Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Lovelock the Alarmist

Earth science guru and creator of the Gia hypothesis, James Lovelock, says his take on global warming was alarmist.   And, on reading an op-ed piece Lovelock wrote for The Independent in 2006, he probably was.   In it he envisioned global warming killing off almost all of mankind by the end of the century:

"We are in a fool's climate, accidentally kept cool by smoke, and before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable."

Yeah, the image of mankind being reduced to "a few breeding pairs" by 2100 due to global warming is over the top.  Presumably Lovelock was out to make a point, perhaps frustrated by our inertia.

“The problem is we don’t know what the climate is doing. We thought we knew 20 years ago. That led to some alarmist books – mine included – because it looked clear-cut, but it hasn’t happened,” Lovelock said.

“The climate is doing its usual tricks. There’s nothing much really happening yet. We were supposed to be halfway toward a frying world now,” he said.

The world has not warmed up very much since the millennium. Twelve years is a reasonable time… it (the temperature) has stayed almost constant, whereas it should have been rising -- carbon dioxide is rising, no question about that,” he added.

He pointed to Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and Tim Flannery’s “The Weather Makers” as other examples of “alarmist” forecasts of the future.

So has James Lovelock declared the "all clear" on climate change?

Asked if he was now a climate skeptic, Lovelock told msnbc.com: “It depends what you mean by a skeptic. I’m not a denier.”

 He said human-caused carbon dioxide emissions were driving an increase in the global temperature, but added that the effect of the oceans was not well enough understood and could have a key role.

“It (the sea) could make all the difference between a hot age and an ice age,” he said.

He said he still thought that climate change was happening, but that its effects would be felt farther in the future than he previously thought.

“We will have global warming, but it’s been deferred a bit,” Lovelock said.

The scientific community, however, doesn't seem to share Lovelock's view.

 Asked to give its latest position on climate change, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a statement that observations collected by satellites, sensors on land, in the air and seas “continue to show that the average global surface temperature is rising.”

The statement said “the impacts of a changing climate” were already being felt around the globe, with “more frequent extreme weather events of certain types (heat waves, heavy rain events); changes in precipitation patterns … longer growing seasons; shifts in the ranges of plant and animal species; sea level rise; and decreases in snow, glacier and Arctic sea ice coverage.”

NOAA reports its data in monthly U.S. and global climate reports and annual State of the Climate reports.  

Its annual climate summary for 2011 said that the combined land and ocean surface temperature for the world was 0.92 degrees above the 20th century average of 57.0 degrees, making it the 35th consecutive year since 1976 that the yearly global temperature was above average.

“All 11 years of the 21st century so far (2001-2011) rank among the 13 warmest in the 132-year period of record. Only one year during the 20th century, 1998, was warmer than 2011,” it said.

Lovelock has neatly played into the hands of the denialist industry and the fossil fuelers.   The old guy has now given them a powerful weapon to discredit climate science as "alarmist" and with the many billions of dollars at stake in the campaign to curb carbon emissions, they'll wring every once of doubt they can extract from his statement - or at least a few words of it.

Yet there have always been problems with those who take global warming in isolation, a  favourite tactic of the denialist community.  The warming is just part of man-made climate change and a host of interconnected challenges.   Many of these are tangible, indisputable, some are even visible to the naked eye from space.  Here's my list:

Desertification; deforestation; cyclical and protracted floods and drought; severe storm events of increasing frequency and intensity (the insurance industry will vouch for that); the depletion of natural resources and, in particular, the freshwater crisis (multinationals like Nestle and Vivendi will vouch for that one); species extinction and migration; disease and pest migration; overpopulation and population migration; sea level rise and coastal inundation and the basket of global security challenges including terrorism, arms races, nuclear proliferation, and even widespread food insecurity.

But, James Lovelock, is unquestionably right on one point.   Global warming won't annihilate mankind.  We have long reserved that privilege to ourselves.


The denialists haven't missed a beat pouncing on Lovelock's "alarmist" statement and transforming it into proof that all climate science is bogus.   Some, like energy expert Andrew McKillop, denounce Lovelock as a total charlatan.    Yet, toward the end of his screed, even McKillop acknowledges that climate change is already here.

The next stage is on us already. The breakdown of climate into random weather events, reversing the old one-liner that "Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get". No longer being able to expect anything predictable from climate only leaves weather to bet on. And we know how that is getting mightily unpredictable, and dangerous on all continents.

Put another way, we can have a pure and absolute zero change of so-called "average global temperatures", but the world's climate can become totally disturbed, with no easy way to remediate or mitigate the change from predictable, to random. Ever-growing evidence says we are in that random state now: what you thought was your regional climate no longer exists.

One immediate and direct result of this will be crop yields and harvest totals: these cannot be expected to hold firm, as farmers battle to decide when or if to plant and when to harvest, in a vastly more complex set of changing variables - which formerly ran together and were called "climate". Rainfall and cloud cover, already changing but given the pat one-liner "Global warming", will most surely and certainly get ever less predictable, with more negative consequences than the opposite.

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