Words of Warming

Icebergs460 Tim Flannery in the Guardian on the latest in global warming.

In this summer of 2008, it feels as if our future is crystallising before our eyes. Food shortages, the credit crisis, escalating oil prices, a melting Arctic ice cap and the failure of the Doha trade negotiations: one or all of these issues could be the harbingers of profound change for our global civilisation. And just 16 months from now, in December 2009 in Denmark, humanity will face what many argue is its toughest challenge ever: to agree the fundamentals of a climate treaty to succeed the Kyoto protocol.

It all seems to have happened so quickly. Just two years ago we received warning of an imminent disaster – a climatic shift that “could easily be described as hell: so hot, so deadly that only a handful of the teeming billions now alive will survive”. The Cassandra was no deep green fundamentalist, but James Lovelock, the acclaimed scientist, pro-nuclear advocate and past adviser to Margaret Thatcher, who, 27 years earlier, had surprised the scientific community with his book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (OUP). At a time when reductionist science (which breaks down the world into small units in order to understand it) prevailed, Lovelock took the opposite approach, describing Earth as a single, self-regulating entity, whose function can be disturbed by human activities. It became one of the most influential books of the 20th century.

In The Revenge of Gaia (Penguin), published in August 2006, the 86-year-old Lovelock concluded that “we have unknowingly declared war on Gaia”, and that our only hope of rescue lies in a massive deployment of nuclear energy. The book found a wide readership, yet it failed to mobilise humanity to swift action. His nuclear solution instead divided environmentalists, and the bleakness of his vision was difficult to bear. And again his science went against conventional wisdom, for the most widely accepted assessment of future climate change at the time indicated that his bleak outcome was only a remote possibility.