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James Lovelock Finally Walks Back His Absurd Doomism, But He Still Doesn’t Follow Climate Science

By Joe Romm on April 23, 2012 at 7:10 pm

"James Lovelock Finally Walks Back His Absurd Doomism, But He Still Doesn’t Follow Climate Science"


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Famed scientist James Lovelock has always been in a category of one when it comes to global warming. See for instance my June 2009 post, “Lovelock still makes me look like Paula Abdul, warns climate war could kill nearly all of us, leaving survivors in the Stone Age.” That’s mostly because he doesn’t follow the scientific literature.

Now that he has dialed back his doomism — alarmism is a wholly inadequate word for Lovelock’s (former) brand of unjustified hopelessness — the media and the deniers are just so excited. That’s especially true since Lovelock has now overshot in the other direction of climate science confusion and just keeps peddling nonsense.

And so we have this MSNBC story:

‘Gaia’ scientist James Lovelock: I was ‘alarmist’ about climate change

James Lovelock, the maverick scientist who became a guru to the environmental movement with his “Gaia” theory of the Earth as a single organism, has admitted to being “alarmist” about climate change and says other environmental commentators, such as Al Gore, were too….

The world has not warmed up very much since the millennium….”

He was wrong about his doomism before, he is wrong about Gore now, and he is apparently uninformed about basic climate observations (see “Breaking News: The Earth Is Still Warming. A Lot“). Indeed, even MSNBC feels compelled to note:

Asked to give its latest position on climate change, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a statement that observations collected by satellites, sensors on land, in the air and seas “continue to show that the average global surface temperature is rising.”

The statement said “the impacts of a changing climate” were already being felt around the globe, with “more frequent extreme weather events of certain types (heat waves, heavy rain events); changes in precipitation patterns … longer growing seasons; shifts in the ranges of plant and animal species; sea level rise; and decreases in snow, glacier and Arctic sea ice coverage.”


But Lovelock hasn’t been speaking sensibly on the climate for a long, long time. Back in 2007, he was saying this sort of thing:

By 2100, Lovelock believes, the Earth’s population will be culled from today’s 6.6 billion to as few as 500 million.

… To Lovelock, cutting greenhouse-gas pollution won’t make much difference at this point….

As I wrote at the time, Lovelock makes “you — or Al Gore or James Hansen or even me — look optimistic by comparison.”

Memo to Lovelock: Gore never asserted billions would die or anything close to what you’ve been saying. And unlike you, he always believed — and still does — that it’s not too late. So if you finally admitted you were wrong, that’s awesome, but don’t try to claim you were just saying what others were. You weren’t. Not even close.

In 2008, Lovelock was inspiring this kind of headline and story:

We’re all doomed! 40 years from global catastrophe – and there’s NOTHING we can do about it, says climate change expert.

… “By 2040, China will be uninhabitable.” Lovelock believes that the Chinese, because of their high levels of industrial activity, will be the first to suffer, with the death of all plant life.

So I think the Chinese will go to Africa. They are already there, preparing a new continent – the Chinese industrialists who claim to be out there mining minerals are just there on a pretext of preparing for the big move.”

This kind of doomist nonsense is precisely why I’ve been critical of Lovelock here for many years. Yes 1 billion people will go to the one continent that can’t feed itself today and which will be Dust-Bowlifying and superhot. Seriously.

Now I know some readers may believe billions will die this century. I don’t.

I do know some climate scientists and others who think that it is certainly possible billions will die if we are so self-destructive as to keep near the worst-case emissions scenario and the carbon cycle feedbacks and soil moisture projections are merely in the middle of their projected range (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“).

But it’s not what I think is going to happen. I actually believe that even if we do let the deniers sucker us into another decade of delay, that we are still going to get WWII-scale serious about climate sometime in the 2020s and avert the worst-case scenarios — even if the feedbacks really start to kick in.

I also believe that even if the bad-case scenarios kick in post-2040, the world is going to reorganize much of its activity to prevent billions of people from dying. Oh, yes, billions of people are going to needlessly suffer a great deal if the deniers triumph, but stopping billions from starving to death this century will be well within our capability even if we ruin a livable climate. That doesn’t mean we will definitely do what is needed, of course, but I am an optimist in this regard.

I’m delighted that Lovelock has reversed his doomism. But until he actually reads the scientific literature, his thoughts on climate will continue to have, well, no basis in science.

Wendell Berry’s Earth Day Speech: ‘People Who Own The World Outright For Profit Will Have To Be Stopped’

April 24 News: Renewable Industry Supports 110,000 UK Jobs, Could Support 400,000 by 2020, Report Finds

72 Responses to James Lovelock Finally Walks Back His Absurd Doomism, But He Still Doesn’t Follow Climate Science

  1. prokaryotes says:

    Well i don’t think that remarks like “crackpot” are very helpful. Also to understand Lovelock’s projections one has to consider his climate model, which is based on an analog albedo based world.

    And then there is the fact that civilization is just 3 month away from running out of food reserves. And it takes just 3 days without food, to cause wide spread anarchy.
    Looking at the the record breaking droughts the last years in Asia, Europe or the USA, we can see that things are getting worse.

    I don’t know what will happen exactly but i think that the “population bomb” will be no more by the end of this century – and yes we could see another genetic bottle neck because of climate change.

    Today’s model do not account for abrupt non-linear spikes in the climate system, and this is why Lovelock was so alerted.

    Further he says “not much”… to call this wrong is a bit over the top.

    • Joe Romm says:

      I suggest you read everything he said over the past several years. But the Chinese moving to Africa is beyond absurd. Sorry.

      We waste over 1/3 of our food globally, and the U.S. burns 1/6 of the world’s corn crop in its vehicles. Oh, and then there is the use of grain to feed meat. We could feed the world on under half the acreage we use today.

      • caroza says:

        I live in (South) Africa and we already feel a bit like a colony of China. They’re buying up huge tracts of land, are our biggest trading partner, and our government has now twice refused a visa to the Dalai Lama on the say-so of China. And they’re very influential elsewhere on the continent as well. That’s probably what Lovelock has picked up on.

        I certainly lean towards the pessimistic view of humanity – I don’t think we’ll act globally until we lose a major city (London or New York), and by then it’ll be very, very late and a lot of people will already have died.

        Whether China will beat Africa in the uninhabitability stakes is, of course, an open question – they’re doing a hell of a lot more than us (and than the US) about green energy, not being, um, hampered by democracy….

      • prokaryotes says:

        Joe, it is perfectly fine to criticize Lovelock or anyone who uses stark “alarming” rhetoric. This is also part of the debate before we take action. And sometimes you have to be alarming – to sound the bell- better be sorry than to late.

        But the tone in this post here doesn’t serve him right.

        • Joe Romm says:

          Again, I don’t view him as an alarmist — but rather a doomist. I’ve long criticized him and will keep doing so as long as he ignores the science.

      • EDpeak says:

        I’m with Joe on this one, assuming Lovelock was not misquoted about Gore. In fact there is not direct quote, just the article saying

        …and [Lovelock] says other environmental commentators, such as Al Gore, were [alarmist] too..

        There don’t give a direct quote or context but if true, then I’m with Joe, that is simply outright inaccurate, not to mention feeding directly into the denialists…Gore has been anything *but* alarmist. Raising prudent, well reasoned, science-based alarm-call, yes, ‘alarmist’, not even close. So, shame on Lovelock if (on top of Lovelock’s previous, yeah, alarmist ‘billions WILL [not might but 'will'] die”) if he falsely bashes Gore now..

        And thanks Joe for the reminder to all about eating less meat (or as some of has have happily been doing for well over a decades, no meat or dairy and much, much happier and much, much tastier once we learned a thing or two about cooking for ourselves)

        Only note of pessimism: even if and when we get a ‘wakeup’ call by 2030, one that *would* lead to action, I’m not sure it would be the most prudent action. It could be Military-backed mega-geo-engineering projects forced down all countries throats. We either move away from an economic model based on legal fictions who are legally required to maximize short term profit (corporations) or the madness will continue..

    • anders strandberg says:

      my belief is that democracy is certainly threatened, it is not good at holding back these kind of stresses and as can be seen in greece it is not good at dealing out pain in a fair way, as long as the pie keeps getting bigger democracy is a very good system.

      the nation states is the biggest obstacle to smart mobilization and efficient resource allocation, but then we are mostly still in family/clan/nation thinking and foreigners get short shrift, especially if you have to share “your” resources with them, but that is the system we have and don’t see it changing in the near future

      as for the chinese they would probably prefer russia and that is a confrontation that could end very nasty

      and america will probably get pretty nasty towards canada, especially over fresh water and canada will have to back down, will probably have to accept more immigrants as well as long as thay come from usa. As will sweden and finland as long as the immigrants come from southern europe

      gwynne dyer’s book climate wars is good and I’m more afraid of conflicts over resources than some unknown climate feedback

  2. Peter says:

    Emissions will likely peak in the mid 2030s in China & India- in the US- uncertain. Its interesting also that Joe, you have said there will be a WW II efforts made in the 2020s. Do you really feel in the next 10 years that the climate will have destabilized that much for such an effort? Have you changed your view on a rise of 3- 4 degrees C by mid century? I see the late 2020s to early 2030s when all hell lets lose. Perhaps you know more then I.

    • Joe Romm says:

      I do expect all hell (and high water) to break loose by 2030. Doesn’t mean we can’t avoid 4C, just makes it much harder.

      • From Peru says:


        …maybe a carefully controlled burning of sulfur (taking care of avoiding too high concentrations of SO2 to prevent severe acid rain)?

      • Florifulgurator says:

        Sounds Lovelockian to me.

  3. Joan Savage says:

    Lovelock stumbles by using false specificity, and that example seems a warning. The future could be any of a range of outcomes, yet we are tempted to offer some kind of certainty.

    “War is an area of uncertainty; three quarters of the things on which all action in War is based on are lying in a fog of uncertainty to a greater or lesser extent. The first thing (needed) here is a fine, piercing mind, to feel out the truth with the measure of its judgment.”
    - Carl von Clausewitz

  4. prokaryotes says:

    The Gaia hypothesis was formulated by the chemist James Lovelock and co-developed by the microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s. Initially received with hostility by the scientific community, it is now studied in the disciplines of geophysiology and Earth system science, and some of its principles have been adopted in fields like biogeochemistry and systems ecology. This ecological hypothesis has also inspired analogies and various interpretations in social sciences, politics, and religion under a vague philosophy and movement. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaia_hypothesis

  5. David Spratt says:

    Can’t see that starting after 2020 can do it – unless you think a war-time scale of mobilisation can reduce emissions by 15% a year!!
    In “Scientific case for avoiding dangerous climate change to protect young people and nature”, currently in publication with 17 authors who are leaders in their fields, including James Hansen, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Stefan Rahmstorf, Johan Rockstrom, Eelco Rohling, Jeffrey Sachs, and Konrad Steffen, they find that:
    1. When slow feedbacks – important because of their impact on threshold or “tipping point” events – are taken into account, the “scenarios that reach 2 degrees Celsuis or even 1.5C global warming via only fast feedbacks appear to be exceedingly dangerous (my emphasis). These scenarios run a high risk of the slow feedbacks coming into play in major ways.” Hansen has already explained why, at current temperatures, there is no “cushion” left to avoid dangerous climate change and “… even small global warming above the level of the Holocene begins to generate a disproportionate warming on the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets.”
    2. To avoid 1.5C global warming, a reduction in atmosphere carbon dioxide to less than 350ppm must be achieved before the end of this century, which would require a 6 percent per year decrease of fossil fuel emissions beginning in 2013, plus 100 GtC reforestation (carbon drawdown). By way of comparison, Australia’s emissions under the 2011 carbon legislation will be higher in 2020 than they are today.

    The paper also notes that “delaying fossil fuel emission cuts until 2020… causes CO2 to remain in the dangerous zone (above 350 ppm) until 2300. If reductions are delayed until 2030, CO2 remains above 400 ppm until almost 2500. These results emphasize the urgency of initiating emissions reduction. If emissions reduction had begun in 2005, reduction at 3.5 percent per year would have achieved 350 ppm at 2100. Now the requirement is at least 6 percent per year. If we assume only 50 GtC reforestation, the requirement becomes at least 9 percent per year. Further delay of emissions reductions until 2020 requires a reduction rate of 15 percent per year (emphasis added) to achieve 350 ppm in 2100”.

    None of the big eNGOs want to say in public that global emissions need to drop 6 per cent annually to restrict warming to less than 1.5C, nor that achieving this will require fossil fuel infrastructure to be abandoned and drastic changes in the ways we use energy, live and work. It’s not exactly out of the bright-siding handbook. It may well be beyond the scope of what is politically acceptable, but it is the new inconvenient truth. The failure to acknowledge, let alone construct, a strategy to achieve a 6 per cent annual reduction, makes that task impossible, so that in another eight years, 6 percent a year will have become 15 percent a year.

    Don’t get me wrong, I co-authored a book on why we need a war-time scale of mobilisation, but not starting till after 2020 is a tall order given what the scientists are saying.

    • Joe Romm says:

      I’m not for delaying, of course, but we could replace the energy system of the planet in 10 years if we wanted to.

      • Mark E says:

        And it ain’t gonna happen until the President of the USA thunders about global warming like FDR in congress just after Pearl Harbor.

        Give us our global warming Gettysburg Address! (Before we have to talk 5C instead of 4)

      • Yvan Dutil says:

        No this is impossible. You need energy to modify the energy infrastructure. Hence, for a few years, your energy production is negative. For me, strict minimum is 25 years. Nevertheless, it would have been so much easier if we had start in 1990.

      • Paul Magnus says:

        What is the ballpark GHG emissions footprint for replacing the existing energy system/infrastructure?

      • wvng says:

        I seem to remember a study a few years ago that looked at magnitude of the oceanic carbon sink and suggested that, were we to stop emitting carbon completely, it would be a millennium before carbon in the atmosphere began to decline due to outgassing from the oceans. So if, in 2020, mankind has an “oh shit” moment and decides to go on a “war footing” and completely change our energy production system, the events that caused that moment would continue for another thousand years. How is that good?

        Also, it sure seems to me that in the past couple of years we hit a tipping point where suddenly the energy available in the atmosphere to support severe weather supported a lot of additional severe weather. How can you be comfortable saying that we can’t have a year or two of severe heat and drought and flood -now- where food production globally drops to a fraction of current levels and results in widespread starvation at unprecedented levels?

    • Sasparilla says:

      It would require a realization by the general population that this is for real now, that we’ve almost blown it and we have to do whatever it takes to save ourselves (not what is most economical). You could see a taste of this realization, that climate change is now, from this winter and spring here in the U.S..

      We’ll have to get to the situation where the statement “whatever it takes to not go over the cliff and get back to safety after that” determines our actions. This is what we do in truly dire straights (WW2 etc.) and I’m guessing we’ll wait till we’re there (visibly to the general population) and then finally act like Joe is talking about.

      Given the climate changes we’ve seen so far, I think we could get enough changes by the 2020′s (wish it was this decade) to push the general population of the U.S. to this place – I’m an optimist with Joe on this. Definitely requires some serious luck.

  6. Ken Barrows says:

    Of course, it’s never too late. For those who think it’s not too late to save what we want to save (civilization?), when will it be too late? Will it be when such and such model says so?

  7. Raul M. says:

    50+50=100 and that would still be shy of the year 2100.
    I’ll be one of the billions that won’t make it to 2100.
    With climate getting harder on living things there might well be reasons beyond old age for people not to make it that long.
    A climate 4 degrees warmer is some times said to be locked in if immediate action isn’t followed worldwide.
    Check out the recent post warning of unimaginable consequences if you don’t believe Joe thinks warnings are overdue.

  8. Mark Shapiro says:

    I just reread the Wendell Berry post (immediately previous) as an antidote.

    Too bad that MSNBC and so many others watch Lovelock’s wild gyrations rather than Berry’s calm, steady reason and love.

  9. Tom King says:

    James Lovelock is 92 years old. By the time we Climate Defenders reach that age, the Climate Deniers will have probably driven us all into the looney bin. I can’t even look at their comments anymore. We need to give each other slack and keep the pressure on the real villains – the conservative conspirators. And yes, contrary to popular wisdom conspiracies do exist.

  10. John Tucker says:

    Well I think there is now and will be some localized apocalyptic events for some species related to climate change. Especially where extreme heatwave/drought occurs combined with effects of newly introduced pathogens and invasive species.

    Thats bad enough. I dont see why anyone would need a worse scenario as an excuse to act.

    I don’t think we need to worry about the Chinese annexing Africa. But its kinda an interesting/amusing thing to throw out there I guess.

    • prokaryotes says:

      Yeah. And this is just in…

      Zanobetti et al. on Short-Term Heat Impacts
      Zanobetti et al. (2012) take an interesting approach in investigating the relationship between hot weather events and mortalities. Since the age group most at risk for heat deaths are the elderly (those over 65 years of age) with predisposed illnesses, Zanobetti compared Medicare data from 1985 to 2006 from 135 U.S. cities to summer temperatures. The authors explain the reasoning behind their approach:

      “By restricting the analysis to within a city, we avoid all confounding by factors that can vary across a city or region. By looking only at year-to-year variations around the city-specific trend in exposure, we eliminate potential confounding by trends in other exposures, such as smoking, and focus on whether essentially random meteorological events are related to health.”

      Zanobetti et al. find that larger summer temperature variability leads to more deaths among the elderly. Each 1°C increase in summer temperature variability increased the death rate for elderly with chronic conditions between 2.8% and 4.0%, depending on the condition (emphasis added):

      “A 1°C increase in temperature SD [standard deviation] is a plausible increase in some regions. Based on our findings, this increase in temperature SD would increase all-cause mortality in our MI [myocardial infarction] cohort by 5%, for example. Based on an average of 270,000 deaths per year across all four cohorts, a 5% increase in mortality would correspond to 14,000 additional deaths per year due to an increase in temperature variability in the United States.”

      Sherwood and Huber on Long-Term Heat Impacts
      A 2009 paper by Sherwood and Huber examines a worst case scenario in which the average global surface temperature warms in the ballpark of 10°C a few centuries in the future. They note that a wet-bulb temperature (Tw) exceedence of 35°C for extended periods should induce hyperthermia in humans and other mammals, as they become unable to sufficiently dissipate heat. In short, if Tw(max) of a particular region were to exceed 35°C for long periods of time, that region would effectively become uninhabitable to mammals.

      “A 4°C increase in Tw would then subject over half the world’s population annually to unprecedented values and cut the “safety buffer” that now exists between the highest Tw(max) and 35°C to roughly a quarter. A shift of 5°C would allow Tw(max) to exceed 35°C in some locations, and a shift of 8.5°C would bring the most-common value to 35°C.”

      Based on their climate model simulations, Sherwood and Huber found that Tw increases somewhat more slowly than the average global surface temperature, such that a 1°C average global warming corresponds to a 0.75 to 1°C Tw increase. Therefore, an 8.5°C Tw increase would require approximately 11°C global warming.

      “We conclude that a global-mean warming of roughly 7°C would create small zones where metabolic heat dissipation would for the first time become impossible, calling into question their suitability for human habitation. A warming of 11–12°C would expand these zones to encompass most of today’s human population.”

      “A global-mean warming of only 3–4°C would in some locations halve the margin of safety (difference between Tw(max) and 35°C) that now leaves room for additional burdens or limitations to cooling.”

      “If warmings of 10°C were really to occur in next three centuries, the area of land likely rendered uninhabitable by heat stress would dwarf that affected by rising sea level.”

      In short, Sherwood and Huber find that there is a limit to what humans and other mammals can adapt to in terms of rising temperatures. It will likely take a few centuries for global temperatures to reach that limit, but eventually large regions of the planet could become effectively uninhabitable, beyond what mammals can adapt to. http://www.skepticalscience.com/news.php?n=1405

  11. fj says:

    Late Nobel Laureate Norman Borlag has been described as saving as many as one billion people from starvation with his agronomy strategies and it’s projected that about one billion people will have died from smoking by midcentury year 2050 AD.

    And, I believe there currently exist between 1 to 2 billion extremely poor people making less than $2 per day leading extremely difficult lives with no healthcare and life expectancies of about 40 years; essentially being killed by their extreme poverty while plenty of money and resources exist to stop this.

    So describing deaths in the billions is scale appropriate in many situations and the devastating uncertainties of climate change is often described by scientists as definitely one experiment much better to avoid.

  12. Michelle M says:

    Well, he might actually think that alarmism is the best way to save mankind. And he may not be all that wrong at that. We have seen and caused the extinction of many species in the last 200 years, that we might cause our own near-extinction could very well be karmic. And that we are stupid to keep saying “nothing to worry about, science will save us.”

    • Joan Savage says:

      We need to avoid the phenomenon of the “little boy who cried wolf” which inured the public to alarms. The habit of enduring false alarms left the people unprepared to respond when the pack of wolves actually arrived, devouring the flock and the little boy, too.

      I admit that a 92 year-old ‘little boy’ Lovelock is a bit of a cartoon.

  13. T.J. says:

    If you aren’t alarmed you aren’t paying attention. If non human sources of GHGs start releasing at full tilt, it will not matter what humanity does, and it will be game over. We won’t be the source of the primary causes of the warming to come, but we will have set them in motion.

  14. owlbrudder says:

    The forecast of a safe future seems predicated upon a) the appearance of an as-yet undiscovered mechanism to rapidly pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and b) the appearance of an as-yet unexpressed popular will to reduce human CO2 emissions. Using history as a yardstick, I have little faith that we will find either the will, or the way, to avoid a future crisis in enough time to make a meaningful difference.

    Technology and greed put us where we are today: can technology and benevolence save us from future catastrophe? The answer might lie in our definition of catastrophe.

    In my opinion, which is that of an interested but unschooled follower of the science, it is by no means impossible that we have already done enough damage to adversely affect what we in the West collectively call civilisation. There seems to be a genuine risk that our profligate consumption of fossil carbon fuels will result in the loss of at least some of our population and infrastructure, not to mention the damage done to other species on lifeboat Earth. Catastrophe sometimes happens one victim at a time.

  15. Shaheer says:

    Why has the world not warmed up very much since the millennium? It is because we and China are polluting so much sun-blocking aerosols…

  16. ToddInNorway says:

    Only a society-threatening crisis in the “civilized West” will change our current course to self-destruction. Such a crisis can take several forms but I predict it will be a collapse (production loss of 30% or more) of our food production system caused by a combination of wild weather extremes (floods and droughts at different places), pests and failure of current weed-control and fungus-control strategies. This can happen much sooner than even alarmists might believe.

    • wvng says:

      Based on what we have seen in the last few years, I see no reason to believe that your event could not happen at any time. Doesn’t mean it will, but certainly could.

  17. Wranne Jakob says:

    Oh, it’s so hard trudging the scientific, balanced and truthful path. Easy it’s not.

    I’m shit-scared we wont make it in time. It’s very much like fighting a war: rest in the trust of your friends and other people; tell and listen; it’s a post-Pearl Harbour situation folks are slowly realizing what happened and what has to be done. It’s still fearsome and struggling. Trusting the “Paradise built in Hell” thoughts.

    People who get a good grip of the problem often react as the young physicist in the movie “K-19: The Widowmaker” – they know the stakes, do everything they possibly can to save society, and are crying while doing it.

  18. Jakob Wranne says:

    I have a question. Written this I realize this is a question and not a comment, maybe not for publishing, you choose:

    I’ve understood that when the temperature rises above 2°C (1,5°C Rockström+Wijkman) we’re over the threshold.

    When we’re over the threshold we’re in the slippery slope ending at 6°C.

    So, in between 1,5°C and 6°C there is nothing. Above 1,5°C there is only roadsigns being passed on our way to 6°C. Only a matter of time.

    And at 6°C we don not want to be. (I want to go home to my secure and cosy 1,5°C.) Listening to Hansen, above 1,5°C we’re very much risking the Venus syndrome.

    Is this so? Where is knowledge today? Is the slippery slope what we should prepare for?

  19. Raul M. says:

    We are probably so quiet about rising and projected rising of UV levels because …

  20. Raul M. says:

    Good point that he knew to be alarmed 40 years ago.

  21. Tom Mazanec says:

    Would Lovelock’s old extremist views be even plausible, if you postulate that we burn every gram of gas/oil/coal reserves+resources (which of course will not come anywhere close to happening)?

    • caroza says:

      Somebody (either here or at SkS) did the arithmetic (quite recently, if I can find it I’ll post it but I can’t remember where I saw it). We go past “safe” CO2 levels long before we’ve burned a fraction of the extractable reserves. The point of the post was to say that the $27 trillion or so worth of estimated oil reserves must be regarded as valueless because climatically we can’t afford to burn them. So I’m not sure he’s an extremist at all – I think he’s just always known we wouldn’t be able to kick the fossil fuel habit.

  22. NJP1 says:

    It doesn’t matter if Lovelock takes things to extremes or not. Humanity has locked itself into a commercial system that expects comfort warmth and plenty, while in denial of where it comes from. We burn energy to support our way of life, and while we might put up with a little discomfort we will not tolerate major change. Why? Because there will always be those with more, and as the wealth/poverty gap widens as resources diminish, humanity will reach the same tipping point of intolerance that has driven all revolutions. It’s already started; violent unrest throughout the middle east is ultimately about food and joblessness, both linked directly to the cost of energy. Fuel is rising beyond affordability because oil production has been on a plateau since 2005 and we can’t squeeze any more out of the system. That’s why we crashed into recession in 2008. Foodbanks are appearing throughout the western world where less than a decade ago they were unheard of. World population is rising, adding 80 million a year to our dinner tables. To feed them will require everyone to change to a vegetarian diet. That won’t happen either.
    Climate change and world overheating may or may not happen, but our demand will go on, as we collectively refuse to accept that we cannot go on consuming our planet. Before we started using fossil fuels, the world supported about a billion people, in 200 years we’ve added another 6 billion. If hydrocarbons cease to become available, I’d say those extra 6 billion don’t have much of a future. But demand will attempt to go on into infinity until it smacks into the wall of finite resources. Which is about where we are at right now. Before anyone starts screaming ‘alternative energy’, that only delivers electricity and you can’t eat it.

  23. Gail Zawacki says:

    It could be that Lovelock, not unusual for upper class English, inhabits a special place derived from the Empire – and this led him to predict that the UK would be spared while much of the rest of the world is relegated to climate perdition. Perhaps the unprecedented drought there has frightened him.

    He was right about the collapse of agriculture. See the picture of the potatoes on page 112 of the pdf:


  24. Dan bloom says:

    Joe, now can you do post about my new book POLAR CITY RED about polar cities, merely a fiction novel. but read it. it’s art.

  25. Alteredstory says:

    It’s almost a shame – it was nice to have him around to give perspective when people accuse ME of alarmism.

  26. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe wrote: “I know some readers may believe billions will die this century. I don’t.”

    Given that there are nearly 7 billion human beings living on the Earth today, and given that in the normal course of events only a small minority of them will live longer than 87 years, it is a certainty that billions of human beings will die this century.

    • Tom Mazanec says:

      Haha. OK, that was…cute. I feel sorry for Joe, I have made sentences where it was obvious what I meant but, taking it literally, the sentence was nonsense.

  27. There is a scenario by which we can adequately address climate change: 1) a crash energy conservation program, 2) a massive biosequestration (reforestration, etc.) program followed by permanent CO2 sequestration in biochar, 3) a crash program to install distributed renewables backed by solar thermal baseload sources in desert latitudes. (And Joe’s riight, there is plenty of food (and money) to go around.)

    However, it it seems unlikely that we will do what’s needed before natural emissions of methane are the main source of greenhouse gasses, and the matter is out of our hands. It seems as though we have about 10 years at most.

  28. Jose Garcia says:

    People keep referring to a Pearl Harbour moment. This strikes me as an incorrect analogy. You might require a WW2 level of mobilization but WW2 analogies don’t apply.

    A more apt analogy would be what mountain climbers call an “incident pit” which is a dangerous situation which develops slowly as you make a series of small mistakes (usually by ignoring risks). Eventually the climber realizes that he’s in trouble and then proceeds to have one of the worst days of his life, or dies.

    Don’t ask me how that works in communications terms. Young climbers know about incident pits but get into them anyway out of sheer bravado. Our civlization right now seems an awful lot like a 25 year old city boy mountain climber filled with hubris. Only after realisation dawns that he’s staring death in the face will he change course.

    Re crticizing Lovelock. He does make looney statements (ie China invading Africa) for which he’s going to be criticized anyways. We should continue calling out people for looniness on our side of the fence. It’s one of the things that sets us apart from deniers.

  29. David F. says:

    I don’t know what’s gotten into Lovelock. I was a big fan of his, because all of the data I’ve seen has suggested climate change is going to be worse than everyone thought. What has happened in the last year to now convince him climate change is no big deal? All the evidence I’ve seen suggests the climate is still warming and that the rate of warming is increasing in recent decades. And what makes him think that even that 1 or 2C of warming is harmless? I think he’s just getting too old to be relevant still.

  30. Marion Delgado says:

    Good for you, Joe Romm.

    I have had a bill of particulars with Lovelock for decades. Let me list them.

    1. His statements on the utter harmlessness of radiation are the worst kind of politicized pseudoscience.

    2. He says absurd crap all the time like all any scientist needs is a pencil and paper.
    ( He was able to sell rare blood, had some family money, and was an extremely good and inventive engineer who made a small fortune off satellite technology. He tries to leverage that into universal expertise and to disparage people who work with others or need grants, etc. )

    4. A darling of the CQ/Wired/Cyberlibertarian crowd, he wowed them in the 70s with the Daisy World thought-experiment which was hyped as “a formal proof of the Gaia Hypothesis.”

    5. Very much like Freeman Dyson, he is a sort of faux-concerned person. His real agenda is typically hippie-punching. Part of his doomism was to have a club to beat people over the head with – if you didn’t support unlimited construction of the kind of nukes they actually build, you can’t be serious about the threat of climate change, can you? In fact, in general his op-eds on matters like this wouldn’t have been out of place in LaRouche’s Fusion magazine. Like Dyson, he thinks techno-fixes are just fine and discounts conservation and renewable energy.

  31. Charles says:

    Joe, you wrote: “I’m not for delaying, of course, but we could replace the energy system of the planet in 10 years if we wanted to.”

    I confess to also being a bit skeptical about this possibility, but would be happy to be convinced otherwise.

    Joe, could you put together a posting outlining some of the details of how this could be done in 10 years (and maybe you have already done so and I’ve missed it). Ten years to overhaul energy systems in transportation, home heating and cooling, manufacturing, industry, agriculture, etc.? I’d love to see how this could be done.

    Like others, I don’t see the global community doing anything significant towards mitigating climate change at least until about 2020. Like others, I suspect it will take a number of major impacts on developed nations before we get serious. By that time, we are going to need to be able to overhaul our energy systems as quickly as possible. I’m just not sure this can be done in so short a times as ten years. Perhaps, but I would guess this would be a heck of a “disruptive” process!

    • Joe Romm says:

      Read what we did in WWII.

    • Also, check out Paul Gilding’s book The Great Disruption, which relies on a WWII-type response to pull is out after AGW consciousness is sufficiently elevated — probably as a direct result of climate emergencies of one sort or another.

      I’m not so sure. Could happen, but it could also be that we’ll wait to long, natural methane releases will take over as the primary source of GHGs, and, in the words of another commenter, we’re boned.

    • fj says:

      Actually, Joe Romm is probably understating what we could do at World War II intensity to greatly stop emissions and restore the environment with today’s technology and knowhow despite the daunting scale of climate change and the inevitable accelerating climate chaos we are just beginning to experience.

      We would not be in a world war of destruction comprised of killing and horrific battles but an international war-like intense effort reinventing civilization based on highly efficient near net zero design, rational socio-economics, environmental restoration and stewardship, and global cooperation.

  32. dan bloom says:

    SHE REALLY SAID THIS? WTF? re: That scientific consensus is absent from “Frozen Planet,” for reasons that ***shed light on the ****dilemma of ***commercial TV, where the ****pursuit of ****ratings can sometimes *****clash with the ***quest for environmental and scientific education…

    THIS MUST BE REPEATED OVER AND OVER: so ratings clash with TRUTH? o planet o life!

  33. dan bloom says:

    Lovelock’s PR people at his publisher in London, or New York, most likely know
    Ian and in anticipation of Lovelock’s new book coming out in 2013, the PR people asked Ian if he would
    like to interview James Lovelock by telephone person to person in the UK? Of course, Ian took the bait and ran with it. Great story too. Interesting. But why NOW? It seems that the PR people wanted to create
    a pre-publication BUZZ a good 9 months before publication in order to create a waiting readership for the new book. A great PR move. Ian fell for it. Ian did not report why or how the interview came about and that is both unethical and unprofessional. But the PR team is happy. And Ian got his scoop. And Dr Lovelock doesn’t mind, because he is a great man and he’s always good for good quotse. Ian’s story rocked. But
    there’s a back story to the MSNBC story we need to know. Now you know it.

    It was a PR stunt, a marketing set up, a news gimmick. And MSNBC fell for it.

  34. fj says:

    Lovelock’s Gaia theory is a very elegant high-level method — virtually a cognitive tool — for evaluating the state of the planet — in scale appropriate ways – be the integration of both living and non-living matter; perhaps an analog modeling methodology which may, in many ways, is much more powerful and advanced than digital methods; a typical advantage of analog data and signal processing; while digital methods are much easier to characterize with machine and numeric formalisms with the data much easier to store in precise digital memories.

    And, there’s nothing wrong with a few mistakes and the more active one is the more likely they become; and, especially when mistakes are ultimately rationally resolved; while many mistakes have led to great discoveries.

    Most climate change denial is a complete utter sham which Climate Progress and Joe Romm has played a terrific service debunking continuously for a very long time; and, the advancing science process must not be sullied, corrupted, and stalled by the very obvious and disastrous sham of climate change denial.

    What is Gaia? by James Lovelock


    • fj says:

      And in general, digital data acquisition and processing depends on analog preprocessing before going to digital and ultimately conversion back to an analog output meaningful to humans.

  35. Wayne says:

    Hi Joe love the blog (am a regular). This is the first time I have commented. I first saw the 90% of humanity dead on a 4 degrees C rise in new scientist – they showed a map of the world will all the major population centers marked a uninhabitable. Then last year this came out:


    Which references this pdf:


    Is Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change also a doomist – or are you saying that the science does indeed point to catastrophe on 4 degrees and it’s Lovelock’s ‘its inevitable’ stance that is doomist? BTW Lovelock is notoriously wet on serious issues like this – he testified that CFCs were not a problem way back…

    I would also like to thank you for all the great work you do…

    • Joe Romm says:

      Anderson doesn’t believe it’s unstoppable, as Lovelock did. The carrying capacity issue is more complicated and needs another post.

  36. dan bloom says:

    Dear Mr. Bloom: Thank you very much for sending me your take on the Lovelock story. I am curious – are you arguing that Lovelock has not changed his opinion about the seriousness of man-made global warming? If he has, then that would seem to be newsworthy.
    Ron Bailey, REASON mag

  37. hillwalker says:

    For what it’s worth, when one looks at what’s going on in the arctic, particularly with the methane, all this talk about 2030 or 2050 or 2100 all seems kinda silly.

    We don’t have that kind of time, and it won’t be a culling, it will be an extinction.

    I think the tipping point has already been exceeded. I hope I am wrong.


  38. Paul Magnus says:


    New international land deals database reveals rush to buy up Africa
    World’s largest public database lifts lid on the extent and secretive nature of the global demand for land

  39. Shaheer says:

    “Expecting 3 to 4 degrees is regarded as realistic, five to six degrees pessimistic, and seven to eight degrees alarmist.” – Oxford 4 degree Conference, 2009

    In a 4 degree C world…less than 1 billion will survive. – Kevin Anderson, Tyndall Centre director, Hans Schellnhuber, Potsdam Institute director, James Lovelock, independent.

    What happens when that Arctic sea ice goes away? Does the whole equator turn to desert? What happens when that methane hydrate on the Arctic sea floor blows out? Why is the Arctic Methane Emergency Group say that as goes the Arctic, so goes Earth? http://www.ameg.me

    It’s like we went from a planetary emergency to a feel-good nothings wrong party. Do people seriously think abrupt climate change is not going to occur in the next decade or so?

    I think he is taking back his words because he knows we are screwed. Earthquake activity has been increasing this 2012 – and that may destabilize even more methane hydrates.