechanism) will result and will occur more and more frequently as time passes. In other words, there is no direct relation between Gaia, global warming due to human activity, and the recent tsunami; but this terrible event should be considered as a warning and incite us to be cautious about the way we interact with the climate by burning fossil fuels as we are doing today."

Posted by: Sully | January 18, 2006 10:34 PM

Since Lovelock is saying it's too late to stop it, in practical terms he's not the one the climate change deniers should be worried about.

It's the mainstream scientists who pose the real threat to their precious SUVs and smokestacks.

Like Sully, I rather wish Lovelock would go away. He's too easily dismissed as a hippie. And that makes it easier to dismiss more solid science.

What I find amusing is that the people who are so sceptical about climate change science are often the very same people who swallowed the non-existent 'evidence' of Iraqi WMD -- hook, line and sinker.

It seems far easier to persuade them to smash the planet up than to try to conserve it.

Perhaps that accounts for modern US diplomacy, whose basic message to the World seems to be:
"Tell you what, you swallow our paranoid fantasies about the threat posed by third-rate powers whose military budget is less than 1% of ours...and we promise in return to ignore your concerns about the scientific consensus that we're well on our way to ruining this planet."

Posted by: OD | January 18, 2006 10:52 PM

Once again Jeff's column proves it's worth. I worry that the water of the Gulf of Mexico, intereacting with broader ocean currents in only a limited way,is going to be particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming in hurricane season.

Posted by: mike | January 18, 2006 11:15 PM

In this day and age of quick information and the 30 second explanation, I give everyone just one small bit of clear evidence for global warming.

The images you will see on this webpage are the artic ice cap at its minimum size in 1979 and 2003. It clearly shows a large reduction in sea ice. read the article for more information.

This is only a small bit of the evidence, though dramatic, that global warming is happening, but the majority of the evidence is mostly boring ocean temperatures, ice thicknesses in Greenland and Antartica, and other non-obvious, boring data that scientists accumulate and distill down to the results our president says "needs more research".

Lovelock is hijacking the global warming issue/data to push his Gaia book-generating-hypothesis. He can safely be ignored.

Jefferson Morley: Please be more careful in your "World Opinion" searches. This is the second instance where you have reported a nutcase as representing an opinion of a significant part of this world. Just because one paper reports on a kook does not make it a world opinion. I don't want to tell you how to do your job ... oh hell, yes I do ... next time get at least three sources before you call it a World Opinion.

Posted by: Sully | January 18, 2006 11:24 PM

Denial Sully can make people angry, but I would rather be safe than sorry. I saw a CBC documentary (CBC was financed to question government and is the voice of the people in Canada) about scientists who have a high profile questioning global warming predictions. They showed how these scientists are financed personally by Big Business, all they are are apoligists for Big Business. A clear hands off relationship from bias for profit, is the only thing we should pay attention to. Talk to the polar bears who are starving and also drowning in great numbers. Robins are showing up in the Arctic. All this change in just fifty years is not a good sign. I am deathly afraid of what it will be like when the Chinese are wealthy enough to buy cars, a billions people with cars cannot be good for this planet.

Posted by: SpeakoutforDemocracy | January 19, 2006 08:07 AM

Just to be clear Speakout, I agree with the evidence that the earth is getting warmer. What I disagree with is Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis (it doesn't deserve the hypothesis definition since it doesn't meet the definition). Now if Lovelock says we're past the point of no return or that tsunami-like consequences are ahead, I can safely ignore the kook because he is not using real science. However the warming data coming in from real scientists is alarming, though not as alarmist as Lovelock's dramatic statements that I believe are only used to sell his books. Real scientists rarely write books. They write papers for peer review. Lovelock's passing his crazy ideas off as science gives science and the true scientific studies of global warming a black eye and give those who would like to see the true data supressed a way to discredit the data. In other words, Lovelock is not helping the effort to raise awareness of global warming, he is hurting it.

Posted by: Sully | January 19, 2006 09:06 AM

It seems most of us agree on the basic science of climate. So that begs the question, why aren't we doing anything about it?

A few corporate press releases, some PR campaigns (BP's "It's a start" commercials), and we ignore it?

We have to spend our time unraveling the specious arguments of those in denial (and in power). Kerry's idea for a Manhattan project or alternative energy is the best idea anyone has had in a long time. It would mitigate climate change, and take money away from dangerous nations also.

So why do Bush supporters ridicule the idea, or deny that it was ever proposed? How many times have you heard high level Republicans say Democrats have no new ideas? Are they deaf?

Posted by: cynical ex-hippie | January 19, 2006 01:37 PM

Words not deeds is all we can expect from this administration because it is very easy of million dollar lobbyists to start with the "kooks" as Sully put it, then move down to the more mainstream scientists and deny the whole argument.

THe problem with global warming is that government is the only institution that can do anything about it. and currently in this country it is very popular to be anti-government.

No industry in the history of the US has ever done anything to regulate its greed except in the face of impending legislation or popular opinion. And while popular opinion has been more visibly effective (the green movement, the above mentioned BP ads), it is only legislation or the immediate threat of that produces real results (the Oil monopolies of the 1890's, telecoms monopoly, the recent Microsoft trial.)

There is are no voluntary programs that will all prove effective. Currently Hybrid cars are getting a lot of attention as a market driven response to gas guzzling SUV's, but they represent a drop in the bucket of car production.

Posted by: Marco | January 19, 2006 02:08 PM

Here is a heartening story for those depressed by global warming. Brazil, after being stung like the rest of the West during the oil embargo of the 1970s, made it a national program to develop alcohol to use as fuel for automobiles. Other countries, including the US also tried this but Brazil did not give up.

What is nice about this story is that the US could do the same using corn instead of sugar cane, and the automotive technology to use alcohol is alredy developed in the form of "flex cars". And since the CO2 produced came from biomass, there is a zero effect on total CO2 increase (the CO2 released by burning the alcohol will be taken in by next years crop).

Cheer up, all is not lost... We just need a real leader in our government to do what Brazil did and make this a national priority. You'd think the republicans would like creating a whole new industry but it won't happen on the this republican's watch since it will directly compete with the oil/gas industry. Cheney would do everything he can to fight any legislation supporting an alcohol fuel industry not owned by the oil/gas companies. So the problem, as usual, in not technical.

Posted by: Sully | January 19, 2006 03:05 PM

I think many excellent and salient points have been made thus far in reading the many opinions posted here. I do fall on the side of those who are sincerely concerned about the planet's total ecology. There have been many environmental changes since industrialization over the past couple centuries: 1) chemicals are now in our bloodstreams that are not naturally occurring, much of which is a result of industrial pollution and cleaning, etc. products; 2) if you have your bodily fat and muscle analyzed from your buttocks through a blood and tissue sample there will be large amounts of pesticides (DDT, DDE,etc.) and other chemicals such as lindane (from having your dogs "dipped" at the vet's or groomers), etc. etc.; 3) pollution and waste has affected air and water quality all over the planet (mercury in the lakes, rivers, and oceans, plus toxic but approved industrial emissions with dioxins everywhere); 4) the rain forest(s) are being depleted far too fast; 5) "Love Canals" are ubiquitous around the planet and the "Superfund" in the U.S. is hardly making a dent with all the new pollution that has been created from industrialization, consumerism, etc.; and 6) there are enough scientists with top credentials who are calling attention to these problems to more than make a case for the seriousness of what is being blogged about here. The nay-sayers are putting their heads in the sand about all of these environmental issues.

Posted by: Clint | January 20, 2006 03:18 PM

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