Tag Archives: Little Ice Age

Climate Change: Looking Back at an Alarming Future

“The best qualification of a prophet is to have a good memory.”  George Savile, Marquis of Halifax

A slender volume arrived in the mail yesterday: Naomi Oreske’s fictional history of the late 21st Century, recounted in the words of a 24th Century Chinese historian. Just before midnight, I turned the last page.

You might remember Oreskes. She’s the Harvard geologist and science historian who first showed that almost all climatologists – 97 percent of them – agreed that the Earth is warming, due in large measure to human causes: the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. After suffering a withering backlash from industry-funded “think tanks,” she discovered that many of the leading “denial experts” were the same characters who were once on the payroll of the tobacco industry, lending a fig leaf of scientific cover to their arguments against the links between smoking and lung cancer. In the case of climate change denial, the strategy turns out to have been the same, and provided the title for Oreskes’ earlier book: Merchants of Doubt.

appOreskes’ new book is a bit less ambitious. Written with Cal Tech historian Erik Conway, it bears a dreary title: The Collapse of Western Civilization. And unlike most fictional dystopias, it is completely devoid of personal drama, thrilling action or heroes. It is simply written as history, recorded far off in the future. It chronicles the Penumbral Age, that dark time beginning in the late 20th Century when the looming shadow (or “penumbra”) of ignorance and denial spread over Western civilization, preventing it from acting on the discoveries of environmental science, and leading to the Great Collapse and Mass Migration of 2073-2093.

Like most science fiction, the value of “Collapse” is that it actually permits us to envision a better world, and identify those forces that might prevent it from happening. Sadly, in this case, almost all those forces in fact prevail, and the world of our grandchildren ends up looking dismal indeed.

How dismal? Well, here’s a short list. Before the end of the 21st Century:

  • Global temperatures rise almost 4oC by 2040, as catastrophic volumes of methane escape from the melting Arctic permafrost in a positive feedback loop long predicted by scientists;
  • Desperate geo-engineering solutions backfire, disrupting the monsoons vital to India’s survival, and the resulting cessation causes a sling-shot effect raising temperatures another 6oC;
  • 60 percent of all known species of animals and plants perish in a Sixth Great Extinction event;
  • The West Antarctic ice sheet disintegrates and melts, raising sea levels five meters, followed by the breakup of the Greenland ice sheet which adds another two meters.;
  • The Netherlands, Bangladesh and Florida slip almost entirely beneath the waves, as do coastal regions everywhere, driving the forced migration of 1.5 billion souls;
  • Only authoritarian governments survive in the face of pressures that demand rapid forced migration of millions of humans; and …
  • … one last thing: Humanity becomes entirely extinct on its two most vulnerable continents, Australia and Africa.

So! I’ve had my horror story a couple of days before Halloween, right? Thank God it’s only fiction! And anyway, who can actually look back on a future threatened by climate change?

Well, actually, in fact, we can. No, I’m not talking about computer models that look forward with increasing accuracy. We can look BACK at climate change. That’s because it has already happened in modern human history. The 17th Century coincided with the peak of the global event called The Little Ice Age. Brought on by a century-long hiatus in sunspot activity, coupled with a rash of mid-century volcanoes and a run of extremely weak El Niño events, the Little Ice Age ushered in more than a century of global cooling, with average surface temperatures falling about 1oC below historical averages.

And so a serious look at the 17th Century – with its one-degree cooling record – might just tell us something about what could be in store for the 21st Century, as we debate whether warming can be kept close to 2oC, or run to 4oC or even worse.

17th Century cold in contrast with today's runaway warming

17th Century cold in contrast with today’s runaway warming

A few months ago, we summarized the global chaos of the 17th Century, as set forth in Geoffrrey Parker’s magnum opus, Global Crisis. Droughts, floods and harvest failures set entire populations on the move in virtually every corner of civilization. Estimates at the time were that the human population fell by roughly one-third. Rebellions and civil wars ravaged Russia, France, England, Scotland, Ireland and Ukraine. Starving Ottomans strangled their Sultan. The English executed their king. The German states fell into the sectarian chaos of the Thirty Years’ War.

But the non-European world suffered at least as badly. So let’s take a quick look at the world’s largest empire, where the Ming dynasty ruled in China. For it’s there where we see how drought and famine drove starving Manchu clansmen from the north into a conquest that led to the suicide of the last Ming emperor, seven decades of warfare, and the death of an estimated 50% of the population. Here are a few notable events from that time:

  • Drought brought on by the weakest monsoons in 2,000 years destroyed Chinese agriculture in the 1620s, giving farmers no choice but to resort to mass banditry.
  • Heavy snowfall blanketed tropical Guangdong Province in the 1630s, further depressing crop yields.
  • Cannibalism ran rampant in the 1640s in numerous provinces, with China’s daughters at particular risk.
  • In 1642, a Ming official reported that “the human price of a peck of rice” – barely enough to feed one person for a week – “was two children.” He reported watching a woman eat her own child outside of the government office.
  • In Manchuria, 1643 brought on the coldest winter in a thousand years, forcing starving Manchus to mobilize a desperate effort to breach the Great Wall and conquer the warmer empire to the south.
  • Total cultivated land fell more than two-thirds by mid-century, and tax rolls declined by as much as 90 percent in some provinces.

In the end, stresses aggravated by climate change in the 17th Century cost about half of Chinese souls their lives, and as many as one in three humans on earth. It was a time we’d much rather not repeat.

And so, whatever we think about the progress we’ve made over the last four centuries – for better (global institutions and scientific advances), or worse (nuclear weapons and extreme environmental degradation) – Oreskes’ fictional “history” just might warrant our attention. We’re often called “alarmists” when we look seriously at the future of a world in which we have disregarded the laws woven by the Creator into his work. But to me, the ACTUAL history of climate change makes Oreskes’ fictional account look plausible, or perhaps worse.

Do you think that maybe it’s time to join the alarmists, and start talking about what we’re doing to our children’s world? It’s not really that far off.

What Really Drives Climate Denial?

I don’t know that anybody knows the answer for certain. But I’m almost certain that it doesn’t have much to do with the data. (More on that below.) In this morning’s Times, an economist (admittedly, a liberal one), offered as good an answer as any I’ve heard yet:

“Think about global warming from the point of view of someone who grew up taking Ayn Rand seriously, believing that the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest is always good and that government is always the problem, never the solution. Along come some scientists declaring that unrestricted pursuit of self-interest will destroy the world, and that government intervention is the only answer. It doesn’t matter how market-friendly you make the proposed intervention; this is a direct challenge to the libertarian worldview.”

In short, it’s not about facts; it’s about defending a worldview.

Today, I got a comment on Beloved Planet that almost certainly bolsters this argument. The comment’s writer makes a remarkable claim: That there’s been no global warming for 17.8 years. This is offered as a fact. The “fact” is accompanied by an effort – easily debunked – to discredit other sources I had cited as “staunchly left wing” – a harbinger of the ideology that surely drives this person’s view of climate change.

But what about the “fact?” Is it possibly true? Does the proponent of the fact believe it himself, or is it just another effort to manufacture doubt? Well, you take a look, and make up your own mind. Here’s the global temperature data, as assembled by the four global meteorological organizations that do this sort of thing, including the USA’s NASA and NOAA:


Source: NASA

So what do you think? Can we argue – by selecting a runaway record hot year, 1998, as a starting point – that the global climate isn’t warming? Continue reading

Climate Change Alarmism: Lessons from the Little Ice Age

It’s really pretty easy to end a conversation about climate change. Just refer to climate researchers as “alarmists” and you’re pretty much done. You don’t have to prove anything: you’ve just tainted them as hysterical prophets of doom, and the discussion is pretty much over.

Nobody wants to be an “alarmist.”

Of course, there are exceptions. Like when the Korean ferry Sewol was listing in heavy seas two weeks ago. The crew decided not to be alarmists, and repeatedly instructed the high school children to remain calm and in their seats – before they themselves abandoned ship. But a little alarmism might have saved many of the 302 souls who were lost.

So maybe it’s time to ask whether or not climate change alarmism is warranted today. We know that greenhouse gases are at their highest levels in at least 800,000 years; we know that nine of the ten warmest years since measurements began in the 1800s occurred since 2000; we know that the Earth has warmed almost one degree Celsius since 1880; we know that climate-warming emissions are accelerating every year; and that the U.S. and Canada have stymied all global efforts on binding agreements to reverse course. Wherever we’re headed, we’re heading there faster and faster all the time.

Okay, we know all that. But so what? Who says this is anything to be alarmed about? Computer models can’t prove anything, can they?

If only we could look back from the future on 21st Century climate change, and see what’s actually going to happen! But who’s got that crystal ball?

Well, actually, we might have something almost as good. We have the 17th Century, when the global climate changed dramatically. It cooled. It’s usually called the Little Ice Age. A series of massive volcanoes generated atmospheric aerosols which shaded the Earth from the solar radiation. And that combined with a very rare disappearance of sunspot activity for much of the century to cool virtually every region on Earth. As a result, the Earth’s temperature fell by 1.5oC within a single century.

That’s not as dramatic as almost everyone agrees we’re warming at present, but it was faster than any other climate swing in recorded history.

So how, you ask, did the Earth fare the last time this happened? And what lessons might there be for our coming century of rapid climate change? Well, I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but the 17th Century was positively awful. An award-winning account written by historian Geoffrey Parker of Ohio State University has documented the links between worldwide suffering and climatic swings lasting most of that century. It’s also been summarized in a very readable article in the New York Times.

17th Century life: "poor, nasty, brutish & short." S. Vrancx

17th Century life: “poor, nasty, brutish & short.” S. Vrancx

Here’s the nickel version. Longer winters and cooler summers destroyed harvests across Europe. Droughts, floods and harvest failures set entire populations on the move as far away as China, and Japan, resulting in wars and revolutions in virtually every corner of civilization. Estimates at the time were that the human population fell by one-third. In 1651, Thomas Hobbes, wrote in his book, Leviathan, the most famous summary of the human condition during that turbulent age:

“There is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

How brutish? How short? Well, as hard as it is to summarize a century of suffering, here’s a start: Rebellions paralyzed the world’s largest state, Russia, and Europe’s most populous, France. Civil wars ravaged England, Scotland, and Ukraine. In Europe’s largest city, Istanbul, the Sultan was strangled by his starving subjects. A severe cold spell in Ireland aggravated tensions that killed thousands of Protestants, fueling sectarian repression and hatred that lasts to this day. The English executed their king. The German states fell into sectarian chaos in the Thirty Years’ War. Farms in Scandinavia and the Alps disappeared under advancing glaciers.

But that was just Europe. What about the rest of the world? Well, in China, drought and famine drove starving Manchu clansmen from the north into a conquest that led to the suicide of the last Ming emperor and seven decades of warfare. Japan endured mass rebellion following several years of poor harvests, resulting in famine that killed an estimated 500,000 souls. In India, droughts and floods killed over a million people in a three-year span. West Africa and even North American endured severe famines.

All this suffering and death, without a single nuclear weapon, missile, or biological toxin.

Two flawed reactions will inevitably arise in response to the global tragedy of the 17th Century. The first is the denialist’s “you-can’t-prove-any-linkage” response – sectarian hatred, national ambitions, technological advances, and many other factors no doubt factored into each of the many ills that plagued that century. But the American intelligence and defense community has long since addressed this willful blindness in today’s world. They have concluded that “climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national security challenges for the United States.” Wars aren’t fought over climate change. But climate change provides the background conditions for tribal, national, sectarian, racial and other existing conflicts to explode into violence, instability and famine.

The second fallacy is the layman’s assumption that linear patterns will prevail in climate forecasts. If 1.5oC of cooling drove conditions that eradicated as much as a third of humanity in the 17th Century – the logic goes – then warming of more than 2.0oC in our century can be expected to do something similar. In fact, climate disruption works together with every other ill in ways that are largely unpredictable – for better or for worse.

Consider, for example, the Indus River watershed. It is fed by Himalayan glaciers that are receding rapidly as the climate warms. It flows out of Hindu Indian Kashmir, into Muslim Pakistan, for which it is almost the sole source of water. As the Indus glaciers shrivel, India feels the need to keep more of the precious Indus for itself, posing an existential threat to Pakistan. These mortal enemies both possess nuclear arsenals, targeting each other, and sectarian extremists are eager to settle old scores. On its eastern borders, India is further pressured by tens of millions of Muslim Bangladeshi refugees expected by 2050 to flee rising sea levels and salinization of water supplies in the Ganges/Brahmaputra Delta. With almost two billion desperate people armed to the teeth, where could this possibly lead us?

Apocalyptic fantasies? More climate alarmism? I know of no one who disputes these underlying trends.  In fact, recent history tells us many similar stories that would be eerily familiar to 17th Century scholars. The catastrophic 2011-12 droughts in the Russian, Australian and American breadbaskets drove global spikes in grain prices that resulted in intense food riots in North Africa, later known as the Arab Spring. The multi-year drought in Syria drove a tide of small farmers off their land into urban slums, intensifying pressures that led to the bloody civil war that still rages there. The Darfur genocide of the last decade has been widely called the first climate change war, as Muslim pastoralists fleeing persistent drought clashed with Christian agrarian villagers.

So call climate scientists alarmists, if it suits your politics. But at least, take a closer look at what happened around the globe in the 17th Century. Because no one wants to be the voice – now excruciatingly re-broadcast on Korean airwaves – telling the children not to be alarmed, and remain “safely” in their seats.