Ancient Wisdom on Climate Change and Society, Part 1
Another UN Conference of the Parties (COP) held to “unite the world to tackle climate change” recently came to a close. While critical discussions of the scientific and policy rationales promoted at these meetings typically address the validity of climate models, the costs and benefits of various proposals and the pitfalls of the precautionary principle, some historical perspective can shed additional light on current climate anxiety.
Because of natural factors such as changes in the axial tilt of the Earth’s orbit around the sun, the amount of incoming solar radiation, geological activity (e.g., large-scale volcanic eruptions, plate tectonics), changes in oceanic circulation and atmospheric chemistry, and numerous feedback effects (e.g., physical, chemical, and thermal), the Earth’s climate and seasonal weather have always been and will remain in a state of flux, with or without human activities.
As Aristotle observed over two millennia ago: “Sometimes there is much drought or rain, and it prevails over a great and continuous stretch of country. At other times it is local; the surrounding country often getting seasonable or even excessive rains while there is drought in a certain part; or, contrariwise, all the surrounding country gets little or even no rain while a certain part gets rain in abundance.”
In his Notes on Virginia, Thomas Jefferson later assessed that a “change in our climate” was “taking place very sensibly” as both “heats and colds are become much more moderate within the memory of the middle-aged” and that “[s]nows are less frequent and less deep.” One problem with a warming trend in the Spring was that it often resulted in late frost episodes that proved “very fatal to fruits.”
In an age without the means to access the agricultural surplus of regions that had benefitted from good growing conditions, bad weather resulted not only in much higher local food prices, but also often in more lethal consequences. Writing at a time when the railroad and the steamship had largely taken care of this problem, British historian George Dodd observed in 1856 that in the “days of limited intercourse, scarcity of crops was terrible in its results; the people had nothing to fall back upon; they were dependent upon growers living within a short distance; and if those growers had little to sell, the alternative of starvation became painfully vivid.”
Not surprisingly in this context, the biogeographer Philip Stott observed that from the “Babylon of Gilgamesh to the post-Eden of Noah, every age has viewed climate change cataclysmically, as retribution for human greed and sinfulness.” Torrential rains and their resulting floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, unseasonable warmth and cold, along with noticeable climate trends such as the Little Ice Age (circa 14th-19th C), were thus attributed to a wide range of anthropogenic causes.
For instance, Theophrastus, the Greek “father of botany,” wrote over two millennia ago that swamp drainage and agriculture had changed local climates. In the Middle Ages, both prolonged wet periods and droughts, along with more frequent and longer freezing of rivers, were often interpreted as a heavenly riposte to tolerance of witchcraft. In the wake of the Great Storm of 1703 – to this date the most severe natural disaster ever recorded in southern England -, a national fast was observed in January 1704 to ask for God’s forgiveness and blessing on the nation. Even Daniel Defoe in his account The Storm felt compelled to write that
In his massive synthesis on the history of deforestation, the late historical geographer Michael Williams documents how numerous writers thought deforestation was a major cause of desiccation (or reduced precipitations) and of global warming. One of them was the Scottish philosopher David Hume who speculated that recent warming could be traced back to human deforestation which allowed the rays of the sun to reach the surface of the Earth. Acting on a belief that planting trees would increase rainfall, the Timber Culture Act of 1873 granted settlers on the American plains 160 acres free of charge on the provision that they plant trees. Prolonged droughts in the following decades, however, eventually disproved this belief. Writing in 1890, the Austrian physical geographer Eduard Brückner observed that many European officials blamed deforestation for lesser rainfall, more frequent droughts and lower water levels. At about the same time, some French colonial botanists accused careless African peasants of having accelerated local climatic deterioration by overgrazing forests. In recent decades, tropical deforestation, especially in the Amazon, has often been viewed as a threat to the stability of the world’s climate.
Recent technological advances were also often blamed for climate change. The exceptionally wet European summer of 1816 was traced back by many at the time on lightning conductors even though these devices had previously been accused of causing droughts. In 1881 American experts warned that telegraph lines might knock the Earth off its axis, cause earthquakes, melt the poles and cause a “glacial flood” that would wipe out the human race. A contemporary news report on this hypothesis ended by suggesting that “Whether this theory prove [sic] correct or not, there cannot be a doubt that something has of late gone wrong with atmospherical arrangements, and perhaps the telegraph wires are not wholly blameless in the matter.” Extensive gun-fire during the First World War and the development of short-wave radio communication over the Atlantic were deemed the cause of unusually wet summers in the 1910s and 1920s. Other technologies later accused of causing climatic disruptions include nuclear explosions (1950s) and supersonic transport and space traffic (1960s and 1970s).
Nowadays, climate change is blamed on ever greater emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases whose ultimate cause is an increasingly numerous “global middle class” with a fondness for meat, automobiles and higher standards of living. In their zeal to “build back better,” however, activists are often blind to the significant economic and environmental costs of their hatred of carbon fuels. Yet, the historical record shows rather convincingly that greater wealth and abundant, reliable and affordable energy made it possible for people to live better in locations with climate as diverse as those of Montreal, Glasgow, Katowice, Bali, New Delhi and Cancun where UN delegates have previously congregated in luxury.
Pierre Desrochers, is Associate Professor of Geography, University of Toronto Mississauga.
Dec 3 2021 at 1:01pm
That’s very interesting. History reveals the deep psychological or psychocultural roots of present day interest in climate change.
This doesn’t mean the science of climate change is wrong, just that some people would be in panic no matter what the science said.
Thomas Lee Hutcheson
Dec 3 2021 at 9:37pm
“every age has viewed climate change cataclysmically, as retribution for human greed and sinfulness.”
Until today. We now understand it as an unfortunate, if easily remedied, market failure: that the people who benefit and the people who are harmed by CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere do not have a market in which they can come to as mutually beneficial agreement on price and quantity. No greed or sinfulness is required nor is cataclysm likely unless we delay too long in establishing an an approximation to that missing market.
Dec 6 2021 at 2:01pm
Your view of the situation, while reasonable, is not standard. Prediction of calamity due (ultimately) to excessive human greed is more widespread.
Dec 4 2021 at 12:48am
A few things of note
Ecosystems are made for specific parameters with variable wiggle room. The earth appears to be in a situation of unprecedented heating. At the very least, unprecedented heating since the appearance of mankind. The results of this are unknown but it is a good idea not to overreach when manipulating mother nature.
There is a rapid accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. While one could choose to question the greenhouse gas effects, the CO2 is acidifying our oceans. This is also reflected in point #1.
Eliminating the burning of fossil fuels results in cleaner air. Shouldn’t we be working towards cleaner air?
Thomas Lee Hutcheson
Dec 4 2021 at 5:45am
Yes, but without modeling, there is no way to know how much cost to incur to avoid CO2 accumulation and when. If net CO2 emissions technology were advancing rapidly enough, delay could be optimal, although I think this is risky.
Dec 4 2021 at 3:23am
The problem with denialists is how bad their writing is.
There are two issues here, conflated and confounded, either through incompetence or mendacity. I’ll hope it’s the latter, seeing as the writer is apparently an instructor of some kind.
Issue (1): Is human activity causing climate change? The author may not have any solid arguments here, because he doesn’t put any forward. Instead he cites examples from the past where people have been wrong about anthropogenic causes of climate change and then… doesn’t draw any conclusions. It’s just insinuation, I assume because he knows perfectly well that the current climate science is not very much like those historical examples.
Issue (2): Are proposed solutions to climate change good? Here again no actual evidence or analysis is forthcoming, just an emotive ad hom: apparently those of us who support green policies do it because we “hate” certain hydrocarbons. Who knew?!
Neither of these issues are properly defined or discussed. Honestly, you wouldn’t let an undergraduate get away with this level of writing, would you?
Thomas Lee Hutcheson
Dec 4 2021 at 6:02am
I have been asking the same questions of people on this site who oppose taxing net emissions of CO2 without seeing a coherent response.
Dec 4 2021 at 7:00am
Your criticism is unmerited. As he states at the beginning, the point of the article is to examine historical context and content. Thus, your two objections are irrelevant as they’re not what the article is about.
Dec 5 2021 at 2:19pm
Emphasis added. The context and choice of language, like climate anxiety, certainly seems to suggest that the purpose of the piece is to draw parallels between past times when people were wrong about predicting climate doom and today’s climate change. But that, by itself at least, seems rather superficial. It’s like those people whose response to climate change is saying, “weren’t they predicting another ice age a few years back?” as a retort to global warming predictions…without having any understanding of the different amount of evidence that exists for the two, the fact that global warming models made in the 80s have been largely predictive, etc…
If that was not the point of the piece, than I admit it went over my head.
Dec 5 2021 at 2:44pm
Agreed. That’s my reading of the point as well. Despite Phil’s objection, it is not a scientific evaluation of the various periods’ claims. It is putting things in historical context.
Dec 15 2021 at 7:51am
The point of piece is to show that, historically, people have been very willing to ascribe perceived changes in climate to various human ‘sins’. Does that mean that modern worries about climate change are nothing but another similar moral panic? No. But is there a strong moral panic element to modern worries about climate change? Yes. Pretty much *every* bad weather event (droughts, floods, forest fires, and last week’s tornados) is routinely, confidently ascribed to climate change without evidence or analysis. Or even against expert analysis (the IPCC isn’t confident about the effect of AGW on tornados, but Joe Biden sure is). Scientists who accept AGW but challenge the belief that extreme weather events are increasing in strength or frequency are labeled ‘deniers’ and treated as pariahs.
The idea that our modern society is consistently ‘science-based’ and that we’ve thrown off the irrationality of the benighted past doesn’t really hold up. Far more than any time in living memory, science is downstream of politics for most of the general public. And it should go without saying that this is not healthy.
Dec 6 2021 at 2:05pm
Thanks for the historical perspective. But, “Whether this theory prove [sic] correct or not . . .”: why the ‘[sic]’ for what is a perfectly ordinary subjunctive form of the verb?
Dec 6 2021 at 5:18pm
Because it is in the original news report https://nofrakkingconsensus.com/2013/05/10/the-scare-story-of-1881/
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