Tumblr Icon RSS Icon

Lovelock still makes me look like Paula Abdul, warns climate war could kill nearly all of us, leaving survivors in the Stone Age

By Joe Romm on June 29, 2009 at 3:03 pm

"Lovelock still makes me look like Paula Abdul, warns climate war could kill nearly all of us, leaving survivors in the Stone Age"


google plus icon


I don’t typically lay out what might be called a “worst-case scenario.”  I tend to focus on piecing together what the scientific literature says would happen if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path — Hell and High Water — since, that “business-as-usual” scenario should be motivation enough for action.

Would some 10°F total global warming and 900 to 1000 ppm atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations be the end of human civilization?  Possibly, though homo “sapiens” sapiens, while apparently not a very proactive species, is quite resilient.

In any case, a February poll found, “Nearly one-out-of-four voters (23%) say it is at least somewhat likely that global warming will destroy human civilization within the next century” (see “How likely is it that Global Warming will destroy human civilization within the next century?“).

Then we have the apostle of climate Apocalypse, James Lovelock (see “Lovelock: Malthus was right, and Climate Progress is way, way too optimistic.”)  He’s got a new piece in the UK’s Guardian, which I’ll reprint below.  While I don’t think this scenario is how things will play out — I don’t think we face a Mad Max future — the worst-case is obviously much worse than what I have laid out, so I do think it worthwhile to have someone describe a full-tilt worst-case scenario every so often other than in the movies:

Climate war could kill nearly all of us, leaving survivors in the Stone Age

In a small way, the plight of the British in 1940 resembles the state of the civilized world now. At that time we had had nearly a decade of the well-intentioned but quite wrong belief that peace was all that mattered.

The followers of the peace lobbies of the 1930s resembled the environmentalist movements now; their intentions were more than good but wholly inappropriate for the war that was about to start. It is time to wake up and realize that Gaia, the Earth system, is no cozy mother that nurtures humans and can be propitiated by gestures such as carbon trading or sustainable development.

Gaia, even though we are a part of her, will always dictate the terms of peace. I am stirred by the thought that Gaia has existed for more than a quarter the age of the universe and that it has taken this long for a species to evolve that can think, communicate, and store its thoughts and experiences.

If we can keep civilization alive through this century perhaps there is a chance that our descendants will one day serve Gaia and assist her in the fine-tuned self-regulation of the climate and composition of our planet.

We have enjoyed 12,000 years of climate peace since the last shift from a glacial age to an interglacial one. Before long, we may face planet-wide devastation worse even than unrestricted nuclear war between superpowers. The climate war could kill nearly all of us and leave the few survivors living a Stone Age existence. But in several places in the world, including the U.K., we have a chance of surviving and even of living well.

For that to be possible, we have to make our lifeboats seaworthy now. Back in May 1940, we in the UK awoke to find facing us across the Channel a wholly hostile continental force about to invade. We were alone without an effective ally but fortunate to have a new leader, Winston Churchill, whose moving words stirred the whole nation from its lethargy: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

We all need modern Churchills to lead us from the clinging, flabby, consensual thinking of the late twentieth century and to bind our nations with a single-minded effort to wage a difficult war.

Previously, as Rolling Stone put it in a profile (see “James Lovelock turns everyone into a climate optimist“):

In Lovelock’s view, the scale of the catastrophe that awaits us will soon become obvious. By 2020, droughts and other extreme weather will be commonplace. By 2040, the Sahara will be moving into Europe, and Berlin will be as hot as Baghdad. Atlanta will end up a kudzu jungle. Phoenix will become uninhabitable, as will parts of Beijing (desert), Miami (rising seas) and London (floods). Food shortages will drive millions of people north, raising political tensions. “The Chinese have nowhere to go but up into Siberia,” Lovelock says. “How will the Russians feel about that? I fear that war between Russia and China is probably inevitable.” With hardship and mass migrations will come epidemics, which are likely to kill millions. By 2100, Lovelock believes, the Earth’s population will be culled from today’s 6.6 billion to as few as 500 million, with most of the survivors living in the far latitudes “” Canada, Iceland, Scandinavia, the Arctic Basin.

By the end of the century, according to Lovelock, global warming will cause temperate zones like North America and Europe to heat up by fourteen degrees Fahrenheit, nearly double the likeliest predictions of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations-sanctioned body that includes the world’s top scientists. “Our future,” Lovelock writes, “is like that of the passengers on a small pleasure boat sailing quietly above the Niagara Falls, not knowing that the engines are about to fail.”


Energy and Global Warming News for June 29: China likely to reject bid for GM’s Hummer; Projected food demands seen to outpace production

Inhofe Calls For Criminal Investigation Into Why EPA ‘Suppressed’ A Global Warming Denier

68 Responses to Lovelock still makes me look like Paula Abdul, warns climate war could kill nearly all of us, leaving survivors in the Stone Age

  1. Maybe we should take him seriously enough!

  2. P. G. Dudda says:

    Has anyone else noticed the 160 sq km ice island that broke off Petermann Glacier Friday, or the 3 km retreat (my best visual guesstimate) of Sermeq Kujalleq/Jakobshavn Isbræ this month? Images are at http://ocean.dmi.dk/arctic/modis.uk.php. Unfortunately Byrd Polar Research Center haven’t updated this page since April, so I don’t know what they make of this information.

  3. MarkB says:

    I don’t personally subscribe to Lovelock’s Gaia Theory and predictions of a near human instinction event. The observational science suggests constraints on how much warming human-induced increases in greenhouse gases will yield, with global mean temperature stabilizing at some point, although at a very high and dangerous level for human civilization and many other species. Still, Lovelock is a very prestigious scientist who simply can’t be dismissed out-of-hand. There are no doubt many things we’ve overlooked. Part of the AMS consensus statement applies here:

    “Because greenhouse gases continue to increase, we are, in effect, conducting a global climate experiment, neither planned nor controlled, the results of which may present unprecedented challenges to our wisdom and foresight as well as have significant impacts on our natural and societal systems.”

    We certainly shouldn’t be naive enough to think that uncertainties will break on the “little to worry about side”.

  4. PaulK says:

    These Malthusians now run the energy and science adviser offices.

  5. History, science and climate models are all we have right now. Until humans see and feel it directly, then scientifically possible and plausible should be plenty enough.

    One suspects that carbon fuel capitalists know these are the last days and this is just the fire sale before the chaos ahead.

  6. Gail says:

    O/T but I got an email alert to call my local Representative (Lance) because his office is being besieged by voters protesting his vote in support of ACES. When I called his office to say I am in favor of his vote he was actually in a meeting with protesters. Who are these people and why do they hate their grandchildren?

  7. ken levenson says:

    same as in last thread…Lovelock is closer to target than most…damn depressing.

    I differ however in thinking a “Churchill” is what’s required…what’s required is a new transnatioinalism…an end to tribalism, period. (No wonder the Conservatives want to deny climate change to the bitter end…) Because as Lovelock lays out it’s not the climate change per se that is going to kill us off it’s the resulting resource wars….

    While it may be a moral imperative to transition to a carbon neutral society, it seems increasingly delusional to think it is going to save us from the abyss.

    Yet I think the lesson from the 1930s is not to disparage “sustainability” as Lovelock does, but to acknowledge its limitations and take bigger steps toward cohesive world governance….(okay so we’re doomed)

  8. In the linked article, Lovelock writes:

    “Everyone laughed at him [Malthus], but he was right. A billion is about the right number of people for the Earth. We are nearly seven billion. Had we stayed at a billion we could have done whatever we liked with technology and there would have been no problem.”

    This is obviously untrue. If we had a billion people and they burned all the worlds oil and coal, it would emit just as much CO2 as 7 billion people burning all the world’s oil and coal. Given the rate of growth of the world’s per capita energy use, it would take less than 100 added years for 1 billion people to burn all the world’s oil and coal.

    This statement about Malthus has nothing to do with Lovelock’s subject of biology, and it is something that Lovelock obviously has not thought very much about.

    He makes many statements like this – enough to convince me that he is more crank than scientist.

  9. PaulK says:


    Opponents of ACES do not hate their grandchildren. Greenpeace and Dennis Kucinich don’t hate theirs. The Congress on Racial Equality doesn’t hate theirs. Saying so, even in a polemic diminishes your rhetoric.

  10. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    See how the current financial crisis stresses our society, how much worse will it be when tens of millions of our citizens are starving? Right now 1 billion people world wide do not get enough to eat.

    How bad will the climate be? The last ice age was only 5C cooler, we are looking at that much change going the other way. Climate scientists are scary, paleoclimatologists are scarier but what is even scarier is the rate of CO2 increase has never, ever been as fast as in the last 100 years.

    We are facing massive change, at a very fast pace overlaid by a social/legal structure that will retard adaptation. Previous climate change was adapted to by moving, now we have borders. Oregon’s share of internal refugees say 20 million, can they cope? How many years before the Canadians have to consider a wall along the their border?

    World government is a terrible thought, worse and more likely is world chaos. Are you prepared for your children to be ruled by the local bikie gang.

  11. ken levenson says:

    Certainly Lovelock says all sorts of off-the-cuff and wacky stuff – his insistence on nuclear power and hatred of wind turbines top among them…and his last book is completely unreadable…

    YET, on the fundamental question of climate sensitivity and the pace and magnitude of natural feedbacks Lovelock seems most on target…desertification, ice-sheet disintegration, perma-frost melt, forest die-back are all happening with greater speed and force than anyone else thought possible.

    Folks ponder how we are going to feed 9 billion…how are we going to feed 6 billion when half the airable land, in short order, turns to dust?

    Lovelock’s fertile imagination undoubtedly leads him astray in many ways but shit storm we’ve kicked-up isn’t one of them….in my opinion.

  12. David B. Benson says:

    I have serious doubts about sustainably supported even one billion H. sapiens in a horrendously damaged environmnet. For example, the world runs out of minable phosphorus in 60–120 years. Do you understand the consequences of that?

  13. Alex J says:

    Even if we don’t end up accelerating climate change to such an extent, the freedoms and quality of life Westerners have become accustomed to are a consideration. With the disruption of societies, escalating costs, and potentially hundreds of millions of refugees, civilization certainly won’t be the same. We can say humans are resilient, but under anything like business as usual, that could mean mere survival in a broken, unstable world. I think most people would prefer a functional civil society in which some semblance of prosperity remains generally attainable.

  14. PaulK says:

    David B. Benson,
    This is the first I’ve heard about a shortage of phosphorous calamity.

  15. DavidCOG says:

    Charles Siegel:

    > …he is more crank than scientist.

    Agreed – although with the caveat that he used to be a very good scientist. It seems that ‘losing the plot’ is not restricted to the deniers.

    I think Lovelock is dangerous – he’s cheerfully (and it is cheerful – I saw him being interviewed a few days ago) telling us that most of us are going to die and there’s nothing we can do. The deniers will take *anything* other than personal sacrifice or a change to their lifestyle – and the inevitable death of future generations is just AOK if it means they can keep on consuming.

    Also, his anthropomorphism of the planet is just silly and unnecessary – no need to inject ‘woo woo mother earth’ in to the science, although it is a good tactic to sell books.

  16. DavidCOG says:



    Have you noticed the guano served up by Kimberley Strassel over at the WSJ? It’s stuffed full of old denier lies and stupidity. I picked out a few and sent them to her:

    1. Polish Academy of Sciences – http://digg.com/environment/Polish_Academy_of_Sciences_Report_Slams_Global_Warming_Spin?t=26572553#c26572553
    2. Sen. Jim Inhofe’s “700 scientists” – http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2008/12/more_on_inhofes_alleged_list_o.php
    3. Ian Plimer, the geologist – http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2009/04/the_science_is_missing_from_ia.php

  17. Gail says:

    PaulK, that is common snark…you know, funny shorthand for “how can these people be so shortsighted that they jeapodize the existence of very thing they profess to love the most. You shouldn’t take it too seriously.

    Charles Siegel, I agree with you. The problem isn’t so much population as it is unsustainable lifestyles.

  18. paulm says:

    By 2020, droughts and other extreme weather will be commonplace. By 2040, the Sahara will be moving into Europe, and Berlin will be as hot as Baghdad. Atlanta will end up a kudzu jungle. Phoenix will become uninhabitable, as will parts of Beijing (desert), Miami (rising seas) and London (floods).

    Joe how can you disagree with this statement. I think it is a pretty acurate reflection on what will happen with a 2°C temperature rise. It already quite away down this path already and we are less than 1°C rise! see here for eg:

    Sahara Desert is crossing the Mediterranean – Europe at risk

    We need to access whether or not these symptoms of AGW will result in the breakdown of international peace and civil structure. Again I think it is safe to say that this is already happening at an alarming rate and by 2°Cs (& down slop of peak oil) things will be chaotic on a global scale:

    You may think the US will be relatively immune from this, but not so. The breakdown will come mainly from inside, as institutions crumble. Much like Rome did.

    [JR: I didn't say I disagreed with everything he writes. It is the 500 million population projection and back to the Stone Age that I see exceedingly little chance of.]

  19. John Ramming says:

    PaulK, Discussion of peak phosphorus has been around for a while. It differs from peak oil in that peak phosphorus was reached possibly a few decades ago and that unlike oil, phosphorus can be recycled if we close the farm-food-waste loop.

  20. paulm says:

    Lovelock has always been on the edge. And has always has very good insight.

    We must not forget also that he is now 91yrs old!

  21. Wonhyo says:

    I should warn readers that I’m expressing thoughts here that I normally don’t express, but this post is about the worst case scenario, so you have been warned….

    Lovelock’s assumptions about climate change sound like mainstream thought among climate scientists: severe droughts, floods, and disease.

    The question is, how will human society react, respond, and adapt? One thing that is clear to me is that we will no longer have the abundance of resources (water, food, shelter) that we (generally) have today. We simply won’t have enough to go around. The social science question is, will society share the pain of climate change, or will those with power, money, and weapons take from those without?

    This reminds me of a conversation I had years ago. The question was, “How do you survive climate change?”. The older, more educated gentleman answered, “Find mutual support through the Church. The Church has historically guided individuals and society through difficult times.” The younger, richer, independently wealthy gentleman countered, “Guns. You have to be prepared to protect your limited resources”. I presume he was also implying that guns could be used to obtain the resources you lack, by force. The gun advocate was not a gangster type. He was an Ivy-League educated successful Internet entrepreneur who became independently wealthy during the Internet boom. He is the type of person who has time to think this issue through. It disturbs me that he came to the conclusion of “guns” instead of “church” (or any other cooperative social institution, for those who may object to the Church).

    This question haunts me to this day. Will human society share the pain of climate change and cooperatively maintain civil society? Or will law and order break down under social stress, and allow the rich and powerful to take over by force? Developments like the growth of mercenaries in America (Blackwater, now Xe) are not encouraging. The fact that we are in denial of their role (we call them “private security contractors”, not “mercenaries”) is even more disturbing.

    Since we’re talking about worst case scenario, let’s assume the latter response – the rich hire “private security contractors” to protect their wealth, at the expense of the masses. Once the rich and powerful have exploited the poor and meek to the fullest extent possible, will the rich and powerful have the practical skills and the will to survive and carry on human civilization? They are the ones who have depended on wealth to thrive, so I wonder if they will be the most fit to survive the physical stresses of climate and energy change.

    If they do survive, that’s a bittersweet victory for humankind, considering which behavioral genes survived. This brings up another haunting scenario. There are documented cases of soldiers in Nazi Germany who refused to carry out their orders to massacre Jews. These conscientious dissenters were shot along with the Jews. What does that say about our present gene pool, and “survival of the fittest”? If I were that Nazi German soldier, what would I have done? Both outcomes are disturbing to me.

    Anyway, back on topic…. I think it will take a dramatic change in individual and group behavior among humans to produce anything less than the worst case outcome. I sincerely hope our civilization will fare well enough that somebody is around to add our chapter to Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse”. I sincerely hope that chapter does not conclude with, “When the guy chopped down the very last tree on Earth, what was he thinking?”

  22. Gail says:


    Check out the comments at Krugman’s column today in the NYT. It overwhelming how many people wrote in to express their expectation of worst-case scenarios. It is a litany of fear and rage (with some deniers of course).

    I tend to land on the pessimistic side but there are glimmers of hope in organizations like transitionusning.com, and there are others where people are already planning to green their homes together.

    Some predict a global, international solution but I think possibly it will come down to very local communities, small villages where people farm collectively and defend themselves collectively from cannibalistic infuriated climate refugees.

    Or countries could go to war and we can add nuclear explosions to CO2 emissions.

    Interesting times….

  23. David B. Benson says:

    PaulK — Good article about it in last month’s Scientific American.

    In principle phosphorus can be recycled but in practice? I fear nobody, but nobody, could be living in cities. Small towns, but not big cities.

  24. James Thomson the second says:

    Imagine a massive spaceship built by some long lost ancestors, inhabited today by their primative descendents. These descendents discover that the wall panels can be ripped off and burnt for fuel, although it does tend to fill the ship with choking fumes.

    It’s a big ship so the various ghetto communities in the ship don’t talk much and they fight a lot. Worst of all there is no captain…

  25. PaulK says:


    Ascribing hatred, like hatred itself, is rarely funny. It is low and mean. Don’t assume all opposition to ACES comes from the same place. Kucinich stated he thinks it is worse than doing nothing. Others sa it is a sell Greenpeace says its a sell out to emitters. Core believes it will be very hard on minorities ans the poor, a view I share.

  26. Gail says:


    Low and mean?


    And obviously, I was not referring to Kucinich, Greenpeace, or my own state Congressman Rush Holt who was inclined to vote against it, because it doesn’t provide enough for clean energy funding.

    If it wasn’t clear I meant those morons who pretend climate change is a conspiracy hoax perpetrated by libtard scientists, sorry!

  27. keith says:

    I hope it won’t go down with the resource wars that Lovelock predicts, but it is going to be very bad for the lower lats. and coasts.

  28. Susan says:

    What about lithium?

    I was interested a while back on a PBS feature on Bolivia to see that they considered they’d be tapped out of lithium in a decade or two.

    Why shouldn’t we be angry? Why shouldn’t we mention that we are caring for their young as well as our own? It’s a reasonable point as long as it doesn’t descend into degrading meanness and illiteracy.

    On adaptation, the rich and lucky are more likely to survive; they have the means to move and defend themselves. Our military is already gaming Fortress America. Our media feed the idea that sports and other wealthy celebrities, entitled to live a life of illusion, are to be emulated.

    At the lowest level, Bangladesh. And speaking of anger, since their voice is not heard, who can speak for them or the desert of starvation and disease that is embroiling Africa without yelling.

  29. ecostew says:

    In the short-term, one must secure energy, food, water and protect the environment as we move to mitigate AGW. Lovelock’s predictions are that greedy humans (especially old white guys – especially R types) will not embrace the needed policies and go down with their ship/$. It’s most unfortunate that they will take much of humanity with them like Madoff in his microcosm of greed.

  30. This whole debate (is it too late?) is covered in the latest Radio Ecoshock Show, as broadcast on 16 stations.

    Title: “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)” 1 hr.

    Includes: statements by John Holdren and UK’s Lord Chris Smith that climate change cannot now be stopped. Recent interviews of Lovelock on his new book “Vanishing Gaia” – where James says “Enjoy yourself while you can” and alternative energy is a waste of time.

    Contrast his defeatism with NASA’s James Hansen recently arrested at a mountain top removal mining site in West Virginia. Clips of his arrest, his pro-active stance. Plus country star Kathy Mattea on coal, and Tom Petty on environment.

    I’ll go with Churchill “We’ll fight climate change on the beaches, in the air…”

  31. john says:

    The thing about a business as usual scneario is that it is virtually impossible to limit warming to projections based on 900 to 1000 ppm. At some point along the BAU trajectory, methane releases from clathrates and permafrost will become self-reinforcing, and once that starts, what humans do or don’t do is irrelevant, and 1000 ppm will be a distant number in the rear view mirror.

    The question is, when does that occurr, and how much of a safety factor do we want to build into that guesstimate. Given the fact that 1) methane releases are increasing now and it’s coming from the arctic, 2) atmospheric concentrations of methane have started to increase as a result; and 3) the consequences of triggering this event are catastrophic and irrevocable in anything other than geologic time, I’d say we should start now to substantially increase the near term limits on GHG emissisons in the Senate, so we can go into Copenhagen with a credible position.

    Bottom line: BAS for even a few decades risks consequences equivalent to the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximmum and the Permian Die Off.

    If that happens, Lovelock is right.

  32. ecostew says:

    john, I agree, but as I indicated you must do more as you move to mitigate AGW – one must ensure security or one cannot achieve a sustainable situation.

  33. Gail says:

    john, if that happens, it is worse than Lovelock’s predictions. The past extinction events didn’t have humans with military capabilities and nuclear warheads.

    We have to stop thinking in terms of decades to eliminate CO2, and consequences in year 2100.

    If we don’t start thinking in terms of radical changes now, 2100 will be here before you know it. Not in our grandkid’s lifetime, but ours.

  34. john says:

    One other happy thought: Lovelock says, by 2040 the Sahara will be moving into Europe — Whoops, already started — look at Italy’s rainfal and the southern desertification.

    When reality is worse than our worst pessimist, maybe it’s time to revise our models.

  35. Anna Haynes says:

    DavidCOG above, re WSJ delayer Kimberley A. Strassel – Strassel graduated from Princeton University in 1994 with a B.A. in Public Policy and International Affairs. (and two years later, she’s writing for the WSJ)

    I have to echo what another commenter wrote – why are these people so heedless about what they’re trying to make happen to their children? The emeriti, I can understand; but the younger ones, whose brains are still functional?

  36. MarkB says:

    Someone can correct me if this is a wrong characterization, but I’ve read one of Lovelock’s books “Revenge of the Gaia”. While he stated in that book he thinks global warming will end up nearly causing human extinction, in the same book one of his primary oppositions to wind power is that he thinks it’s an eyesore on the countryside. I find these positions to be quite contradictory. With the world on the brink of near total destruction, as he suggests, such a trivial reason for rejecting wind power seems way out of place.

  37. ecostew says:

    He finds wind energy not to be a significant par of the solution – I respectively disagree

  38. Gail says:

    Re: Lovelock’s objection to wind power. Lovelock is an elderly old-school aristocrat. He doesn’t want his landscape blighted. Not dissimilar to the Kennedy family objection to wind off of their Cape Cod compound in spite of their otherwise stellar environmental credentials.

    He gets notoriety making dire predictions, but still thinks the upper class rules.

    Now, I’m going to become a pariah in my home town (heck I could even lose my jot), but after the goblins went after my Congressman, I decided to pull off the gloves and go local:

    to the Editor of Recorder Publishing (covers all of central NJ)

    Dear Editor,

    I learned today that my Congressional Representative Lance has been besieged by constituents who object to his vote in support of President Obama’s climate legislation.

    This is very sad, because those same constituents will soon realize that their precious life style, never mind finances, are going to be adversely affected by the ravages of that very same inevitable and already occurring climate change.

    The average temperature on Earth (AVERAGE) has already risen significantly enough to alter the environment for long-lived species such as trees, which cannot evolve, adapt, or migrate fast enough to keep up with the rise in temperatures and resulting weather chaos. The rise in CO2 levels thanks to human activity is now faster than in the entire geologic history of earth’s past climate change events in response to earlier volcanic and meteoric catastrophes.

    Look around, our trees are dying everywhere. Day by day, they are dropping leaves. By the end of this summer, there will be very few that are not lifeless.

    And then consider the implications of mass extinction of trees for the rest of the ecosystem – birds, ferns, fish in shaded streams, butterflies, fireflies.

    Then wonder – who are these people that object to federal legislation that will boost clean energy? Why do they hate their grandchildren?

    I urge all citizens to educate themselves. A good place to start is climateprogress.org, a wealth of information and background with extensive links to scientific research. I also recommend this NYT op-ed http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/29/opinion/29krugman.html as a starting point for those who haven’t yet seen it.

    Please visit my blog where I am documenting climate change in New Jersey – witsendnj.blogspot.com. I believe the only path to survival will mean bringing our communities together to combat the dangers that lay before us, and I hope to be a part of a forum for local action.


    Gail Zawacki
    Oldwick, NJ

  39. Aaron Lewis says:

    The 800 pound gorilla that nobody has talked about since 1995 is ice sheet dynamics leading to sea level rise. The edges of the Greenland Ice Sheet have warmed, and lost structural strength. At some point soon they will no longer buttress the core. Then, there will be progressive structural collapse of significant blocks of the ice sheet resulting in sea level rise “events.” These become economically significant within 20 years.

    Agricultural fuels and fertilizers are predominately made at sea level. Most of our oil refineries are near sea level. Transportation hubs are near sea level. The Shaw plant that makes the high pressure steel pipe used for refinery parts is at sea level. The plants that make the plastic used in microprocessor carriers is at sea level. And our capital markets are at sea level. Governmental command and control centers such as Washington DC and Sacramento Ca are near sea level. The California Aqueduct that delivers water to 33 million people is near sea level. Our capital markets in New York, London and Tokyo are at sea level.

    A sudden rise in sea level puts all of this at risk. How do you organize repair when your capital markets and government are under water? A small rise in sea level and we lose food production, governmental organization structures, capital allocation markets, air ports, and motor fuel. By itself, each of these is a significant problem. Together, all at once, they are something we need to have thought about, if any form of civilization is going to survive.

    Lovelock is very much an optimist. How is he going to feed all those people without fuel for tractors? What crops are adapted to that new climate? What farmers know those crops? What pesticided and fertilizers will the new crops need? Where will we make those inputs, since the producion facilities are under water. All crops have a learning curve. That learning curve is steeper and longer when the climate is changing. With rapid climate change, and new crops, how does one predict planting dates? Food is a real issue.

    Which is more important, relocating refugees from NYC or relocating a fertilizer plant? Which one gets the resources in the days after a sea level rise event? Is the San Francisco Airport more important than the Richmand Refinery? Or, do you allocate that limited fuel to produce next year’s crops? How many days food is in the warehouse right now? A major crop failure any where in the world means a lot of peaple will go hungry. Failure to plant a crop means people go hungry.

    Most of our textile production is at near sea level. Clothes are a real issue. These days we need computer chips to knit warm socks. We have forgotten the hand knitting technologies that allowed sailors on wooden ships to stay warm. What else have we forgotten?

  40. paulm says:

    what are the bookmakers saying?

  41. Lou Grinzo says:

    Lots to comment on here. (That happens when a good topic and a good crowd come together.)

    On the whole “is it too late to avoid 2C” issue, I think the only honest answer we can give is: It might be too late, but we can’t be entirely sure. We’re possibly right on the cusp of finding out, though, thanks to the sudden surge in CO2 and methane levels in the atmosphere. Even taking the permafrost bomb out of the equation, there’s growing evidence that nothing short of emergency emissions reduction will keep us below 2C. I covered all this in two recent posts:

    Life in the Metricene, in which I try to make the case (near the end of a long post) that we’ve exited the Anthropocene and entered the Metricene, a time when we have no choice but to explicitly manage the climate. I quote Lovelock talking about how we would literally wind up on “spaceship Earth”, but I have very serious disagreements with much of what he says, including his doomerism.

    Climate chaos, indeed, which directly addresses the 2C issue.

    My biggest single worry in the entire energy and environmental mega-arena is drought. When the one billion people who currently rely on glaciers for fresh water suddenly have nothing to drink, wash with, irrigate their crops, and spin their hydro plants, we will have a problem that’s off the charts compared to any environmental disaster we’ve seen to date.

    As for what drives the deniers–it varies. For some it’s money, for others it’s ideology, and some are just going from site to site trying to stir up trouble because Wheel of Fortune isn’t on yet. But it’s getting harder by the day for me to not say that I detest them all….

  42. Erik Schimek says:

    I think that global warming strikes a chord with some people not because of any clear scientific notion of the processes involved, but because a lot of people simply believe we’re cursed … doomed … in a great deal of trouble. And runaway global warming seems like the likeliest source of peril.

  43. JoeB says:

    Malthus wasn’t wrong, just early

  44. Neil Howes says:

    David Benson,
    Basalt lava ranges from 0.1-0.5% phosphorous, not as rich as present P resources or as rich as many undeveloped lower quality P, but more than enough to replace P loss from recycling sewerage and animal manures. It is also rich in many other plant nutrients.
    We are never going to exhaust Basalt lava that extends over millions of km sq on every continent.

  45. Neil Howes says:

    If Lovelock thinks that any climate change can be worse than a full scale nuclear war he is either completely ignorant of the destruction possible from a nuclear war or he has lost touch of the reality of ANY possible climate change.

    And as for mass migrations and epidemics killing millions, we have had this many times in the past(Bubonic plague, 1918 influenza, HIV) and mass migrations( Africa, Afghanistan) partitioning of India/Pakistan,… not the end of the world, only a temporary decrease in population.
    Depopulating most of the world because its 2C or 10C hotter, perhaps those regions that presently have 50C summers, but not most regions that have 30 or 40C summers now.

  46. Greg says:

    @Neil Howes: “We are never going to exhaust [the phosphorus in] Basalt lava that extends over millions of km sq on every continent.”

    No. Nor are we going to be able to crush and transport it at a sufficient rate to support nine billion people, unless Dmitri Orlov’s Little Green Men help us out.

    Reserves are irrelevant, if they are as diffuse as 0.5% The problems with our growth-fixated society are “rate” problems and “power intensity” problems. Moving down the resource concentration pyramid (Kurt Cobb), you have to increase power intensity to maintain rate of supply.

    “If Lovelock thinks that any climate change can be worse than a full scale nuclear war he is either completely ignorant of the destruction possible from a nuclear war or he has lost touch of the reality of ANY possible climate change.”

    As I understand matter,s Prof. Lovelock is asserting that the political stresses arising from climate change are likely to induce a nuclear war, or worse, a bio-weapon war. This assertion jibes with my experience of human nature, which is that when people are stressed, they get angry and look for someone to blame.

    Worst-case climate change and concomitant phenomena such as ocean acidification and “anoxification” would be equivalent to a nuclear war in Eurasia only. Big deal, huh?

    @PaulK: Ignorance is no excuse in the law, and Gaia, she doesn’t care what you know.

    @Joe: “the end of civilization” is not the same as the end of the species, H. Sapiens. I’m pretty sure that the species will survive long enough to give rise to others.

  47. Neil Howes says:

    Unless you are prepared to do some calculations on how much crushed basalt would be needed per person to supplement recycling( as much as stone aggregate used on a suburban driveway? ) it’s difficult to give your statement that “it cannot be done at a sufficient rate to feed 9billion ” any credibility. The world uses 1billion tonnes of concrete and probably x10 as much gravel aggregate. Most P is removed from soil by crops and most can be recycled. Plants can concentrate P from weathered basalt.

    If you think a bio-weapon war is going to be worse than a nuclear war, you should read “the fate of the earth and the abolition ” by Jonathan Schell 2000, Stanford University Press.

  48. mitchell porter says:

    What’s really missing from this model of the future, according to which we either begin revolutionary emission reductions right now, or we will just sit back and endure 5-to-10-degree temperature rises that will take a century, is the geoengineering factor, specifically aerosol cooling and air capture technology. If the world gets to 2020 and is half a degree warmer, or whatever, I think it’s obvious we’re going to start putting up aerosols to compensate. And in the slightly longer run, I have to think it inevitable that nanotechnologically it will be possible to draw down atmospheric CO2 in a way that is faster and more energetically efficient than plants do it. So, in short, there is actually zero prospect of something like the new MIT business-as-usual outcome, because of the technological factor. Like it or not, the human ability to affect the planet’s radiative balance is only going to grow. The climate politics of the future will be about deciding on what the global climate should be, and on the means to get it there, and not about this race between transformation and destruction.

    [JR: Eat all you want, e'll just staple your stomach can pop a pill and you'll be all better. Not! Geo-engineering is a very limited solution at best that from practical perspective is probably intractable on iability grounds alone. As for nanotechnology solving this problem, I suppose if people want to stake the future of humanity on as yet uninvented technology, well, they can smoke all they want, too, and hope someone develops a cure for lung cancer. Not how rational and moral people should behave.]

  49. Florifulgurator says:

    Malthusians, Malshmusians…
    Population growth is suigenocide. The institutional-criminal denial of this is as old as the phenomenon, and much older than ol’ Malthus. Now it’s turning global. When will they ever learn?

  50. Elmo says:

    Leave survivors in the Stone Age? The dude knows naught about either the Paleolithic or the Neolithic. Leave the remainder in the Amish age? Now maybe he’s on to something.

  51. ken levenson says:

    DavidCOG, Gaia does not anthropomorphize the planet.

    MarkB, Lovelock is not predicting a near extinction event.

    Nor is Lovelock predicting the “end of civilization”.
    He is predicting the end of the civilization as we know it.

    Lovelock seems prone to hyperbole – and it distracts.

    A quick trip through recent human history – America’s Manifest Destiny, Japan’s Asian Imperialism and The Third Reich’s march to the Black Sea, Darphur – shows our proclivity toward resource wars. It doesn’t take much imagination to project forward on likely scenarios given the stresses nations are soon to come under.

    Then there’s “just” the tribal/political horror’s – Stalin, Turkey/Armenia, Rawanda etc…

    Doesn’t take much imagination to forsee a combination of wars, famine and disease that creates a lethal cocktail never seen before…

    Lovelock most specifically says that he thinks civilization will live on – Britain being advantageously located to be such an ark. We too, one can imagine, in confederation with Canada, will resettle all land around Great Lakes and stretching up to Arctic – will be an ark of sorts. Same for northern reaches of Europe and Asia.

    Lovelock begs this BIG question: How is humanity to manage this likely migration north, while feeding itself, and maintaining some semblence of peace and democracy?

    Lovelock now seeks a Churchill – from his youth. What will we seek?

  52. ken levenson says:

    Re: resource wars….it was remiss of me not to mention W/Cheney’s Iraq War. My bad.

  53. ken levenson says:

    sorry for so many comments on thread…but one more thought:

    While I believe Lovelock is more on target than most regarding the rapidity of climate change, I think he is dead wrong to conclude that it gives us license to “do anything”. And cheerfully at that!

    We should build a sustainable, carbon neutral society not because it will avoid catastrophe (although we hope it does) – the principle reason to live sustainably is because it is a better life!

    Just because we are going to die anyway doesn’t mean we should smoke opium and be alcoholics and not exercise. Same is true for humanity/all living things.

    Lovelock has an allergic reaction to wind turbines and it has clouded his whole critique on “quality of life”.

    Yet Lovelock’s challenge to “environmentalists” is a healthy one – because they better prepare themselves for a clear explanation of the imperative of sustainability once it is clear to all that we are passing very bad tipping points.

    And perhaps Gaia is one key-hole to it: as environmentalism and humanism must finally be seen as one.

  54. Yuebing says:

    I haven’t read Lovelock, but from the comments above and elsewhere, I am guessing he paints a world gone furious, with little room left for our sprawling carefree civilization.

    I suggest that

    * we read the planet’s owners manual
    * start following it

    Global Warming mostly has not happened yet. Congress is shaping course for 80% by 2050 and Copenahgen. This is 2009, and for all of us who agonized over what the maniacs in DC were doing the previous eight years, it feels good. It is not nearly enough.

    We know there is really no primary economic downside in leaving the fossil fuels in the ground, and putting the rainforests back up–and that the follow on benefits of having a functioning ecosphere are literally beyond calculation.

    Let’s fix this CO2 thing. In the next few years let’s get below what Hansen or Brown or Romm or Meinshausen (or the dozens of other well thought out scenarios) are hoping we can do. It is 2009, what can we do in 2010? After Copenahgen?

    2009 or 2010 will likely be very hot. More people will be willing to listen to the science and the economics.


    Technically speaking, we could get to “Beyond Zero” pretty quick if the world focussed on process. I say let’s do it. By 2020?

    And as part of the full effort, we also need to get a few sulfate delivery test articles in the air. I agree 100% with all of you who say that geoengineering should not be a substitute for emissions reductions. I am saying that even in a net negative emissions scenario, we could need to adjust the albedo for a decade or so to save the equatorial regions and coral reefs and ice and permafrost and so on. If there is warming in the pipeline–we need some cooling in our toolbax.

    This is doable.

    Note to the “black helicopters are coming crowd”: you’d get irritated if your neighbor starting throwing his trash on your lawn, wouldn’t you? You would call the cops eventually? All we are saying here is that it is a bad idea to use the atmosphere as a dumping ground–both for today and for the future. We need some atmosphere cops. Try and understand this. We need to keep our air clean and that means some regulation.

  55. Drew Jones says:

    Anyone read the book and ever see the movie “The Time Machine”. If not, read it then watch it.

    I was blown away at how civilizations screw things up rather fast.

  56. PeterW says:

    This really has nothing to do with Lovelock’s predictions but what the hell did he mean by the statement “We were alone without an effective ally”. This is the type of crap I’ve heard too often put forth by Brits. No the UK didn’t stand alone. If it wasn’t for the Commonwealth and the convoys, Britain would have fallen for sure. Ungrateful twits.

  57. Leland Palmer says:

    Lovelock is a visionary scientist, the author of the Gaia hypothesis, which in one form or another is becoming the standard model for most scientists.

    He sees the climate system in failure mode. He’s probably right.

    A billion people could trash the planet just as badly as nine billion, though. It depends on our lifestyle, our energy usage, and our technology.

    There is no reason that a solar or nuclear powered society need crash. If we lived in arcologies, recycled everything possible, chemically synthesized our food, and were powered by solar and other alternative energy technologies, we could effectively disappear from Gaia’s sight.

    Lovelock’s strong on diagnosis, but weak on cure, IMO.

    Using carbon negative energy schemes, it is possible to put the genie back in the bottle, and go back to driving our (plug in hybrid) SUVs, IMO.


    We need to seize the coal fired power plants, and convert them by direct action into carbon negative bioenergy plants, which burn biochar and sequester carbon by deep injection of CO2.

  58. hapa says:

    conservative interest in adaptation over mitigation suggests that they have already decided to use nations’ relative vulnerability to “our” strategic advantage and that we entered the age of ecological warfare when the US first refused to endorse global emissions cuts.

  59. ccpo says:

    I have been of the opinion good ol’ Gaia (and, no, Lovelock does not anthropomorphise) is changing far faster than we can measure. That IPCC IV totally whiffed on that wrt ice woke me up to this fact. If we can’t accurately measure the speed of change, how do we properly quantify it? How do you stop a forest fire if you’ve no sense of the scale?

    Actually, the answer is simple: start with the worst case and work backwards. This is simple risk management. To avoid the worst case, what must we do? Power down. Now.

    How do we do that without destabilizing global society? (I’m going to ahead and assume we are not in full Survival of the Fittest mode and that we’d like to keep safe as great a number as is practicable.) As someone alluded, we go Amish, essentially. I don’t mean we follow their mores, etc., but the low-carbon lifestyle of self-reliance and near-self-sufficiency. Funny thing is, that sounds like an impossible change, but it’s not. It’s as simple as re-allocating land and building with natural/reclaimed materials. People are doing it, or at least trying like hell: http://www.dancingrabbit.org/

    As an intermediate step in advanced countries, why not take half a trillion (in the U.S.) and apply it to DIY individual/community energy efficiency/production? Instant work, instant community-building, instant economic help and instant paradigm shift jump start. http://aperfectstormcometh.blogspot.com/2008/03/build-out-grid-vs-household-towards.html

    Of course, growth as a paradigm is done for the foreseeable future. Even if one thought it possible to continue growth via innovation and efficiency (you can’t, at least not forever since systems have all have limits), one must keep in mind **all** aspects of The Perfect Storm, and the Great Limiter – what I like to call deal breakers – is Climate Change. For the next 50 years, growth = GHG emissions, and that equals collapse/chaotic/non-linear response of the natural system we exist in. For most, that’s an unacceptable outcome. Thus, growth is dead. Or, as I have said once before, “Green or gone. Deal with it.”

    If we accept all of the above, then it gets much easier to deal with the transition that must come because we simply have no choice. Cutting GHGs means changing lifestyles drastically in advanced and advancing economies to essentially zero, and even below that if the CO2 350ppm or less threshold is accepted. (This is an obvious choice given the extreme response of the climate system already.) And that means Hobbiton-on-the-Internet, i.e., relocalized, reduced, recycled, renewable and self-reliance/-sufficiency. Again, Amish-ish.

    Some parameters to keep in mind might be EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) which for crude oil is as low as 11:1 where it used to be 100:1. Energy per capita peaked long ago. According to thermodynamics, less energy equals less life, less work, less production. Most notably for this discussion, it can mean a lot less stuff. There is so much waste in the American system that we could, quite literally, likely cut our energy consumption in half and suffer no privation. Change, yes. Privation, not necessarily. Europe, for example, has a higher standard of living on half the oil consumption.

    Another might be Dunbar’s number. That’s his theoretical limit of 150, give or take, people that can exist together in community and maintain significant relationships with all. Does this mean each town or city can be only 150 people? Not necessarily, I’d think. Rather, it means your walkable area, a semi-self-sufficient (perhaps in food, energy, housing, ??) neighborhood might stay in that range of 150+/- 50 or so to have the kinds of connections that build real community and allow for proper debate and discussion, conflict resolution, social welfare, etc.

    And growth. I love Dr. Albert Bartlett’s presentation on exponents. It makes the limits of efficiency and innovation so clear. Population truly can only grow so large in a given environment before committing unintentional mass suicide. The work of Tainter and Diamond illustrate this well. A simple example is oil. If the entire world lived as the US does, all @1.2 trillion barrels of crude left to extract would be gone in around 6 or 7 years. (This is an unrealistic, actually impossible scenario used for illustrative purposes only.) Obviously, the American Dream is, and always has been, a myth for all but, well, America and/or the OECD. It’s as much an illusion as the idea that every American family can own their own home and live a nice, comfortable middle class life.

    Getting back to population and efficiency, despite efficiency gains that are actually quite large, the US used more oil in mid-2008 than it ever had in previous decades. Why? Population. Population is the other deal-breaker, alongside Climate Change. The two are actually two sides of the same problem. Three if you include energy and other resource limits that are coming up.

    It should be clear that this is a time like no other in human history. At no other time have we faced global resource depletion, massive climate change and population limits **at the same time.**

    We can fix it by simply reducing consumption and living in a carbon neutral or carbon reducing way. It will probably require an end to fractional banking, reduced central government at all levels, increased cooperation at the neighborhood/town level, a steady-state economy and most people producing their own energy and food. (I do believe technology can be kept alive if used to enhance our relationships with nature and each other.)

    Time is running out and the challenge is beyond enormous. BUT, the solution is utterly and completely simple: live simply, live closely with others and live to live, not to profit.


  60. James Newberry says:

    The definition of uranium and hydrocarbon materials as “fuels” should be phased out within a decade or two, along with a complete shift of investment to truly clean energy strategies only. We are poisoning ourselves (air pollution, etc.), our neighborhoods (coal and uranium mining and “nuclear waste”) and the entire bio/ecosphere while wondering what is wrong with Western globalized “economics.”

  61. Aaron Lewis says:

    Lovelock skips a lot of details including the physics of ice sheets as they approach 0C and ice dynamics at just below 0C. Talking about ice dynamics has been taboo in the climate science world since Gingrich and Delay whacked the EPA for talking about it in 1995.

    As long as ice dynamics and all of its implications are a taboo topic, talking about the rest climate change is silly. We might as well be talking about our favorite sports teams because we are not getting to the heart of climate change risks for society. Ice dynamice suggests rapid sea level change. It is consistent with geology. It is just that forcings we see in geology are a couple of orders of magnitude lower than current forcings, so our sea level change can be a couple of orders of magnitude faster.

    Society has built its infrastructure at sea level. Any sudden change of change of sea level is disastrous. The only two numbers in climate science that matter are how much ice is warming toward 0C and how much potential energy is in that warming ice.

  62. Leland Palmer says:

    Here’s a somewhat downbeat, but more complete, introduction to carbon negative energy ideas:


    These ideas may have some minor implementation problems, but if the choice is solving these problems, or runaway climate change, we need to solve the implementation problems.

    Many of the difficulties mentioned in this report are exaggerated, IMO. Many power plants in the East reside directly over deep saline aquifers (which lie under wide areas of the earth’s surface) suitable for CO2 deep injection, for example, so no multi-trillion dollar network of pipelines is necessary, for many power plants.

    Sufficient biomass does exist, according to ORNL.

    Many coal fired power plants are located on navigable rivers, especially in the entire Mississippi river basin including the Ohio river. All of the area upstream of each power plant becomes potential collection area for biomass or biochar.

    Biochar can be burned as a 100% replacement for coal.

    Biomass could be transformed into biochar locally, by mobile pyrolysis units. Some energy in the form of hydrogen or electricity could be generated at this stage.

    The resulting biochar could be returned to the soil, and used as a soil amendment and fertility enhancer. Or it could be burned in coal fired power plants. If river transport is used, farmers would only have to truck the biochar to collection points along the rivers or their entire tributary systems.

    Transformation of biomass into biochar, and then pelletizing the biochar, produces a fuel as dense, storable, and transportable as coal.

    We need to seize the coal fired power plants worldwide, and transform them by fiat into carbon negative power plants, and start putting billions of tons of carbon per year back underground. This seems like the highest probability solution for turning the corner on abrupt climate change.

  63. Gail says:

    okay, I know moderation has periodic seizures but it’s been long enough I have to ask, JoeR, why do you hate my comments so?

  64. paulm says:

    Joe I think there are some techic glitches with the new wordpress here.

    [JR: I haven't changed things in months.]

  65. paulm says:

    The funny thing is we have the president of sea level rise of the order of a 1ft per decade.

    We know that the CO2 concentrations are rising at an unprecedented rate. Its quite simple logic to deduce that we are in deep doo doo. Some thing I heard before here..
    Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change

    Here’s what Hansen said on SLR.

    Under BAU forcing in the 21st century, the sea level rise surely will be dominated by a third term: (3) ice sheet disintegration. This third term was small until the past few years, but it is has at least doubled in the past decade and is now close to 1 mm/year, based on the gravity satellite measurements discussed above. As a quantitative example, let us say that the ice sheet contribution is 1 cm for the decade 2005–15 and that it doubles each decade until the West Antarctic ice sheet is largely depleted. That time constant yields a sea level rise of the order of 5 m this century. Of course I cannot prove that my choice of a ten-year doubling time for nonlinear response is accurate, but I am confident that it provides a far better estimate than a linear response for the ice sheet component of sea level rise under BAU forcing.

  66. David B. Benson says:

    Who is Paula Abdul? Any relation to Polyanna?

    [JR: I try to stay current, plus I actually do watch the show. For others, there is always Google.]

  67. David B. Benson says:

    Neil Howes — Also, with enough energy ou can get P from sea water. But we are now a peak oil. Where is the energy to crush basalt to come from? Convict labor?

    But maybe yes, a few people, mostly on dirt-poor farms (literally dirt poor, consider the Candaian Shield), a few in towns can probably manage to obtain almost all P by careful recycling.

    Notice this implies a rather small world population. Maybe 100 million total?

  68. James Thomson the second says:


    Totally OT but…

    “This really has nothing to do with Lovelock’s predictions but what the hell did he mean by the statement “We were alone without an effective ally”. This is the type of crap I’ve heard too often put forth by Brits. No the UK didn’t stand alone. If it wasn’t for the Commonwealth and the convoys, Britain would have fallen for sure. Ungrateful twits.”

    Lovelock is referring to the period in 1940 when France had been overrun / given up without much of a fight and the US was still neutral. We would have been wiped off the face of the Risk board there and then if anyone else but Churchill had been prime minister and if the Battle of Britain had gone badly. It was much later, after Pearl Harbour, that the US joined in.

    For a brief period after France fell many politicians wanted to give in and make some sort of pact with Germany. Come to think of it it might not have been a bad idea. It took us 50 years to get the same there via the EU…