A historical look at climate change

“It keeps getting colder and colder.” Some people tell me.  Yet others complain that we just aren’t as prepared for a cold spell as we used to be.bicycle covered in snow

The Spectator carries an article that says “Snow, what snow?” which claims that “Heathrow ruined thousands of peoples’ plans” by playing it safe.  Yet the Expresso states that the “Cold wave has already cause 470 deaths” in Europe.

Is this climate change?  Or are we just forgetting our history?

The term “climate change” is much older than I once believed.  I found it in a newspaper from May 2, 1913.  Yup, that’s almost 100 years ago.

The Mahoning Dispatch, a Hawaiian paper, was not talking about international treaties.  It was talking about depopulation in part of China.

“Kansu” was at the time said to be “the poorest of all provinces of China.”

The reported cause of Kansu’s “climate change” may surprise people.  It seemed to be blamed on depopulation.

The area was “Devastated by Mahometan insurrection in the years 1861 to 1878.”

“Insurrection means extermination of the vanquished — no quarter to old or young, to man or woman.”  So how many were killed?  “Millions” the paper tells us.

Depopultation was somehow linked to a lack of trees.  So the idea that trees can help combat climate change is not a new one (although the paper did not go into Carbon Dioxide or any subject of scientific depth.)

Similar claims were being made about other parts of the world, with “desertification” presenting a greater threat than cold winters.

(Academic articles written as recently as 2000 have dismissed the desertification in China as a “myth.”)

Early Sceptics of Climate Change

Not everyone in the early 20th century believed in Climate Change, however.

Robert De Courcy Ward, writing in the New York Tribune in 1906, claimed that reported climate change was due to faulty measurements and foggy memories.

Ward was an Assistant Professor of Climatology at Harvard, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science.  He was also about as arrogant and condescending as many scientists are today.  The main difference was his opinion.

Ward dismissed 150 years of evidence by claiming that the layman didn’t know how to place a thermometer properly.   He did it repeatedly but gently.

“Little care was formerly taken with the location of the meteorological instruments.  The building of a fence or a wall near the thermometer, or the growing of a tree over a rain-gage, has been enough in numerous cases to account for any observed change in the mean temperature or rainfall.”

In most of his article, Ward waxed philosophical about how faulty old people’s memories are, and he didn’t provide empirical evidence for his point of view.  Of course, after Ward dismissed all the data he disagreed with, he concluded that “progressive changed of the climate during the last century and a half are therefore not proved.”

Ward further concluded that “Man Can’t Alter the Weather.”

Ward acknowledged annual variations in temperature, but said that there were just as many cold winters in the last 75 years as the 75 before.  Change was temporary.  The assistant professor went even further:

“The Idea that the agency of man in cutting down forests and in cultivating new soil has resulted in a change in the climate of the United States finds no support in the recorded instrumental data.”

Ward also refused to believe in desertification.   “The Tunisian Schott-el-Djerid contained just as little water in the days of the Roman Empire as it does to-day.” (Many people in Ward’s time knew that North Africa was once the breadbasket of the Roman Empire.)

Ward denied desertification occured in “Greece, Syria, Northern Africa and other parts of the Old World.”  He claimed that false belief in climate change led “some writers” to predict “an inevitable progressive decay in the civilization and in the prosperity of these regions.”

Ward thought that the land could be as fertile as it ever was, if only the people there would work to make it so.

He argued that people in desert areas were not irrigating the land properly, because they were ignorant or lazy.  They used to have a “strong government power” that would make them irrigate the land, but by 1906 their government was weak or disorganised.

At the dawn of the 19th century (so over 200 years ago) some Western travellers to North Africa claimed its lack of food was due to the nomadic state of the local farmers, who refused to settle and cultivate the land.  Others blamed it on the tyranny of despots.  Still others bought food from North Africa, which was still exporting.  None thought climate change was permanent.

So by 1906, Ward’s ideas were neither new or unique.