James Lovelock: A climate change pessimist

“I don’t think we’re yet evolved to the point where we’re clever enough to handle a complex a situation as climate change,” said Lovelock in his first in-depth interview since the theft of the UEA emails last November. “The inertia of humans is so huge that you can’t really do anything meaningful.”

[Source: The Guardian]

James Lovelock is not your usual curmudgeon. He is ninety years old. He has seen a lot of the world. He’s earned the right to a sharp tongue – especially as a chemist and Earth scientist who has done as much as anyone to educate people about the environment and the interdependent nature of all things on Earth (the Earth for which Lovelock created the appellation, Gaia).

In an interview with Britain’s The Guardian Lovelock let loose with a barrage of not-so-encouraging comments about the current state of affairs for science, scientists, and global warming. It’s definitely worth a click to read the whole thing; but I’ve got a couple of quotes here for starters.

The opening quote is a hunter’s trap: “I don’t think we’re yet evolved to the point where we’re clever enough to handle as complex a situation as climate change.” A lot of folks, especially headline editors have interpreted this to mean “human beings are too stupid to do anything about climate change.” What he said was we’re not smart enough. There’s a difference. We’re smart enough to know we’ve got a problem. We’re smart enough to figure out some solutions. We’re even smart enough to understand that the problem of global climate change may or may not be within our ability to master. What we’re not smart enough to do – ‘not yet evolved to the point’ – is agree about the problem or agree about the solutions. Our brain power is sufficient, but our social skills are (woefully) deficient.

This leads to another quote:

“Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.”

It doesn’t require the political sensitivity of Glenn Beck to see where this statement is going to set off alarms, light fuses, and blow gaskets. It sounds like he’s calling for dictatorship (or something). Or at least it would sound like that to anyone who wasn’t around during the Second World War. Lovelock remembers it – the victory gardens, the bomb shelter drill, the ‘loose lips’ campaigns. Of course, democracy in Britain or the U.S. wasn’t suspended (put on hold), but it was…temporarily amended. To Lovelock the climate change issue may well create problems so vast and difficult that indeed the normal routine of democracy may have to suffer. That, unfortunately, could be true; and to believe it depends on your level of pessimism about the possible outcomes.

What might be missing from a knee jerk reaction to “when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being” is how Lovelock views the scale of the impending changes. As a man who has spent the better part of a lifetime studying and describing the interrelationships of the natural world, the ructions of global warming, the massive changes in the chemistry of earth, sea, and air, do not add up to a few bad days on the calendar. He sees all too clearly the scope of potential disasters. The worst are probably the quietest – like the killing of the oceans by CO2 acidification. Lovelock seems to wish that instead of these all-too-invisible disasters, that some global equivalent of a knock upside the head with a 2 x 4 (a long, heavy, piece of wood) would shake people out of their complacency.

He thinks only a catastrophic event would now persuade humanity to take the threat of climate change seriously enough, such as the collapse of a giant glacier in Antarctica, such as the Pine Island glacier, which would immediately push up sea level.

“That would be the sort of event that would change public opinion,” he said. “Or a return of the dust bowl in the mid-west. Another Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report won’t be enough. We’ll just argue over it like now.”

Coming back to the original theme: We’re not evolved enough. We don’t know how to work with problems that span decades, involve every living thing, and that don’t provide easy, 100% clear situations, analysis, or choices. There’s a quote I remember from the movie Men in Black (of all things), Tommy Lee Jones says (punches the line) “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.” Maybe that catches the caustic spirit of James Lovelock.

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