James Lovelock at 100: A voice we ignore, but at our peril

James Lovelock at 100: A voice we ignore, but at our peril

JAMES Lovelock, one of the great thinkers, scientists, and environmentalists, will be 100 today.

His Gaia hypothesis changed how millions view our planet, humanity’s impact on it, our obligations to it, and for those who will — hopefully — come after us. Lovelock is an authoritative voice, warning of the consequences of over-exploitation of this delicate planet. If, as he marks his centenary, he reviews the influence he might have wished to have had through the prism of this week’s events, his charismatic optimism might be dented.

Our Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) has said we must prepare for deadly heatwaves of the kind sweeping Europe and America today, and suggests we plan for conditions far worse than we anticipate. It also pointed to rising sea levels, “a problem for Cork, beginning to be a problem for Galway, and will be a problem for Dublin,” said CCAC’s John FitzGerald. The review’s over-arching finding is that we are “completely off course” to hit carbon targets by 2020 and 2030.

Two of the issues addressed focussed on land use. It said “afforestation rates are too low” and that the suckler herd should be cut by at least 30%. The IFA, naturally, objected, pointing to the impact on incomes — as if sustaining a low-reward, heavily-subsidised sector is more important than averting catastrophe. Agriculture is not the only sector facing change, a fact alluded to when the council pointed out that general awareness regarding adaptation is low.

The sectors disturbed by the CCAC’s minimal proposals might respond differently to the suggestion this week from 24 scientists. They want to extend the Geneva Convention to define the damaging of nature as a war crime. The signatories of a letter, published in the journal Nature, say a legal instrument should incorporate wildlife safeguards in conflict regions, including protections for nature reserves, controls on the spread of guns used for hunting, and measures to hold military forces to account for damage to the environment. The UN international law commission is due to meet to extend the 28 principles that protect the environment in war zones. Lovelock might also consider the mid-week report that found climate change is occurring faster than birds can adapt. A study published in Nature Communications found that while animals are adjusting to change, these responses appear insufficient to cope with accelerating warming.

It may be difficult to understand why we have reached this point, but politicians’ reluctance to force hard decisions — higher carbon taxes — on voters is one. On Wednesday, as new UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, finalised his cabinet — established on foot of something that looks like a discreet coup — he appointed Theresa Villiers minister for environment, food, and rural affairs. An ardent Brexiteer, she was Northern Ireland secretary from 2012 to 2016, and proved unequal to the challenges of that limited brief. Yet, at this pivotal moment for humanity, and on the cusp of record temperatures across the UK, Britain entrusts the environment to an irredeemable second-rater, unlikely — and probably unwilling — to lead the reforms urgently needed. Happy birthday James Lovelock: do try to enjoy your day.

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