It was an encouraging sight to see thousands and thousands of young people take to city streets across the world to protest against global warming. And the protests were reminders of man’s ability to find any number of new ways to destroy the planet and wipe out human civilisation.
To those of us of a certain age, the protests had echoes of all those marches 40 years ago when the existential threat to humankind consisted only of nuclear war. Back then, global warming was unheard of; the ever-present, looming danger was of nuclear conflict where the two great powers, the US and Russia, would be dragged into a conflict leading to mutually assured destruction. The resulting nuclear winter would destroy humanity.
Back then, the clock to Armageddon was said to be ticking to midnight, and young people from Galway to Dublin and London to New York marched under the Ban the Bomb banner.
And that threat passed, only to be replaced with the even-more-certain disaster of global warming.
Resilient as the earth may be, scientists now agree that we have pushed the planet’s capacity to the limit. The signs are all around us, and soon, large parts of the earth will become too hot to be habitable, while equally large parts will have disappeared under the waters of rising flood levels.
There will be famine and mass migrations of those wealthy and active enough to leave.
So if there are solutions, where are they?
James Lovelock is recognised as one of the world’s outstanding scientists. He it was who formulated the theory of Gaia, that Mother Earth is a self-regenerating entity that can adapt itself to any situation. But even he is of the belief that we have pushed Gaia to the limit, beyond the point of no return.
Lovelock has just celebrated his 100th birthday at home in Hertfordshire, which explains why, with a twinkle in his eye, he is able to proclaim that global warming is not going to greatly bother him personally.
In typically futurologist fashion, he has four suggestions, which, given a chance, might yet save us from total destruction.
The first, he says, is that we should all retreat to megacities by the year 2050. We should simply abandon uninhabitable land and take advantage of how much easier it is to regulate and manage human behaviour when we are all gathered in one space.
His second suggestion – of which he has long been an advocate – is to rely entirely on nuclear energy to provide for humanity’s needs. The use of fossil fuels must immediately cease. Renewable energy is, he says, impractical, and nuclear energy is no more hazardous than anything we are already engaging in.
Thirdly, global warming can be reversed by artificially controlling the earth’s temperature. Lovelock maintains that we are within sight of technology that could place a mesh screen between sun and earth – a space sunshade, in other words – which would deflect the intense heat reaching earth from the sun.
Alternatively, says Lovelock, we could emit massive gas clouds into the stratosphere to absorb the heat before it reaches earth. Such an outcome, he says, occurred naturally in 1991 when a volcano erupted in the Philippines resulting in a decrease in global temperatures for a period of four years.
And failing all that, the cheery centenarian jokes, one can always book a flight into space, where Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson plan new human civilisations far away from abandoned planet Earth.