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James Lovelock's Climate Change Pessimism Is Unhelpful

By Chris Huntingford

03 April, 2010

Few people have done as much for our understanding of the global environment as Professor James Lovelock. His remarkable career, through the combination of direct measurements and solving mathematical equations, has provided major new insights into the interactions between Earth's ecology, the atmosphere, the oceans and the ice-caps. So when he talks (as he did in a recent Guardian interview) about humans adjusting this system by putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, then we are wise to listen carefully.

However, some of what he had to say is worthy of expansion and could raise concern. To say that humans are too stupid to prevent climate change is in itself a potentially dangerous remark. It is discouraging, and creates a feeling of inevitability that we will leave a degraded climate for future generations. To achieve climate stability through reductions in fossil fuel emissions will, most likely, require the collective actions of many individuals, and we should remain optimistic that this is possible. Human ingenuity is remarkable and often limitless in times of need. There are many instances where society has worked together to address a particular problem, be it provision of health services, construction of better transport systems or the actions of charities such as Oxfam that have a truly global reach. The transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources is a challenge of unparalleled proportions, but are we so stupid that on this issue we will completely fail?

Lovelock's comment that possibly the only solution is to temporarily suspend democracy needs considerable discussion with social scientists and historians. I cannot be alone in feeling nervous about such a view. Surely, some of the most unstable periods in history have been when governments have become dictatorial. Any suggestion along these lines risks the goodwill of the public to reduce their personal carbon footprints, and frightens decision-makers away from acting to prevent a significantly warmer world.

The picture Lovelock paints of climate researchers fudging the data is unfamiliar. In light of the fallout from the unauthorised release of emails from the University of East Anglia, this is going to sound terribly defensive, and everyone acknowledges that the emails do not read well in places. But I have worked in climate science for nearly 20 years and collaborated with hundreds of people who in turn have touched on thousands of numbers, measurements and equations. In my personal experience, I cannot remember a single instance where numbers have been massaged to meet a particular agenda. Against a range of performance indicators, computer models of the climate system are getting better. They capture the main attributes of the average weather conditions we are witnessing for the present time, and where deficiencies remain, we are open and state as much. So we should take note of what they have to say about future climate.

One thing many people do agree with Lovelock about is that the climate system contains non-linearities. In other words, the climate response might jump at times between different states. Such jumps are of concern, because this would require the ability to quickly adapt, and developing countries might be particularly affected. So a major challenge for our computer descriptions of the climate system is that they can pinpoint much more precisely when changes in state might occur, and identify warning signs we can expect to see beforehand. If society decides these thresholds are too difficult to adapt to, then the models give an indication of the degree of warming that needs to be avoided.

These caveats aside, Lovelock's contribution is invaluable. If nothing else, it makes us think about the next steps to take in the fight against climate change. But many of us working in the field, despite our predictions of how the climate system could alter, are much more optimistic than Lovelock that solutions will be found and and society kept safe.

• Chris Huntingford is a climate-change researcher at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

Watch Lovelock's full video interview here

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010






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