I don’t know if it is too late for humanity to avert a climate catastrophe, but I am sure there is no chance if we continue to treat global heating and the destruction of nature as separate problems.
That is the wrongheaded approach of the United Nations, which is about to stage one big global conference for the climate in Glasgow, having just finished a different big global conference for biodiversity in Kunming.
This division is as much of a mistake as the error made by universities when they teach chemistry in a different class from biology and physics. It is impossible to understand these subjects in isolation because they are interconnected. The same is true of living organisms that greatly influence the global environment. The composition of the Earth’s atmosphere and the temperature of the surface is actively maintained and regulated by the biosphere, by life, by what the ancient Greeks used to call Gaia.
ほとんど 60 数年前, I suggested our planet self-regulated like a living organism. I called this the Gaia theory, and was later joined by biologist Lynn Margulis, who also espoused this idea. Both of us were roundly criticised by scientists in academia. I was an outsider, an independent scientist, and the mainstream view then was the neo-Darwinist one that life adapts to the environment, not that the relationship also works in the other direction, as we argued. In the years since, we have seen just how much life – especially human life – can affect the environment. Two genocidal acts – suffocation by greenhouse gases and the clearance of the rainforests – have caused changes on a scale not seen in millions of years.
Because subjects like astronomy, geology, and meteorology are taught separately in schools and universities, few people are aware of the natural forces affecting the Earth’s surface temperature.
For billions of years the Earth’s surface temperature has been determined mainly by the radiant heat coming from the sun. This energy increased over time because it is the nature of stars like the sun to increase their heat output as they grow older. But temperatures on Earth remained relatively stable thanks to Gaia: 森, oceans and other elements in the the Earth’s regulating system, which kept the surface temperature fairly constant and near optimal for life.
The global warming that concerns all of us, and which will be discussed this week in Glasgow, includes a great deal of extra heating that comes as a consequence of extracting and burning fossil fuels since about the middle of the 19th century. That releases methane, carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere. They absorb radiant heat and stop it escaping from Earth. This is what causes global warming.
The amount of global warming depends hugely on the properties of water. When cold ice forms, much of it is white snow. This reflects the sunlight back to space and is cooling. But when it is warm, the water vapour in the air is a powerful greenhouse gas that makes it warmer still.
Much of the confusion over global heating comes about because of the huge quantities of heat needed to change the state of water. Few are aware that to melt a gram of ice takes 80 calories, enough heat to raise the temperature of 1ml of water to 80C. Try an ice cube in your boiling hot tea.
Then imagine how much heat was needed to melt large areas of the polar ice cap during the recent summer and how much hotter the world would have been if the ice had not been there. No wonder there is confusion about whether there is global heating or not.
Warnings that once seemed like the doom scenarios of science fiction are now coming to pass. We are entering into a heat age in which the temperature and sea levels will be rising decade by decade until the world becomes unrecognisable. We could also be in for more surprises. Nature is non-linear and unpredictable, never more than at a time of transition.
Lowering these risks and adapting to those we can no longer avoid will require a mobilisation of resources on the scale of a war economy. We have no choice but to reduce the burning of fossil fuels or face even worse consequences.
But we should also not become over-reliant on renewable power, which will leave us with an energy gap. We need to build more nuclear power stations to overcome that, though the greens will first have to get over their overblown fears of radiation.
The dangers are nowhere near as bad as they are often painted. I’ve travelled millions of miles by air, and all that time I have been exposed to levels of radiation that are ten times as great as at ground level. The dangers are exaggerated.
We also need to address the problem of overpopulation and to urgently halt the destruction of tropical forests. Most of all, we need to look at the world in a holistic way.
I am not hopeful of a positive outcome at Cop26, knowing who is participating. I was not invited to Glasgow, though that is hardly a surprise. As well as being 102 年, I am an independent scientist, and the university academics have never been comfortable with that.
But my fellow humans must learn to live in partnership with the Earth, otherwise the rest of creation will, as part of Gaia, unconsciously move the Earth to a new state in which humans may no longer be welcome. The virus, COVID-19, may well have been one negative feedback. Gaia will try harder next time with something even nastier.