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Green guru James Lovelock on climate: ‘Nobody can predict the climate in two or three years’ time. It could be almost anything’

By David Wallace-Wells

James Lovelock turned 100 this year and celebrated by publishing a new book — on artificial intelligence. But he is known as much more of an old-fashioned scientist and compares himself to Darwin and Faraday in that he also likes to work alone, outside of institutions. Nevertheless, though you may not know his name, he is among the most influential scientists of the 20th century, having developed — and then, over the course of decades of writing, refined and refashioned — what is called the “Gaia theory,” or the principle that Earth’s ecosystem is a single, living, self-regulating entity. In early September, just a few months after his birthday, I met Lovelock one morning at his home on Chesil Beach in southern England, where we talked about nuclear power, his hope that AI might save the planet from catastrophic warming, and just how to integrate the disruptions and disturbances of climate change into a Gaia worldview.

Q: On climate, your views have changed over time, I know. You were for a period more alarmed, and then you grew a little bit less alarmed. How do you see the big picture at the moment? Where do you think we are, and where do you think we’re heading?

Lovelock: The big picture is that everything is continuing more or less as predicted by climate scientists. But the exact course, of course, depends on all sorts of things.

Q: But thinking more globally, people like you and me, who think about these things in somewhat bigger terms — how concerned should we be?
Well, at first you get into a panic. At least I did. And then eventually you realize that there’s not a lot you can do about it. I mean, did you ever read that book by Martin Rees, Our Final Hour? Well, that was written quite a while back and I think he’s right.

The warm-up of the sun is quite remorseless, and it will continue. Unless we do something like [physicist Edward] Teller’s idea of putting up sunshades in the heliocentric orbit, we’ve had it. That’s it. There isn’t any way you could survive if the sun continues to warm up.

But nobody can predict the climate in two or three years’ time. It could be almost anything. For example, there was news of a very large volcano eruption emerging in the middle of the Pacific, from below. Well, of course, if that develops and magma starts coming up, that could change the whole picture. I’m hoping it won’t happen and probably it won’t.