I must admit to considerable scepticism when I hear James Lovelock’s name (yesterday, editorial & item 9). His work on the Gaia Theory – and the interdependence of ecological systems – is important and interesting. But it’s not particularly original. His fame owes more to his simplistic conception and presentation of complex phenomena.

The anthropomorphism of his ‘Mother Earth’ theory has probably also helped to popularise it. And he has a poetic turn of phrase – “Through us, Gaia has seen herself from space, and begins to know her place in the universe” – which attracts mystics and repels his academic colleagues in equal measure.

In his latest book, The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock is almost, but not quite, so pessimistic as to have lost interest in efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions and thereby to reduce the impacts of climate change. We can hope that climate sceptics such as Mark Steyn are right, pray that Lovelock’s doomsday scenario is wrong, but public policy must be guided by the weight of scientific opinion which holds that climate change is happening and that its adverse effects will become more apparent in the coming decades.

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Few if any scientists would argue that the situation is hopeless and that climate change abatement measures are pointless. Therefore, we should assume that concerted efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions will be worthwhile and must be pursued.

Stripped of its extreme pessimism and the mystical language, Lovelock is saying this: the adverse effects of climate change are already apparent and will only get worse, so we need to adapt to climate change in addition to making ongoing efforts to reduce emissions. There’s nothing new there.

Recently, the ALP released a policy recognising the need to address the problem of climate refugees. The Howard government has also put more emphasis on climate change adaptation in recent years, but it’s no more than a cynical manoeuvre to distract attention from its failure to get serious about reducing greenhouse emissions. The government refuses to recognise or resettle climate refugees.

In reality, the government is doing little to avoid climate change or adapt to it. Last week’s Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate conference was typical. The government promised $25 million for renewable energy – enough to build one wind farm. The government’s record on renewable energy is disgraceful – abolishing the Energy Research and Development Corporation in 1997-98, withdrawing funding from the Co-operative Research Centre for Renewable Energy in 2002, and refusing to extend the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target, to name but a few examples.

As for Lovelock, my main problem with him is that his proposal for a nuclear ‘solution’ to climate change, which has attracted mountains of publicity, is so intellectually vacuous. For example, he claims that less than 50 people were killed by the Chernobyl disaster, but all the scientific estimates put the death toll in the thousands or tens of thousands. Lovelock wants high-level nuclear waste in the basement of his home to provide heating and for food irradiation, and he insists it is a serious proposal. Suffice to say that he is a self-declared eccentric.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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