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October 25, 2013


Those who deny that man is involved in the current climate change on earth, or even that the climate is changing at all, sometimes go to history to prove their point, i.e., that we have been through rough spots in our environment before and have survived. The meteor that wiped out the dinosaur age some 65 million years ago (though our predecessor hominids survived), the Indonesian volcano, various “ice ages” and other such environmental traumas are cited as proof that even if we are into another such trauma, not to worry. We will survive – as usual. Such deniers are joined by corporate fossil fuel deniers and their Wall Street paper exchangers who have their own fish to fry, a not unexpected union of money and pseudo-science in which profit is pitted against our existence (and faring well to date).

Deniers deny the science undergirding the coming crisis, but there is something in their analysis in denial that they themselves do not seem to understand, and it is this: There was an end to the effects of the meteor strike, the effects of the Indonesian volcano and all the ice ages, but there is no end to our continuous feed of blanketing gases into earth’s atmosphere. History is therefore of no help to the deniers and proves nothing because their comparisons of then and now are inept. The volcano has long since quit rumbling and the Great Lakes prove the end of the last large ice age; but we keep pumping gases into the atmosphere every minute of every day which has never been done before and which reputable scientists tell us will wreak all sorts of havoc on humanity. The history relied upon by the deniers does not therefore support their comparison of apples and oranges; we haven’t finished pumping gas yet.

Let’s turn our attention away from cause and discuss the political ramifications of climate change. The current edition of Harper’s Magazine contains a review of a book written by Geoffrey Parker entitled “Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century.” There was a “Little Ice Age” that covered the world in the 17th century. Between 1617 and 1651, the ice age caused flooding in Catalonia, the wettest European summer in 500 years, thirteen years of drought and flooding in the Canadian Rockies, the coldest year ever recorded in Scandinavia, and the freezing of Chesapeake Bay. The king of England, Charles I, was beheaded in 1649, and ice floes on the River Thames impeded the progress of the barge carrying his body upriver to London.

The question of that day was not the cause of the chill (reduced sunspots and volcanic eruptions are two of the suspected causes); it was rather how the governments of that day dealt with it. Governments first looked for scapegoats, then invaded neighboring states to take their possessions. The third of this series involved citizens rising up against their governments as droughts and floods led to crop failures and disease, resulting in the deaths of an estimated third of the world’s population. (The Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants in Central Europe from 1618 to 1648 didn’t help, nor did religious wars between England, Scotland and Ireland during this same period.) The arrival of famine conditions just at the time these three were having religious disagreements made bad things worse. It was a brutal era characterized by war, famine and political upheaval, and was center stage in history less than 500 years ago. Governments in Europe did not know how to handle such an environmental disruption and the hungry hordes of sick people whose crops had failed.

Knowing about this 17th century environmental debacle and how the governments of Europe tried to cope with its effects can be instructive to us if and when our climate warming reaches a critical point.  Let us hope our response to such a disaster will involve global efforts in cooperation leading to survival rather than a resort to scapegoating, war and political upheaval that only make bad things worse.

Parker’s book suggests that we should worry about the consequences of global warming as much as its explanations if we wish to avoid the bloody havoc of the 17th century. It also implies that devastation that is predictable must be prepared for. He is right. On a very local level, look at the result of our lack of preparedness when Sandy struck our East Coast recently, and then imagine what a lack of preparedness would entail if the environmental disaster were global in reach – a sobering experience, to be sure.

I am optimistic enough to think that the world when faced with common disaster will cooperate in trying to work through its effects. I also think we have better tools and communications (through the private sector, government and international agencies of the UN) to synchronize such efforts, so while the 17th century experience may be instructive in what not to do, we have thoughtful scientists and engineers to lead us through the worst of the coming disaster’s effects. We have resources 17th century Europe did not have, and, I hope, the political sector’s commitment to employ such resources for the common good of a planet in distress.

Perhaps the threat of extermination will make for strange political bedfellows.  GERALD  E


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