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Nuclear power is the only green solution

We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilisation is in imminent danger

James Lovelock

24 May 2004

Sir David King, the Government's chief scientist, was far-sighted to say that global warming is a more serious threat than terrorism. He may even have underestimated, because, since he spoke, new evidence of climate change suggests it could be even more serious, and the greatest danger that civilisation has faced so far.

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Guru who tuned into Gaia was one of the first to warn of climate threat

By Michael McCarthy Environment Editor

Twenty-five years ago, he conceived the most radical way of looking at life on Earth since Darwin, and became a hero to the emerging environmental movement. Now, because he believes nuclear power is the only answer to the growing threat of climate change, some Greens may see him as the enemy. But that will not worry 84-year-old James Lovelock, CBE, FRS, who all his life has been a maverick, Fellow of the Royal Society or not.

It was as an independent scientist, working for himself, that he invented the equipment that detected CFCs, the chemicals from spray cans that began to destroy the ozone layer. And it was as an independent thinker that he conceived of Gaia - his name for the mysterious system by which the Earth (he came to believe) had kept itself fit for life, over millions of years. It was a complex series of feedbacks and interactions which regulated the temperature, the chemical composition of the atmosphere, even the salinity of the seas, so that life could thrive - and what was controlling it all, was life itself.

Living organisms were keeping the environment benign for themselves, and the Earth was in effect a single giant super- organism. You might even say - and Lovelock did - that the Earth was alive.

The Brixton-born scientist, who once worked for Nasa on the American space programme devising experiments to test for life on Mars, was originally going to call this the "biocybernetic universal system tendency". Had he done so, it might have remained a subject for arcane scientific journals. But his neighbour in the Wiltshire village of Bowerchalke, the Nobel prize-winning novelist William Golding, suggested he name it after the Greek goddess of the Earth, and Gaia was born.

To Lovelock's surprise, the hypothesis was at first ignored by the scientific community, and was taken up instead with enthusiasm by New Agers and by the Green movement, who found in Gaia a cherishable personification of the shimmering blue planet first seen by humans in the late 1960s, in the photographs taken by American astronauts.

Gradually the theory (now generally termed Earth System Science) has become accepted in the scientific community worldwide: last December, the scientific journal Nature gave Lovelock two pages to sum up recent developments in it.

It was his conception of a planetary life-support system maintained in precarious balance that made Lovelock sensitive to developments that could destabilise it, and his was one of the first voices raised to warn of the dangers of global warming. In 1989, he was one of a small group of leading scientists chosen to brief Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet on the threat from climate change.

Since then he has followed developments closely and become increasingly convinced that Gaia - to use the metaphor - is likely to react violently to the stress caused by the huge amounts of greenhouse gases we pour into the atmosphere each year. In two weeks' time he is hosting a meeting at Dartington Hall in Devon on "Gaia and global change" at which many leading climate scientists will be present.

A short, wiry figure with a frequent mischievous grin, Lovelock lives in an old mill in west Devon with his American second wife, Sandy Orchard, and for all his years has undiminished energy and passion, especially about the global warming threat, which he thinks is now critical, and widely underestimated.

Recent climatic events, such as the unprecedented 2003 European heatwave and the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, indicate it is likely to proceed "much faster than anybody guesses", he said, yet there is as yet no adequate response.

"I think we should think of ourselves as a bit like we were in 1938. There was a war looming, and everybody knew it, but nobody really knew what the hell to do about it." The Kyoto protocol, he said, was "the perfect analogy for the Munich agreement", because it would solve nothing [as the cuts it mandates in greenhouse gases are tiny], while making politicians appear to be doing something.

The only real solution to replacing the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas that is causing the greenhouse effect, he said, was a massive and immediate expansion of nuclear power. He did not dismiss providing energy from renewable sources such as tides, wind and the sun - the Green movement's solution - but believed it simply could not be done in time.

The Greens' attachment to renewables was "well-intentioned, but misguided", he said - "like the left's attachment to disarmament in 1938. And I believed that, at the time. I was misguided too."

Major action on climate change could not wait, he said. "Unless we stop now, we will really doom the lives of our descendants. If we just go on for another 40 or 50 years faffing around, they'll have no chance at all, it'll back to the Stone Age. There'll be people around still. But civilisation will go."

* The meeting, "Gaia and Global Change", will be held at Dartington Hall, Totnes, Devon, from 2-5 June. The final day will be open to the public.


Fifty years ago, nuclear power was regarded as the answer to the world's energy problems, but it has long fallen out of favour with politicians and the public.

A string of nuclear power station accidents (the worst was in 1986 at Chernobyl in what is now Ukraine), the fear of cancer caused by radiation and the enormous difficulty and cost of disposing of radioactive nuclear waste have come together to cast a cloud over what was once a miracle technology. What was seen as the secretive nature of the nuclear industry has not helped.

The environmental movement has always been resolutely opposed to nuclear power, both in its civil and military versions, but the enthusiasm of governments has also waned. Some nations, led by France and Japan, have kept faith, but in Britain and America it is 20 years and more since new nuclear plants were ordered. In the world as a whole, there are about 440 reactors supplying about 16 per cent of global electricity.

Britain led the world in commercial atomic power, when the nuclear plant at Calder Hall in Cumbria began producing electricity in 1956. Another 18 nuclear power stations were built in the UK: 10 magnox stations (named after the type of fuel), seven advanced gas-cooled reactor stations (AGRs) and one pressurised water reactor (PWR) at Sizewell in Suffolk. Six magnox stations are running, with the AGRs and Sizewell, and they produce about 25 per cent of the UK's electricity supply. They are gradually being run down with no plans as yet to replace them.

Supporters keenly awaited last year's Energy White Paper but the Government, while not specifically ruling out future nuclear stations, made no commitment whatsoever to building any.

Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, said she believed Britain could achieve its ambitious greenhouse-gas reduction targets without new nuclear plants, creating a "low-carbon economy" through renewable energy. The Green movement warmly welcomed the White Paper. The door is theoretically still open to the expansion of nuclear power in Britain - but only by a crack.

'Only nuclear power can now halt global warming'

Leading environmentalist urges radical rethink on climate change

By Michael McCarthy Environment Editor

Global warming is now advancing so swiftly that only a massive expansion of nuclear power as the world's main energy source can prevent it overwhelming civilisation, the scientist and celebrated Green guru, James Lovelock, says.

His call will cause huge disquiet for the environmental movement. It has long considered the 84-year-old radical thinker among its greatest heroes, and sees climate change as the most important issue facing the world, but it has always regarded opposition to nuclear power as an article of faith. Last night the leaders of both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth rejected his call.

Professor Lovelock, who achieved international fame as the author of the Gaia hypothesis, the theory that the Earth keeps itself fit for life by the actions of living things themselves, was among the first researchers to sound the alarm about the threat from the greenhouse effect.

He was in a select group of scientists who gave an initial briefing on climate change to Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Cabinet at 10 Downing Street in April 1989.

He now believes recent climatic events have shown the warming of the atmosphere is proceeding even more rapidly than the scientists of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) thought it would, in their last report in 2001.

On that basis, he says, there is simply not enough time for renewable energy, such as wind, wave and solar power - the favoured solution of the Green movement - to take the place of the coal, gas and oil-fired power stations whose waste gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), is causing the atmosphere to warm.

He believes only a massive expansion of nuclear power, which produces almost no CO2, can now check a runaway warming which would raise sea levels disastrously around the world, cause climatic turbulence and make agriculture unviable over large areas. He says fears about the safety of nuclear energy are irrational and exaggerated, and urges the Green movement to drop its opposition.

In today's Independent, Professor Lovelock says he is concerned by two climatic events in particular: the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which will raise global sea levels significantly, and the episode of extreme heat in western central Europe last August, accepted by many scientists as unprecedented and a direct result of global warming.

These are ominous warning signs, he says, that climate change is speeding, but many people are still in ignorance of this. Important among the reasons is "the denial of climate change in the US, where governments have failed to give their climate scientists the support they needed".

He compares the situation to that in Europe in 1938, with the Second World War looming, and nobody knowing what to do. The attachment of the Greens to renewables is "well-intentioned but misguided", he says, like the Left's 1938 attachment to disarmament when he too was a left-winger.

He writes today: "I am a Green, and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy."

His appeal, which in effect is asking the Greens to make a bargain with the devil, is likely to fall on deaf ears, at least at present.

"Lovelock is right to demand a drastic response to climate change," Stephen Tindale, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said last night. "He's right to question previous assumptions.

"But he's wrong to think nuclear power is any part of the answer. Nuclear creates enormous problems, waste we don't know what to do with; radioactive emissions; unavoidable risk of accident and terrorist attack."

Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, said: "Climate change and radioactive waste both pose deadly long-term threats, and we have a moral duty to minimise the effects of both, not to choose between them."

'The ice is melting much faster than we thought'

By Michael McCarthy

24 May 2004

Two recent climatic events are warning signs that climate change may be proceeding much more quickly than previously thought, James Lovelock claimed.

They are the increasingly rapid melting of the Arctic ice-sheet covering Greenland, which will raise global sea levels considerably, and the extreme heatwave in western central Europe in the first two weeks of last August.

The latter, which saw the British temperature record exceed 100F for the first time, produced 20,000 deaths of mostly elderly people in France, where heat levels, especially at night, were highest.

Senior scientists, including a team from the Swiss Met Office and Phil Jones, head of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, have since said that last year's heatwave was entirely unprecedented in climatic history, and attributed it directly to climate change. "There's no question in any reasonable scientist's mind that that was the first real bad event of global warming," said Professor Lovelock. "But the media picked it up only as a story about the wickedness of the French in not looking after their old people."

Just as alarming, he said, is the dissolving of the Greenland ice sheet, which measurements show is "melting far faster than we expected".

Describing the picture on the front page of today's Independent, he said: "That's a kilometre up in Arctic Greenland, near the North Pole, and that's what it looks like in summer now. There are torrents of meltwater plunging off the glaciers."

The 2001 report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change foresaw a global temperature rise of up to 5.8C during the next century. But Professor Lovelock believes things will happen much faster than on a 100-year time scale.

He said: "I think in the past we thought more in terms of, it would get hotter, things would change, you might be able to grow Mediterranean plants in Britain and things like that, it didn't seem at all too bad; you knew there'd be some places that wouldn't be fine, but others would be nicer than they were.

"Now there's a growing awareness that global warming is far more serious than we ever realised, that it is proceeding more quickly, and that it poses a threat to future generations and even to civilisation itself