Those familiar with James Lovelock’s stark pronouncements might consider his decision to live on the Dorset coast a bit reckless.
In 2007 the influential scientist, inventor and environmentalist spoke of dire and imminent climate change. Warning of a lethal rise in temperatures over the next two decades, he noted that since 1970 sea levels had risen 1.6 times faster than predicted, and stated that worse was to come.
Since then, Lovelock has revised some of his assertions – and aged 94, he has little to worry about personally – but is he concerned about the fate of his pretty 1820s coastguard’s cottage?
“Not one bit. We’re 70 yards from the sea but we’re also more than 50 feet above it, and by 2100, when I’ll be long gone, it won’t have risen – at most, I should think – more than a metre,” he says, though he can’t resist a bit of doom-mongering. “I think we’re more likely to be done by a tsunami caused by a bit dropping off one of the volcanoes on the Canaries.”
Last year, Lovelock and his wife Sandy downsized from their previous house, which was set in 40 acres of Devon countryside. The move marked his retirement as a practising scientist (his equipment and manuscripts have been purchased by the Science Museum) and the new house reflects the couple’s artistic interests. A diverse CD collection ranges from Wagner to Steely Dan, and there are numerous books and journals, alongside Chinese and Japanese artworks, some of which were acquired on trips during the early 1990s.
One of Lovelock’s worst jobs was decommissioning the home laboratory he had used for 35 years. “They’ve got so angsty about mercury that in a village about five miles from us somebody broke a thermometer and two fire brigades were sent to decontaminate the area, so what they’d have done with half a kilo . . . ” Instead he devised a practical solution, installing the mercury as a spare part in his Fortin barometer.
Born into a working-class household in Brixton, south London, Lovelock’s early knowledge of science was largely self-taught. “I’d grown up in a home where the reading was intense and everybody went to the public libraries every week.” After school he worked as a lab assistant for a photographic consultants before completing a chemistry degree at Manchester university in 1941.
Throughout the second world war, and into the 1950s, Lovelock worked at the Medical Research Council studying the transfer of respiratory infections. It was this interest and understanding of air particles that led to his most significant invention: the electron capture detector, which revealed for the first time the impact and prevalence of chemical pollutants in the atmosphere.
It was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, however, while conducting research on planetary atmospheres in 1965 that Lovelock began to formulate the most important – and controversial – concept of his career: the Gaia theory. This (the name, suggested by his friend, the novelist William Golding, refers to the ancient Greek earth goddess) asserts that the earth is a living and evolving system that strives to regulate itself so that contemporary life can flourish.
Since then, Lovelock has devoted much of his career to developing and defending Gaia. It has been attacked by fellow scientists, including Richard Dawkins, and, at the same time, seized on by New Age spiritualists and recast as a kind of religion.
“As Max Planck said about quantum theory, I’ll have to wait until all my contemporaries are dead before this is accepted,” Lovelock says with a smile, “and it’s more or less true.”
Despite the influence his work has had on “green” politics, he has an ambivalent relationship with the environmental movement, and little time for eco-posturing. A quick glance around confirms the house has all the usual electrical appliances; a bottle of Fairy Liquid, rather than any all-natural cleaner, stands at the kitchen sink; and having experimented with a biofuel boiler in the 1970s with disastrous consequences, Lovelock now uses oil to heat his home.
Over the years, he has infuriated many environmentalists with his criticism of renewable energy sources, including wind turbines – a stance that many have interpreted as mischievous provocation – and with his promotion of nuclear power as the cleanest, safest and most efficient alternative to fossil fuels. More recently, he has even voiced his support of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as a short-term option.
“People don’t decide on logic or sense, or even on economics, they decide on fear,” he says. “When you look at the actual records you find that wind turbines have killed far more people than nuclear energy.”
For years, Lovelock has devoted a great deal of energy to highlighting the risks of global warming, or “global heating” as he prefers it. The next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, due to be published in part next month, will have to address the fact that, despite an increase in the use of fossil fuels, and carbon dioxide emissions, temperatures have not risen as rapidly over the past 15 years as in previous decades. So what does Lovelock make of this anomaly?
“I remember back to the IPCC in the 1990s, the ice-core data were coming in very well,” he says. “At that time you could look at the temperatures in Antarctica and the atmospheric concentrations together over about 500,000 years, now you can look at about a million, and it’s extraordinary, there’s a complete one-to-one correlation between temperature and CO2. So they said, ‘Right, well we know the sensitivity now, so we can predict the climate’. The problem is that there’s now all that junk going into the atmosphere from burning fuels so the sensitivity’s no longer what it was.”
Some have suggested an increase in aerosols – particles of smoke, and mist in the earth’s atmosphere that reflect some of the sun’s heat – has affected temperatures. Lovelock agrees and he points to the smoke produced as a result of large-scale coal and forest burning in China and Indonesia, suggesting that the growth of emerging economies could, in fact, be contributing to a short-term cooling effect.
As for the cold winters experienced in the UK in recent years, he sees this as a more local effect. “I think – and a lot of others do too – it’s attributable to the melting of the floating ice up in the north,” he says. “Ice is pure water so when it melts it becomes fresh water not salt water, which is lighter, so it floats on the surface of the sea and drifts downwards [south]. That does two things, it makes the water off western Europe a lot cooler but, much more seriously, it stops the sinkholes that drive the Gulf Stream.”
Lovelock no longer studies climate patterns but he uses an infrared thermometer to track the sea temperature from the house. “It was 5C in April this year – that’s Arctic. It’s warmed up since and it’s now about 18C.”
After tea and chocolate biscuits in the sitting room, he leads the way out of the house, stopping to admire the view over sloping fields down to the shingle beach and the English Channel, and into a small garden. Here, nestled among some acanthus flowers, is a sculpture of the goddess Gaia that Lovelock picked up for £200.
It has come to symbolise more than a theory – almost an entire way of thinking. One of the three books Lovelock is working on will attempt to link Gaia with other systems – economic and social – that govern human life in order to examine what makes us unique as a species, and to speculate on the nature of our successors.
“The sun has got a global warming problem, just like the earth, and eventually it will get too hot for our kind of life to survive on the planet,” he says, “but it may be that, nicely, in an evolutional sense, we’re the progenitors of what follows us.”
Laura Battle is deputy editor of House & Home
“I couldn’t have made that now,” Lovelock says, pointing at the electron capture detector that he developed while working at the Medical Research Council in the late 1950s. “It contains a tiny amount of radioactivity. I could keep it in my trouser pocket for a lifetime and nothing would happen, but such is the law and the stupidity that’s grown up around that.” The small, unremarkable looking object – here proudly mounted – enabled one of the first big breakthroughs in 20th-century climate science, revealing the ubiquity of pesticides and other pollutants, including CFCs, in the atmosphere, which in turn led to the discovery of a hole in the ozone.
Evidence gathered by the highly sensitive device supported Rachel Carson’s denunciation of the chemical industry in her 1962 book Silent Spring, and helped to lay the foundations for the environmental movement. “The US government stole the patent of it but that’s neither here nor there,” Lovelock says, referring to how he was coerced into transferring the patent to the US surgeon general while he was at Yale University in 1964. “You could say it gave me the means for independence.”