James Lovelock reflects on Gaia’s legacy
Written by Phillip Ball, Nature
A new exhibition at the Science Museum in London features the personal archives of one of the most influential modern scientists; James Lovelock. ‘Unlocking Lovelock: Scientist, Inventor, Maverick’ tells the story of the British scientist’s work in medicine, environmental science and planetary science, and displays documents ranging from childhood stories, doodle-strewn lab notebooks and patents to letters from dignitaries such as former UK prime minister (and chemist) Margaret Thatcher. Also included are several of Lovelock’s inventions, such as the electron-capture detector that enabled the measuring of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere in the 1970s.
Lovelock, born in 1919, is best known for the ‘Gaia hypothesis’, which proposes that the Earth functions as a self-regulating system, similar to a living organism. The idea sparked controversy when Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis proposed it in the 1970s, but environmental and Earth scientists now accept many of its basic principles. In 2006, his book The Revenge of Gaia predicted disastrous effects from climate change within just a few decades, writing that “only a handful of the teeming billions now alive will survive”.
This week Lovelock spoke to Nature about his career, his earlier predictions and his new book, A Rough Ride to the Future (reviewed last week in Nature).
Is climate change going to be less extreme than you previously thought?
The Revenge of Gaia was over the top, but we were all so taken in by the perfect correlation between temperature and CO2 in the ice-core analyses [from the ice-sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, studied since the 1980s]. You could draw a straight line relating temperature and CO2, and it was such a temptation for everyone to say, “Well, with CO2 rising we can say in such and such a year it will be this hot.” It was a mistake we all made.
We shouldn’t have forgotten that the system has a lot of inertia and we’re not going to shift it very quickly. The thing we’ve all forgotten is the heat storage of the ocean — it’s a thousand times greater than the atmosphere and the surface. You can’t change that very rapidly.
But being an independent scientist, it is much easier to say you made a mistake than if you are a government department or an employee or anything like that.
‘Will nuclear energy be part of the future, despite the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan?’
Lovelock: ‘The business with Fukushima is a joke. Well, it’s not a joke, it is very serious — how could we have been misled by anything like that? Twenty-six thousand people were killed by the magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami [that caused the nuclear meltdown], and how many are known to have been killed by the nuclear accident? None.
[On the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Lovelock writes in A Rough Ride to the Future: “The most amazing lies were told, still are told and widely believed… Despite at least three investigations by reputable physicians, there has been no measurable increase in deaths across Eastern Europe.”] A lot of investment in green technology has been a giant scam, if well intentioned.’
Read the full article at Nature.com