James Lovelock On ‘Wicked’ Renewables And Why He Changed His Mind On Climate Change
Environmentalism has gone too far; renewable energy is a disaster; scares about pesticides and chemicals are horribly overdone; no, the planet is not going to end any time soon; and, by the way, the answer is nuclear…
This isn’t me speaking, but the views of an environmentalist so learned, distinguished and influential you could call him the Godfather of Green. His name is James Lovelock, the maverick independent scientist perhaps best known for positing the theory that our planet is an interconnected, self-regulating organism called Gaia.
Not ‘Sir’ James Lovelock, I was mildly surprised to discover when I met him at his Dorset home, perched idyllically just behind Chesil Beach. ‘But I am a CH,’ he says, meaning Companion of Honour. ‘There are only 65 of them,’ chips in Lovelock’s American wife Sandy. ‘Yes, but I have to share the honour with Shirley Williams, which dilutes it somewhat — you know, comprehensive education,’ says Lovelock. ‘You’re not supposed to say that!’chides Sandy, clearly amused.
The Lovelocks are delightful company. Our lively conversation ranges from Brexit (they’re both very pro) to the joys of having a hornets’ nest in your house (they kill all the wasps in your garden so you can enjoy picnics undisturbed); they’ve witnessed an awful lot of history (‘I was stationed briefly at a B-17 base in the Midlands. The death toll was hideous, almost as bad as Passchendaele. One day I remember 21 planes — each with a crew of ten — took off and only three came back. It was devastating’); and they fizz with irreverent good humour. We’d never met before, but they felt like
Really old friends. Lovelock is 98, though you’d never guess it to look at him. His movements are light, agile and brisk; his marbles more than still there. One secret is his three-mile daily walk with Sandy; another is that though he used to smoke, he has never been a big eater or drinker. Mainly, though, he puts it down to a lifetime spent doing whatever has taken his fancy: ‘Live life as an independent! Never have a boss.’
Lovelock came up with his Gaia hypothesis more than half a century ago, in the course of a conversation with fellow scientists including Carl Sagan at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where he was employed to work out ways of testing whether there was life on Mars.
This got him thinking about the mystery of life on our own planet: our peculiar atmosphere, largely comprising nitrogen and oxygen (unlike Mars and Venus, where it’s mostly CO2), and the extraordinary way that for the past 3.5 billion years, Earth has remained within a narrow temperature band capable of supporting life, even though the sun has grown 30 per cent hotter and ought to have fried us by now. Could it be, he wondered, that the entire planet is an incredibly complex, self-regulating system designed for supporting life?
The name Gaia came later, provided by his friend, the novelist William Golding, after the ancient Greek name for Earth. This didn’t help its reputation with scientists, many of whom dismissed it as a neo-pagan religion. But from the early 1970s onwards it struck a chord with the green movement, which used it to support its belief that the planet’s delicate balance was on the verge of being destroyed forever by an unwelcome interloper: man.
In 2006, Lovelock burnished his green credentials with The Revenge of Gaia, in which he argued that, thanks to global warming, man was all but doomed. By the end of the 21st century ‘billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable,’ he told an interviewer. Climate change was so serious a threat, he told the Guardian in 2010, that democracy might have to be ‘put on hold’.
Within two years he’d had a remarkable change of heart. ‘All right, I made a mistake,’ he told the cable channel MSNBC. He still believed —and continues to believe — that manmade carbon dioxide is a problem that needs addressing. But we’ve plenty of time to do something about it before any dangerous effects are felt, and in any case, the cures being advanced by green zealots are often worse than the disease itself.
One of his main bugbears is biomass, such as the woodchips from old oak forests in the US, which are shipped across the Atlantic to be burned for electricity at the Drax power station: ‘This is one of the most monstrous examples of green absurdity that I know of. It’s wicked!’
Nor is he a fan of wind energy, which he considers environmentally damaging, inefficient, expensive and a scam. ‘There’s so much money in renewable energy. I’m sure there’s a giant corruption going on.’
He’s modestly pro shale gas — only as a transition fuel to wean the world off coal — but his real enthusiasm is for nuclear, ‘so cheap, so safe’, whose dangers, he believes, have been grotesquely oversold by greens for reasons which have more to do with quasi-religious ideology than with science.
‘The way to look at radiation is that it’s about what they call the linear no-threshold. Namely, what the greens say is that there’s no amount of radiation that won’t give you cancer, no matter how small it is. Well, this is as stupid as saying, “Never go out of your home because if you do you’ve a chance of being killed by something or other.”’