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A Skeptical View of Climate Change: It Might Be Worse Than You Think,
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This review is from: The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning (Hardcover)The Vanishing Face of Gaia is my first exposure to James Lovelock's work and is my first in-depth reading of a work about Gaia theory, the idea that the Earth is a self-regulating organism. Environmentalists and New Age movements speak of the earth being alive and this perspective is often misrepresented, being lumped in Lovelock's ideas. The origination of Gaia in the 1960's didn't win any skeptics over either. Sadly, mainstream science has sidelined Lovelock's ideas for the last 30 years, gaining acceptance only recently as predictions from the theory have been proven true time after time. In fact, 8 out of the ten major predictions (table of predictions on p.177) of Gaia theory have been proven or generally accepted, including:
1. Oxygen has not varied by more than 5% from 21% for the past 200 million years (confirmed through studying ice-core and sedimentary analysis)
2. Boreal and tropical forests are part of global climate regulation (generally accepted)
3. The biological transfer of selenium from the ocean to the land as dimethly selenide (confirmed through direct measurements)
4. Climate regulation through cloud albedo control linked to algal gas emissions (many tests indicate high probability, pollution interferes)
That's a much better hit rate than string theory, an idea receiving magnitudes of greater funding. Unfortunately the decades of widespread skepticism has prevented many leading bodies of science and policy groups to ignore the dire implications of a living Earth, most specifically in relation to climate.
Lovelock was the first scientist to invent instrumentation that could accurately demonstrate the accumulation of CFCs in the atmosphere, leading to international action on the hole in the ozone layer. And his work on atmospheric, geological and ecological sciences led him to become the first researcher to link the fields, understanding that the earth's life regulates the atmosphere, and that the earth's atmosphere regulates life. How is this so? The original Daisyworld model created by Lovelock (although seemingly common sense to us now but revolutionary for its time) was a convincing demonstration.
Years of added complexity later, Daisyworld still stands up as an accurate model of reality and the most definitive link between climate and biology. Unlike the IPCC projections of a gradual climate change, trending towards warmer temperatures is not how the earth or biology acts. Massive leaps are common as demonstrated by several graphs in the book. Disturbingly, the coldest years are prior to the major warming years, giving a false sense of security. Anthony Watts, through his blog, provides quality commentary on scientific information that disputes the IPCC climate change models, however Anthony doubts that global warming is occurring. Lovelock shares similar skepticism but provides evidence that the IPCC models are not severe enough in their projections of the serious lifestyle changes we'll need to make to mitigate a changing climate. Scientists have held up the progress of the world for a long time, with their Cartesian deterministic views, perhaps the eminence of a scientist is measured by the length of time he holds up progress. Lovelock quotes Ogden Nash to demonstrate,
`I give you now Professor Twist,
A conscientious scientist,
Trustees exclaimed, "He never bungles!"
And sent him off to distant jungles.
Camped on a tropic riverside,
One day he missed his loving bride.
She had, the guide informed him later,
Been eaten by an alligator.
Professor Twist could not but smile.
`You mean,'he said, `a crocodile.'
Lovelock's perspective is credible and valuable, disputing many claims of the environmental movement, leading me to question some of my own approaches. For one, Lovelock states that nuclear fission is our only hope to avoid poverty and CO2 accumulation. Unfortunately I think we've missed the boat on this because the US couldn't build the political will to dedicate $700 billion dollars for a secure future. Why nuclear? A fission plant has no emissions other than water vapor while in operation. Nuclear waste fades away after 600 years. The yearly output of a 1,000MW station is enough to fill a medium sized car. Compared with the ash from coal that no one seems to think about, the CO2 emitted, or the manufacturing that goes into transporting a wind turbine/PV panel the entire process of nuclear fission energy is by far the cleanest. The issue of nuclear waste is no different than dealing with the issue of defunct PV panels or wind turbine components, only the nuclear waste is much lower in volume while needing greater attention and security. Lovelock goes on to give some excellent examples of how nuclear energy is mis-represented, with 27 people having lost their lives due to the historical operation of nuclear power plants. How does that measure up? On December 3rd, 1984 a pesticde plant accident in Bhopal, India instantly killed 3,800 when a cloud of methyl isocyanate gas leaked into the night air. (And many more in the following weeks.) Yes, nuclear energy isn't perfect but it is as close to perfect as we can get.
Why not renewables? Lovelock argues that the focus on "green" energy is propagated by those seeking to drive new financial bubbles, continuing the manufacturing status quo, and doing little to actually mitigate climate impacts. We always idealize the wind turbine but forget that a combustion turbine has to be run on-site at a wind farm to keep the frequency of the turbines regulated for use on an electric grid. This simple fact has led some studies to conclude that wind farms are greater contributors to CO2 emissions than a coal plant, with wind farms emitting more than 840 pounds of CO2 per MWh vs 8.8 for nuclear power. Photovoltaics are better, but land requirements are devastating, 8 acres per megawatt. Whereas a few hundred acres can house a 2,500MW nuclear plant. We need that land for farming and for return to Gaia so that the earth can do what it does best, self regulate. Where I significantly diverge from Lovelock is through is views on farming. On p. 134 of the book he details how synthesized food may be our only hope. If it is count me out. Real food can't be substituted for and the nutrient model of eating has been proven as flawed.
This book is full of interesting insights and interesting perspectives on how screwed we are. The basis of Lovelock's argument, and reason for writing the book, is that we've outgrown the Earth as a species. Humans must learn to view themselves as equals in the scheme of ecology, not as a domineering species. The massive population we now support is subsidized at the expense of slowly renewing resources like coal and oil and at the cost of a damaged biosphere. As we exceed Gaia's limits, the climate will adjust to fix the problem. This doesn't mean the end of humanity but a severe readjustment to population centers and population numbers. James Lovelock has convinced me of this through his analysis of Gaia theory applied to the Earth. Could we avoid massive global warming? Yes. An unexpected minimum of sunspots like we are currently experiencing. Massive volcanic eruptions. Successful geoengineering efforts(although highly unlikely, as Lovelock states). These could all bring an end to global warming. But they are highly unlikely. Our only plan as a species should be to adapt and realize our intelligence as human beings. Only then can we ensure our duty to survive and to carry on the legacy of the Earth. The relentless critique of the "green movement" and of environmentalism, a field many credit Lovelock for starting, was cause enough for me to find this book valuable. But the scientific discussion within is of far greater importance as we enter a turbulent time in the existence of the human species. This is a challenging read for the climate skeptic and the climate evangelists alike.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 23, 2009 5:54:42 AM PDT
Z. G Zinzel says:
A very good review! I generally find that amazon's customer reviews outshine most "professional" book reviews. Just want to point something out. You said in the review that only 27 people have ever died because of nuclear accidents.
"The 2005 report prepared by the Chernobyl Forum, led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Health Organization (WHO), attributed 56 direct deaths (47 accident workers, and nine children with thyroid cancer), and estimated that there may be 4,000 extra cancer deaths among the approximately 600,000 most highly exposed people."
Notwithstanding- Again, an excellent review
In reply to an earlier post on Sep 10, 2009 10:18:31 PM PDT
Interesting fact. I wonder if other sectors of the energy industry have suffered any fatalities. Care to guess what the ratio would be compared to nuclear energy? And Chernobyl was an engineering disaster that was magnified by human error, or should I say idiocy. These are: poor design of the facility itself, intentionally shutting down power to the coolant pumps (along with other tests) to see if it would continue to cool the core during a potential outage, and then the USSR lying to all surrounding peoples about the event and even allowing May Day activities in the Ukraine. Cold-blooded decisions like that may have hastened the fall of the USSR but that doesn't mean nuclear power is unsafe.
Posted on Oct 10, 2010 11:44:10 AM PDT
Charles R. Wilde says:
Thank you Justin for your excellent review. I agree with you on the issue of artificial nutrient diets, though I allow that science may still figure out how to make such nutrients more complete.
Posted on Nov 11, 2010 3:13:05 PM PST
eoin kelly says:
might have read your review if it were a third of the length
In reply to an earlier post on Jul 8, 2011 11:52:34 AM PDT
James G. Lee says:
On the artifical food diet - in 20 or 30 years most of the meat eaten by humans will be grown in labs. You can like the idea or hate it, it doesn't matter. It's coming. Enjoy the in vivo meat while you can.
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