Scientist James Lovelock stunned the scientific community last year with his assertion that it is too late to do anything about global warming. Even if we have not yet reached the tipping point, he said, the vast momentum of industrial society will soon carry us crashing through it and dash any hope of arresting a deadly planetary heat wave that will wreck civilization as we know it. Lovelock detailed his assessment in a new book entitled The Revenge of Gaia: Earth's Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity.
Lovelock is no ordinary researcher. He is a world renown independent scientist and inventor. One of his inventions helped to uncover the role of chlorofluorocarbons in the destruction of the ozone layer. He is probably most famous for his thesis that the Earth is a living organism that regulates its temperature and conditions to make the biosphere amenable to life. He explained his theory in a book published almost 30 years ago entitled Gaia: A New Look at Life On Earth.
At the other end of the spectrum of the global warming debate are the so-called climate change skeptics. They have been known to employ something akin to a modified dog-bite defense. In a classic joke a man whose dog has bitten a passerby defends himself in court by saying: "My dog doesn't bite, it wasn't my dog, and furthermore, I don't have a dog." And, so it is with the so-called climate skeptics. They claim variously that global warming is good for you or at least not so bad that we need to do anything about it; that global warming is not caused by human activity; and that furthermore, there's no global warming.
Most of the skeptics, which comprise a small and dwindling group of scientists and a much larger contingent of professional propagandists, have strong financial ties to the fossil fuel industry. Their intent is not to enlighten, but to confuse and thereby delay any action that could inflict financial pain on their benefactors. But with the evidence so overwhelming that a worldwide warming trend is underway, the skeptics have largely dropped the third part of their modified dog-bite defense. Instead, they've to begun to focus on the second part, namely, that global warming is not caused by human activity. It is here that they have unwittingly walked into a trap. And, it is here they now find themselves in the same camp as Lovelock.
Lovelock's essential point is that humans can no longer do anything about global warming. This is because we have reached or will shortly reach the point at which the Earth's processes will begin to greatly amplify and accelerate warming without any need for further inputs from us. This is often called runaway global warming. It is the point at which the Earth's climate switch has been flipped and after which there is no hope of going back to our former climate. And, it is the reason that climate scientists are calling for immediate action on deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in hopes of avoiding flicking this planetary switch.
Lovelock, of course, thinks it's too late. Now, the only thing to do, he counsels, is to adapt. But ironically, the so-called skeptics' main argument has become essentially the same. Of course, they arrive at their conclusion through a different route: Humans aren't causing global warming, so they can't really do anything to stop it. But this is really only another way of saying that we may have entered runaway global warming. The causes cited include increased solar radiation and cyclical warming of the Earth unrelated to human activity. The skeptics cite the geologic record as proof that the Earth periodically undergoes such warmings, and that it's nothing to get excited about. Although the first part of this statement is true, it does not constitute proof that this warmup is natural. The second part of the statement, however, deserves special scrutiny. That's because, inconveniently, the geologic record is full of sudden, dramatic climate shifts, some occurring in as short a period as a decade.
With global warming on a dangerously accelerated schedule, Lovelock believes that governments and societies have no time to lose. They must begin planning now to secure energy and food supplies. They must brace themselves for early and dramatic rises in sea level. He also believes that basic knowledge must now be committed to long-lasting, durable books that won't deteriorate over time. The computer-driven, electricity-filled life we currently lead will not survive the massive dieoff that he predicts will leave only "a few breeding pairs" in the Arctic by the end of the century.
Since the skeptics and Lovelock are now basically in agreement that nothing can be done to stop global warming, why haven't the skeptics outlined a plan for adaptation (even emergency adaptation) as Lovelock has? Perhaps the skeptics are falling back on the first part of their modified dog-bite defense that global temperatures won't rise enough so that we need to do anything to adapt. But, this does not square with their almost constant assertions that there is a great deal of uncertainty about future temperature rises. While true, the uncertainty runs in both directions. Global temperature rises could just as easily turn out to be much higher by the end of the century than current estimates. But so heedless are the skeptics of their own contradictory thinking that in testimony before the U. S. Congress one bona fide climate scientist who styles himself a skeptic simply deleted the median and high temperature estimates from a study done by NASA's famed climate researcher, James Hansen.
The fact that the climate change contrarians 1) have no plan for adaptation to a warming climate; 2) ignore the obvious warnings of the geologic record they cite; 3) claim that the future of climate change is terribly uncertain and then claim to know it with certainty; and 4) deploy mutually contradictory arguments supports the widespread belief that they have a rather narrow agenda, namely, to defeat any attempts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
But this still leaves them in the same camp as Lovelock (albeit by different reasoning), a position that cries out for a credible plan of adaptation based on the great uncertainties that the skeptics themselves admit surround the future of global warming. Just to be safe, however, I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for them to give me such a plan.