'It's too late for Earth'

Humans have done so much damage to the atmosphere that even if they stop burning all fossil fuels immediately, they risk leaving an impoverished Earth for their descendants, an eminent scientist said this week.

Professor James Lovelock, who detected the build-up of ozone- destroying CFCs and formulated the Gaia theory now widely adopted by environmentalists and biologists, told a conference in Britain this week: “We have not yet awakened to the seriousness of global warming.’‘

The Gaia hypothesis — the name was suggested by the novelist William Golding — is that life itself regulates the chemistry of the atmosphere, the oceans and the bedrock for life’s collective benefit.

Any disturbance of the process could have dramatic consequences.

Lovelock says that recently groups of researchers have begun to point to such dramatic effects:

  • A Swiss team examined the heatwave that killed 20 000 people in Western Europe last year and decided that it was almost certainly a consequence of global warming.

  • British, Belgian and German scientists reported that the entire Greenland ice cap would begin to melt irreversibly if average temperatures rose by 2,7°C.

    This melting would take 1 000 years to complete, but would raise sea levels by seven metres.

  • A team from the United States National Ocean and Atmosphere Administration reported that sea-level rises in recent years have been a consequence of the accelerated melting of glaciers.

    Lovelock (84) told the conference, on the science of Gaia, that there were people in Europe and the US who denied the reality of climate change and wanted business as usual.
    However, there were others who recognised the threat and embraced organic food, renewable energy and alternative medicine.

    “If we follow either of these responses, it will allow Gaia eventually to return to her normal state of health — but by eliminating the majority of humans and probably civilisation as well,’’ he said.

    Better science and more advanced technology offered the greatest hope, he added.

    “We need a portfolio of energy sources, with nuclear power playing a major part, at least until fusion power becomes a practical option.’’ — Â

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