James Lovelock and climate change

Pioneering environmentalist and author James Lovelock, most famous for proposing the Gaia hypothesis that the Earth is a giant superorganism, is publishing a new book, titled The Vanishing Face of Gaia. It's about... you guessed it... climate change. This year, Lovelock turns 90 and will take his first trip into space. New Scientist had a chat with him about what he considers to be our last chance to deal with climate change. From New Scientist:
 Static Covers All 0 5 9781846141850H So are we doomed?

There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste - which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering - into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.

Would it make enough of a difference?

Yes. The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine per cent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won't do it.
"James Lovelock: One last chance to save mankind" (New Scientist), Pre-order "The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning" (Amazon)

33

  1. I once read that James Lovelock was disappointed how people had taken the Gaia living-system hypothesis and turned it into the Gaia conscious-system hypothesis.

    I must read him properly sometime :)

  2. He must deal with this in the book but wouldn’t this be taking a lot of nutrients essential to future crops and that are normally recirculated out of the syatem. What would be the reesult.

    Also is production of the crops to be used dependent on fertilizers prepared from oil and gas feedstocks?

    MN
    Toronto

  3. Sigh.

    I wish I were paid.

    “What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won’t do it.”

    This ultimately depletes the soil. It’s called slash and burn.

    And nothings going stop c02. We breath it out….

    Go ahead and vilify me.

  4. Trying to be helpful:

    The Possibility of Hope – Children of Men Extra

    “The documentary explores the intersection between the film’s themes and reality with a critical analysis by eminent scholars: the Slovenian sociologist and philosopher Slavoj Žižek , anti-globalization activist Naomi Klein, futurist James Lovelock, sociologist Saskia Sassen, human geographer Fabrizio Eva, cultural theorist Tzvetan Todorov, and philosopher and economist John N. Gray.”

    Climate Change Killing America’s Trees at Ever Faster Rates

    ““If current trends continue, forests will become sparser over time,” co-author Philip van Mantgem, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said in a press conference call. This would be a setback in the fight against global warming because thinner forests with small, young trees store less carbon, so more heat-trapping carbon dioxide would cycle into the atmosphere.”

    Positive feedback loops, fear them.

  5. “It’s called slash and burn.”

    No, it isn’t, please read the article. Do you know how to make charcoal? I do, I did when I was a child.

    “Go ahead and vilify me.”

    Sorry, not into your scene, but I’m sure that you can find a mistress willing to accommodate you.

  6. Tirjasdyn, done right, char can actually enrich the soil. Think volcanic soil and the wonderful things you can grow in it.

  7. There’s no free lunch. And the guys always talking about “paid denialists” are predictable…

    If all the worlds farmer were to burn their crop waste, then there would be consequences. Large unintended consequences. For example, in California (particularly So Cal) asthma is a very serious issue. Now suppose that all the farmers in the Central Valley were to burn their crop waste. There can be an actuarial projection on morbidity/mortality. So who wants to tell some family that their seven year old with severe asthma may die due to this new practice of “burning crop waist to save the world” Good luck with that.

    Everything is connected. There is no free lunch. I GUARANTEE you if we were to burn farm waste on a global basis the fallout (literally) would be monumental.

    I’m not paid, but I can quickly set up a PayPal account if someone is so inclined. I would prefer doing business with a vicious-multinational-arms merchant-Bildneberg-Free Mason organization. Their checks never bounce.

  8. Re: neplusultra and tirjasdyn

    Please read the article to find out what pyrolysis is. It is in no way slash and burn nor is it the still common practice of freely burning agricultural waste. Please see below.

    Pyrolysis http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrolysis
    Low oxygen heating which preserves the carbon in a substance. It is this property that is key to the idea.

    Slash and Burn http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slash_and_burn
    Freely burning an area to clear it for agriculture or other uses. This combined with burning all agricultural wastes releases tons of CO2, particulates and gases.

    I would love to hear an actual substantive response based upon actual rather that supposed facts.

  9. If Lovelock has such a simple solution, why do we waste our time with horrendous solutions like alternative energy, carbon caps, and sustainability changes that ruin the economy?

    Sometimes I think I may be a climate denialist, but if Lovelock’s solution is so easy, then I may not bother with denial.

  10. Interesting, what Lovelock is talking about is commonly know as biochar.

    There are lots of good videos about it on youtube and even a biochar institute. :)

  11. This is pretty much just part of the process by which terra preta (the stuff that the Amazon rainforests are thought to be built upon) is supposedly made. I think I’ve even heard that Shell is looking into it, which is reasonable considering the biproducts are also biofuels.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terra_preta

  12. Because it isn’t that simple pduggie. While it isn’t technologically hard, for it to work you’d have to get everyone involved. But I agree, I don’t think that alternate energy will “save” us. Oil is going away and the Earth is getting warmer. We need to adapt to this new reality.

  13. I found it curious that this same article is being linked to by the right winger, and climate change naysayer, Matt Drudge. Of course, he’s picking up on Lovelock’s position regarding carbon credits as a “scam”.

    Personally, I try to live a sustainable, humble existence, agitate for science and sensible leadership and attempt to leave a better world than the one I came into. Will it be down to breeding pairs at the north pole desert in 90 years? I certainly hope not.

  14. “It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste – which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering – into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil.”
    Now I may not be one of them ivory tower eggheads but, instead of bad burning or not-so-bad burning of agricultural waste, wouldn’t we be better off using it as fertilizer? Burning and burying something that could help grow next year’s food sounds daft to me.

  15. Why should the climate stay the same?

    Because otherwise a large percentage of the humans and animals on the planet are fucked.

    I don’t think anyone (with any sort of clue) is saying the planet should be at a permanent thermo-stasis. But there are pretty compelling reasons to try prevent, contain or adapt-to the changes afoot.

    A better question would be “what are we going to do?” instead of dancing aronud who is to blame.

  16. Hell, yes. This is why I insist on reading Boing Boing. There’s nothing on Wikipedia about burying charcoal.

  17. JS7A

    Why don’y your research first before posting??

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terra_preta

    Lovelock is probably using scare tactics re human die off (after all at 90 one is generally not full of the joys of spring!) and he publishes before ideas are fully examined. But someone has to otherwise the testing of ideas and their possible implementation cannot take place.

    I find this the most promising proposed large scale solution . It is appealing because he is proposing to return the CO2 to where it came from! It must be seriously checked out.

    My main question would be whether there is enough incentive for the farmers to do this.

  18. *rolls eyes*

    I meant, burying charcoal as a method of mitigating greenhouse gases. Presumably that was not the intent of the pre-Columbian Amazonians.

  19. Jeez, that’s one depressing article. Did I do the right thing having children? 90% human die-off this century?! My God.

  20. Padster,

    That depends how many of them you had.

    Life is always a risk. You can’t ensure a safe and happy future for your kids, no one can, and no one has ever been able to do so.

    I’m less depressed by this than a lot of the nonsense, folks flapping their gums and doing nothing. I’m less depressed by this than by people who refuse to realize or admit that system is finite, that if you push it too far, it breaks.

    Biofuel seems the scam to end all scams. Carbon credits just seem ethically wrong. Here, we’ll pay you so we can keep polluting. WTF?

    Many biologists can find comfort in the big picture. There have been massive extinctions before, this is not new. And there have been bottlenecks for many species. Will we get past the next one? Who knows? But we had our shot. And we aren’t the only life on this planet, though a lot of us act like we were the only life that mattered.

    It is sad when really interesting forms of life die off: coral reefs, forest, social insects, humans. But life is going to go on, with us or without us. Personally, I find that encouraging.

  21. Ain’t it amusing how so many people with no (apparent) credentials are happy to weigh in on how a 90-year-old scientist’s ideas are wrong?

    It all reminds me of Jules Verne’s moonshot story … and the rabbles that gathered in H. G. Wells ‘Things to Come’ to stop the technocrats.

    Those fellas had humanity down cold.

  22. Wow, I’m so trendy! Dumped five drums of ash and charcoal into my garden so far this winter. The ash helps negate the acidity from rain and the pine trees just up-slope, makes my food garden more productive.

    Of course, I was just being a cheapskate and burning wood to cut down on my home heating bill, but now I can say I was a visionary, eh?

    –Charlie

Comments are closed.