the fear of climate change is like a religion in this vital sense, that it is veiled in mystery
We've lost our fear of hellfire, but put climate change in its place
I used to have a mother-in-law called Gaia, so any book called The Revenge of Gaia is likely to cause a flutter of panic in my breast; and by the time I had finished the new best-seller by green prophet James Lovelock, I am afraid I was in a state of brow-drenched hysteria.
The good news is that the Gaia in question is not my ex-mother-in-law. The bad news is that she represents a chthonic deity even more capable of vengeance upon errant mankind. Gaia is the Earth herself; she is Mother Nature; she taps her foot in ever-growing impatience at the antics of our species; and, according to Professor Lovelock, she is about to exact the most terrifying punishment for our excesses. She is about to get carboniferous on our ass.
Lovelock has been studying climate change since the 1960s. He has been described by the New Scientist as one of the great thinkers of our age, and he was made a Companion of Honour in 2003. He knows his onions, and, indeed, how much moisture they require.
He has been around the world looking at the rising tidelines, sniffing the smoke from the burning rainforest, listening to the roar of the ice-melt from the glaciers, and he has come to the conclusion that the climate change lobby has got it hopelessly wrong.
We delude ourselves, says Lovelock, if we think that the global temperature is going to rise in small increments over the next century. We are like the blindfolded crew of a boat approaching Niagara Falls, and there will come a moment when the temperature will rise with all the equivalent vertical horror. Some time in the next hundred years, he says, it is suddenly going to get hotter and hotter and hotter.
"Billions will die," says Lovelock, who tells us that he is not normally a gloomy type. Human civilisation will be reduced to a "broken rabble ruled by brutal warlords", and the plague-ridden remainder of the species will flee the cracked and broken earth to the Arctic, the last temperate spot, where a few breeding couples will survive.
It is going to be a "hell of a climate", he says, with Europe 8C warmer than it is today; and the real killer, says Lovelock, is that there is not a damn thing we can do about it. We are already pumping out so much carbon dioxide, with no prospect of abatement from the growing economies of China and India, that our fate is sealed.
We in Britain produce only two per cent of the world's carbon output and, even if we closed down British industry overnight; even if we abolished the winter fuel allowance and ordered the pensioners to wear more sweaters; even if we forested the entire country with windfarms, it would make not a bean of difference.
It would be like trying to cool a volcano with an ice cube. The Kyoto protocol; the climate change levy; the windows and doors regulation - they are all as pointless as telling a patient with terminal lung cancer that he should give up smoking.
And when the Great Heat has destroyed our industry, and wrecked civilisation, it will get worse, says Lovelock. Because then we will lose the aerosol of dust and smog that has kept out some of the sun's rays; and it will get hotter still.
There is nothing for it, he says, but to forget the piffling Kyoto-led regulation, and build nuclear power plants, so as not to be dependent on Russian gas, and send bodies of fit young men and women to East Anglia, there to build levees against the coming inundations. An international solution is now beyond our reach, he says, and we must look to Britain first.
Phew-ee. Is Lovelock right? I haven't the faintest; but as I listen to his Mad Max-style vision of the coming century, I find my mind bubbling with blasphemous thoughts.
Wasn't it pretty hot in the 10th century? Didn't the Romans have vineyards in Northumberland? And is it really so exceptionally hot in modern Europe? According to yesterday's paper, Lisbon has just had its first heavy snowfall for 52 years. What's that about?
I feel I cannot possibly disagree with Lovelock, or with the overwhelming body of scientists who attest to the reality of climate change. I am sure that they are, in some sense, right; and it feels instinctively true that we are a nasty, over-polluting species; and there is something horrifying, when you look at those pictures of the world at night, to see the phosphorescent sprawl of humanity.
But the more one listens to sacerdotal figures such as Lovelock, and the more one studies public reactions to his prophecies, the clearer it is that we are not just dealing with science (though science is a large part of it); this is partly a religious phenomenon.
Humanity has largely lost its fear of hellfire, and yet we still hunger for a structure, a point, an eschatology, a moral counterbalance to our growing prosperity. All that is brilliantly supplied by climate change. Like all the best religions, fear of climate change satisfies our need for guilt, and self-disgust, and that eternal human sense that technological progress must be punished by the gods.
And the fear of climate change is like a religion in this vital sense, that it is veiled in mystery, and you can never tell whether your acts of propitiation or atonement have been in any way successful. One sect says we must build more windfarms, and these high priests will be displeased with what Lovelock has to say. Another priestly caste curses the Government's obsession with nuclear power - a programme Lovelock has had the courage to support.
Some scientific hierophants now tell us that trees - trees, the good guys - are the source of too much methane, and are contributing to global warming. Huh? We in the poor muddled laity scratch our heads and pray. Who is right? Who is wrong?
If Lovelock is only half-right, then we must have an immediate programme to pastoralise the global economy and reduce emissions. The paradox is that, if he is completely right, there is not a lot we can do, and we might as well enjoy our beautiful planet while we can.
Or is he completely wrong? To say that would be an offence not just against science, but against a growing world religion.