A conversation with James Lovelock

I recently interviewed the scientist, inventor, and writer James Lovelock for the Globe and Mail. Lovelock’s work on climate change once made him a friend of the environmental movement, but he has since distanced himself, deliberately or otherwise, by doing things like opposing renewable energy, supporting nuclear power, and speaking out against what he calls “modern greens.” Although I enjoyed talking with him, I was sometimes a bit flabbergasted by what he said, and in his new book, A Rough Ride to the Future, he makes some pretty contentious claims with no readily available sources to back them up.

Because the interview was controversial, a few people have asked about reading the whole transcript, so, with the permission of my editor at the Globe, I’m posting it here. I was particularly interested in Lovelock’s response to George Monbiot’s accusation that he had made up some facts about different energy costs in the US and Britain, and about the effect of the agricultural DDT ban on worldwide malaria rates; his responses come later in the interview. Our conversation was polite but heated. It was a fun, interesting, difficult interview.

How exactly does your theory of accelerated evolution differ from the idea of the Anthropocene?

I think it just ties it down more tightly. I think previously the notion of the Anthropocene—which I think was first suggested by an ecologist in Michigan who felt a name was needed for the effect of humans on the ecosystem or the world. And I think he was thinking mainly of plants and living things in the Great Lake systems, where he was working. And it’s a good idea and a good word, and I think it was the physical chemist Paul Crutzen who took it up more seriously to cover the effects that the presence of humans has had on the planet generally. Changing the atmosphere, changing the oceans, and so on, in the way that other living things have not done.

No challenge to those ideas, I think they’re perfectly correct and appropriate. It’s just that they hadn’t tied it down quite tightly and it was never quite clear whether the effect of humans went all the way back to the first use of fire—which nobody knows when that was but it’s at least a million years ago, because that must have had an effect, and so on. What I was doing was tying it down to a much more specific phenomenon which led to the industrial revolution that we now live in, and that was the invention of the steam engine by Thomas Newcomen in 1712. It was the first time that a working device could continuously produce a considerable amount of energy for long periods of time, into days or weeks, and could be fairly easily copied and manufactured, and that I think is a bit more specific than the sort of vaguer ideas of just the presence and influence of humans.

You’re regarded as an early alarm-ringer on climate change, but you’ve since said that some of your predictions, specifically in The Revenge of Gaia, were a bit alarmist. What’s your stance now and how has your thinking evolved?

I think…not just me but scientists generally, and futurists, were in a state of alarm roundabout the turn of the 21st century, and I think the fundamental mistake we’d made was that we were carried away by the work of the Russian and French scientists studying the connection between the composition of the ice cores of Antarctica and the climate and atmospheric composition going back right through time, perhaps as long as a million years ago. And the remarkable thing about their observations was that it showed there was almost a direct linear connection between the amount of carbon dioxide in the air and the average global temperature. And this, I think, made all of us feel that at long last we had a clear-cut idea of what was going on and could predict the future with a fair degree of confidence. Now we knew with moderate accuracy how much CO2 would be in the air, shall we say, in 2050, because we could see just how industry was growing and population was growing and what the effects would be, what the rise would be. So we had that figure and we thought we could then say, Well, therefore the temperature will rise by so much. And it seemed alarming.

What we left out, and the mistake I certainly made, and I think all the others have made and still have not quite acknowledged, is that the air in the glaciation…the air of the earth was clean and clear and uncontaminated by to any appreciable extent by humans. But we now live in a world which is quite different. Not only is CO2 put into the air, but aerosols, all sorts of the things are changing, the surface reflectivity is changing, crop patterns change, all sorts of things are changing. So were no longer in a position to say that just because CO2 rises by such and such an extent, therefore the temperature will rise likewise.

So it’s obvious that you still regard climate change as a threat, you’re just not sure what degree of a threat it is.

Exactly. Or when it will be a real problem. And also, as you will have gathered from the book, when I look at the real world and see what the temperature of a place like Singapore is—people live there and exist and the ecosystems exist at a temperature more than twice as great as the worst predictions that were made giving us alarm at the turn of the century. So what’s going on?

In the book you write that what we should do is manage a “sustainable retreat” from climate change. What do you mean by that?

The phrase “sustainable retreat,” as far as I know, I originated some time ago in Sweden. It really was inspired by the thought that, in military affairs, a truly successful general is one who can manage a good retreat and keep his army more or less intact and see that minimal damage is done during the retreat. Whereas the retreats of, for example, Napoleon or Hitler were much more like routs than retreats when they happened, in both cases from Russia. So I’m thinking, If we’re going to treat climate change as a problem, then we ought to aim to retreat from the worst effects of it sensibly and in a well-planned manner so that it isn’t a rout—it’s an organized affair.

Can you talk a bit about what we should be doing to adapt, to retreat?

The mere fact that it’s happening anyway makes it a lot easier for us. We just have to follow what’s happening naturally, not get in the way of it. 

Can you talk about these self-contained cities that you write about in the book?

They don’t exist yet. The cities that have grown have tended to be somewhat haphazard and that may be good because they’ve occurred naturally that way and they’ll shape themselves up in time. I just don’t know. But if climate change happens fairly rapidly we might have to think hard about how to sustain people in cities that have been, to some extent, planned. It’s really a toss-up between how much you let a city grow naturally…and I think London is a good example of a city that’s grown more or less naturally without too much planning, whereas Paris was an example of a city that grew with intense planning. I’m not making any judgment about which works better but we already have the evidence there. We ought to start looking at it. 

In the book you write that we shouldn’t feel guilty about causing climate change because we didn’t realize the effects that burning fossil fuels would have. But now we know pretty well what those effects are, and we’ve known for at least several decades. So don’t you think we do have some kind of moral responsibility to mitigate climate change and to hold responsible those who are responsible?

But who is responsible for it? I see all of us as responsible for it. I know it’s fashionable to blame big business, the oil companies, coal companies and so on, but this is not very realistic. It’s you, me, and everyone else that drives our cars to work, that burns fuel to keep up warm in the winter. We’re all in this, and blame is the wrong word altogether because most of the things we’re doing we have to do to. We have no options. We could, for example, try to minimize the output of carbon dioxide, but we’re doing that anyway with the assistance of the automobile industry, for example. Now I’m not trying to say that industry is good. All I’m saying is that we’re all, in a way, responding to the alleged changes in a reasonable sort of way, and I don’t think we’ve done too badly.

But I feel like there’s a different kind of responsibility that comes with merely being a user of fossil fuels because we have so few other options, versus being somebody who directly profits off the continued use of fossil fuels.

I think this is more of a political argument than a scientific one, and I’m not at all happy with politics of any kind—left, right, you name it. I think it’s a natural human tendency that grew up right from the time we were hunter-gatherers, to divide up this way, right or wrong, guilty or not guilty, and so on, but it doesn’t fit so well with my worldview. Above all, I don’t like accusations of guilt. I think they’re very suspicious.

In the book, you mention that you have a lot of problems with people from all points in the political spectrum, and some of your portraits of environmentalists are pretty unflattering. What do you see as your relationship with the environmental movement today?

A very poor relationship indeed. I think what happened was…one of the jobs I’ve got on at the moment is to write a foreword to Gilbert White’s natural history book. I like to think that Gilbert White was one of the first greens, to use that word, not so much politically but someone who felt very strongly about the countryside. And I shared that view, and up until World War II, southern England was a most remarkably beautiful landscape, and it was one where humans and the natural world were living very much in harmony. The fields in which the crops and the livestock grew were not overstressed in any way, and there was plenty of opportunity for the rest of the ecosystem to live along side it. And the net outcome was a particularly beautiful scene.

Now the modern greens are mainly urban, and quite rightly they’re moving to the cities, and their knowledge of the countryside and feeling for it is almost zero, and they imagine you can cover all the fields with solar panels and therefore you’ll get your electricity without contaminating the atmosphere. I think this is very poor thinking, and that’s why I’m against modern green movements and environmentalists.

But don’t you think that the sort of relationship of the early greens that you’re talking about, the love for the countryside that you feel has been lost—that’s a political stance in its own right. It’s just that the priorities of the “greens” have shifted.

So that makes me political. I’m contradicting myself. Thank you for pointing that out.

As you said your relationship with the movement is strained, and you’ve become controversial for speaking out against some forms of renewable energy and for supporting things like nuclear power. How do you respond when environmentalists accuse you of advocating for dangerous solutions like nuclear power, or opposing renewable energy?

Well, I’m a scientist primarily and I think nearly all of the arguments the modern greens use against nuclear energy are just false and highly political, and I would even wonder if they’re corrupted in some way or another by rival energy producers like coal or oil companies. And I’m longing to see some investigative journalist to find out where all the anti-nuclear money comes from. I once talked with some representatives of the nuclear industry and I asked them why they didn’t have full-page advertisements about the safety of nuclear energy, because they have good evidence for it. And they said, We’d love to but we really are only a cottage industry and we don’t have the money. When you think about the quantity of uranium needed to provide electricity for a nation and compare it to that of coal, you’ll see why we’re only a cottage industry. The ratio is about 100,000 to 1. 

You mean that they’re too small to have any real sway?

Yes, they can’t influence people. People are influenced by propaganda and advertising. We’re all affected by it, and the nuclear industry has never been able to make its point.

But there was a time when nuclear power was being used more, and it still is in places like France. 

That’s right, and then enormous sways of propaganda again began to downgrade it. I wouldn’t say it was intentional propaganda at first, but I mean things like The China Syndrome, that film, that had an enormous influence on people. And then lo and behold, a short time afterwards there was the real Three Mile Island accident. But what an accident! Nobody was killed. Nobody was even injured.

But people were killed at Chernobyl. There were actual radiation related illnesses and deaths.

That’s right. There were in Russia, at that time, plenty of crashes by their rail lines. When things ran on the old Soviet system they were not noticeably efficient, and bad things could happen. But the actual number of deaths in Chernobyl was not all that high. It was about 75 total. And all the nonsense about remote damage by radiation spread all over Europe has been proven to be totally untrue. What I say when they tell me nowadays is, Well, take me to the graveyard. Show me the bodies that are supposed to have died from radiation poisoning. Well, of course, there aren’t any.

There was a recent bit of evidence that’s really quite fascinating. In the remaining still hottest parts of Chernobyl, the old reactor, that they haven’t been able to get near enough to examine, birds are nesting and they’ve been examining them fairly closely, and it’s found that the birds are radiation-resistant. Nature doesn’t worry about this kind of thing as much as we do and evolution has taken care of the nuclear problem.

Those studies have found that the birds’ radiation resistance has gone up, but prior to that there was evidence of adverse effects of radiation, like higher frequencies of tumours and abnormalities.

It was a horrible thing, no doubt about that, but it’s all a question of how you compare. What’s the risk of powering your nation by nuclear compared with coal or oil? I think the case in favour of nuclear is enormously high. We in Britain had about 30 percent of our energy from nuclear before the anti-nuclear governments came in in the nineties, the Blair government for example, who then made it impossible to run the nuclear industry. So it’s one of these difficult political things. Which form of energy you use is largely a matter of what kinds of politics you follow rather than, Is it safe or unsafe?

What’s your position on hydraulic fracturing?

Fairly neutral about it. My wife and I used to come to the States most winters a few years ago, and we did so because the cost of heating in Britain was ten times higher in the old Devon farmhouse we lived in compared to the suburban house in St. Louis. And the fact that it was ten times higher was largely due to the cost of gas in the two places. In St. Louis it was largely fracked gas from some place or another, and in Britain it was mainly imported gas, liquid natural gas coming in, that kind of thing. But the difference was huge. The cost of gas was raised substantially by the so-called renewables obligation, whereby a tax is placed on all fuel used other than renewable. And I think this is corrupt because all it does is enormously benefit German industry, which I think makes $35 billion a year from the sale of renewable energy. And it’s all part of the European process.

I wanted to ask you about that. You did that interview with George Monbiot and then he wrote a thing about it in the Guardian, about that comparison you make in the book between…

I can produce figures. I have bills from the gas company in St. Louis and the gas companies that supply gas to us in England. The actual figures are: in Britain about 6,000 pounds per winter; in St. Louis about 600 pounds per winter. This is a very big ratio. For most people it’s not that big, but other figures that I don’t have right now suggest that the ratio for the general population can be somewhere up as high as three to one.

So that figure in your book is from the cost of heating your two houses.

That’s right. I’m quoting real figures, not anything imagined. Now, old George—I like George Monbiot but he’s a bit of a blatherer. He says things without checking too carefully. He thought, Oh, it’s impossible that it could be that different, Jim’s talking nonsense. In my case it wasn’t nonsense. It’s true fact.

The other thing he said in that post was about the use of DDT for malaria versus agriculture. Can you respond to that?

I think, again, it’s an example of the peculiar attitude of the modern urban green. You see, the guy, I forget his name, Müller, that introduced the use of DDT to kill insect pests was actually awarded a Nobel prize as the chemist who produced a substance that saved more lives than any other. That was back then. And then along comes Rachel Carson with Silent Spring, and the story was reversed, and DDT went from becoming a saviour to becoming a devil. And it’s rather typical of the unscientific and silly way that politics goes on. 

I think Mr. Monbiot’s point was that DDT still is used in places like Africa and India as malaria control. So there was no worldwide ban on it for malaria control, but there was the ban on it agriculturally in the US and Europe.

That’s right. It’s a fairly complex situation. He wasn’t entirely wrong, and some arguments there can falsify what I said if taken too literally, but I brought it up mainly in my book as an illustration of the way there is—how can I put it—loose thinking about whether a substance or radiation or something else is good or bad. They all seem to have forgotten Paracelsus’ middle-ages discovery or suggestion that the poison is the dose. You can have a lot of radiation and it’ll kill you but a small amount will do nothing.

But with the DDT question, then the question is: what is your source that malaria deaths increased as a result of the insecticide ban?

Not mine. The source was a UN agency. I’ve forgotten which. One of them published quite a fair bit of… You can look it up in Wikipedia, which is what I did.

In the book you write that you think peer review is dangerous because it can narrow the scientific view. What did you mean by that?

Simply that the peers that form the reviewers largely come from groups in some kind of science… For example, if you take physics, which I suppose is the purest of sciences, the kind of guys that do the peer reviewing tend on the whole to be physicists who are not terribly busy, and the busy ones would like to do more peer reviewing but they just don’t have time, so they pass it along to the easy ones. In other words, the average peer reviewer is no peer, necessarily, of the person who writes the paper. If you’re fashionable and you belong to the group of peers who do the reviewing, there’s very little difficulty in getting your paper published. I know full well, as an independent scientist, that it’s one hell of a job to get anything published. Nevertheless I’ve managed to publish about two hundred papers, so I’m not really grumbling. It’s just one hell of a lot more difficult than it is if you’re one of the boys, so to speak.

So is that tied…another thing you write in the book is that political correctness is the equivalent of the theocratic oppression of Galileo. Is that what you mean?

Yes. I remember very vividly being at a meeting in Prague castle in Czechoslovakia, a small, tight meeting held by President Havel. One of the attendees was Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize-winning African novelist. And I think that was the first time I really started thinking about political correctness. He banged the table with his book, which he had there, and said, I think political correctness is the most evil thing we have in the world at the moment. And he said, I don’t mind—he was quite, very black—he said, I don’t mind in the least if anyone calls me a nigger. After all I came from Niger, didn’t I? And it caused a deathly silence around the room, as you can well imagine. But it brought home very forcibly the silliness of being politically correct about things like that.

How else do you think that manifests itself in science?

I came across numerous ones in the CFC story. They were so bad. It’s time somebody wrote a good book on that, the one that led to the Montreal Protocol. In the end everything was more or less right. The CFCs should have been banned, but not in the emotive, typically modern green manner they were. I suppose we have no other way of dealing with things because we’re human. But I must admit, as a scientist, that it sticks in my craw quite a bit.

I’ll give you one example of just how bad things were. The scientists involved with the green idea that CFCs are unequivocally bad and therefore must be banned built models to show how the ozone will be depleted by various amounts of CFCs put in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the world didn’t quite believe the models, and the satellites that were orbiting the planet looking at the ozone levels in the stratosphere, instead of showing falling ozone as they should have done with increasing CFCs, showed highly variable results, including some where there really was quite low levels. It so happened that, over the South Pole, the satellites revealed a deep drop in ozone level. So the scientists who ran the models immediately reprogrammed the observing system so that low values were rejected because they were so far from the model that they couldn’t possibly be right. It took two or three years before some observers using a simple spectrometer at the British Antarctic survey looked up at the sky and, sure enough, found the ozone hole. The models predicted it should not happen. I think that’s an example of the corruption of science that can happen as a result of over-faith in some political agenda.

But as you said, you still feel like things worked out as they should have with the Montreal Protocol.

Yes. I was deeply involved because I found the things in the atmosphere and invented the only instrument then that could have found them, so I didn’t want to get too deeply involved, obviously. But I do wish somebody would examine the data and the evidence from then because it’s pretty deplorable. And it’s a model for where we’re going wrong with climate science now. 

In what way?

The modelers, until recently, have been including the atmosphere and surface of the earth in their models but neglecting the oceans. To me, this is madness, because, when you think about it, the ocean’s heat capacity is about 1,000 times greater than that of the surface and atmosphere. So the oceans are deeply important in what climate change will happen. You can’t ignore them just because the models aren’t complete yet and can’t include them.

Another thing that struck me in the book is the way you discuss the future of human life melding with electronic life. You mention Kurzweil’s Singularity a few times. What kind of relationship do the ideas in the book have with the idea of the Singularity?

Well, I think there’s no question that Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge were the pioneers in that stuff. They looked at the consequences of Moore’s Law at what would happen in the future if it continues. I think they did us a great service. All I was doing was speculating a bit and offering alternative things that might happen, instead of there being a war between cybernauts and humans. I think it’s more likely, looking back on evolution, that we would combine with them. 

What do you think that combination will look like?

As I said in the book, I personally, and tens of thousands of other people, already are moving in that direction: we have pacemakers, and the pacemaker I have is joined up to my physiology to a certain extent. It also has wifi set up so that technicians can alter the ways it’s running or check performance and so on. It will only be a short matter of time before, rather than having a battery as it has at the moment with a ten year half life, it’ll just draw on the body’s own energy supplies to run indefinitely. But it’s a typical example of the integration of electronic and biological systems, and who knows how far that will go.

At one point you write that migrants to the first world tend to have higher disease rates because they tend to retain their local cultures. But the only evidence I could find actually indicated the contrary, that moving to the US specifically can have adverse health effects on people from the third world. So I’m just wondering where you got that data.

It’s from medical evidence. I can’t draw it up and give you references at the moment, but I think you’ll find its fairly well-documented. For example, third world migrants frequently reject antibiotics for treatment of tuberculosis, I think is the well-known case, or don’t take them properly because their own culture would suggest it’s not a good idea to do it. As a result this has encouraged the development of resistant strains, which is bad for all of us.

In the book you write that we need to decide whether we should do what’s best for Gaia or what’s best for us. Do you think we have any kind of moral responsibility to non-human life—to the rest of Gaia?

I don’t know. All I know is that, to look at the thing morally, the odds are that whatever you do there are consequences, and you should think about the consequences. 

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