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Ahead of His Time

Once thought of as offbeat, the Gaia theory has gained validity in the era of global warming

At 87, James Lovelock is finally getting recognition that he was right. An inventor with 50 patents to his name and a fellow in the Royal Society, England's scientific society, Lovelock has predicted cataclysmic climate change since the 1960s. He proposed and popularized the Gaia hypothesis, which is now known as the Gaia theory or earth systecience. The theory conceives of Earth, including our atmospheres, oceans, biosphere and upper layers of rock,  as a single living super-organism, regulating its internal environment much as animals regulate their body temperature and chemical balance. Once thought of as offbeat, the Gaia theory has gained validity in the era of global warming. Lovelock predicts that by the end of the century average temperature in temperate regions will increase by up to eight degrees Celsius. From his home in Cornwall, England, Lovelock spoke with Chicago Life.

Europe seems to be ahead of the United States in accepting global warming. Why is that? 

I think in America there seems to be an awareness that's come on in the last year or so. My having lived in America for seven years and being married into an American family, I tend to think that the world ends at the American borders, and if there isn't anything drastic happening at home, it doesn't get noticed anymore.

Why do you think people are finally paying attention?

Al Gore has been traveling around and telling the story quite effectively, I think. People are scared, and it's just as well they are because it's a pretty serious situation coming up ahead, and they better get their act together. I can tell it's very much like the situation before WWII. I remember well how people would deny that they were building up to war, much in the same way they denied climate change. If nothing much is happening, you don't feel much incentive to do a lot, but in war time, they knew very forcibly that something was going on. I think Hurricane Katrina woke things up a bit.

You've been talking about global warming since the mid-1960s. What made you start thinking about the climate? 

I worked in the jet propulsion labs in California around 1965, over 40 years ago, and I was involved with the early attempts to find life on Mars. That caused me to look back at Earth as a planet that did have life and discover that it's very, very different from how we ordinarily thought of it.

When you first suggested Gaia, it was considered rather wild. 

It was indeed, and if I had worked in the university or a government or industrial lab, I could have never done my work because it was so controversial at one time that anybody running an institute would've said, "Look, if you want to continue that kind of work, you have to do it somewhere else." But, fortunately, I decided to work on my own just about that time-- more like an artist--and supported myself with my inventions and consulting and used the income to support the main research. It wasn't easy. I had four children to support. We weren't rich or anything like that.  And unfortunately my wife developed multiple sclerosis, which didn't help.

How did you get people to pay attention to Gaia? 

I tended to keep fairly quiet and worked mainly to get people to accept the idea that Earth was a system. I thought it was practical politics to do that and not say anything more. It usually takes a theory like that about 40 years to get discovered, and it's almost that now. It's now accepted as mainstream.

How do you recommend combating global warming?

When we really think about it, the harm we've done to the planet is disastrous. It's easy to say things, but not to do them. The life we lead is dictated by the societies we live in. It would be marvelous if everybody could give up driving cars. That would take a bit of a burden off the planet, [but] we can't do it. It's always worth not wasting energy. It makes you feel better--it makes you understand that there is a big problem that requires it.

What do you think is going to happen?

 In the summer of 2003 in Europe, it was so hot for three months--June, July and August--that over 20,000 people died. The problem is by 2050, if there is no cessation in the heat, Europe, America and China and other parts of the world will be as hot as that. People can take it, but what about the crops? That's going to cause the extinction of life.

Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Airlines, is offering a prize of $25 million to whoever can come up with solution for global warming. You and Al Gore are among the judges. Have you ever met Gore? 

I've not yet met him, but I respect Al Gore for what he's doing.

Do you think someone can come up with a solution? 

It's quite a hefty prize, but personally I feel a little like it can't be done. But it's amazing how some of these engineers will be stimulated to find an answer. That's why I think this prize is a very good idea because it's a formidable problem. I think we'd have to remove from Earth something like 20,000,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide. It's an enormous quantity, and it's not like you can bury it somewhere. Every year we put out an amount of carbon dioxide that would make a mountain a mile high. Just imagine having to take 100 years of that all at once. Somebody might find an answer--I've got absolutely no idea. This climate change is the same kind of event that happened 55 million years ago. A similar amount of carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere, and we know what happened.

What was that? 

What did happen was that there was no great extinction of life because it all had time to move up to the Arctic and then stay there until it cooled off again. That's what we'll have to do--head straight to the Arctic. To give you an idea of what it was like and may well be in the future, quite near future, is the artic was tropical. The water temperature was 23 degrees Celsius, and there were crocodiles living in it. Where the North Pole is now, you can find the remains of crocodiles. The way to look at it is like this: look at the cold winters you remember as children. Then think of a cold winter now, and you'll find you've still got snow, you've still got frost, but it is no way near as cold as it used to be. Twenty years ago we were getting snow most winters, and 25 years ago the river where I live used to freeze. It was so hard you could walk across it. Now the river just flows.

Published: April 01, 2007
Issue: Spring 2007