And as usual, it would be charitable to call it a half-truth.
It took me less than five minutes to find that out.
Yes, the irrepressibly outspoken originator of the Gaia theory of our planet, James Lovelock, did say what CFACT (the “Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow,” as Stephen Colbert might have named it) triumphantly says he did. Without even fact-checking, I'm willing to believe another climate change obfuscation outfit on that one, because at least the Global Warming Policy Foundation is responsible enough to publish the 94-year-old scientist cum natural philosopher's words in partial context – a context that includes other tidbits you won't see in any disinfographic from CFACT.
Lovelock's quote is loosely taken from a BBC Newsnight interview broadcast on April 2, just a few days after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its massive Working Group II report on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.
Early in the interview, Lovelock opted to illustrate his point that we're not as smart as we think we are, and that we're cruising for a bruising with extinction, by opining:
Take this climate matter everybody is thinking about. They all talk, they pass laws, they do things, as if they knew what was happening. I don’t think any of them really know what’s happening. They're just guessing it. And a whole group of them meet together and encourage each other’s guesses.(I'm using my own transcript now that I've watched the interview myself. It corrects some errors in the transcript by the GWPF and adds a few more lines of context.)
So there it is. The get, the ripe cherry to be picked, the quote to be mined, tweaked and decontextualized by CFACT, Friends of Science, Watts Up With That? and all the other climate confusionists dedicated to pulling the wool over the people's eyes in the guise of enlightening them, ensuring the fossil fuel companies will live to profit another day and keeping the bogeymen of “Big Government” and global governance away.
And here's the context.
Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman immediately picked up on Lovelock's not-so-thinly veiled swipe at the IPCC:
Paxman: That latest report from the International [sic] Panel on Climate Change did suggest that there was something inevitable ...
Lovelock (quietly, while nodding): Yes.
Paxman: ... about climate change, that it had already begun and that we had to adjust to it. All of those things are true, are they not, as far as we know?
Lovelock: Absolutely. That is true. That report, the last one, is very similar to the statements that I made in a book about eight years ago called The Revenge of Gaia. It’s almost as if they’d copied it, but not quite.So Lovelock professes that climate scientists are fumbling in the dark, but in the next breath he agrees with the main thrust of the IPCC's latest report – “absolutely.”
But then in the very next breath Lovelock seems to do another flip-flop.
Paxman: Sure. But you then, after publishing these apocalyptic predictions, you then retracted them.
Lovelock: Well, that’s my privilege, you see. I’m an independent scientist. I’m not funded by some government department or commercial body or anything like that. If I make a mistake, then I can go public on it – and you have to, because it's only by making mistakes that you can move ahead.
Paxman: It follows from that, does it not, that this panel on climate change which has, as you point out, vested interests involved, may be just as likely or even more likely to make a mistake? [NOTE: Any previous reference by Lovelock to “vested interests” didn't make the cut of the broadcast interview.]
Lovelock (grinning): Well, that would be a lot of hubris on my part to say that, but it's possible.So which is it, Dr. Lovelock? Do you think the IPCC is fundamentally right (despite your disparagement of them) or, as CFACT et al. would have it, have you renounced the consensus on anthropogenic climate change? Well, here's more context in Paxman's very next comment:
Paxman: Now you are evidently very concerned about the effect of carbon upon the world, and yet you part company with many environmentalists on the question of nuclear power ...There's no need for me to transcribe any further. The conversation continues with Lovelock doubling down on his controversial enthusiasm for nuclear power (“It's safer even than windmills. You can be killed when the blade of a windmill spins off and hits your house or chops your head off.”) and his qualified support for fracking. Then it ends. It's clear the only reason Lovelock is keen on these relatively low carbon energy sources is because – as Paxman has just stated (with no objection from Lovelock) – he's still “very concerned about the effect of carbon upon the world.” (For example, in a profile published just a few days earlier, Lovelock says “we can't go on burning coal because it produces so much CO2.”)
|Put your logo on this infographic and spread it, CFACT.|
But that's not the kind of uncertainty Lovelock is revelling in. Here he is, quoted in a profile just days before the BBC interview:
“I was a little too certain in that book [The Revenge of Gaia]. You just can't tell what's going to happen....It could be terrible within a few years, though that's very unlikely, or it could be hundreds of years before the climate becomes unbearable.”The truth is less flattering to Lovelock than the IPCC. In The Revenge of Gaia (the 2006 book he refers to in the BBC interview), Lovelock projected a future climate that was even hotter than the IPCC's worst case scenario. In the parlance of CFACT and its ilk, Lovelock was being an “alarmist.” Summarizing the gist of his book in an op-ed on the eve of its publication, Lovelock promised that “as the century progresses, the temperature will rise 8 degrees centigrade in temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics.” He painted a post-apocalyptic vision: “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.”
That same year, the mainstream climate scientists whom Lovelock loves to mock for their supposed ignorance and hubris were completing the IPCC report that preceded the current one. When that report came out in 2007, the IPCC's worst-case scenario temperature estimate (offered with modest scientific confidence of better than 3 to 1 odds of accuracy) for the last decade of this century compared to the last 20 years of the twentieth was a global rise of 2.4 to 6.4 degrees centigrade, with a best estimate of 4 degrees. The most optimistic of their scenarios (based mostly on different assumptions about how we will behave as a species) projected an increase of just 1.1 to 2.9 degrees; best estimate: 1.8 degrees.
The IPCC's global warming estimates have dropped slightly in their new report. Comparing the longer end-of century period 2081–2100 to a wider 1986–2005 baseline, the worst case scenario – which is more or less a “business as usual” peak into the future – is an increase of 2.6°C to 4.8°C. The most optimistic: 0.3°C to 1.7°C. The latter's optimism is predicated on humanity heeding the IPCC's warnings and cracking down aggressively on greenhouse gas emissions so that we have a 50:50 chance of limiting the temperature increase since pre-industrial times to less than 2°C (we're nearly halfway there already).
So when Lovelock made headlines a few years after the The Revenge of Gaia by pronouncing that he'd been mistakenly overconfident in his extreme predictions, he was moving closer to the IPCC consensus, not farther away.
Easily lost in the drama was Lovelock's abiding belief that radical climate change due to our relentless emissions is not only real, it's a juggernaut probably not even worth trying to stop. Instead, going with the flow – adapting – is the solution he advocates in his latest book, A Rough Ride to the Future. (The rough ride, it should be obvious, is courtesy of anthropogenic global warming.)
It's not surprising that mainstream climate scientists are less than appreciative of Lovelock's intellectual mood swings. A couple years ago, in a BBC piece reacting to yet another post-alarmism-period interview with Lovelock, columnist Roger Harrabin quoted an IPCC scientist who commented about his colleague anonymously:
“Jim [Lovelock] exaggerated the certainties of climate change before, which wasn't helpful then. His recent comments aren't helpful now. They will be seized on by people who argue that science is too uncertain to inform policy – and that's absolutely not the case. He's blown too hot, now he's blowing too cold.”It's ironic, but psychologically not unusual, that a man accuses others of the very faults he demonstrates in his own behaviour. Hubris, overconfidence – in his own judgment, Lovelock was guilty of these in his earlier views on anthropogenic climate change. I find his subsequent rhetoric, in which ostentatious protestations of scientific uncertainty are served up like a garnish to his main course of (still) overconfident declarations about everything from the absolute safety of nuclear power to the pointlessness of fighting climate change, as replete with intellectual hubris as ever.
Meanwhile, those scientists who “[don't] really know what’s happening,” who “meet together and encourage each other’s guesses” are rigorously transparent (qualifying every conclusion in their reports with quantified measures of scientific uncertainty) about the fuzziness of the details in the emerging portrait of dangerous human-caused climate change, as painted by science with increasing clarity from one IPCC report to the next.
And while Lovelock may have his own take on what we can or should do about it – “if [the planet's] going to be saved,” he suggested in that 2012 interview, “it will save itself....The sensible thing to do is to enjoy life while you can” – he agrees “absolutely” with those IPCC scientists that it is happening.
Even if nobody knows exactly how it will unfold.