I have just read James Lovelock’s The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning. It surprised me that Lovelock is so hopelessly pessimistic about the abilities of climate science to forecast climate but still remains a strong proponent of the view that AGW will profoundly alter the way the human race can survive on this planet. Lovelock believes that cumulative emissions are too great and that the potential for decisive action to address climate change by mitigation too weak. Hence he believes that much of the earth is doomed. Adaptation policies will help but renewable energy technologies are largely a waste of effort and really just ‘green romanticism’ – too little too late. The humanity that does survive on earth according to Lovelock will need to live on small islands – he mentions the UK, Tasmania and New Zealand and in the far north of the northern hemisphere.For Lovelock the only slim hope for broader human survival lies in an overall switch toward nuclear fuels and in geo-engineering solutions which cool the Earth by using space mirrors, clouds of particulates, pumping chilly waters from the bottom of the sea, burying agricultural waste in the form of charcoal and stimulating algal growth in the oceans to absorb CO2. Apart from that we must adaptively prepare for mass migrations towards the few places on earth where life will be livable.
This kind of pessimism leads to an emphasis on adaptation policies which remind me of some of the early arguments by the idiotic end of climate change scepticism at groups such as the CATO Institute. Such groups couldn’t deny the reality of climate change but saw it as a purely natural phenomenon which could not be moderated at reasonable cost by restricting greenhouse gas emissions. Hence they promoted adaptation policies.
The endorsement of technological solutions to address climate change is further endorsed by sceptics such as Lomborg who believes in the potential damages of climate change but who sees widespread global mitigation efforts as a pipedream. This short article articulates the main concerns of Lomberg’s ‘Cool It’.
I think there is a point to many of these disparate arguments. I don’t believe that Lovelock is – as he is often portrayed – a ‘new age’ dreamer at all. He is a very creative thinker. I think we should take seriously the prospect that we face – perhaps with a small probability – the prospects of really immense disaster as a consequence of climate change. We should have contingency plans to address this possibility given the huge costs that are associated with such extreme events.
I also think agree that the emphasis on renewable technologies such as wind energy is unlikely to be very helpful though solar thermal power and geothermal may be useful. I also strongly believe that we should eliminate the use of carbon-based fuels as quickly as possible and switch to non-polluting, safe nuclear technologies as soon as possible. Australia can act as a major source for the world’s supplies of nuclear fuels while geologically stable outback areas could be used to store the trivial quantities of nuclear wastes that such technologies would generate.
Carbon taxes and cap-and-trade carbon emission controls while useful are not the only answer. Lomborg’s suggestion to invest one twentieth of 1% of each country’s GDP into carbon saving energy technologies. The intention is to make greener sources of energy more commercially viable. This seems sound. Lomberg’s motive differs from mine – he is sceptical of climate science and believes mitigation policies will fail. As a practical matter I also think they might fail though I believe it is worth pushing hard for them to succeed but to develop new technologies and to promote adaptation partly so such even should such efforts change we are protected against climate change. Of course too developing alternatives to liquid fuels protects society against the implied depletion of such fuels.