Comments from The Outpost

29 November 1996

by Dan Murphy

Good evening.

Weather has been in the news the past few weeks in various parts of the country, and winter seems to have arrived early. Extreme cold in the midwest and plains. Ice storms in Missouri and parts of Texas, and snow measured in feet in part of Ohio and Michigan. Our own area had several dustings of snow even before Thanksgiving and many days of below-normal temperatures.

It's tempting to say, "where's global warming when we really need it." It may sound like a cynical question, and in this case, perhaps the cynicism is warranted.

Belief in global warming has become something of a litmus test for politically correct environmental attitudes, but I continue to suspect that there is more politics than science behind the propaganda. There's also a certain sort of arrogance that underlies this paranoia, and that is: if the earth is getting warmer, then we human beings must be to blame for it.

This attitude that the workings of mankind are responsible for everything bad or inconvenient that happens underlies various other dogmas of both the left and the right, but this is one case where there is clear evidence that it ain't necessarily so. One such body of evidence comes from analysis of ice core samples from Greenland published in the last few years. Remarkably, these cores provide almost a year-by-year record of various aspects of the earth's environment for the past 250,000 years. Among the many fascinating things that were learned or confirmed from these studies is that the earth has been both warmer and cooler than it is now during that stretch of history.

This idea that the earth should be a certain temperature and not get even slightly warmer or cooler flies in the face of this evidence.

Scientists don't know what caused these drastic weather changes in the past, but one thing we can say for sure is that human beings had nothing to do with it. It's worth keeping this in mind in assessing some of the alarmist rhetoric that we hear about global warming and how human activities are causing it. It seems like any time we get a hot spell, we also get renewed warnings about global warming from those who are inclined to find human causes behind almost all inconvenient twists of nature.

It's understandable, given the limited time and geographical boundaries in which people live their lives, that we expect a certain amount of consistency from the weather. It's also a belief based on need and desire, since perturbations in what we consider as "normal" weather lead to food shortages, destruction of homes and property, or at least significant inconvenience. It's also been a characteristics of humans throughout history to believe that we were controlling the weather, sometimes by offending the gods, and other times, by more mundane activities.

Even when we recognize the variability of local weather, we expect a certain long-term consistency. Here in New England, we take a some pride in the vagary of our weather. "Don't like the weather? Stick around and it'll change" we say. We may not always appreciate how much it can change over time however. Ten thousand years ago, according to the Greenland studies, the earth's average temperature was almost 20 degrees cooler than now. That's not long in geological time, yet, as recently as 8000 BC, the entire state of New Hampshire was under about 5000 feet of ice and snow. That's a rough winter, even by our standards.

The earth has been both warmer and cooler than it is now over the past 250,000 years, and mostly it has been cooler during that time. For anyone inclined to worry about catastrophic climate change, global cooling is the thing to worry about and it would be every bit as inconvenient.

We human being do have a remarkable ability to modify our local environments in ways that create inconvenience and even pain for ourselves. Toxic wastes, pollution of rivers and ocean fishing grounds, smog and acid rain -- these are all ways in which we foul our own nests, and which, if we are really more intelligent than other animals, we would learn to stop doing. But we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking that any of this makes much difference to the earth as a whole. The earth has seen far more drastic environmental changes than we can imagine, and they all took place without any help from humans.

When we talk about environmental concerns, we should remember that it is us that need saving, not the earth. The earth will be here whether we stay or become just one more of the extinct species that formerly inhabited this planet. Our environmental policies should be focussed on eliminating the very obvious and specific ways that we poison our immediate surroundings, and we shouldn't waste our energies fighting something like global warming over which we ultimately have no control.

For this week, that's the view as we put up the storm windows and chop the firewood here at the Outpost. For WMBR, this is Dan Murphy.

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