The recent narrow passage of the Waxman-Markey energy bill, better known as cap-and-trade, marks halftime in Congress' first attempt to put a lid on national carbon emissions. The bill’s supporters ended the half on top in a squeaker -- 219 yeas to 212 nays. But it’s far from clear what this lead means, either for the bill or the climate. The legislation’s fate remains as uncertain as our own.
We can, however, be sure about one thing. Between now and the autumn Senate debate, cap-and-trade’s right-wing critics will escalate their all-cannons assault on the idea that climate change is real and demands a response. They will call "crap-and-tax" the mother of all scams, a poorly cloaked state power grab, and a major goose step down the road to eco-fascism. Given the demagogic hyperbole already on display, it can’t be long before some conservative howler warns that the bill's green facade shares hues with the Koran.
As the fight over cap-and-trade intensifies, human-driven climate change denialists like Rush Limbaugh and James Inhofe will draw the lion's share of the media spotlight reserved for the bill's critics. This is unfortunate. The real debate is not between the bill's supporters and the dead-ender climate clown club. It is between cap-and-trade’s supporters and its critics within the scientific and environmental activist communities. Groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have science if not politics on their side when they decry Waxman-Markey as an industry diluted half-measure with soft gums that falls far short of what is necessary to avoid cataclysmic climate change later this century.
“The giveaways and preferences in the bill will actually spur a new generation of nuclear and coal-fired power plants to the detriment of real energy solutions,” said Greenpeace in a statement the day before the House vote. “To support such a bill is to abandon the real leadership that is called for at this pivotal moment in history. We simply no longer have the time for legislation this weak.”
This view is shared by leading climate scientists like James Hansen and his peers around the world at leading research centers such as the UK's Hadley Center for Climate Prediction and Research, which urge more significant and immediate cuts than the finance-sector friendly cap-and-trade system can deliver.
There is another, fourth voice in the debate over cap-and-trade, one ringing out from shadows rarely approached by the media. In these shadows dwell scientists who believe the time has passed for any sort of legislation at all, no matter how radical. The best known of these frightening climate gnomes is the legendary British scientist James Lovelock, father of Gaia Theory and inventor of the instrument allowing for the atmospheric measurements of CFC's. In recent years, Lovelock has emerged as the world’s leading climate pessimist, raining scorn on the new fashionable environmentalism and arguing that the time is nigh to accept that a massive culling of the human race is around the corner.
“Most of the ‘green’ stuff is verging on a gigantic scam," Lovelock told the New Scientist shortly before the release of his latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia. "Carbon trading, with its huge government subsidies, is just what finance and industry wanted. It's not going to do a damn thing about climate change, but it'll make a lot of money for a lot of people and postpone the moment of reckoning.”
Those who read Lovelock’s controversial 2006 book, The Revenge of Gaia, know that hope junkies should keep a safe distance from the 90-year-old scientist. Lovelock, who has been compared to Copernicus and Darwin, years ago arrived at a disturbingly stark conclusion about Earth’s climate future. His prognosis is now starker than ever. The small window of short-term hope he left open in Revenge is closed in this year’s Vanishing. In its place is a long-term hope that humanity in some form will survive the present century, though barely. The result is a dark and contrarian work that seeks to demolish the terms of the climate debate while mocking our response to the crisis at the personal, national, and species level.
Lovelock has not arrived at his views lightly. They are the product of years spent carefully considering the known science through the revolutionary and frequently misunderstood lens he began developing 40 years ago while working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasedena. Gaia Theory holds that Earth possesses a sophisticated planetary intelligence that responds to levels of heat from the sun in such a way as to maintain a climate homeostasis supportive of life. In four decades of research and experiment, the most famous being the “Daisyworld” model, Lovelock has overcome the once-widespread skepticism of his peers to officially move Gaia from a Hypothesis to a Theory. He has established that the various components of the biosphere -- plants, animals, minerals, gases, the sun’s heat -- interact in such a way as to create and maintain a climate amenable to life. Far from a passive collection of independent actors responding to conditions, the biosphere’s contents, including humans, form a living web which actively creates and maintains those conditions. Gaia prefers these conditions and will do her best to maintain them. But there is a limit to how much Gaia can do if we keep running over the safety mechanisms -- negative feedback loops -- she puts in our path. Lovelock believes that we have pushed Gaia beyond the point of return. The cold seas, for example, can only pump down so much of our carbon before they cry mercy and turn to acid.
Lovelock argues that Gaia Theory offers a more holistic understanding of what's happening to the climate than does mainstream climate science, stuck as it is in reductionist thinking and fractured into its constituent fields. Using the Gaia lens, he maintains, allows for a more comprehensive, intuitive, and ultimately more predictive approach. He spends much of Vanishingexplaining why he thinks our attempts to accurately model climate change with computers is akin to the blind efforts of a 19th century doctor trying to treat diabetes. He notes that the IPCC and its many powerful computers have successfully undershot all of the indicator trends of climate change so far. Most notably, sea-level rise has outpaced IPCC predictions at a rate of 2 to 1.
Of all the indicators of climate change, Lovelock maintains sea-level rise is the most important. Given the complexity of the millions of interactions within the Gaia system, Lovelock argues it is best to ignore year-to-year temperature fluctuations and instead watch the oceans. The seas, he says, are the lone trustworthy indicator of the earth’s heat balance. “Sea level rise is the best available measure of the heat absorbed by the earth because it comes from only two things,” he writes. “[These are] the melting of glaciers and the expansion of water as it warms. Sea level is the thermometer that indicates true global heating.”
Using Gaia Theory as his lens, Lovelock also examines five dreaded positive feedback loops, those processes now underway that at some point will become ferocious amplifiers of global heating (he finds "warming" too soft a word for the process). Lovelock describes how the most important of these feedback loops already in motion—the loss of reflective ice cover, the death of carbon eating algae as oceans warm, and methane released by thawing permafrost—will soon accelerate the heating trend underway, leading to sudden and dramatic shifts in global climate. Rather than the steady rise predicted by the UN’s IPCC, Lovelock is confident the change will resemble economic charts of boom and bust, full of sudden and unexpected discontinuities, dips, and jumps. “The Earth’s history and simple climate models based on the notion of a live and responsive Earth suggest that sudden change and surprise are more likely than the smooth rising curve of temperature that modelers predict for the next ninety years,” he writes.
What this means for us will be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention: cities and farmland lost to rising seas, endless heatwaves, and a drastic reduction of Earth’s carrying capacity.
“There is no tipping point, just a slope that gets ever steeper,” writes Lovelock. “Because of the rapidity of the Earth’s change, we will need to respond more like the inhabitants of a city threatened by a flood. When they see the unstoppable rise of water, their only option is to escape to higher ground. We have to make our lifeboats seaworthy now [and] stop pretending there is any way back to that lush, comfortable, and beautiful Earth we left behind sometime in the 20th century.”
Needless to say, this is not a popular message. Lovelock remains a controversial figure, now more for his politics than his science. In recent years he has become the most prominent green critic of mainstream environmentalism, unleashing his heaviest fire on what he regards as the green movement's irrational fear of nuclear power. Before he lost all hope in an energy silver bullet, Lovelock argued that nuclear represented humanity's best chance of transitioning the current civilization onto another, more sustainable track. But it's not just knee-jerk opposition to nuclear energy that gets Lovelock fuming. He has been ruthless in his attacks on politicians and businessmen who peddle hope in the form of meaningless but potentially profitable gestures like cap-and-trade. This has deeply antagonized his fellow greens still scrambling to generate public support for bold solutions to the climate crisis.
Lovelock’s impatience with feel-good “Yes, we can” liberal environmentalism borders on contempt. There are passages inVanishing that, were it not for their eloquence, could have been uttered by Glenn Beck. The delusional rhetoric about “sustainable development” peddled by green politicians and businessmen, writes Lovelock, just shows that we have “weaved the sound of the alarm clock into our dreams.” In one of the book’s many memorable passages on the green politics of hope, Lovelock compares sustainable development to deathbed snake oil peddled by an alt-medicine quack.
“Just as we as individuals try alternative medicine,” writes Lovelock, “our governments have many offers from alternative business and their lobbies of sustainable ways to ‘save the planet,’ and from some green hospice there may come the anodyne of hope.”
But this "final warning" is more than a long and hectoring doctor’s talk about an advanced and inoperable cancer. Lovelock brightens up considerably when looking beyond the looming die-off. And once we assume the author’s Darwinian and planetary long view, it’s easy to share his cosmic wonder and long-term optimism. Lovelock is cautiously hopeful that as many as several hundred million humans will survive the century and carve pockets of civilization into the coming hot state. Our current global civilization is about to end, but there is every reason to “take hope from the fact that our species is unusually tough and is unlikely to go extinct in the coming climate catastrophe.”
Here enters Lovelock the playful futurist. Those who survive will be responsible for maintaining a high-tech, low-impact, low-energy society advanced enough to keep the flame of progress alive but small and smart enough to carefully husband what arable land remains. Lovelock guesses the rump human race will cluster around a few temperate islands in the far northern hemisphere, including his native U.K. He believes that if emergency preparations are made in time—he compares the present moment to 1939—and if the worst-case scenarios of geopolitical conflict are avoided—namely resource scrambles leading to global thermonuclear war—then something resembling a modern and even urban lifestyle could await the survivors. There may even be food critics in this future, which need not resemble a Soylent Green scenario of cannibalism and state-rationed crackers. This future civilization will synthesize food from CO2, nitrogen, water, and a few minerals. Simple amino acids and sugars, Lovelock cheerfully explains, can be used as feedstock for bulk animal and vegetable tissue created in chemical vats from biopsies. Yum!
A quarter century ago, Carl Sagan issued a strange and compelling plea for nuclear disarmament. He urged the superpowers to abolish their thermonuclear arsenals for the sake of mankind’s future evolution and eventual colonization of the galaxy. Echoing Sagan, Lovelock believes it is our duty as an intelligent race, the only one in the cosmic neighborhod, to survive. Only by carrying the flame of civilization into the next century will we have a chance to evolve beyond our current tribal-carnivore brains, which are dominated by short-term thinking and thus responsible for our current predicament. Whereas Sagan dreamed of alien contact, Lovelock's promised land is more humble: an evolved species capable of living in balance with Gaia. In the meantime, the Earth will grow and change, as it always has. Life will continue, humans included, even though billions will suffer and die. Gaia, an ageing planet, will roll into the new climate as best she can. In her wise generosity, she will even leave some hospitable land for us, the offending species, “to survive and to live in a way that gives evolution beyond us, into a wiser and more intelligent animal, a chance.”