An Alarmist No Longer

I made a mistake.” —Dr. James Lovelock

That quote made headlines around the world. In a telephone interview with MSNBC last month, he stated he was wrong in some earlier predictions he had made about global warming. He described that he had been an “alarmist” and lumped others like Al Gore and Tim Flannery in there with him, even though neither of them had ever made predictions as dire over such a short time span as Dr. Lovelock had.

Dr. Lovelock has been the strongest proponent of the theory of Gaia, the concept that our planet is like a living organism with three major organs: the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the geosphere (essentially air, water and land). He has also written a number of books about the subject of anthropogenic global warming, and has always been considered an expert for that reason.

To be accurate though, he isn’t a climate scientist and never has been. In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out neither am I. The difference however is I don’t put forth my own theories of what’s happening to the climate and make predictions about it. What I try to do is sift through the vast amount of information out there from the mainstream scientific community and make sure everyone is up to date regarding current information available about climate change.

As recently as 2006 in an article written in the UK’s Independent newspaper, Dr. Lovelock claimed that “before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.” Now in his MSNBC interview he admits he was wrong about that. He doesn’t deny that global warming exists, just that it isn’t affecting our planet as quickly as he previously thought.

Interestingly, Dr. Lovelock seems to feel that since he didn’t get it right, then nobody must really know what’s going on with climate change. He describes that carbon dioxide levels are climbing but that temperatures have been rather stable since the new millennium. By his own description in the MSNBC interview, we should be halfway to frying by now if his predictions were accurate, but we aren’t. (By the way, if you’d like to see the best data on what global temperatures are really doing, check out the answer to question 5 in my recent blog with data from the Berkeley Earth team. Suffice to say, 12 years is way too brief a period of time to make any real conclusions about long-term trends in global warming.)

Although a lot of climate-change skeptics and deniers have grabbed onto Dr. Lovelock’s about-face, it’s important to appreciate that those of us who care about this issue never felt he was our champion. Also, it’s not as if he’s crossed the aisle and is supporting the opposing view. Far from it. He quite clearly states global warming is still happening, just at a slower rate than he once thought it would.

Dr. Lovelock was always more alarmist than any of the other personalities who have been warning us about this hazard our planet is facing. I’m glad he’s admitted his mistakes because climate experts never agreed with him about the extreme rate of change he was predicting, and this includes the other “alarmists” out there. It was always his own opinion and his predictions were never based on any real science.

Most people who actually care about climate change are neither the die-hard skeptic nor the extreme alarmist Lovelock once was. We tend to be more moderate. But to use the turn of phrase used in a letter-to-the-editor in my own local newspaper claiming that “the sky isn’t falling” thanks to Dr. Lovelock’s retraction: the sky is indeed falling, just slower than one extreme opinion predicted.

Some of us are still concerned about climate change nonetheless. A runaway train heading toward a group of people tied to the tracks is going to do a lot of damage once it gets there regardless of its speed. It still seems clear to me that we should be trying to stop this train if we can, rather than feel secure that it’s going to take a little longer to harm its victims than one alarmist once thought it would.