Friday, April 24, 2015

The Revenge of Gaia: Earth's Climate Crisis & the Fate of Humanity

Book Review: The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & the Fate of Humanity – by James Lovelock (Basic Books/Perseus 2006, 2007)

James Lovelock, originator of Gaia Theory, is at it again here in his informal style but backed with scientific rigor. He offers quite interesting perspectives, and though I don’t agree with all of them, his ideas are always worth considering. 

Lovelock genuinely thinks that the recent earth has two main balance states: a cold one with long ice ages and a hot one with low sea level (like the one 55 million years ago when subducting limestone-rich plates led to volcanoes that spewed copious amounts of CO2).He also believes that our inadvertent fossil fuels emissions are leading the earth to its hot state and there is little we can really do about it. Many would disagree. His advice is to ready our survival kits.

Lovelock wrote about four possible outcomes to the human-earth relationship, similar to how a disease affects its host: 1) destruction of the invading organism, 2) chronic infection, 3) destruction of the host, or 4) symbiosis. Lovelock writes from the perspective of a planetary physician whose patient is the earth. He fancies himself a geophysiologist. Our health depends on the health of the planet. He sees the ‘global heating’ situation as most dire and thinks that it is too late for sustainable development. He praises the work of the more alarmist climate scientists like James Hansen and the late Stephen Schneider. He notes that the science of climate change was slow to be accepted for one reason due to the lack of confirming data, which has gradually been coming. Lovelock suspects some sort of threshold tied to temperature or atmospheric CO2 that would lead the earth towards a ‘hot state’ of balance. We may have already passed some tipping points. He thinks the current human-caused climate disruption will be the greatest climate change since the Eocene 55 million years ago. This remains to be seen, of course. He does note that there are prominent scientific skeptics like American scientist Richard Lindzen and Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg who think the threat from global warming is overblown. The IPCC actually tends to favor a middle ground and often gives a range of possible effects. Lovelock favors nuclear energy from fission as a short-term solution to our carbon problem but development of nuclear energy from fusion as much better in the long-term. Oddly, he quite seems to dislike wind energy, at least partly as a NIMBY factor.

Lovelock describes Gaia as a whole self-regulating system composed of organic and inorganic parts. He gives the analogy of the earth as a camel. Camels regulate their temperature at different levels depending on whether the surroundings are hotter or cooler. He also thinks the earth has a hot state of balance and a cool state of balance. He sees the cool state as the preferred balance but he sees global heating pushing it toward the hot state. Lovelock is quite knowledgeable about the various global chemical cycles: oxygen, carbon, sulfur, phosphorus, nitrogen, iodine, etc. and shows how such cycles serve to regulate the earth system. After collaborating with American biologist Lynn Margulis, they came up with the Gaia hypothesis: 

“the Gaia hypothesis views the biosphere as an active, adaptive control system able to maintain the Earth in homeostasis.”

He notes that the idea was at first quite unpopular with both geologists and biologists. Later he came to include the inorganic into the Gaia hypothesis rather than just the biosphere. The relationship between Darwinian evolution and the maintenance of a habitable planet is probably a key to Gaia theory. In 2001 at a science and climate meeting in Amsterdam the following statement was made that became known as the Amsterdam Declaration:

“The Earth System behaves as a single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological, and human components.”

A key notion here is that organisms affect their environment and that the atmosphere, crust, and oceans were generated not by geological processes alone but by biological ones as well. The goal of the self-regulating Earth, says Lovelock, is to sustain habitability. Ecosystems are dynamically stable, much like the human body. I think he wants to say that Gaia is basically a macro-ecosystem. Feedback between life and environment allows self-regulation to emerge. The interface is between environmental constraints and the tolerances of organisms. Organisms perish in environments beyond their tolerances. Global properties such as atmospheric and ocean composition and climate set some of these constraints.

“All life forms have a lower, an upper and an optimum temperature for growth, and the same is true for acidity, salinity and the abundance of oxygen in air and water. Consequently, organisms have to live within the bounds of these properties of their environment.”

Such regulation is very important as we humans seek to optimize our optimum and comfortable temperatures through heating and cooling which uses much of our fossil fuels and contributes much to carbon emissions. Lovelock gives several examples of the self-regulating functions of ecosystems: recycling of water in tropical rainforests, upwelling currents of cold water combined with nutrient availability making ideal conditions for oases of ocean life, and sea organisms that evolve mechanisms to neutralize high salinity. Various chemical cycles tend toward the maintenance of chemical stability. Lovelock started out with theoretical proofs to his Gaia hypothesis based on computer models similar to those used in population biology and later climate modeling. He mentions some positive feedback mechanisms of climate based on increasing atmospheric CO2: 1) ice albedo – white ice reflects sunlight for a cooling effect so less of it is a warming effect, 2) warmer oceans lead to more nutrient-poor water, less friendly to algae, 3) increasing temperature tends to destabilize tropical forests, 4) increasing range of dark-colored boreal forests absorb heat, 5) increasing forest and algae decomposition releases more CO2, and 6) warmer temperature could eventually lead to melting of arctic methane hydrates (clathrates) and those under the ocean. An important sink for CO2 that works as a negative feedback is rock weathering where CO2 dissolves in rainwater in contact with calcium silicate rocks and the process is aided by vegetation on the rocks. Another negative feedback is strong tropical storms which stir water and bring up nutrients from below for algae.

Lovelock speculates about the early history of the Earth and of life, which very likely evolved together. For life, one can also think of their niches evolving along with the organisms. His book Ages of Gaia goes into more detail. He notes that stable unchanging climate tends to reduce biodiversity but climate change to a new hot or cold state can increase biodiversity at least temporarily, as emerging species can share habitat with declining ones until the declining ones perish. He discusses other climate mechanisms such as the fact that the sun’s intensity has been increasing through time and that in an ice age, even though vast quantities of water are trapped in ice the lower sea level of nearly 400 ft exposes vast amounts of land with much of it in the tropics. Eventually, the sun’s heat will be too much for the earth to regulate, but Lovelock and colleagues calculate that will happen 100 million years from now. He also considers that the brief inter-glacials (like now) are actually a failure of the system to regulate as it prefers the cold state.

Some argue that climate is ultimately unpredictable due to the chaotic mathematics of weather systems. Lovelock argues that climate is much more predictable than weather and indeed the past geologic record does indicate several regularities. He points out that forecasts of avg. global temperature made 20 years ago have been fairly accurate. Climate modelling is gradually getting more sophisticated and taking into account more variables. Even so, Lovelock thinks, climate changes will likely not be regular but fluctuate more unpredictably. Tipping points may be on the horizon and models suggest various ones at certain thresholds of atmospheric carbon. CO2 at about 500 ppm or higher may cause the failure of algae as well as becoming a tipping point for the melting of glaciers. Of course, nature may not announce tipping points at all and we may be well beyond thresholds before we realize it. One common acknowledgment is that much of the Earth’s heat is stored in the ocean and that extra heat which has been fairly well measured may be released on a century or even multi-century scale, exacerbating atmospheric warming. Michael Mann’s ‘hockey puck’ graph is pretty solid evidence for anthropogenic climate change even though skeptics have tried many tricks to refute it. Lovelock thinks past climate data suggest that an ice age will return in about 10,000 years but others would say sooner, later, or even that man-made CO2 has or will avert it. Predictions of climate change triggers are made mainly on the basis of changes in the sun’s irradiance triggered by the various Milankovitch cycles.  Floating ice in the Arctic summers coming from the Greenland ice sheet has been declining regularly with some fluctuation for a few decades. The less there is the less air conditioning there is for the Earth as albedos change with a dark heat-absorbing sea surface replacing a white heat-reflecting surface, thus a positive feedback. Another issue is the ocean’s “conveyor belt” where warm Atlantic waters flow near the ocean surface north to the Arctic, becoming saltier as they partially evaporate. There they sink when cooled by arctic waters due to the greater density of saltier water. This conveyor belt effect powers the Gulf Stream. Wally Broecker, an ocean geochemist at Lamont-Daugherty Laboratory, discovered the details and studied ocean circulation extensively. This ocean circulation can be seen as a self-regulating system of a sort and if it ever changes (and it has in the deep past) it would wreak havoc. He discusses “global dimming,” cooling thought to occur due to the effects of mostly industrial aerosol particles that reflect sunlight. The particles stay aloft for only a few weeks. This means that any economic downturns or reductions of fossil fuel use will likely result in the corresponding loss of that cooling effect. Of course, the negative health effects of that particulate matter would be lessened as well. What he does not say is that there is much variation on what is the overall effect of aerosols on the climate. Exactly to what degree it affects solar irradiation is debatable. We have already released a half of a terraton of carbon which is within the range estimated for the Eocene hot event when temperature is thought to have arisen up to 8 degrees Celsius. Differences between then and now are that the sun is now 0.5% hotter and the land surface is far less forested so there are less carbon sinks. Lovelock thinks that the effects of reduced aerosols, more positive feedback mechanisms such as forest cover and ocean algal systems, and conversion to farmland have not been properly accounted for in models, so that warming may accelerate. 

Theoretically, since the Big Bang, the universe has been powered by nuclear energy, the nucleogenesis of stars like our sun. Lovelock is an advocate of nuclear energy. He believes it is our best bet to mitigate climate change and that it is much less dangerous than depicted and can be harnessed much cheaper than currently. He notes that nuclear reactions are millions of times more energetic than chemical reactions such as burning carbon in oxygen as we do with fossil fuels and wood. He thinks renewables are not nearly up to task economically or uninterruptedly. He seems to particularly despise the land footprint and aesthetics of wind turbines though others would disagree. For the UK and Europe, over-reliance on Russian gas could lead to insecurity. He notes that burning fossil fuels is no more harmful than burning wood. The problem is that we are burning it multitudes faster than it can be replenished with the excess carbon accumulating in the atmosphere and heating the planet.  He seems to think carbon capture and sequestration is viable in the long term but others note that due to the requirements of locating CO2 sources with suitable reservoirs for sequestration would require extensive piping and be quite expensive on a massive scale. No doubt more and more will be done and several pilot projects are functioning but it is expected to take decades and end up a small percentage of carbon captured and sequestered. Natural gas is the least emission fossil fuel. Lovelock notes the problem of methane leaks and the fact that it is a much more potent greenhouse gas in the short-term. In more recent times new data suggest that methane leaks from oil and gas processes and facilities are not as much as some predicted and the technologies are getting better and better for minimizing leakage, at least in the U.S. Ships carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG) can also leak, though much of the seepage due to heat is used to power the ships. He mentions the possibility of a hydrogen economy utilizing vehicles for hydrogen storage that can be reversed to import or export electricity but the technology and expense leave much of the details murky. Wind energy has the problems of inefficiency (smarter grids would help) and intermittency. They are more popular in farmlands and less so in populated regions. Wind energy requires back-up fossil fuel power, often from plants that must be idled in peak wind times which increases inefficiency of the whole system. Lovelock says wind, once thought to be a possible 100% solution, is more like a 3% solution at current (2006) tech levels. Tidal, hydroelectric, and biofuel sources of energy also have much limitations. Solar as well suffers from inefficiency, materials demands, and intermittency but technology continues to advance gradually. 

Nuclear energy consists of fission, which powers the plants of today, and fusion, which may power the plants of the future and requires less uranium and produces less waste. Of course, fusion has yet to be done, although there are prototypes being developed and some think it can be happening in a decade or two. If so, it would solve our energy problems. Nuclear fission is most practical in the short-term, he thinks. He thinks the danger of nuclear waste is way overblown and over-safety adds unnecessarily to the expense. He thinks the waste can be handled and disposed of safely. He invokes the words of Paracelsus: “the poison is the dose.” It requires about a million times more oil or gas to provide the same amount of energy as that produced by an equivalent quantity of uranium. He thinks the anti-nuke issue is a consequence of the mass destruction, mainly of the bombs that decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He lists several books and movies that also served to enhance fears over nuclear energy. There was also the accident at Chernobyl which many people believe caused the death of thousands. He contends that the death toll was about 75 and it is fairly well-known that it was a preventable accident. He talks much about radiation biology and notes that often the problems of exposure result in shortening lifespans by a matter of days as, strangely enough, one could also attribute to particulate pollution. Of course, those would be averages and the vulnerable could be more affected. Compared to the fossil fuel and hydro-power industries, death and injuries among workers is by far the lowest in the nuclear industry. He thinks the health risks of nuclear energy are distorted. Overall, he calls for more nuclear energy in the short-term to phase out fossil fuels, mainly coal, with renewables continuing to be developed.
Next he considers some of the blunders of the environmental movement. First he notes he effects of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which mainly dealt with the dangers of the pesticide DDT. However, DDT was actually saving lives lost to malaria in tropical countries, as well as being effective in outbreaks of Typhus and Yellow Fever. Professor Paul Herman Muller discovered the insecticidal properties of DDT in 1939. He was awarded a Nobel Prize. His discovery saved many human lives. Lovelock is also a keen inventor and devised an instrument that could detect very small traces of insecticides like DDT. Of course, we did need to stop using DDT as a pesticide for crops as it did decimate ecosystems but we could have still utilized it in a controlled manner for malaria in tropical counties. Lovelock notes that the silent spring would not have been caused solely by pesticides but also by habitat loss due to human activities. He attributes the fear of cancer to over-suppression of chemicals that could be useful if used carefully. Next he discusses over-reaction against nitrates. Nitrates are used as fertilizer to supplement manure, most commonly ammonium nitrate. Scientists noted that they were a cancer risk. In the U.K nitrates were discouraged by environmentalists and eventually legislated against. This resulted in a new ‘organic slurry farming’ which leached into streams and caused algae blooms, eventually killing large sections of streams and rivers – both vegetation and animal-life were affected. Lovelock, as a long-time citizen of the English countryside observed these effects first-hand. He describes the experience as being as powerful as that experienced by Rachel Carson. He also notes that in 2004 a Scientific American article came out that showed that nitrates were not actually harmful but beneficial as necessary components of reactions in the human body.  He also notes the problem of acid rain being overblown in Europe in that the acidification occurring in Scandinavia was at first thought to be mainly caused by industrial pollution form the UK and other places but later found to be mainly caused by ocean algae fed by farming nutrient runoff from rivers flowing into the Atlantic and the Baltic. The algae make sulphuric and methano sulphonic acids from the gas dimethyl sulphide. Only about 15-20 % was deemed to be caused by industrial emissions there.

Next he considers toxicology, noting naturally-occurring poisons in food that evolved to discourage and harm potential predators. He discusses carcinogens, co-carcinogens, and genetic mutation. American physician Bruce Ames described the ubiquity of carcinogens and co-carcinogens (substances that can cause mutated cells to become cancerous) in the natural environment and in the food we normally eat. He came up with the “Ames test” which detects the presence of any substance or radiation that changes an organism’s genetic code. Many naturally-occurring substances in food are potentially cancerous. One well known one is aflatoxin which can occur on moldy nuts, mainly peanuts. Sometimes these natural substances are present in magnitudes greater (thousands of times greater) than products in the chemical industry. What he is suggesting is that our fear of man-made chemicals and their potential to cause cancer is rather irrational, even superstitious, considering the risk from naturally-occurring substances. Lovelock was originally trained as an organic chemist and indeed much of his knowledge is informed by chemistry. About 30% of us will die of cancer but fear of it from specific sources is mostly unwarranted. He notes that a faster rate of death is the cost we incur from utilizing the rapidly available energy we get from oxygen, a carcinogen. He goes through the process of oxygen metabolism and damage through what are called free radicals. These oxidation products cause cancer as do radiation and chemical substances which enhance their formation as does oxygen. So our life-giving oxygen has a dark side. It kills us eventually. He calls oxygen the dominant carcinogen in our environment.

Next he considers geo-engineering to mitigate climate change. He notes two main approaches: “the first to reduce the amount of heat received by the Earth from the sun, and the second to remove carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases from the air or from combustible sources.” Proposals range from building a sunshade in space to putting aerosol particles in the stratosphere to artificially producing low-altitude marine stratus clouds across large areas of ocean. Even if the sun could be dimmed there would still be the problem of excess CO2 that is causing harmful ocean acidification. Carbon capture and sequestration is considered. Estimates now are that only 10-30% can ultimately be captured and sequestered due to economic, location, and reservoir availability constraints. Very recently, the U.S. announced that 10 million metric tons of CO2 have been successfully captured and sequestered from a handful of projects. Other options include reacting CO2 extracted from the air with the igneous rock serpentine to obtain blocks of magnesium carbonate that can be used as a building material. Another option would be to put sulphur in aviation fuel so that the effluent could be used as an aerosol in the stratosphere to dim the sun. There are a few problems: possible temporary increases of ground-level ozone and possible further depletion of the Ozone layer. The chem-trail conspiracy buffs think this is already happening but I sincerely doubt it. Lovelock notes that climatology is not the only factor in climate change. Land use and forest-to-farmland transition upsets natural climate regulating mechanisms. He thinks that we need a sort of land-use oath like the Hippocratic Oath to be put on chainsaws, bulldozers, industrial farm machinery, and other earth-changing equipment! He also speculates about synthesized food – lab grown and tissue culture meat and vegetables that could reduce the need for agriculture. I doubt much of this will catch on, on a large scale. He does note that dense well-planned cities offer the opportunity for large-scale energy savings over spread out rural existences. As a veteran of long journeys by sea he favors that route over aircraft for long-distance travel but I tend to disagree, especially with the usage of the most-polluting and highest emissions oil commonly used for ships. Natural gas powered ships might be better. Lovelock does concede that geoengineering might bring about serious problems but after tipping points are passed we may have no choice. 

Lovelock’s environmentalism is based on Gaia and on intuition, since Gaia as living earth is really a metaphor. He mentions instincts like our ability to recognize life from non-life. He considers religious leanings. He says that both the secular humanist term “sustainable development” and the religious idea of “stewardship” for the Earth are full of “unconscious hubris” and so both flawed. Intuition can be used to understand Gaia as it has been used by mystics to understand God. Both ideas are “ineffable,” he considers. Lovelock understands that endless growth in both population and energy usage is not sustainable. He likes deep ecology but is skeptical of greens who tout sustainable development. He reprimands those who think that earlier humans were more in harmony with nature than we are – saying that they would be the same under similar circumstances. Early humans destroyed ecosytems too (ie. Australians burning forests and Native Americans, Europeans, Africans, and Australians hunting species to extinction). In many ways fire (combustion) has made us the success that we are but also threatens to destroy us. Lovelock is foremost a scientist and his environmentalism is scientific. He uses the Gaia metaphor because he thinks it can help us to see through our hubris and correct matters before it is too late. He is an agnostic but for him his higher power is Gaia. His advice is to prepare for the worst as soon as possible. We tend to prepare for local threats but ignore global ones, probably because we have no experience doing so. Lovelock is a unique voice for sure and though I do not always agree with him, his opinions should always be considered. Currently, I am reading his book following this one – The Vanishing Face of Gaia. Just this year a new book was released by Lovelock, now well into his 90’s.


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