Even if we reform immediately we shall still see the Earth change and we, its first social intelligent species, are privileged to be both the cause and the spectators. The change in climate imminent is as large as between the last ice age and now.
To comprehend the magnitude of the change ahead glance back to the depth of the last ice age, some tens of thousands of years ago. Then the glaciers reached as far south as latitude 350 in North America and to the Alps in Europe. The sea was more than 100 metres lower than now, and therefore an area of land as large as Africa was above water and where plants grew. The tropics were like the warm temperate regions are now. In all it was a pleasant world to live on and there was more land. What will happen, as a result of our presence so far, will be a change as great as that from the last ice age until about 100 years ago.
To understand what has already begun and will develop in the next century, imagine the start of a heat age. Temperatures and sea level will climb, by fits and starts, until eventually the world will be torrid, ice free, and all but unrecognizable. Eventually is a long time ahead, it might never happen to that extent; what we have to prepare for now are the incidents of a changing climate, just about to begin. These are likely to be surprises, things that even the most detailed of big science models do not predict. Think of the ozone hole, this was a real surprise. The most expensive computer modelling and monitoring of the Earth's ozone layer failed to see or predict it. It was seen by observers looking at the sky with simple instruments. Surprise may comes as climatic extremes, like ferocious storms, or as unexpected atmospheric events. Nature is nonlinear and unpredictable and never more so than in a period of change.
This is an occasion when we cannot look to Gaia for help. If the present warm period is a planetary fever, we should expect that the Earth left to itself would be relaxing into its normal comfortable ice age. Such comfort may be unattainable because we have been busy removing its skin for farm land, taking away the trees that are the means for recovery. We also are adding vast blanket of greenhouse gases to the already feverish patient. Gaia is more likely to shudder, then move over to a new stable state, fit for a different and more amenable biota. It could be much hotter, but whatever it is, no longer the comfortable world we know. These predictions are not fictional doom scenarios, but uncomfortably close to certainty. We have already changed the atmosphere to an extent unprecedented in recent geological history. We seem to be driving ourselves heedlessly down a slope into a sea that is rising to drown us.
We must, in our own interest, recognize that our planet is at least as important as we are. If we continue to pollute and destroy for narrow self interest, we could bring about the end of the Pleistocene and the dawn of a new hot Earth. The future depends on decisions made now on the supplies of food and energy. We must moderate our passion for human rights and begin to recognize the rest of life on Earth. Individual risk, such as of cancer from exposure to nuclear radiation, or to products of the chemical industry, are to be prevented, but they are no longer the most urgent concern. First in our thoughts should be the need to avoid perturbing Gaia and exacerbating its present natural instability. Above all we do not want to trigger the jump to a new but unwanted stable climate.
Among the things we must not do is cling to the illusion that we could be stewards of the spaceship Earth. Stewardship implies that contemporary science can fully explain the Earth, and that people are willing and able to work together to keep the Earth a fit and comfortable place for life.
These assumptions are naive, like expecting the passengers of a plane, whose pilot had died, to land it safely with no more help than the pilot's manual. Does anyone believe we, intelligent carnivores prone to tribal genocide, could, by some act of common will, change our natures and become wise and gentle gardeners, stewards, taking care of all of the natural life of our planet?
It takes a lot of hubris even to think of ourselves as stewards of the Earth. Originally a steward was the keeper of the sty where the pigs lived; this was too lowly for most humans and gentility raised the steward so that he became a bureaucrat, in charge of men not only pigs. Do we want to be the bureaucrats of the Earth? Do we want to be made accountable for its health? I would sooner expect a goat to succeed as a gardener as expect humans to become stewards of the Earth. There can be no worse fate for people than to conscript them in such a hopeless task; to make them responsible for the smooth running of the climate. To make them responsible for the chemistry of the oceans, the air, and the soil. Something, that until we began to dismantle it, Gaia gave free.
I have written as an independent scientist, and it may seem that by stressing the need to take care of the Earth I am indifferent to human needs. Nothing is further from my mind, I want my grandchildren to inherit a world that has a future for them. To make sure that this happens we first need to recognize that human rights are not enough and to survive we must also take care of the Earth. There is no tenure for anyone on this planet, not even a species. [p.p. 114-116]
From INTERPRETING THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE (1994) Published by Earthscan Publications Limited. Edited by Tim O'Riordan and James Cameron; ISBN 1-85383-200-6. Available from Island Press, Phone: 800-828-1302 or 707-983-6432; FAX: 707-983-6164
This chapter written by James E. Lovelock