Farewell to James Lovelock (1919-2022)

Net Zero Watch | 29 July 2022

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  Farewell to James Lovelock (1919-2022)


I think you have to accept that the sceptics have kept us sane — some of them, anyway. They have been a breath of fresh air. They have kept us from regarding the science of climate change as a religion. It had gone too far that way. There is a role for sceptics in science. They shouldn’t be brushed aside. — James Lovelock 

 I’ve got quite a few friends among the sceptics, as well as among the “angels” of climate science. There are some sceptics that I fully respect. Nigel Lawson is one. He writes sensibly and well. He raises questions. I find him an interesting sceptic. What I like about sceptics is that in good science you need critics that make you think. –James Lovelock

1) Farewell James Lovelock, the green icon who turned his back on modern environmentalism
The Daily Telegraph, 28 July 2022
2) Grandaddy of green warms to the eco sceptics
Charles Clover, The Sunday Times, 14 March 2010
 3) ‘Gaia’ scientist James Lovelock: I was ‘alarmist’ about climate change
MSNBC News, 23 April 2012

4) James Lovelock: Why are we so afraid of nuclear power?
The Spectator, October 2021
 1) Farewell James Lovelock, the green icon who turned his back on modern environmentalism
The Daily Telegraph, 28 July 2022

By Matt Ridley

The death of James Lovelock on his 103rd birthday brings to an end one of the most original lives this planet has seen. He never wasted a moment on conventional thinking. His secret? I suspect it was his avoidance of being an employee for almost all his life. Though a Companion of Honour and a fellow of the Royal Society, he was never part of the establishment.

In 2010 he expressed this mindset with characteristic verve: “Science, pre-1960s, was largely vocational. Back when I was young, I didn’t want to do anything other than be a scientist. They’re not like that nowadays. They go to these mass-produced universities. They say: ‘Science is a good career. You can get a job for life doing government work.’ That’s no way to do science.”

As a result, he never made much money despite inventing a machine of global importance, the electron capture device, which allows people to detect the faintest traces of rare chemicals, vital in the fight against pollution. He died quietly in a small cottage on Chesil Beach, cared for by his wife Sandy. A heart attack in his fifties could not stop him, nor could an adder bite when he was 100, but his life faded out this week.

It was in 1972 that he put forward his Gaia theory, that the earth is like an organism, its living creatures adjusting its physical conditions to suit themselves in an almost mystical way. Taken literally, this is clearly not true: the earth does not have a parent or children, let alone a brain. But Lovelock gradually won over sceptics like me to the less mystical notion that ecology is not just a reaction to the physical world but also influences it in ways that moderate the effects.

Here’s my favourite example of a Gaian idea. At the height of ice ages, carbon dioxide levels drop very low, we now know – cold seas absorb it from the air. This means plants disappear from dry or high areas of continents, unable to feed off the air. Huge deserts generate vast dust storms. These darken the ice caps of the northern hemisphere and when a burst of warming is caused by orbital changes, the darkening accelerates as the ice melts and brings together years of dust. This leads to a collapse of the ice caps, a warming of the world and an increase in carbon dioxide released from the ocean, causing a flourishing of plants again.

Mr Lovelock’s goddess Gaia is a hero to extreme greens. So it was with shock that they learnt that he disagreed with a lot of green stuff. He told The Guardian in 2016 that trying to heat your home with biomass was expensive and dirty, fracking for shale gas made sense, nuclear power was essential, and computer models of the climate were not reliable. And of the green movement, he said: “Well, it’s a religion. It’s totally unscientific.”

He went on: “I’m afraid the thing gets exaggerated out of all proportion, and the greens have behaved deplorably instead of being reasonably sensible.”

He then went on to tell his startled interviewer that by the end of this century, robots will have taken over and they will have a rather different view of planetary affairs. He gave a splendid answer to a question about what the robots will think about climate change: “They could accommodate infinitely greater climate change than we can. It’s what the world can stand that is the important thing. They’re going to have a safe platform to live in, so they don’t want Gaia messed about too much.”

We have lost a unique and truly independent mind.

2) Grandaddy of green warms to the eco sceptics
Charles Clover, The Sunday Times, 14 March 2010
“I think you have to accept that the sceptics have kept us sane — some of them, anyway,” he said. “They have been a breath of fresh air. They have kept us from regarding the science of climate change as a religion.”

Just occasionally you find yourself at an event where there is a sense of history in the air. So it was the other night at the Royal Society, when a small gathering of luminaries turned up to hear that extraordinary nonagenarian, the scientist James Lovelock.

They had all come: David MacKay, chief scientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change; Michael Green, Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge; Michael Wilson, producer of the James Bond movies; Chris Rapley, director of the Science Museum; and more. You knew why they had answered the Isaac Newton Institute’s invitation. They wanted to learn where one of the most interesting minds in science stood in the climate debate.

Lovelock has been intimately involved in three of the defining environmental controversies of the past 60 years. He invented an instrument that made it possible to detect the presence of toxic pollutants in the fat of Antarctic penguins — at roughly the same time as Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, her hugely influential book about pollution. In the 1970s the same instrument, his electron capture detector, was used to detect the presence of chlorofluorocarbons — CFCs — in the atmosphere. Although Lovelock mistakenly pronounced these chemicals as no conceivable toxic hazard, the scientists F Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina later won the Nobel prize in chemistry for proving they were destroying the ozone layer.

Then, in 1979, Lovelock published the book-length version of his Gaia theory, which postulates that the Earth functions as a kind of super-organism, with millions of species regulating its temperature. Despite initial scepticism from the Darwinists, who refused to believe that individual organisms could act in harmony, the Gaia theory has been widely accepted and now underlies most atmospheric science.

What, I wondered, would be the great man’s view on the latest twists in the atmospheric story — the Climategate emails and the sloppy science revealed in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)? To my surprise, he immediately professed his admiration for the climate-change sceptics.

“I think you have to accept that the sceptics have kept us sane — some of them, anyway,” he said. “They have been a breath of fresh air. They have kept us from regarding the science of climate change as a religion. It had gone too far that way. There is a role for sceptics in science. They shouldn’t be brushed aside. It is clear that the angel side wasn’t without sin.” As we were ushered in to dinner, I couldn’t help wrestling with the irony that the so-called “prophet of climate change”, whose Gaia theory is regarded in some quarters as a faith in itself, was actively cheering on those who would knock science from its pedestal.

Lovelock places great emphasis on proof. The climate change projections by the Meteorological Office’s Hadley Centre — a key contributor to the IPCC consensus — should be taken seriously, he said. But he is concerned that the projections are relying on computer models based primarily on atmospheric physics, because models of that kind have let us down before. Similar models, for example, failed to detect the hole in the ozone layer; it was eventually found by Joe Farman using a spectrometer.

How, asks Lovelock, can we predict the climate 40 years ahead when there is so much that we don’t know? Surely we should base any assumptions on things we can measure, such as a rise in sea levels. After all, surface temperatures go up and down, but the rise in sea levels reflects both melting ice and thermal expansion. The IPCC, he feels, underestimates the extent to which sea levels are rising.

Do mankind’s emissions matter? Yes, they undoubtedly do. No one should be complacent about the fact that within the next 20 years we’ll have added nearly a trillion tons of carbon to the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. When a geological accident produced a similar carbon rise 55m years ago, it turned up the heat more than 5C. And now? Well, the effect of man-made carbon is unpredictable. Temperatures might go down at first, rather than up, he warns.

How should we be spending our money to prevent possible disaster? In Britain, says Lovelock, we need sea walls and more nuclear power. Heretical stuff, when you consider the vast amount that Europe plans to spend on wind turbines.

“What would you bet will happen this century?” a mathematician asked him. Lovelock predicted a temperature rise in the middle range of current projections — about 1C-2C — which we could live with. Ah, but hadn’t he also said there was a chance that temperature rises could threaten human civilisation within the lifetime of our grandchildren?

He had. In the end, his message was that we should have more respect for uncertainties and learn to live with possibilities rather than striving for the 95% probabilities that climate scientists have been trying to provide. We don’t know what’s going to happen and we don’t know if we can avert disaster — although we should try. His sage advice: enjoy life while you can.  

3) ‘Gaia’ scientist James Lovelock: I was ‘alarmist’ about climate change
MSNBC News, 23 April 2012

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.

Lovelock, 92, is writing a new book in which he will say climate change is still happening, but not as quickly as he once feared.

He previously painted some of the direst visions of the effects of climate change. In 2006, in an article in the U.K.’s Independent newspaper, he wrote that “before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.”

However, the professor admitted in a telephone interview with msnbc.com that he now thinks he had been “extrapolating too far.”

The new book, due to be published next year, will be the third in a trilogy, following his earlier works, “Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back – and How We Can Still Save Humanity,” and “The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning: Enjoy It While You Can.”

The new book will discuss how humanity can change the way it acts in order to help regulate the Earth’s natural systems, performing a role similar to the harmonious one played by plants when they absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.

Climate’s ‘usual tricks’
It will also reflect his new opinion that global warming has not occurred as he had expected.

“The problem is we don’t know what the climate is doing. We thought we knew 20 years ago. That led to some alarmist books – mine included – because it looked clear-cut, but it hasn’t happened,” Lovelock said.

“The climate is doing its usual tricks. There’s nothing much really happening yet. We were supposed to be halfway toward a frying world now,” he said.

“The world has not warmed up very much since the millennium. Twelve years is a reasonable time… it (the temperature) has stayed almost constant, whereas it should have been rising — carbon dioxide is rising, no question about that,” he added.

He pointed to Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and Tim Flannery’s “The Weather Makers” as other examples of “alarmist” forecasts of the future.

In 2007, Time magazine named Lovelock as one of 13 leaders and visionaries in an article on “Heroes of the Environment,” which also included Gore, Mikhail Gorbachev and Robert Redford.

“Jim Lovelock has no university, no research institute, no students. His almost unparalleled influence in environmental science is based instead on a particular way of seeing things,” Oliver Morton, of the journal Nature wrote in Time. “Humble, stubborn, charming, visionary, proud and generous, his ideas about Gaia have started a change in the conception of biology that may serve as a vital complement to the revolution that brought us the structures of DNA and proteins and the genetic code.”

Lovelock also won the U.K.’s Geological Society’s Wollaston Medal in 2006. In a posting on its website, the society said it was “rare to be able to say that the recipient has opened up a whole new field of Earth science study” – referring to the Gaia theory of the planet as single complex system.

However Lovelock, who works alone at his home in Devon, England, has fallen out with the green movement in the past, particularly after saying countries should build nuclear power stations to help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions caused by coal and oil.

Asked if he was now a climate skeptic, Lovelock told msnbc.com: “It depends what you mean by a skeptic. I’m not a denier.”

He said human-caused carbon dioxide emissions were driving an increase in the global temperature, but added that the effect of the oceans was not well enough understood and could have a key role.

“It (the sea) could make all the difference between a hot age and an ice age,” he said.

He said he still thought that climate change was happening, but that its effects would be felt farther in the future than he previously thought.

“We will have global warming, but it’s been deferred a bit,” Lovelock said.

‘I made a mistake’

As “an independent and a loner,” he said he did not mind saying “All right, I made a mistake.” He claimed a university or government scientist might fear an admission of a mistake would lead to the loss of funding.

Lovelock — who has previously worked with NASA and discovered the presence of harmful chemicals (CFCs) in the atmosphere but not their effect on the ozone layer — stressed that humanity should still “do our best to cut back on fossil fuel burning” and try to adapt to the coming changes.
Full story

4) James Lovelock: Why are we so afraid of nuclear power?
The Spectator, October 2021
The scientist, environmentalist, futurist, inventor and creator of the Gaia hypothesis James Lovelock has died, aged 103. Last October, he wrote the following piece about the importance of nuclear power. May he rest in peace.

The climate change summit in Glasgow will have one important part of the discussion missing: the role of nuclear power. It seems the government is in no mood for a discussion with the nuclear industry — every one of its applications to exhibit at the COP26 summit has been rejected. That’s a shame, because there are plenty of myths to be addressed.

We could discuss the lessons from the plant at Fukushima, seriously harmed by a tsunami in March 2011. Sometime later, two of the reactors overheated, burst and released a small quantity of radioactive material into the environment.

At the time of this event, my wife Sandy and I were at our home in St Louis, Missouri. Our daily paper, the Wall Street Journal, had a detailed account of the tsunami. It also carried an editorial expressing the hope that the world’s press would not go overboard and falsely imply that 20,000 people had been killed because of the nuclear accident rather than the tsunami. The editor’s wisdom was ignored. Instead, there remains a deep-rooted fear concerning the safety of nuclear power.

Such power has been with us long enough to prove its safety. A study was recently done by the Journal of Cleaner Production: nuclear power is shown to be safer even than renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. The comparison is measured in terms of deaths and injuries per terawatt hour of power produced. (In the UK, we have produced at least 3,030 terawatt hours of power since nuclear installations were introduced in 1956.) The death rate is at least five times smaller than in the coal and oil industries for comparable power production.

In France, nuclear energy has been used on an even larger scale, generating more than 70 per cent of the country’s electricity compared with our 18 per cent. France is neither penniless nor dangerously radioactive. It is also more economically resilient to disruptions in the energy market than the UK. As the country is Europe’s largest energy exporter, Emmanuel Macron can threaten (as he recently did) to cut the UK off from the 10,000 GWh of French nuclear-generated electricity which is needed to power some one million homes.

Sandy and I had the privilege of being shown around two nuclear installations in France: the nuclear reprocessing plant at La Hague and the factory near Avignon where fuel rods were enriched with plutonium. I had with me a personal radiation monitor which let me see for myself that these places were safe to work in.

At La Hague I remember seeing a pond, the size of a large swimming pool, in which nuclear fuel from the reactors was placed to cool off. The uranium rods were highly radio-active and looking into the water I could see the bright glow of Cherenkov radiation shining from them. They looked deadly. I asked our guide: ‘What would happen if someone swam in the pool?’

‘Nothing bad,’ he replied. ‘The radiation level at the top of the pool is negligible. Check it with your monitor.’

This I did. The surface water would provide a warm, safe and enjoyable swim — although the glowing area near the fuel rods would be lethal.

We were also taken to an underground chamber beneath which 25 years of nuclear waste had been stored as glass in stainless steel containers. Again, it was safely buried, and my monitor showed an entirely safe radiation level.

To continue our present civilisation, we need a steady supply of energy. We could easily have had it by now from safely controlled nuclear fission. I think fear has stopped us. And I mean fear of many kinds, ranging from the fear of looking foolish about our ignorance of nuclear physics, to the fear of nuclear war. Then there is the fear of losing wealth. If we go for nuclear as our source of power, what happens to the money we invested in coal and oil?

I lived and worked in London during the second world war. I saw and felt the consequences of living in a war zone. But when I visited Hiroshima, I shuddered when I saw pictures of those unfortunate humans in that city who were burnt to death in the glare of that first atomic bomb

It is difficult to talk about fear without being personal. This introspective expression of my thoughts occurs because during the first world war, my mother was a clerk at Middlesex town hall in London. Among her tasks was recording tribunals which judged the sincerity of conscientious objectors. She noted that few were given exemption from national service, but that frequently those exempted were Quakers. She decided when and if she had a son, he would become a Quaker.

So when my family moved to Brixton in 1926, I was enrolled aged six in the Quaker Sunday school. To my surprise and delight, the superintendent of the school was far more interested in cosmogony than in religion and his teachings fitted my emerging love of science. Best of all, he saw God as the still small voice within. That concept has been my touchstone ever since.

I was summoned to appear before a tribunal in early 1940. I was not then a Quaker, but became one soon after. I explained the reason for my pacifism and the three judges conferred to assess my honesty. After some discussion among themselves, they gave me an unconditional exemption from military service. I was fortunate to gain employment as a member of the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council at its institute in Hampstead.

Not counting the Blitz, one of the worst periods of that war in terms of loss of British civilian life was during the attacks by the V-1 flying bomb. I can remember being woken up by the sound of rifle fire as well as bombs. It continued and we thought it must be an invasion. When the postman came, he said it was flying bombs, and there was nothing you could do about it. At this, my aunt Betty, who mistakenly thought that only planes with pilots could hurt her, cried out: ‘Thank God there is no one up there to drop the bombs on me!’ We all laughed, and the spell of fear was broken.

Today we need something like this to break the spell of nuclear fears. Just when V-1s were killing more of us Londoners in 1944 than any other weapon, a strange familiarity dispelled the fear. So it is with nuclear power. Every day, a huge nuclear reactor a million miles across swims across our sky. It will kill us all eventually, but for now we welcome the sunlight.

James Lovelock is the originator of Gaia theory and the author of Novacene: the Coming Age of Hyperintelligence.

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