Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change - James Lovelock interviews by Leo Hickman

30/3/2010 Guardian  James Lovelock: Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change.When I recently interviewed James Lovelock for the G2 section of the Guardian,
we spoke for nearly two hours about the various events of the past few months –
a period in which he’d remained silent because he’d been over-wintering with his
wife Sandy in her native Missouri. There was a lot to talk about: the stolen
emails from the University of East Anglia, the UN climate summit in Copenhagen,
the intense scrutiny placed on the IPCC, and the rather nippy winter experienced
across much of the Northern Hemisphere. As is inevitable with an interview
appearing in the newspaper, space was at a premium so the quotes used were
tightly edited. But, just as I did with my interview with Al Gore last year, I
have decided to publish a transcript of his key points here online for anyone
interested in hearing in much more detail what Lovelock had to say on some of
these controversial and much-discussed topics.
Lovelock’s reaction to first reading about the stolen CRU emails [he later
clarified that he hadn't read the originals, saying: "Oddly, I felt reluctant to
  I was utterly disgusted. My second thought was that it was inevitable. It was
  bound to happen. Science, not so very long ago, pre-1960s, was largely
  vocational. Back when I was young, I didn’t want to do anything else other
  than be a scientist. They’re not like that nowadays. They don’t give a damn.
  They go to these massive, mass-produced universities and churn them out. They
  say: “Science is a good career. You can get a job for life doing government
  work.” That’s no way to do science.

  I have seen this happen before, of course. We should have been warned by the
  CFC/ozone affair because the corruption of science in that was so bad that
  something like 80% of the measurements being made during that time were either
  faked, or incompetently done.

  Fudging the data in any way whatsoever is quite literally a sin against the
  holy ghost of science. I’m not religious, but I put it that way because I feel
  so strongly. It’s the one thing you do not ever do. You’ve got to have

  You can make mistakes; they’re helpful. In the old days, it was perfectly OK
  to make a mistake and say so. You often learned from it. Nowadays if you’re
  dependent on a grant – and 99% of them are – you can’t make mistakes as you
  won’t get another one if you do. It’s an awful moral climate and it was all
  set up for the best of reasons. I think it was felt there was far too much
  inequality in science and there was an enormous redress. Looking around the
  country [at the wider society] this was good on the whole, but in some special
  professions you want the best, the elite. Elitism is important in science. It
  is vital.
On what the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia – and climate
scientists in general – should do to help restore public trust in their work:
  Careers have been ended by this affair and the reputation of the institution
  [CRU] will go down for a while. It’s sad because there are some good people
  there. They have to clean their house if they know people are behaving badly.
  They have got a rotten job ahead, but it will blow over in a few years. I
  think if they can produce a coup and produce some really good climate research
  they will undo all the harm that’s been done. And they’ve now got an incentive
  to do that.

  I would only have been too pleased if someone had asked me for my data. If you
  really believed in your data, you wouldn’t mind someone looking at it. You
  should be able to respond that if you don’t believe me go out and do the
  measurements yourself.

  You don’t hide data. But there are some natural limitations to making data
  public. For example, if you have just received a fresh batch of data you want
  to make sure that the instruments are properly calibrated and that something
  else hasn’t happened in that region that might explain why a sudden change
  might have occurred. You’ve got to be honest about it and explain why you’ve
  done what you have done. I think to release the raw data as it comes up, you
  could see silly sceptics misusing it quite badly.
On the over-reliance on computer modelling:
  I remember when the Americans sent up a satellite to measure ozone and it
  started saying that a hole was developing over the South Pole. But the damn
  fool scientists were so mad on the models that they said the satellite must
  have a fault. We tend to now get carried away by our giant computer models.
  But they’re not complete models. They’re based more or less entirely on
  geophysics. They don’t take into account the climate of the oceans to any
  great extent, or the responses of the living stuff on the planet. So I don’t
  see how they can accurately predict the climate. It’s not the computational
  power that we lack today, but the ability to take what we know and convert it
  into a form the computers will understand. I think we’ve got too high an
  opinion of ourselves. We’re not that bright an animal. We stumble along very
  nicely and it’s amazing what we do do sometimes, but we tend to be too
  hubristic to notice the limitations. If you make a model, after a while you
  get suckered into it. You begin to forget that it’s a model and think of it as
  the real world. You really start to believe it.
On climate sceptics:
  We’re very tribal. You’re either a goodie or a baddie. I’ve got quite a few
  friends among the sceptics, as well as among the “angels” of climate science.
  I’ve got more angels as friends than sceptics, I have to say, but there are
  some sceptics that I fully respect. Nigel Lawson is one. He writes sensibly
  and well. He raises questions. I find him an interesting sceptic. What I like
  about sceptics is that in good science you need critics that make you think:
  “Crumbs, have I made a mistake here?” If you don’t have that continuously, you
  really are up the creek. The good sceptics have done a good service, but some
  of the mad ones I think have not done anyone any favours. Some of them, of
  course, are corrupted and employed by oil companies and things like that. Some
  even work for governments. For example, I wouldn’t put it past the Russians to
  be behind some of the disinformation to help further their energy interests.
  But you need sceptics especially when the science gets very big and

  I respect their right to be sceptics. Nigel Lawson is an easy person to talk
  to. He’s more like a defence counsel for the sceptics than a right-winger
  banging the drum. His book is not a diatribe or polemic. He tries to reason
  his case.

  There is one sceptic that everyone should read and that is Garth Paltridge.
  He’s written a book called the Climate Caper. It is a devastating, critical
  book. It is so good. This impresses me a lot. Like me, he’s convinced that if
  you put a trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which we will
  have done in 20 years’ time, it’s going to have some nasty effects, but what
  we don’t know if how nasty and when. If you look back on climate history it
  sometimes took anything up to 1,000 years before a change in one of the
  variables kicked in and had an effect. And during those 1,000 years the
  temperature could have gone in the other direction to what you thought it
  should have done. What right have the scientists with their models to say that
  in 2100 the temperature will have risen by 5C? There are plenty of incidences
  where something turns on the heat, but temperatures actually go down
  perversely, before eventually going up. A cold winter may mean nothing, as
  could 10 cold winters in a row.

  The great climate science centres around the world are more than well aware
  how weak their science is. If you talk to them privately they’re scared stiff
  of the fact that they don’t really know what the clouds and the aerosols are
  doing. They could be absolutely running the show. We haven’t got the physics
  worked out yet. One of the chiefs once said to me that he agreed that they
  should include the biology in their models, but he said they hadn’t got the
  physics right yet and it would be five years before they do. So why on earth
  are the politicians spending a fortune of our money when we can least afford
  it on doing things to prevent events 50 years from now? They’ve employed
  scientists to tell them what they want to hear. The Germans and the Danes are
  making a fortune out of renewable energy. I’m puzzled why politicians are not
  a bit more pragmatic about all this.

  We do need scepticism about the predictions about what will happen to the
  climate in 50 years, or whatever. It’s almost naive, scientifically speaking,
  to think we can give relatively accurate predictions for future climate. There
  are so many unknowns that it’s wrong to do it.
On the blogosphere’s reaction to the various revelations over the past few
  I think the sceptic bloggers should worry. It’s almost certain that you can’t
  put a trillion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere without something nasty
  happening. This is going to resolve itself and global heating is going to come
  back on stream and it’s these bloggers who are going to be made to look weird
  when it does. When something like this happens again, they’ll say we had all
  this before with ‘Climategate’. But there’s a danger that you can go off too
  strong, like they have. They are not sufficiently aware of the longer-term
  consequences. I think the sceptics have done us a good service because they’ve
  made us look at all this a lot more closely and hopefully the science will
  improve as a result. But everything has a price and an unexpected price may
  hit these bloggers. It’s the cry-wolf phenomenon. When the real one comes
  along, they’ll be laughed at.
On the Copenhagen summit:
  Copenhagen was doomed to fail. But I think it was worth their while trying. A
  lot of people put their hearts into it. But I’ve never felt entirely happy
  with that sort of environmental wing-ding. It’s obscene to have 10,000 people
  flying to Bali or whatever to talk about the environment. It just shows how
  hopeless humans are. The UN was a lovely idea, but its primary objective was
  to make sure the British Empire was got rid of. You just can’t get all those
  people to agree.

On the IPCC:
  I was all for the IPPC when it was set up. I greatly respect Sir John Houghton
  [IPCC's co-chairman from 1988-2002]. It wasn’t just a bunch of gung-ho
  scientists wanting to save the world. But then in 2007 there was a paper
  published in Science with the observational measurements saying the
  predictions [for sea-level rises] were underestimated. It was a serious
  underestimating of sea-level rises. The thing people should know about the sea
  is that surface temperatures can fluctuate all over the place, but we’re not
  measuring the temperatures far down below. There’s very little funding, or
  interest, in direct observational data.

On the influence of vested interests:
  We shouldn’t let the lobbies influence science. Whatever criticism might
  befall the IPCC and the UEA, they’re nothing as bad as lobbyists who are
  politically motivated and who will manipulate data or select data to make
  their political point. For example, it’s deplorable for the BBC whenever one
  of these issues comes up to go and ask what one of the green lobbyists thinks
  of it. Sometimes their view might be quite right, but it might also be pure
  propaganda. This is wrong. They should ask the scientists, but the problem is
  scientists won’t speak. If we had some really good scientists it wouldn’t be a
  problem, but we’ve got so many dumbos who just can’t say anything, or who are
  afraid to say anything. They’re not free agents.
On how humans will ever manage to tackle climate change:
  We need a more authoritative world. We’ve become a sort of cheeky, egalitarian
  world where everyone can have their say. It’s all very well, but there are
  certain circumstances – a war is a typical example – where you can’t do that.
  You’ve got to have a few people with authority who you trust who are running
  it. And they should be very accountable too, of course.

  But it can’t happen in a modern democracy. This is one of the problems. What’s
  the alternative to democracy? There isn’t one. But even the best democracies
  agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the
  time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as
  a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.
On what it will take to convince the public that meaningful action is required
to tackle climate change:
  There has been a lot of speculation that a very large glacier [Pine Island
  glacier] in Antarctica is unstable. If there’s much more melting, it may break
  off and slip into the ocean. It would be enough to produce an immediate
  sea-level rise of two metres, something huge, and tsunamis. I would say the
  scientists are not worried about it, but they are keeping a close watch on it.
  That would be the sort of event that would change public opinion. Or a return
  of the Dust Bowl in the mid-west. Another IPCC report won’t be enough. We’ll
  just argue over it like now.
On what we should be doing to tackle the predicted threats of climate change?
  I’ve always said that adaptation is the most serious thing we can do. Are our
  sea defences adequate? Can we prevent London from flooding? This is where we
  should be spending our billions. If wind turbines really worked, I wouldn’t
  object to them. To hell with the aesthetics, we might need them to save
  ourselves. But they don’t work – the Germans have admitted it. It’s like the
  [EU] Common Agricultural Policy which led to corruption and inefficiencies. A
  common energy policy across Europe is not a good idea. I’m in favour of
  nuclear for crowded places like Britain for the simple reason that it’s cheap,
  effective and exceedingly safe when you look at the record. We’ve had it for
  50 years, but I can understand the left hating it because it was Thatcher’s
  greatest weapon against the miners because we were then getting 30% of our
  electricity from nuclear. We could build a nuclear power station in five
  years, but it’s the legal and planning stuff that makes it take 15 years. If
  governments were serious they would undo this legislation that holds it back.

  I don’t know enough abut carbon trading, but I suspect that it is basically a
  scam. The whole thing is not very sensible. We have this crazy idea that we
  are setting an example to the world. What we’re doing is trying to make money
  out of the world by selling them renewable gadgetry and green ideas. It might
  be worthy from the national interest, but it is moonshine if you think what
  the Chinese and Indians are doing [in terms of emissions]. The inertia of
  humans is so huge that you can’t really do anything meaningful.

On the surveys showing that public trust with climate science is eroding:
  I think the public are right. That’s why I’m soft on the sceptics. Science has
  got overblown. From the moment Harold Wilson brought in that stuff about the
  “white heat of technology”, science, in Britain at least, has gone down the
  drain. Science was always elitist and has to be elitist. The very idea of
  diluting it down [to be more egalitarian] is crazy. We’re paying the price for
  it now.
On whether we are capable as a species of tackling climate change:
  I don’t think we’re yet evolved to the point where we’re clever enough to
  handle a complex a situation as climate change. We’re very active animals. We
  like to think: “Ah yes, this will be a good policy,” but it’s almost never
  that simple. Wars show this to be true. People are very certain they are
  fighting a just cause, but it doesn’t always work out like that. Climate
  change is kind of a repetition of a war-time situation. It could quite easily
  lead to a physical war. That’s why I always come back to the safest thing to
  do being adaptation. For example, we’ve got to have good supplies of food. I
  would be very pleased to see this country and Europe seriously thinking about
  synthesising food.

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