The superstar scientist James Lovelock has given a couple of interviews recently where he suggested he may have overcooked his prose a little in sketching out the pace and impact of climate change across the coming century. The BBC’s Roger Harrabin summarised the interview in a blog post thus: ‘Don’t worry – the earth will cure itself of any CO2 overdose in few million years’. Hardly reassuring news unless you are a rock. But the main point that caught attention was that Lovelock rowed back from comments in his book ‘Revenge of Gaia’. Specifically it included a passage where he described the last few breeding pairs of humans migrating to the Arctic region to find the last inhabitable place on Earth.
My own assessment when Lovelock wrote that book was that he felt he may only have one more chance to move the climate change policy story on. In his late eighties at the time he may reasonably have supposed that it would be his last popular publication. You can understand why such a charismatic and mischievous fellow would have known that he could further help stoke public attention with such a provocative image.
But everyone I know who knows anything about climate change and who picked up on this racy rhetorical flourish rolled their eyeballs. As with Al Gore’s occasional tendency to overdo it from time to time we all agree that you just don’t need to exaggerate: the risks associated with even fairly modest climate change are scary enough. There will be significant human suffering, waste and ecological disruption with even the two degrees of warming this century that now looks certain, and higher temperature rises look likely unless political engagement with this tricksy topic really ramps up.
But there are no short cuts to public attention. I’ve written previously on why climate change introduces a very distinctive cultural politics, and also why the research-media-politics relationship is so awkward in another post that suggests ‘don’t shoot the pianist: offer a new tune’. Climate researchers, communications and policy people need to work on that tune now more than ever. My guess is that the hummalong chorus should be ‘the place we’re going is better than the place we live now’ [stick to the day job joe]. In other words, we need to design policies that mitigate and help people to adapt to climate change in ways that help to make the world a better place. More obesity-reducing cycle lanes in North American cities? Safe and efficient cookers in rural Africa? Cosy and efficient housing in Britain? This is all the polar opposite of the last-breeding couple stuff, and all the better for it.
NB: A version of this post also appears on the Open University’s Environment, Development and International Studies pages.