I’ve been reading Stewart Brand’s latest book, Whole Earth Discipline. Before I even got to the controversial parts—he endorses nuclear energy and genetic engineering among other urgent fixes to address climate change—I ran into a snag.
On page 11 Brand reports a 2007 phone conversation with James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia hypothesis, in which Lovelock reportedly said, “The year 2040 is when the IPCC is estimating that Europe, America, and China become uninhabitable for the growth of food.” And Lovelock adds, “They’re grossly underestimating the rate of temperature rise, so that 2040 may be 2025. People don’t realize how little time we’ve got. The planet is really on the move.”
This prediction startled me. Thirty years before “Europe, America, and China become uninhabitable for the growth of food”? The IPCC really said that? Or possibly only fifteen?
I confess that I had not read the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clear through. (Have you?) I sat down with it, determined to try. I soon gave up, however, and instead read any possibly relevant section. And then I sent a note to Brand, beginning with the quote and continuing:
If you have read the IPCC reports you realize that the IPCC makes no such predictions; quite the contrary. Their projections on food and agriculture show quite a mixed scenario and nowhere do they suggest that now-temperate climates will become “uninhabitable for the growth of food,” whatever, exactly, that means.
Since you go on to say why you trust Lovelock so much, and make his prediction a basis for the sense of urgency in your book (I agree with the urgency), that statement should be examined, fleshed out.
Lovelock, in an Oct 29, 2007 speech, said, “Few seem to realise that the present IPCC models predict almost unanimously that by 2040 the average summer in Europe will be as hot as the summer of 2003 when over 30,000 died from heat. By then we may cool ourselves with air conditioning and learn to live in a climate no worse than that of Bagdad now. But without extensive irrigation the plants will die and both farming and natural ecosystems will be replaced by scrub and desert. What will there be to eat? The same dire changes will affect the rest of the world and I can envisage Americans migrating into Canada and the Chinese into Siberia but there may be little food for any of them.” (Climate Change on a Living Earth, found on Lovelock’s website)
Lovelock, in short, is putting his own spin on the “IPCC models” and is equating “hot summers” with a climate like Baghdad’s. “Few seem to realize”–including, as is clear from the rest of the speech, IPCC scientists themselves–that Europe, America, and China will be uninhabitable. So OK. Lovelock is making radical statements, and you trust Lovelock, but why should we trust either of you if you can gloss over these very important subtleties?
I went around in a daze for a day before I could look up that assertion. Please, if you’re going to scare us, be sure you know what you’re talking about and do NOT spare the nuances. They’re important.
I’m reading on…
Brand immediately wrote back, thanking me for the comment, but punted to Lovelock. A day later he forwarded me Lovelock’s response:
The prediction: When I was writing the Revenge of Gaia in 2004 and 05, like most of us I took the IPCC as authoritative. My contact with the IPCC was the Hadley Centre at Exeter about 40 miles from Coombe Mill. The guys there had produced a paper for Nature about the intensely hot European summer of 2003, when temperatures rose daily to between 40 and 45 degrees Celsius throughout most of June, July and August. Consequences, more than 30,000 died and agricultural production fell to ca 40% of normal. Agronomists reckoned that if such a climate persisted agriculture would fall to near zero production in a few years. The Hadley Centre prediction for the average European summer temperature of 2040 was the same as that of 2003. The Hadley centre are prominent contributors to the IPCC reports and in my opinion in with the best of the model makers, they even try to include Gaia. Hence my reply during the telephone call with you. Of course the final 2007 IPCC report was far less scary not least because in the interests of consensus it included the predictions of all the climate research centers some of which are based on little more than atmospheric physics.
I am not sure where remarks about 2025 came from. In 2007 it seemed that the IPCC were underestimating climate change, they were 30 or more years wrong in their prediction of the date when more than 50% of floating arctic ice melted. Unwisely, I may have thought that they could also be wrong about the date when 2003 European temperatures became the norm.
Nancy Myers has a point but she tends to value precision more than accuracy.
I’m not sure what that last comment means. I don’t need to know how much time we have left, but the prospect of no food growing in the USA by around 2025 makes some difference, whether it is a matter of “accuracy” or “precision.” It pretty much removes all options and fixes from the picture, nuclear power included.
So I’m breathing a little easier. Whew. We maybe have thirty years instead of fifteen.
If we’re going to be scared, we’d better be scared for the right reasons, not based on off-the-cuff, faulty predictions.